Monday, April 24, 2017

Dementia news: New method can PREDICT brain condition (even before it happens)

DEMENTIA can affect men and women of all ages, but researchers say they’ve found a way to identify those at higher risk of the brain condition.

Dementia used: method could predict who will suffer
Dementia is a set of symptoms - including memory loss and difficulties with thinking, problem-solving or language - which are caused when the brain is damaged by diseases.


It affects 850,000 people in the UK, according to the Alzheimer’s Society, and while the condition is predominantly in those who are older, there are 42,000 sufferers below the age of 65.
Now a study by Lund University in Sweden has discovered a method for predicting who might develop it.
They found people with microvascular endothelial dysfunction - a hormonal imbalance in the inner lining of the blood vessels - were more likely to then get dementia.

Dementia breakthrough: endothelial dysfunction could indicate it
The researchers examined the association of the condition with three potential indicators. Of the 5,347 people they studied - none of whom had the condition at the start - 373 were diagnosed with dementia.
"Elevated plasma concentration of MR-proANP is an independent predictor of all-cause and vascular dementia," wrote study author Hilma Holm. "Pronounced increase in CT-proET-1 indicates higher risk of vascular dementia."
While all types of dementia may be predicted this way, vascular dementia was highlighted in the study.
It’s the second most common type after Alzheimer’s disease, and occurs when the brain is damaged due to problems with the blood supply to the brain. 
The study provides the possibility dementia can be systematically predicted before the onset of symptoms, and therefore treatment could happen sooner.

Person with dementia is anxiousGETTY
Brain health: it could open up more possibilities to treat the condition
Up until now, it’s been difficult to predict the condition, and Alzheimer Europe say people shouldn’t spend time or money on the tests currently available as even if someone has a particular gene - ApoE4 gene in Alzheimer’s disease, for example, they might not necessarily develop it.
Mostly people will have to wait until they develop symptoms to be diagnosed. These include difficulty recalling events, problems making decisions, trouble following conversation, losing track of the date and becoming confused about where they are.
However, people at higher risk include those who are over 65 years - one in 14 of this age group has the condition - and those with a family history who have inherited the gene, meaning they will probably suffer before the age of 65.
Vascular dementia, on the other hand, can be triggered by a stroke, blood clots, or most commonly when small blood vessels become diseased, known as subcortical vascular dementia. All three happen when blood flow to the brain is temporarily stopped or reduced.
Man with dementia is looked after by nurseGETTY
Vascular dementia: type highlighted in the study

How to spot if someone is suffering from dementia

Early signs for this type include problems perceiving objects in three dimensions and a slower speed of thought.
Because vascular dementia sufferers are often aware of the problems their condition is causing, they can often become depressed and more emotional.
While you can’t fully protect yourself against developing dementia, there are certain ways you can reduce your risk.
A study by the University of Chicago found those who ate leafy green vegetables twice a day suffered less cognitive decline, while the Central Institute of Mental Health in Mannheim, Germany discovered a daily glass of wine or pint of beer can also cut risk.

Mystery human species Homo naledi had tiny but advanced brain

It’s not the size of your brain, it’s how you organise it. The most recently discovered species of early human had a skull only slightly larger than a chimpanzee’s, but its brain looked surprisingly like our own – particularly in an area of the frontal lobe with links to language.
This could back suggestions that these mysterious early humans showed advanced behaviours, such as teamwork and burial, even though we still don’t know exactly when they lived.
In 2013, news broke of an extraordinary discovery in a chamber deep inside a South African cave. Researchers led by Lee Berger at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg had discovered thousands of ancient human fossils – comfortably the largest cache of its kind ever found in Africa.
The first official scientific reports were published in 2015, and they painted a confusing picture. The bones belonged to a never-before-seen early human, which was named Homo naledi.

