Posts Tagged ‘schizophrenia’

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By Moises Velasquez-Manoff

The man was 23 when the delusions came on. He became convinced that his thoughts were leaking out of his head and that other people could hear them. When he watched television, he thought the actors were signaling him, trying to communicate. He became irritable and anxious and couldn’t sleep.

Dr. Tsuyoshi Miyaoka, a psychiatrist treating him at the Shimane University School of Medicine in Japan, eventually diagnosed paranoid schizophrenia. He then prescribed a series of antipsychotic drugs. None helped. The man’s symptoms were, in medical parlance, “treatment resistant.”

A year later, the man’s condition worsened. He developed fatigue, fever and shortness of breath, and it turned out he had a cancer of the blood called acute myeloid leukemia. He’d need a bone-marrow transplant to survive. After the procedure came the miracle. The man’s delusions and paranoia almost completely disappeared. His schizophrenia seemingly vanished.

Years later, “he is completely off all medication and shows no psychiatric symptoms,” Dr. Miyaoka told me in an email. Somehow the transplant cured the man’s schizophrenia.

A bone-marrow transplant essentially reboots the immune system. Chemotherapy kills off your old white blood cells, and new ones sprout from the donor’s transplanted blood stem cells. It’s unwise to extrapolate too much from a single case study, and it’s possible it was the drugs the man took as part of the transplant procedure that helped him. But his recovery suggests that his immune system was somehow driving his psychiatric symptoms.

At first glance, the idea seems bizarre — what does the immune system have to do with the brain? — but it jibes with a growing body of literature suggesting that the immune system is involved in psychiatric disorders from depression to bipolar disorder.

The theory has a long, if somewhat overlooked, history. In the late 19th century, physicians noticed that when infections tore through psychiatric wards, the resulting fevers seemed to cause an improvement in some mentally ill and even catatonic patients.

Inspired by these observations, the Austrian physician Julius Wagner-Jauregg developed a method of deliberate infection of psychiatric patients with malaria to induce fever. Some of his patients died from the treatment, but many others recovered. He won a Nobel Prize in 1927.

One much more recent case study relates how a woman’s psychotic symptoms — she had schizoaffective disorder, which combines symptoms of schizophrenia and a mood disorder such as depression — were gone after a severe infection with high fever.

Modern doctors have also observed that people who suffer from certain autoimmune diseases, like lupus, can develop what looks like psychiatric illness. These symptoms probably result from the immune system attacking the central nervous system or from a more generalized inflammation that affects how the brain works.

Indeed, in the past 15 years or so, a new field has emerged called autoimmune neurology. Some two dozen autoimmune diseases of the brain and nervous system have been described. The best known is probably anti-NMDA-receptor encephalitis, made famous by Susannah Cahalan’s memoir “Brain on Fire.” These disorders can resemble bipolar disorder, epilepsy, even dementia — and that’s often how they’re diagnosed initially. But when promptly treated with powerful immune-suppressing therapies, what looks like dementia often reverses. Psychosis evaporates. Epilepsy stops. Patients who just a decade ago might have been institutionalized, or even died, get better and go home.

Admittedly, these diseases are exceedingly rare, but their existence suggests there could be other immune disorders of the brain and nervous system we don’t know about yet.

Dr. Robert Yolken, a professor of developmental neurovirology at Johns Hopkins, estimates that about a third of schizophrenia patients show some evidence of immune disturbance. “The role of immune activation in serious psychiatric disorders is probably the most interesting new thing to know about these disorders,” he told me.

Studies on the role of genes in schizophrenia also suggest immune involvement, a finding that, for Dr. Yolken, helps to resolve an old puzzle. People with schizophrenia tend not to have many children. So how have the genes that increase the risk of schizophrenia, assuming they exist, persisted in populations over time? One possibility is that we retain genes that might increase the risk of schizophrenia because those genes helped humans fight off pathogens in the past. Some psychiatric illness may be an inadvertent consequence, in part, of having an aggressive immune system.

