Thursday, May 13, 2010

Brain disease discovery

PHYSICAL activity and mental stimulation could delay the onset of Huntington's disease, Melbourne researchers have found in a world-first study.
Huntington's disease is a genetic disorder that destroys brain cells, leads to dementia and reduces liftespan. It affects one in 10,000 people and there is no cure.
The study by researchers at the Murdoch Children's Research Institute - published in the journal Movement Disorders - involved surveying 154 people with the disease from Australia and New Zealand.
Lead researcher Professor Martin Delatycki said those who spent more time on passive activities that lacked physical or mental challenge, such as watching television or working in a desk-bound and menial job, were diagnosed four years earlier than their peers.
''People with a genetic predisposition to the disease could significantly delay its onset by minimising passive activities and ensuring they incorporate physical and intellectual activity in their daily lives,'' he said.
He suggested crosswords, sudoku, quizzes and reading as ways to keep the brain ticking

Schizophrenia drugs turn up brain's key

Schizophrenia (Getty Images)
Schizophrenia drugs raise the volume of a key signalling system in the brain, a new research has found.

Eric J. Aamodt and colleagues say: "This is the first example of a common but specific molecular effect produced by all antipsychotic drugs in any biological system."

Writing in the current edition of ACS Chemical Neuroscience, a monthly journal, the team explains that scientists know little about how antipsychotic drugs work, aside from the drugs'' effects on one signalling chemical called dopamine.

New studies, for instance, suggested that medications like olanzapine, quetiapine, and clozapine also affect other signalling systems in the brain.

These systems, including one termed the Akt signalling pathway, influence behaviour by regulating communication between brain cells.

To fill those gaps in knowledge, the scientists turned to genetically modified forms of a worm, C. elegans, often used as a stand-in for people in such research.

The tiny creatures were wired to glow green to show activity of Akt, a signal that is too quiet in schizophrenic brains.

They found that all of the 13 antipsychotic drugs tested, representative of all major categories of antipsychotic medications, helped the worms maintain their characteristic green glow.

The results highlight the importance of Akt signalling in schizophrenia, suggesting that medications or other approaches that increase Akt signalling might help to alleviate the symptoms of schizophrenia.

Other labs have identified certain dietary measures that may also increase Akt signalling.

Brain study sheds light on 'eureka' moment

Washington, May 13 (ANI): A new study supports the idea of "a-ha" moments in the brain that are associated with sudden insight.

Published in the Cell Press in the May 13 issue of the journal Neuron, the study provides intriguing information about the neural dynamics underlying behavioral changes associated with the development of new problem solving strategies.

"The ability of animals and humans to infer and apply new rules in order to maximize reward relies critically on the frontal lobes," explains one of the researchers who led the study, Dr. Jeremy K. Seamans from the Brain Research Centre at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute. "In our study, we examined how groups of frontal cortex neurons in rat brains switch from encoding a familiar rule to a completely novel rule that could only be deduced through trial and error."

Specifically, Dr. Seamans with colleagues from UBC and collaborator Dr. Daniel Durstewitz from the Central Institute of Mental Health in Germany were interested in determining whether networks of neurons change their activity in a slow gradual way as an old strategy is abandoned and a new one is learned or whether there is a more abrupt transition.

Using sophisticated statistical techniques to study ensembles of neurons in the medial frontal cortex on a trial-by-trial basis as rats deduced a novel rule in a specially designed task, they found that the same populations of neurons formed unique network states that corresponded to familiar and novel rules. Interestingly, although it took many trials for the animals to figure out the new rule, the recorded ensembles did not change gradually but instead exhibited a rather abrupt transition to a new pattern that corresponded directly to the shift in behavior, as if the network had experienced an "aha" moment.

Taken together, these findings provide concrete support for sudden transitions between neural states rather than slow, gradual changes.

"In the present problem solving context where the animal had to infer a new rule by accumulating evidence through trial and error, such sudden neural and behavioral transitions may correspond to moments of 'sudden insight,'" concludes Dr. Durstewitz.

Dichloroacetate Effective Against Aggressive Brain Cancer

 Dichloroacetate Effective Against Aggressive Brain Cancer
Orphan drug dichloroacetate (DCA) has been found effective against aggressive brain cancer in a small Canadian study. Orphan drugs are meant to treat rare medical conditions. DCA is now used to treat a rare enzyme disorder in children, but researchers have found it useful in brain tumor too.
The study published in Wednesday's online issue of the journal Science Translational Medicine showed tumours responded to DCA by changing their metabolism. Because DCA has a unique way of killing cancer cells, the new findings represent progress in a new area of cancer research that may stunt growth of tumours without harming healthy cells.