Burial rites

It had a peculiar mix of anatomical features, which is part of what makes it hard to tell when the species lived. But what really set tongues wagging was the suggestion by Berger and his colleagues that H. naledi had deliberately disposed of its dead in this deep, dark, difficult-to-reach cave chamber full of remains.
Such an endeavour probably required emotional sophistication, not to mention teamwork, to carry out the task, but H. naledi’s skull was less than half the size of our own. Could its tiny brain have powered such advanced behaviour?
Berger and the other members of the H. naledi research team think it could. Using pieces of fossil skull, the group has now produced casts of parts of H. naledi’s small brain. The pattern of ridges and troughs (called gyri and sulci) on the surface of the casts offers hints about the way the brain was organised.
“Some of the casts we are working on are the most extraordinarily preserved I’ve ever seen,” says John Hawks at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “The detail is just pristine.”

Tiny human

What excites the team most is a region on the side of H. naledi’s frontal lobe called Brodmann area 45, part of Broca’s area, which in modern humans has links to speech production. In this part of our brains, the pattern of gyri and sulci is very different from that seen in chimpanzees. H. naledi seems to have had our pattern, even though as an adult its BA45 was not much larger than that of a chimpanzee.
“You look at the naledi cast and you think – holy crap this is just a tiny human,” says Hawks.
Team member Shawn Hurst of Indiana University in Bloomington discussed the findings at a meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in New Orleans last week. “I would think the implication is that [H. naledi] was moving strongly towards enhanced communication,” he says.
Hurst adds that there is also evidence for a general expansion of the bottom surface of the frontal lobes – a region associated with higher emotions like empathy. Together, these observations might help to explain why groups of the small-brained hominin could have become interested in careful disposal of their dead, and how they could work together to transport bodies through the narrow and pitch-black cave system that led to the burial chamber.
Dean Falk at Florida State University in Tallahassee was also at last week’s meeting, and had an opportunity to look at the H. naledi brain casts and discuss them with Hurst. “We agreed on most of the interpretations,” she says – but not on the presence of a modern BA45. “This is just my initial reaction, but I’m not seeing BA45,” says Falk. “To me the general shape of the region looks ape-like.”
Hurst isn’t surprised by Falk’s conclusion. “My first reaction was the same,” he says. It was only after hours spent carefully comparing the H. naledi brain cast with the casts of other hominin and ape brains that he and his colleagues became convinced that it had a modern configuration. When the research is officially published, Falk and other researchers will have a better opportunity – and more time – to properly assess the claim.

Socially sophisticated

Other regions of the H. naledi brain tell a similar story. Ralph Holloway at Columbia University in New York also gave a talk at the New Orleans meeting, focusing on casts of the rear part of the H. naledi brain.
Holloway looked at a sulcus here that he says separates the visual cortex at the very rear of the brain from the parietal and temporal lobes that lie slightly further forward. In humans, the sulcus is smaller than in chimpanzees, reducing the size of the visual cortex and increasing the size of the parietal and temporal lobes. In H. naledi, the sulcus seems to have begun shifting into a modern-human-like configuration along some of its length,.
“The significance is that the visual cortex is purely sensory,” says Holloway. “But the parietal and temporal lobes right adjacent to it are very important for complex social behaviour.”
Again, it seems that H. naledi was more socially sophisticated than the small size of its brain might suggest.
“In our field, there is this dispute about whether the important thing in human brains is their size or the way they are organised,” says Hawks. H. naledi seems to suggest organisation is more critical.
Simon Neubauer at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, says the work supports the idea that parts of the brain became modern in their configuration before they grew large.
But he adds that we won’t know how significant the new findings are until we have some idea of how old the H. naledifossils are.