Which brings us back to Dr. Miyaoka’s patient. There are other possible explanations for his recovery. Dr. Andrew McKeon, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., a center of autoimmune neurology, points out that he could have suffered from a condition called paraneoplastic syndrome. That’s when a cancer patient’s immune system attacks a tumor — in this case, the leukemia — but because some molecule in the central nervous system happens to resemble one on the tumor, the immune system also attacks the brain, causing psychiatric or neurological problems. This condition was important historically because it pushed researchers to consider the immune system as a cause of neurological and psychiatric symptoms. Eventually they discovered that the immune system alone, unprompted by malignancy, could cause psychiatric symptoms.

Another case study from the Netherlands highlights this still-mysterious relationship. In this study, on which Dr. Yolken is a co-author, a man with leukemia received a bone-marrow transplant from a schizophrenic brother. He beat the cancer but developed schizophrenia. Once he had the same immune system, he developed similar psychiatric symptoms.

The bigger question is this: If so many syndromes can produce schizophrenia-like symptoms, should we examine more closely the entity we call schizophrenia?

Some psychiatrists long ago posited that many “schizophrenias” existed — different paths that led to what looked like one disorder. Perhaps one of those paths is autoinflammatory or autoimmune.

If this idea pans out, what can we do about it? Bone marrow transplant is an extreme and risky intervention, and even if the theoretical basis were completely sound — which it’s not yet — it’s unlikely to become a widespread treatment for psychiatric disorders. Dr. Yolken says that for now, doctors treating leukemia patients who also have psychiatric illnesses should monitor their psychiatric progress after transplantation, so that we can learn more.

And there may be other, softer interventions. A decade ago, Dr. Miyaoka accidentally discovered one. He treated two schizophrenia patients who were both institutionalized, and practically catatonic, with minocycline, an old antibiotic usually used for acne. Both completely normalized on the antibiotic. When Dr. Miyaoka stopped it, their psychosis returned. So he prescribed the patients a low dose on a continuing basis and discharged them.

Minocycline has since been studied by others. Larger trials suggest that it’s an effective add-on treatment for schizophrenia. Some have argued that it works because it tamps down inflammation in the brain. But it’s also possible that it affects the microbiome — the community of microbes in the human body — and thus changes how the immune system works.

Dr. Yolken and colleagues recently explored this idea with a different tool: probiotics, microbes thought to improve immune function. He focused on patients with mania, which has a relatively clear immunological signal. During manic episodes, many patients have elevated levels of cytokines, molecules secreted by immune cells. He had 33 mania patients who’d previously been hospitalized take a probiotic prophylactically. Over 24 weeks, patients who took the probiotic (along with their usual medications) were 75 percent less likely to be admitted to the hospital for manic attacks compared with patients who didn’t.

The study is preliminary, but it suggests that targeting immune function may improve mental health outcomes and that tinkering with the microbiome might be a practical, cost-effective way to do this.

Watershed moments occasionally come along in medical history when previously intractable or even deadly conditions suddenly become treatable or preventable. They are sometimes accompanied by a shift in how scientists understand the disorders in question.

We now seem to have reached such a threshold with certain rare autoimmune diseases of the brain. Not long ago, they could be a death sentence or warrant institutionalization. Now, with aggressive treatment directed at the immune system, patients can recover. Does this group encompass a larger chunk of psychiatric disorders? No one knows the answer yet, but it’s an exciting time to watch the question play out.

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Mit-Dopamine-Tracking_0

By Anne Trafton

Dopamine, a signaling molecule used throughout the brain, plays a major role in regulating our mood, as well as controlling movement. Many disorders, including Parkinson’s disease, depression, and schizophrenia, are linked to dopamine deficiencies.

MIT neuroscientists have now devised a way to measure dopamine in the brain for more than a year, which they believe will help them to learn much more about its role in both healthy and diseased brains.

“Despite all that is known about dopamine as a crucial signaling molecule in the brain, implicated in neurologic and neuropsychiatric conditions as well as our abilty to learn, it has been impossible to monitor changes in the online release of dopamine over time periods long enough to relate these to clinical conditions,” says Ann Graybiel, an MIT Institute Professor, a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and one of the senior authors of the study.