“Solid tumors, including the aggressive primary brain cancer glioblastoma multiforme, develop resistance to cell death, in part as a result of a switch from mitochondrial oxidative phosphorylation to cytoplasmic glycolysis. This metabolic remodeling is accompanied by mitochondrial hyperpolarization. We tested whether the small-molecule and orphan drug dichloroacetate (DCA) can reverse this cancer-specific metabolic and mitochondrial remodeling in glioblastoma,” wrote Evangelos D. Michelakis of the University of Alberta and his colleagues.

Freshly isolated glioblastomas from 49 patients showed mitochondrial hyperpolarization, which was rapidly reversed by DCA. In a separate experiment with five patients who had glioblastoma, they prospectively secured baseline and serial tumor tissue, developed patient-specific cell lines of glioblastoma and putative glioblastoma stem cells, and treated each patient with oral DCA for up to 15 months. There too the researchers tasted success.

Key brain parts normal in autistic people

Two parts of the brain that are believed to play a key role in social interaction and communication respond normally in autistic individuals, new research suggests.
A group of scientists from New York University, Carnegie Mellon University, the Weizmann Institute in Israel and the University of Pittsburgh have found that the mirror neuron system behaves the same way in people with autism and in individuals without the condition.
The system is made up of two parts of the brain and leads people to recognize movements and respond to them.
In the past, scientists have theorized that dysfunction in this area leads to the social issues faced by people with this condition. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a complex neurobiological condition, impairs normal brain development, leaving most individuals with communication problems, difficulty with typical social interactions and a tendency to repeat specific patterns of behaviour, according to Autism Canada.
Using MRIs, scientists studied the brain responses of both autistic and non-autistic individuals who were asked to passively witness and then perform a series of hand movements, such as picking up a cup of coffee.
Through the neural responses to the movements, scientists were able to determine the functioning of the mirror system part of the brain. In both groups, individuals responded strongly during the movement exercises and had unique neural responses to them.

Integrity intact

"The fact that these movement-selective neural circuits respond normally in individuals with autism suggests that the functional integrity of their mirror system areas is intact," reads the study. "These results argue against a mirror system dysfunction in autism."
What the researchers did notice, however, was that study participants with autism behaved less consistently during the experiments than those without the condition, displaying more "variable visual responses," referred to as "noisy" eye movements by researchers.
"Several theories have proposed that ASD may be caused by the early development of abnormally connected 'noisy' and 'hyper-plastic' cortical networks," reads the study.
"These theories suggest that noisy neural responses may cause the environment to be perceived as inconsistent and noisy, making it difficult for the child to cope with the outside world."
The study is published in the May 13 issue of Neuron.

Stroke expert Dawn Fowler talks prevention, recovery

Bayhealth Stroke Care Coordinator Dawn Fowler.
Dover, Del. —Strokes are the third leading cause of death in the United States. Regardless of how common strokes are, Bayhealth Stroke Care Coordinator Dawn Fowler said most of her patients say they had no idea they were at risk. Fowler and Bayhealth Neurologist Dr. Joel Rutenberg will discuss stroke prevention and treatment, and how strokes impact the entire family, at two seminars Wednesday, May 19, and Thursday, May 20. Fowler answered some common questions May 4 for the Dover Post.

Q What are stroke risk factors?
A Risk factors are high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, smoking, heavy alcohol use, physical inactivity, history of irregular heartbeat and genetics. If you have a genetic predisposition to high cholesterol, you might have a family member with stroke.
Often times, stroke patients have been on blood pressure medication and they stop taking it for financial or other reasons, which prompts the stroke. Their blood pressure is lowered on medication and their body gets used to that, so when they go off the medication suddenly it’s like there was a kink in the hose that gets unkinked. That blood spurts forward and pushes plaque and other blockers with it. Always check with a doctor before changing medication.
Also, once you have a stroke, it’s more than likely that you’re going to have a second one. The disease that caused the first one usually hasn’t been corrected, so a second one is more likely. They usually are more damaging.