Smaller, Gentler Brain Electrodes Worth Their Weight In Gold…And Graphene

Scientists in South Korea are mining the biomedical potential of both gold and graphene to design a more flexible brain-machine interface (BMI) that can transmit clearer signals while causing minimal damage to brain tissue, said researchers. The platform could be used to record brain activity or to transmit stimulation treatments for neurological conditions like Parkinson’s and epilepsy.
Research in BMI technology is rapidly expanding and exploring a wide variety of applications from mind-controlled prosthetics to vision simulation in the blind. The main challenge of neural electrodes is creating circuitry that is strong enough to transmit signaling without breaking down, yet soft and flexible enough to be implanted in the brain without triggering an immune response. Advances in materials research have allowed scientists to design electrodes feasible for brain implants.
With graphene — a highly flexible, yet stable substance that effectively conducts both heat and electricity — scientists have found a material that ticks all the boxes of biocompatibility and long-term strength. The potential of graphene research is considered so high that the E.U. recently invested over €1.08 billion in its further development. Last month, a consortium of European researchers funded by that initiative introduced a graphene-based neural probe, commenting that the material demonstrated “excellent noise to signal ratio.”
A team of scientists from the Daegu Gyeonbuk Institute of Science and Technology in South Korea has paired the flexibility of graphene with gold, also known as an excellent conductor. Their proposed technology joins a thin gold base with zinc oxide nanowires, which are coated with gold and a conductive polymer. The combination of materials maximizes surface area, conductive properties, and strength while retaining the flexibility required by a BMI platform.
Because many tiny wires offer the same surface area as a larger, flat electrode, the proposed system can achieve excellent signal quality with smaller electrodes when tested on rats, said researchers in a study published in ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces.
Using zinc oxide nanowires “to increase the effective surface area drastically decreased the impedance value and enhanced the signal-to-noise ratio,” wrote scientists. “In vivo neural signal recordings showed that our neural probe can detect clearer signals.”
Related, Korean scientists from the Institute for Basic Science (IBS) combined gold and graphene into a wearable patch that is capable of monitoring glucose levels and delivering medication through an array of microneedles. The graphene-and-gold sensors can likewise monitor pH levels and temperature.

New Path to Fight Dementia Unveiled at Alzheimer’s International Conference

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif., April 24, 2017 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- Internationally-acclaimed neuroscientist Dr. Michael Merzenich will unveil a new approach to fighting dementia to a global gathering of experts in Kyoto, Japan this week.  Dr. Merzenich is the Chief Scientific Officer of Posit Science, maker of BrainHQ brain exercises and assessments.
Dr. Merzenich will be the featured speaker at a luncheon symposium on Saturday at 12:45 pm, Kyoto time at the 32nd Annual Alzheimer’s Disease International conference.
“It is increasingly evident that we should not expect an imminent breakthrough from pharmaceuticals,” Dr. Merzenich observes.  “We need to take a new path in addressing dementia.”
“We don’t have a magic pill to prevent or cure heart disease, and, instead look to behavioral changes to reduce risk and early interventions to address symptoms,” according to Dr. Merzenich. “There is a rapidly growing consensus among thought leaders that we need a similar approach to cognitive decline. That approach will include nutrition, physical exercise and environmental factors – but the single most important elements will be lifelong monitoring of brain health and appropriate brain exercises.”
In his lecture, Dr. Merzenich will discuss recent studies on the impact of BrainHQ plasticity-based brain training on aging and cognition. Such studies have shown that plasticity-based brain training can lead to better performance by older adults on standard measures of cognition (e.g., speed, attention, memory) with benefits that transfer to many real world activities (e.g., balance, driving, everyday tasks) and quality of life (e.g., mood, confidence, self-rated health). He will also discuss the impact of BrainHQ exercises in a recent 2800-person study in dementia prevention, and a group of studies in mild cognitive impairment and other forms of pre-dementia.
“I expect that within the next few years people will have the ability to monitor their brain health on a daily basis and take appropriate action to maintain their brain health with a device they carry in their pocket – a phone with apps to assess current condition and to suggest and deliver the right brain exercises,” adds Dr. Merzenich. “This technology already exists, and all the pieces are coming together.”
Dr. Merzenich is professor emeritus at University of California San Francisco, where he maintained a research lab for three decades. He ran the seminal experiments that led to the discovery of lifelong plasticity – the ability of the brain to change chemically, structurally and functionally based on sensory and other inputs. He pioneered harnessing the power of plasticity in the co-invention of the cochlear implant, which has restored hearing to 100,000s of people living with deafness. 
Dr. Merzenich also pioneered the application of plasticity in the development of plasticity-based computerized brain exercises, which have helped millions of people.
His body of work has led to many honors. For example, he has been elected to both the US National Academy of Sciences and the US National Academy of Medicine. In the past two years, he has been awarded the Russ Prize, the highest honor in bioengineering, by the US National Academy of Engineers, and the Kavli Laureate, the highest honor in neuroscience, by the King of Norway.
Dr. Merzenich frequently appears in print and broadcast media, including television specials on public television in the US and Australia. He is author of many scientific articles, chapters and books, including Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life.
Dr. Merzenich directs research and development at Posit Science, where he is Co-founder, Chairman and Chief Scientific Officer.  There are more than 140 peer-reviewed medical and science journal articles on the benefits of BrainHQ exercises and assessments. Scores of additional studies are in progress.
BrainHQ exercises are offered all over the world (including in Japan) to healthy people interested in improving their cognitive performance. Posit Science also maintains a research program aimed at finding new ways to address specific diseases and disorders. As such research advances, Posit Science plans to approach appropriate regulatory agencies to explore the shortest path to getting a form of relevant exercises into the hands of patients who may be helped.

