Neuroscientists image brain in new ways to explore disease beginnings


A positron emission tomography (PET) scan image of the brain of an individual with Alzheimer’s disease, compared with a healthy individual. This image depicts the capability of older technology to visualize Alzheimer’s-associated beta-amyloid plaques – depicted in brighter colors. Newer imaging technology allows scientists to visualize tau protein, the source of neurofibrillary tangles. Image courtesy of the National Institute on Aging/National Institutes of Health.

By Rachel Zamzow

SAN JOSE — New improvements in brain imaging technology will allow neuroscientists to explore the mechanisms behind diseases affecting the nervous system. In some cases, this may facilitate intervention before things go wrong.

This is “absolute cutting-edge science,” said University of Southern California neuroscientist Pat Levitt, who introduced a panel of brain imaging experts Saturday during a news conference at the 2015 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

These scientists are exploring ways to visualize early markers of disease before symptoms appear. And they’re applying this technology across the lifespan, from babies in the womb to the elderly.

Catherine Limperopoulos, an expert in fetal imaging at Children’s National Medical Center, is developing improved techniques for examining developing brains in utero. Obstetricians currently use tools such as ultrasonography to detect injuries in this crucial organ.

“The problem with these technologies is by the time they’re able to pick up fetal distress or injury that has happened, it’s too late,” Limperopoulos said at the news conference. Her team uses imaging technology that can pick up disturbances in neural chemicals caused by problems in other areas like the heart or placenta.

These early alterations may signal prenatal brain damage before it occurs or gets too severe, giving physicians the opportunity to intervene with drugs or surgery. Finding abnormalities earlier opens a new window into developmental conditions, she said.

Columbia University Medical Center neurologist Scott Small is using new imaging approaches to distinguish health and disease in adulthood and aging. For example, combining structural, functional and chemical imaging provides a more refined look at the hippocampus, the seahorse-shaped part of the brain that is disrupted in both schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease.

“How is it possible that these disorders that are clearly different at every level are targeting the same structure?” Small said. Variants of functional neuroimaging with high spatial resolution are allowing Small and his colleagues to understand how each condition affects different areas of the hippocampus.

Small is also interested in finding ways to detect the “cell sickness” stage of diseases like Alzheimer’s. This period, during which cellular processes are perturbed but clinical symptoms aren’t yet present, is a critical window for early intervention, he said.

William Jagust, public health and neuroscience professor at University of California, Berkeley, also studies the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Identifying early stages of the disease is now more feasible thanks to neuroimaging technology developed in the past year, according to Jagust.

This new technology allows scientists to visualize tau protein, which can form tangled clumps inside neurons and cause them to die. In the “borderland between aging and Alzheimer’s disease,” tau protein moves from a localized area in the temporal lobe to the outer layers of the brain, Jagust said. Tracking tau will help neuroscientists explore the relationship between the accumulation of these proteins and the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, such as severe memory decline.

Neuroimaging is still limited by issues with resolution, measurements skewed by motion and flawed interpretations. But recent advances will allow for needed multimodal imaging approaches, leading to improved understanding of diseases from before diagnosis to intervention.


One thought on “Neuroscientists image brain in new ways to explore disease beginnings

  1. Pingback: This year’s crew of science writers takes on #AAAS | Unearthed

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