Michael Cima, the David H. Koch Professor of Engineering in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, and Rober Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor and a member of the Koch Institute, are also senior authors of the study. MIT postdoc Helen Schwerdt is the lead author of the paper, which appears in the Sept. 12 issue of Communications Biology.

Long-term sensing

Dopamine is one of many neurotransmitters that neurons in the brain use to communicate with each other. Traditional systems for measuring dopamine — carbon electrodes with a shaft diameter of about 100 microns — can only be used reliably for about a day because they produce scar tissue that interferes with the electrodes’ ability to interact with dopamine.

In 2015, the MIT team demonstrated that tiny microfabricated sensors could be used to measure dopamine levels in a part of the brain called the striatum, which contains dopamine-producing cells that are critical for habit formation and reward-reinforced learning.

Because these probes are so small (about 10 microns in diameter), the researchers could implant up to 16 of them to measure dopamine levels in different parts of the striatum. In the new study, the researchers wanted to test whether they could use these sensors for long-term dopamine tracking.

“Our fundamental goal from the very beginning was to make the sensors work over a long period of time and produce accurate readings from day to day,” Schwerdt says. “This is necessary if you want to understand how these signals mediate specific diseases or conditions.”

To develop a sensor that can be accurate over long periods of time, the researchers had to make sure that it would not provoke an immune reaction, to avoid the scar tissue that interferes with the accuracy of the readings.

The MIT team found that their tiny sensors were nearly invisible to the immune system, even over extended periods of time. After the sensors were implanted, populations of microglia (immune cells that respond to short-term damage), and astrocytes, which respond over longer periods, were the same as those in brain tissue that did not have the probes inserted.

In this study, the researchers implanted three to five sensors per animal, about 5 millimeters deep, in the striatum. They took readings every few weeks, after stimulating dopamine release from the brainstem, which travels to the striatum. They found that the measurements remained consistent for up to 393 days.

“This is the first time that anyone’s shown that these sensors work for more than a few months. That gives us a lot of confidence that these kinds of sensors might be feasible for human use someday,” Schwerdt says.

Paul Glimcher, a professor of physiology and neuroscience at New York University, says the new sensors should enable more researchers to perform long-term studies of dopamine, which is essential for studying phenomena such as learning, which occurs over long time periods.

“This is a really solid engineering accomplishment that moves the field forward,” says Glimcher, who was not involved in the research. “This dramatically improves the technology in a way that makes it accessible to a lot of labs.”

Monitoring Parkinson’s

If developed for use in humans, these sensors could be useful for monitoring Parkinson’s patients who receive deep brain stimulation, the researchers say. This treatment involves implanting an electrode that delivers electrical impulses to a structure deep within the brain. Using a sensor to monitor dopamine levels could help doctors deliver the stimulation more selectively, only when it is needed.

The researchers are now looking into adapting the sensors to measure other neurotransmitters in the brain, and to measure electrical signals, which can also be disrupted in Parkinson’s and other diseases.

“Understanding those relationships between chemical and electrical activity will be really important to understanding all of the issues that you see in Parkinson’s,” Schwerdt says.

The research was funded by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the Army Research Office, the Saks Kavanaugh Foundation, the Nancy Lurie Marks Family Foundation, and Dr. Tenley Albright.

https://news.mit.edu/2018/brain-dopamine-tracking-sensors-0912

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For what is thought to be the largest study of its kind, the researchers analyzed brain scans of 31,227 people aged 9 months–105 years.

In a paper that now features in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, they describe how they identified “patterns of aging” from the brain scans.

These were done using single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) and came from people with psychiatric conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. They were all attending a psychiatric clinic that was based at several locations.

Each participant underwent two SPECT brain scans — one during a resting state, and another during completion of “a concentration task” — giving a total of 62,454 scans.

The scientists found that they could predict a person’s age from the pattern of blood flow in their brain.

Brain circulation varied over lifespan
They observed that blood flow varied from childhood into older age throughout the lifespan. They also saw that brain aging was more visible in scans of men and those with schizophrenia, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and ADHD.

Brain aging was also more strongly associated with use of cannabis and alcohol.