Synchronized voltage rhythms could maintain the body's clock

Voltage rhythms (top left) were synchronized throughout the SCN while calcium rhythms (top right) were specific to regions within the tissue. This resulted in a phase difference between voltage and calcium rhythms in the dorsal region (bottom right) while the two rhythms were in phase in the ventral region

Cells in the brain's master circadian clock synchronize voltage rhythms despite asynchronous calcium rhythms, which might explain how a tissue-wide rhythm is maintained.

A network of thousands of neurons forms a tissue called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) within the brain. The SCN, functioning as the master circadian clock, is responsible for generating daily rhythms in physiology and behaviour including sleep patterns.

Neurons in the SCN generate oscillatory signals that are sent out to different parts of the brain and other organs throughout the body. Sending signals involves fluxing calcium ion concentrations inside and outside the nerve cell, and generating a charge difference that then sparks an electrical impulse that is fired down the neuron. The charge difference is measured in volts.

A team of researchers at Hokkaido University and colleagues in Japan successfully measured voltage changes in SCN cells over several days. Previous methods were more indirect to measure the neuronal activities or yielded insufficient spatial information.

The team introduced a gene that encoded "voltage sensors" into cultured SCN slices from newborn mice. The sensors are formed by fusing a fluorescent protein with another protein that can sense voltage. The intensity of the sensor's fluorescence changes significantly with changes in voltage, which can be detected by a special microscope.

The voltage rhythms were found to be synchronized throughout the cultured SCN tissue. The voltage changes were measured using fluorescent sensor proteins for 72 hours.

The team was surprised to find that voltage rhythms were synchronized across the entire SCN. "This was unexpected because previous research found neuron groups in various SCN regions express circadian rhythm genes differently," says Ryosuke Enoki at Hokkaido University

While measuring voltage changes, the researchers simultaneously measured calcium ion concentrations across cell membranes and found they, similar to so-called "clock genes," were not synchronized across the entire SCN. This finding supports previous research. The researchers suggest in their study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that the SCN could be maintaining a network-wide coherent rhythm through synchronous voltage changes.

"Inter-cellular interactions within the SCN could be in play in synchronizing voltage rhythms separate from asynchronous calcium rhythms. Further research is necessary to elucidate the mechanism and its physiological roles in maintaining the body's circadian clock," Enoki commented.