Q What preventive measures can people take?
A Preventive measures for strokes are pretty much the same ones we use for cardiovascular disease. High blood pressure can be prevented or controlled, watching obesity, watching eating habits and salt intake, physical activity, all of those things. People who have strokes also are often diabetics. When you have diabetes, your body can’t control insulin levels, so all of the vessels are bathed in sugar and can’t function like they’re supposed to.
A stroke is the same thing as a heart attack, it just happens in a different part of the body — recently they’ve been referred to as “brain attacks.” Your brain is not a muscle, it doesn’t really have any nerve endings, per se, so strokes are not associated with pain. But the heart is a muscle, and a strain on it hurts.

Q What are some warning signs?
A Any time you have a sudden — the key is sudden — change in vision, weakness or the inability to use one side of your body, dizziness, inability to be coordinated, slurring of speech, mouth droop or sudden severe headache. It could be any one of these things. Stroke affects everyone differently because it can happen in any part of the brain, the part that controls your vision, speech, coordination, etc.

Q What are mini strokes?
A Transient Ischemic Attack, or TIA, is your body’s warning sign saying something’s wrong. Those symptoms last less than an hour. The problem is that most people say, “Oh, I’ll lie down and feel better,” and when symptoms go away patients forget about it. Most people who have them will have a stroke in the first three months afterward.

Q What percentage of people recover fully?
A The damage is always present, but other parts of your brain can take over for what you’ve lost. These patients go through intensive rehab, and they put a lot of intensive effort into it. They have to retrain their brain.

Q What are the biggest misconceptions about strokes?
A No one thinks that it can happen to them. Then you hear about all the risk factors and all of those things scream, “You can have a stroke.” Stroke is kind of the redheaded stepchild of heart disease and it hasn’t really gotten a lot of attention in the past.

Q What did you learn from attending the AHA/ASA International Stroke Conference in February?
A The biggest thing I took away from it was the importance of patient education. It was estimated that 70% of stroke patients couldn’t say what the signs and symptoms of their stroke were. We’re hoping the seminar provides a lot of education.
We’re also educating staff, and working with Kent County paramedics so they alert us when they have a possible stroke coming in. Then we can get all the pieces in place, we’re ready.

Sickle Cell Disease Affects Brain Function

Sickle Cell Disease Affects Brain FunctionBefore medical breakthroughs more than doubled the lifespan of children diagnosed with sickle cell disease, from when they were once expected to barely live into their 20s, researchers now find decades of living with it leads to poor brain function.
Researchers from Oakland Children’s Hospital publishing their stud in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found adults with sickle cell disease had lower IQ scores than control group patients. While, the study did not look into the reasons for the low scores, the authors suggest anaemia caused by the disease could be a factor.
However, researchers found the cognitive problems to be reversible, as no correlating brain damage to explain the IQ results was found. Already, doctors are conducting follow-up studies for determining whether blood transfusions could help patients with memory or cognitive problems.
While, sickle cell has changed from a paediatric disease with increased life spans, quality of life remains to be improved, as the biggest concern now is not the survival of the child, but the impact of chronic organ dysfunction and age.
An inherited disorder, in sickle cell the red blood cells instead of being round, have a distinctive sickle shape, which makes it difficult for the cells to move through blood vessels leading to anaemia. The disease can cause severe pain, stroke and organ failure, andsickle cell disease is generally diagnosed at birth.
Over the past decade, medical advances have made treatment more successful, despite which people with sickle cell disease still die by the time they are 50 years of age. However, longer life spans mean doctors are beginning to discover the long-term effects of living with the disease.
It has long been known that sickle cell disease places the patient at a higher risk for strokes, which in turn cause brain damage and affect cognitive function. However, some sickle cell disease patients with no obvious signs of brain damage, no history of strokes and normal MRIs, seemed to have trouble making appointments or following medical instructions.
The study looked at 141 sickle cell patients and 44 healthy subjects, aged 19 to 55 years, with none of the participants taking medications or having any serious underlying health problems like diabetes, depression or damage to the lungs or kidneys, which might affect theirbrain function.
Given an MRI and an IQ test that included tests for testing their memory, attention level, language skills and ability to follow instructions, the patients were found to have normal IQ range of 85 to 115, with around a third found to be below the normal IQ range.
Hydroxyurea, a cancer pill available generically, is effective in stopping the severe pain, including preventing the need for blood transfusions, which means patients should begin taking the drug at an early age.