“Based on one of the largest brain imaging studies ever done,” says lead study author Dr. Daniel G. Amen, a psychiatrist and founder of Amen Clinics in Costa Mesa, CA, “we can now track common disorders and behaviors that prematurely age the brain.”

He suggests that improving the treatment of these disorders could “slow or even halt the process of brain aging.”

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/322852.php

By Bahar Gholipour

Schizophrenia may have a special fingerprint in the brain, even before its symptoms fully emerge. Now, a new method of analyzing this fingerprint — found within the folds of the brain — could help predict which young adults at high risk for schizophrenia will go on to develop the illness, a new study suggests.

The method, which was based on MRI scans of the brain, looked at the correlation between the amount of folding in different brain areas, which can reflect the strength of underlying connections between those areas. Using this method, the researchers could predict the outcome of 79 high-risk individuals with 80 percent accuracy, they reported yesterday (April 25) in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.

These findings need to be confirmed in larger future studies before the method can be used to in the clinic, the researchers said. And even then, a simple brain scan on its own won’t be enough to predict the future — it has to be used in conjunction with other symptoms for which a person is seeking help. But the goal is to find what clues from the brain’s structure could help clinicians better identify and treat patients before they experience full-blown schizophrenia and drop out of schools or lose their jobs due to a psychotic episode, said study investigator Dr. Lena Palaniyappan, an associate professor of psychiatry at Western University in Ontario, Canada.

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What the Folds of Your Brain Could Tell You About Schizophrenia Risk
A simplified representation of the folds in different brain regions.
Credit: University Psychiatric Clinics Basel
Schizophrenia may have a special fingerprint in the brain, even before its symptoms fully emerge. Now, a new method of analyzing this fingerprint — found within the folds of the brain — could help predict which young adults at high risk for schizophrenia will go on to develop the illness, a new study suggests.

The method, which was based on MRI scans of the brain, looked at the correlation between the amount of folding in different brain areas, which can reflect the strength of underlying connections between those areas. Using this method, the researchers could predict the outcome of 79 high-risk individuals with 80 percent accuracy, they reported yesterday (April 25) in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.

These findings need to be confirmed in larger future studies before the method can be used to in the clinic, the researchers said. And even then, a simple brain scan on its own won’t be enough to predict the future — it has to be used in conjunction with other symptoms for which a person is seeking help. But the goal is to find what clues from the brain’s structure could help clinicians better identify and treat patients before they experience full-blown schizophrenia and drop out of schools or lose their jobs due to a psychotic episode, said study investigator Dr. Lena Palaniyappan, an associate professor of psychiatry at Western University in Ontario, Canada. [10 Things You Didn’t Know About the Brain]

Schizophrenia is a mental disorder characterized by psychotic episodes involving delusional thoughts and distorted perception. It is often preceded by subtle symptoms: A teenager who is withdrawn and suspicious, has anxiety, depression or sleep problems, and who experiences subtle changes in thinking and perception may be deemed by a doctor to be at high risk for developing schizophrenia in the next two or three years. But having these symptoms, which overlap with those of many other mental health conditions, doesn’t mean one will surely go on to develop schizophrenia — in fact, just about a third of individuals with these symptoms do.

“It’s really hard to know who is going to develop schizophrenia and who is not,” Palaniyappan told Live Science.

A wrinkle in the brain

Compared with other animals, the surface of the human brain is especially wrinkly — likely as a solution to fit a large brain inside a small skull. The patterns of folds in the brain’s surface, called the cortex, are determined before birth and change very little after the first or second year of life.

Previous studies of people with conditions such as schizophrenia and autism have detected local differences in folding patterns. For example, they have found a smoother surface in one brain region or a more wrinkled one in another, when comparing people with these conditions to the general population.

Palaniyappan and his colleagues examined all the brain regions and the relationship between their folding patterns. The idea is that the degree of folding would be similar between two brain areas if they are strongly interconnected. So, if an individual doesn’t show the same folding patterns as everyone else, it may suggest a problem in the wiring beneath the brain’s surface.

“Imagine two brain regions have a strong wire between them. If you cut the wire off, both of these regions would not be properly folded,” Palaniyappan said.

