A team from the University of California, Berkeley, and the University at Buffalo has discovered an important new type a biomarker that could allow scientists to track how cognitive impairment develops in the brain.
The study, published in Nature Neuroscience, is the first to show how this biomarker could be used in identifying the specific neurons that produce the biomarker and that are affected by cognitive impairment.
The team, led by Michael S. Ochsner, Ph.
D., professor of neuroscience at UC Berkeley, used fMRI to examine the brains and behaviour of healthy adults with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) and the presence of a brain marker known as fMRI microstructure.
They found that, on average, individuals with MCI had about 1,000 more microstructures in their brains than individuals without MCI.
They were also more likely to have more structural damage in their hippocampus, a region that is involved in memory and executive functions.
“The brain has a lot of different things that it is responsible for, and we are really interested in understanding how they work together,” Ochssner told New Scientist.
“There is a lot that we can learn from these microstructures that we don’t understand.”MCI is the most common type of dementia, affecting about one in five people over the age of 60.
It is also thought to affect about 40 million people in the United States, with many of those cases occurring in older age groups.
MCI is most commonly seen in the elderly, but it can affect people who are younger, too.
OChsner and his colleagues also used fMRIs, or magnetic resonance imaging, to monitor changes in the participants’ brains, and they found that the hippocampus was a particularly sensitive area to biomarkers in the MCI population.
In the brain, microstructural changes are thought to be responsible for the brain’s ability to process and store information, and in particular the brainstem, the region that processes and stores the neurotransmitters that are essential for cognition.
“It’s very important for neuroscientists to understand how the brain is functioning in these people,” OChssner said.
“We wanted to look at how different brain regions are affected differently in MCI and in normal individuals, and so we focused on the hippocampus, which is the area involved in encoding, and that’s how we found this biomarkers.”
This research is an important step forward in identifying what is causing cognitive impairment, and it could eventually lead to a way of predicting when it will happen.
“This is important because we are not sure exactly how many people have cognitive impairment and how it’s linked to the brain,” Ochi said.
“If you can identify this biomarkering, you can then look at what you can do to prevent it.”
The researchers also showed that there was a difference in the structure of the hippocampus between MCI- and non-MCI-affected individuals, suggesting that the difference could be a function of how cognitively impaired the individual is.
They also found that there were differences in microstitution patterns in the hippocampus in the two groups.
“These findings are consistent with earlier work that suggests a role for microstition in MCIS and suggest that there may be a correlation between microstitious and cognitive impairment,” Ocha said.
In a statement, the team said that their results show that neurobiological changes in MCIC and normal individuals differ.
“These findings also suggest that neuroscientist should be aware of potential mechanisms of neurodegeneration in MCIs,” the statement added.
“It is important to remember that the effects of neuroinflammation and damage in the cortex are likely to be different in MCIA and MCI,” the researchers concluded.
The researchers are now working to test whether the biomarkers they discovered can also be used to predict cognitive decline in MCi, but Ochi hopes that the biomarkering will be useful to detect changes in brain function that are related to cognitive decline.
“You can predict whether the disease is going to progress or not, but you can’t predict when it is going in that direction,” he said.
The UC Berkeley team will now test the biomarking on MCI patients and determine whether it can identify differences in the biomarketers that could indicate cognitive decline, as well as determine how it would affect patients’ treatment.