Scientific Learning Announces Spring Webinar Series: Building Brain Fitness and Autism Interventions, among Topics

Educators Will Learn How to Increase Students' Brain Fitness to Improve Learning: "Teaching Digital Natives" Author Marc Prensky among the Presenters

OAKLAND, Calif., May 12, 2010 (BUSINESS WIRE) -- Scientific Learning /quotes/comstock/15*!scil/quotes/nls/scil (SCIL 5.14, +0.09, +1.68%) , creators of the Fast ForWord(R) family of products, today announced the spring line-up of speakers for its live webinar series. Featuring renowned educators, authors and experts in reading and speech pathology, the series is designed to help K-12 educators understand how "brain fitness" can inform classroom instruction and empower students to gain success in learning and in life.
Scientific Learning's webinar series begins May 12 with a session titled, "Building Brain Fitness for Struggling Students to Succeed," presented by Dr. Deborah Kolonay, superintendent of the Penn-Trafford School District in Pennsylvania. A life-long educator and administrator, Kolonay will relay how her district uses technology to help struggling, at-risk students build stronger, more efficient connections in their brains -- and a deeper connection to learning and school.
Dr. Timothy Rasinski, professor of literacy education at Kent State University, leads the second webinar one week later on May 19. Titled, "Teaching Fluency: The Neglected Goal of the Reading Program," the session will focus on the key elements of successful reading programs, and share effective and engaging strategies that will move students toward greater reading comprehension and proficiency.
On May 25, Dr. Mark Keen and Cindy Keever will explain how students at the Westfield-Washington School District in Indiana achieved phenomenal gains through the use of individualized, adaptive computer exercises. Students using the Fast ForWord programs at Westfield-Washington showed an average advancement of one year, one month, after an average use of the program 30 minutes a day for 70 school days.
Speech-language pathologist and autism expert Ann Osterling will speak on May 27 and June 15 about the characteristics displayed by autistic students and how K-12 educators can support these students through interventions and other programs.
The spring seminars will wrap up on June 17 with internationally acclaimed author and speaker Marc Prensky with a presentation titled, "Engage Me or Enrage Me: Educating Today's 'Digital Native' Learners." Author of the books Digital Game-Based Leaning and Don't Bother Me Mom--I'm Learning, Prensky will explain and demonstrate not only how students have changed, but how educators can deal with the changes and learn from them.
The webinars are free of charge but pre-registration is required. For more information on dates and times or to register, visit - webinar.
About Scientific Learning Corp.
Scientific Learning creates educational software that accelerates learning by improving the processing efficiency of the brain. Based on more than 30 years of neuroscience and cognitive research, the Fast ForWord(R) family of products provides struggling readers with computer-delivered exercises that build the cognitive skills required to read and learn effectively. Scientific Learning Reading Assistant(TM) combines advanced speech recognition technology with scientifically-based courseware to help students strengthen fluency, vocabulary and comprehension to become proficient, life-long readers. The efficacy of the products has been established by more than 200 research studies. For more information, visit or call toll-free 888-358-0212.

Brain Cell Study Explains 'Eureka' Moment

Neuron activity changed suddenly after rats figured out something new, researchers say
WEDNESDAY, May 12 (HealthDay News) -- Learning a new way of doing something may take a while, but with an abrupt flash of understanding, nerve cells in the brain allow sudden insight, a new study suggests.
The goal of the research, reported in the May 13 issue of Neuron, is to show what brain cells do when faced with new rules about how the world works.
"The ability of animals and humans to infer and apply new rules in order to maximize reward relies critically on the frontal lobes," lead researcher Jeremy K. Seamans, of the Brain Research Center at the University of British Columbia, said in a news release. "In our study, we examined how groups of frontal cortex neurons [nerve cells] in rat brains switch from encoding a familiar rule to a completely novel rule that could only be deduced through trial-and-error."
The researchers wanted to know if neurons slowly or quickly change their activity patterns when a new rule comes along.
The researchers found that even though it took the rats many different trials to figure out a new way of looking at things, the neurons in the rats changed their activity in an abrupt way -- one that corresponded directly to the change in rodent behavior.
"In the present problem-solving context where the animal had to infer a new rule by accumulating evidence through trial-and-error, such sudden neural and behavioral transitions may correspond to moments of 'sudden insight,'" study collaborator Dr. Daniel Durstewitz, from the Central Institute of Mental Health in Germany, said in the news release.