Sorting through scans

The team collected MRI brain scans from a group of people in Switzerland, who were on average 24 years old. The participants included 79 people with symptoms suggesting a high risk of schizophrenia and 44 healthy control subjects.

Then, the researchers followed the participants for four years and found 16 people in the high-risk group developed schizophrenia.

Looking back at the brain scans, the researchers found that 80 percent of the time, the relationship between folding patterns could correctly identify who developed schizophrenia and who didn’t. Those who did seemed to have a disorganized brain network — the folds of their cortical regions didn’t go hand in hand as much as the folds in the controls and in the high-risk people who didn’t develop the illness.

The earlier patients with schizophrenia receive psychotherapy or medication, the better they fare, according to a 2005 review of 30 studies published in the American Journal of Psychiatry. Early intervention may even change the course of the illness. One study published last year in Nature Neuropsychopharmacology, for instance, found a longer period of untreated symptoms was associated with weaker connectivity in the brain, especially in areas associated with responding to antipsychotic medications.

https://www.livescience.com/62414-brain-folds-schizophrenia.html

By Rafi Letzter

Scientists in Switzerland dosed test subjects with LSD to investigate how patients with severe mental disorders lose track of where they end and other people begin.

Both LSD and certain mental disorders, most notably schizophrenia, can make it difficult for people to distinguish between themselves and others. And that can impair everyday mental tasks and social interactions, said Katrin Preller, one of the lead authors of the study and a psychologist at the University Hospital of Psychiatry in Zurich. By studying how LSD breaks down people’s senses of self, the researchers aimed to find targets for future experimental drugs to treat schizophrenia.

“Healthy people take having this coherent ‘self’ experience for granted,” Preller told Live Science, “which makes it difficult to explain why it’s so important.”

Depression, she said, also relates to the sense of self. Whereas people with schizophrenia can lose track of themselves entirely, people with depression tend to “ruminate” on themselves, unable to break obsessive, self-oriented patterns of thought.

But this kind of phenomenon is challenging to study, Preller said.

“If you want to investigate self-experience, you have to manipulate it,” Preller said. “And there are very few substances that can actually manipulate sense of self while patients are lying in our MRI scanner.”

One of the substances that can, however, is LSD. And that’s why this experiment happened in Zurich, Preller said. Switzerland is one of the few countries where it’s possible to use LSD on human beings for scientific research. (Doing so is still quite difficult, though, requiring lots of oversight.)

The experiment itself didn’t sound like the most exciting use of the drug for the test subjects, all of whom were physically healthy and did not have schizophrenia or other illnesses After taking the drug, the subjects lay inside MRI machines with video goggles strapped to their faces, trying to make eye contact with a computer-generated avatar. Once they accomplished this, the subjects then tried to look off at another point in space that the avatar was also looking at. This is the kind of social task, Preller said, that’s very difficult if your sense of self has broken down.

Every study subject tried the task three times: once sober, once on LSD, and once after taking both LSD and a substance called ketanserin. This substance blocks LSD from interacting with a particular serotonin receptor in the brain, which researchers call “5-HT2.”

Previous studies on animals had suggested that 5-HT2 played a key role in LSD’s ability to mess with sense of self. The researchers suspected that blocking the receptor in humans might somewhat reduce the effect of LSD.

But it turned out to more than “somewhat” block the effect: There was no difference between the performance of subjects who took ketanserin and the placebo group.

“This was surprising to us, because LSD interacts with a lot of receptors [in the brain], not just 5-HT2,” Preller said.

But LSD’s most dramatic measurable effects entirely abated when subjects first took ketanserin.

That tentatively indicates that 5-HT2 plays an important role in regulating sense of self in the brain, Preller said. The next step, she added, is to work on drugs that target that receptor and see if they might alleviate some of the symptoms of severe psychiatric illnesses that affect the sense of self.

The paper detailing the study’s results was published today (March 19) at The Journal of Neuroscience.

https://www.livescience.com/62059-schizophrenia-lsd-sense-self.html#?utm_source=ls-newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=03202018-ls


Illustration by Paweł Jońca

by Helen Thomson

In March 2015, Li-Huei Tsai set up a tiny disco for some of the mice in her laboratory. For an hour each day, she placed them in a box lit only by a flickering strobe. The mice — which had been engineered to produce plaques of the peptide amyloid-β in the brain, a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease — crawled about curiously. When Tsai later dissected them, those that had been to the mini dance parties had significantly lower levels of plaque than mice that had spent the same time in the dark.

Tsai, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, says she checked the result; then checked it again. “For the longest time, I didn’t believe it,” she says. Her team had managed to clear amyloid from part of the brain with a flickering light. The strobe was tuned to 40 hertz and was designed to manipulate the rodents’ brainwaves, triggering a host of biological effects that eliminated the plaque-forming proteins. Although promising findings in mouse models of Alzheimer’s disease have been notoriously difficult to replicate in humans, the experiment offered some tantalizing possibilities. “The result was so mind-boggling and so robust, it took a while for the idea to sink in, but we knew we needed to work out a way of trying out the same thing in humans,” Tsai says.

Scientists identified the waves of electrical activity that constantly ripple through the brain almost 100 years ago, but they have struggled to assign these oscillations a definitive role in behaviour or brain function. Studies have strongly linked brainwaves to memory consolidation during sleep, and implicated them in processing sensory inputs and even coordinating consciousness. Yet not everyone is convinced that brainwaves are all that meaningful. “Right now we really don’t know what they do,” says Michael Shadlen, a neuroscientist at Columbia University in New York City.

Now, a growing body of evidence, including Tsai’s findings, hint at a meaningful connection to neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. The work offers the possibility of forestalling or even reversing the damage caused by such conditions without using a drug. More than two dozen clinical trials are aiming to modulate brainwaves in some way — some with flickering lights or rhythmic sounds, but most through the direct application of electrical currents to the brain or scalp. They aim to treat everything from insomnia to schizophrenia and premenstrual dysphoric disorder.

Tsai’s study was the first glimpse of a cellular response to brainwave manipulation. “Her results were a really big surprise,” says Walter Koroshetz, director of the US National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, Maryland. “It’s a novel observation that would be really interesting to pursue.”


A powerful wave

Brainwaves were first noticed by German psychiatrist Hans Berger. In 1929, he published a paper describing the repeating waves of current he observed when he placed electrodes on people’s scalps. It was the world’s first electroencephalogram (EEG) recording — but nobody took much notice. Berger was a controversial figure who had spent much of his career trying to identify the physiological basis of psychic phenomena. It was only after his colleagues began to confirm the results several years later that Berger’s invention was recognized as a window into brain activity.

Neurons communicate using electrical impulses created by the flow of ions into and out of each cell. Although a single firing neuron cannot be picked up through the electrodes of an EEG, when a group of neurons fires again and again in synchrony, it shows up as oscillating electrical ripples that sweep through the brain.

Those of the highest frequency are gamma waves, which range from 25 to 140 hertz. People often show a lot of this kind of activity when they are at peak concentration. At the other end of the scale are delta waves, which have the lowest frequency — around 0.5 to 4 hertz. These tend to occur in deep sleep (see ‘Rhythms of the mind’).

At any point in time, one type of brainwave tends to dominate, although other bands are always present to some extent. Scientists have long wondered what purpose, if any, this hum of activity serves, and some clues have emerged over the past three decades. For instance, in 1994, discoveries in mice indicated that the distinct patterns of oscillatory activity during sleep mirrored those during a previous learning exercise. Scientists suggested that these waves could be helping to solidify memories.

Brainwaves also seem to influence conscious perception. Randolph Helfrich at the University of California, Berkeley, and his colleagues devised a way to enhance or reduce gamma oscillations of around 40 hertz using a non-invasive technique called transcranial alternating current stimulation (tACS). By tweaking these oscillations, they were able to influence whether a person perceived a video of moving dots as travelling vertically or horizontally.

The oscillations also provide a potential mechanism for how the brain creates a coherent experience from the chaotic symphony of stimuli hitting the senses at any one time, a puzzle known as the ‘binding problem’. By synchronizing the firing rates of neurons responding to the same event, brainwaves might ensure that the all of the relevant information relating to one object arrives at the correct area of the brain at exactly the right time. Coordinating these signals is the key to perception, says Robert Knight, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkeley, “You can’t just pray that they will self-organize.”