Impotence Drugs May Aid Brain Tumor Treatment

Levitra, Viagra allowed anti-cancer medication to more easily penetrate brain barrier, study foundWEDNESDAY, May 12 (HealthDay News) -- A drug already approved for the treatment of erectile dysfunction may actually help boost the effectiveness of treatments for brain tumors tied to both lung and breast cancer, research shows.
The finding stems from an animal study that indicated that leading erectile dysfunction medications sildenafil (Viagra) and vardenafil (Levitra) can enable the chemotherapy drug Herceptin to more easily penetrate the so-called blood-brain barrier that must be breached in order to successfully target cancer that has spread to the brain.
Although the blood-brain barrier is a naturally occurring mechanism designed to protect the brain from exposure to dangerous substances, in the case of cancer treatment it can significantly impede drug delivery, particularly of large-molecule drugs, such as Herceptin. However, erectile dysfunction drugs appear to increase the barrier's permeability.
"No matter how effective against cancer a chemotherapeutic agent may be, it can have little impact on brain tumors if it cannot cross the blood-brain tumor barrier," Dr. Keith Black, chairman of Cedars-Sinai's department of neurosurgery and director of the Maxine Dunitz Neurosurgical Institute in Los Angeles, said in a news release. "As we find new drugs that are able to target these tumor cells, it is imperative that we develop better ways to enable the medications to reach their targets."
The study team notes that about 220,000 Americans develop brain tumors each year as a result of cancers that begin elsewhere in the body. Lung cancer, they note, is the leading cause of cancer mortality in the United States, and about one-fifth of lung cancer cases end up spreading to the brain.
Work with mice demonstrated that initial Levitra exposure effectively doubled the amount of Herceptin that was able to reach brain tumors linked to lung and breast cancer.
What's more, when administering Herceptin and Levitra together, survival among the mice increased by 20 percent compared to treatment with just Herceptin alone.

Potential brain-cancer drug shows promise

DCA is possibly safe and maybe clinically effective in some cancer patients, said Dr. Evangelos Michelakis.DCA is possibly safe and maybe clinically effective in some cancer patients, said Dr. Evangelos Michelakis. (CBC)
The generic drug dichloroacetate, or DCA, warrants more research as a potential therapy for a deadly form of brain cancer, according to a small Canadian study with unconventional funding.
The study published in Wednesday's online issue of the journal Science Translational Medicine showed tumours responded to DCA by changing their metabolism. The drug worked against tumour tissues from five patients with terminal brain cancer as predicted by test-tube experiments first reported on in 2007.
"We can conclude that DCA is possibly safe and maybe clinically effective in some patients," said one of the study's lead authors, Dr. Evangelos Michelakis of the University of Alberta in Edmonton.
"Due to the small size of this study we can't make more speculations. However, these early findings are enough to create enough enthusiasm and inspiration and momentum to go to the next step, which involves multi-centre trials."
The generic drug is usually used to treat a rare enzyme disorder in children, but there is no patent and therefore any profit potential for a pharmaceutical company.
Terry Babiy, owner of a radio station in Peace River, Alta., had lost his sister-in-law to cancer and was infuriated by the lack of funding for Michelakis' research. He mobilized the town, which raised $365,000.
"The community responded, and they responded big time, people dropping off money from five dollars, to fifty dollars to hundreds of dollars," Babiy said.
The university contributed resources and equipment and federal funding agencies, also helped the researchers do the first clinical trial in humans.
"We challenged the dogma that without industry you can't actually test drugs on human beings," Michelakis said.

New angle of attack

In four of the glioblastoma patients, researchers saw no further brain cancer growth 15 months after initial treatment. Follow-up studies on cells taken from these patients showed that DCA killed cancer cells.
Nerve damage can occur at higher doses of DCA, but the study's authors suggest that at the dose used in the study, the drug might be able to clamp down on tumor growth without serious side-effects.
DCA has not been approved by regulators as a treatment for cancer — a step that requires evidence from larger clinical trials.
Because DCA has a unique way of killing cancer cells, the new findings represent progress in a new area of cancer research that may stunt growth of tumours without harming healthy cells.
"It warrants further examination, but this is not the holy grail right now," said Dr. Abhijit Guha, a professor of surgery at the University of Toronto.
"I think it forms another angle of attack."
If researchers can understand how the tumour adapts its glucose metabolism to reap survival advantages, then DCA could be used in combination with other therapies to extend the lives of glioblastoma patients, Guha said. Currently, their average survival is 14 to 16 months with standard treatments, he noted.
In the meantime, Michelakis cautioned people against trying to buy the drug online. On Tuesday, Hazim Gaber, 21, of Edmonton pleaded guilty to five counts of wire fraud in the U.S. for selling corn starch over the internet and calling it DCA.