Healthy oscillations

But these oscillations can become disrupted in certain disorders. In Parkinson’s disease, for example, the brain generally starts to show an increase in beta waves in the motor regions as body movement becomes impaired. In a healthy brain, beta waves are suppressed just before a body movement. But in Parkinson’s disease, neurons seem to get stuck in a synchronized pattern of activity. This leads to rigidity and movement difficulties. Peter Brown, who studies Parkinson’s disease at the University of Oxford, UK, says that current treatments for the symptoms of the disease — deep-brain stimulation and the drug levodopa — might work by reducing beta waves.

People with Alzheimer’s disease show a reduction in gamma oscillations5. So Tsai and others wondered whether gamma-wave activity could be restored, and whether this would have any effect on the disease.

They started by using optogenetics, in which brain cells are engineered to respond directly to a flash of light. In 2009, Tsai’s team, in collaboration with Christopher Moore, also at MIT at the time, demonstrated for the first time that it is possible to use the technique to drive gamma oscillations in a specific part of the mouse brain6.

Tsai and her colleagues subsequently found that tinkering with the oscillations sets in motion a host of biological events. It initiates changes in gene expression that cause microglia — immune cells in the brain — to change shape. The cells essentially go into scavenger mode, enabling them to better dispose of harmful clutter in the brain, such as amyloid-β. Koroshetz says that the link to neuroimmunity is new and striking. “The role of immune cells like microglia in the brain is incredibly important and poorly understood, and is one of the hottest areas for research now,” he says.

If the technique was to have any therapeutic relevance, however, Tsai and her colleagues had to find a less-invasive way of manipulating brainwaves. Flashing lights at specific frequencies has been shown to influence oscillations in some parts of the brain, so the researchers turned to strobe lights. They started by exposing young mice with a propensity for amyloid build-up to flickering LED lights for one hour. This created a drop in free-floating amyloid, but it was temporary, lasting less than 24 hours, and restricted to the visual cortex.

To achieve a longer-lasting effect on animals with amyloid plaques, they repeated the experiment for an hour a day over the course of a week, this time using older mice in which plaques had begun to form. Twenty-four hours after the end of the experiment, these animals showed a 67% reduction in plaque in the visual cortex compared with controls. The team also found that the technique reduced tau protein, another hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer’s plaques tend to have their earliest negative impacts on the hippocampus, however, not the visual cortex. To elicit oscillations where they are needed, Tsai and her colleagues are investigating other techniques. Playing rodents a 40-hertz noise, for example, seems to cause a decrease in amyloid in the hippocampus — perhaps because the hippo-campus sits closer to the auditory cortex than to the visual cortex.

Tsai and her colleague Ed Boyden, a neuro-scientist at MIT, have now formed a company, Cognito Therapeutics in Cambridge, to test similar treatments in humans. Last year, they started a safety trial, which involves testing a flickering light device, worn like a pair of glasses, on 12 people with Alzheimer’s.

Caveats abound. The mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease is not a perfect reflection of the disorder, and many therapies that have shown promise in rodents have failed in humans. “I used to tell people — if you’re going to get Alzheimer’s, first become a mouse,” says Thomas Insel, a neuroscientist and psychiatrist who led the US National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, from 2002 until 2015.

Others are also looking to test how manipulating brainwaves might help people with Alzheimer’s disease. “We thought Tsai’s study was outstanding,” says Emiliano Santarnecchi at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. His team had already been using tACS to stimulate the brain, and he wondered whether it might elicit stronger effects than a flashing strobe. “This kind of stimulation can target areas of the brain more specifically than sensory stimulation can — after seeing Tsai’s results, it was a no-brainer that we should try it in Alzheimer’s patients.”

His team has begun an early clinical trial in which ten people with Alzheimer’s disease receive tACS for one hour daily for two weeks. A second trial, in collaboration with Boyden and Tsai, will look for signals of activated microglia and levels of tau protein. Results are expected from both trials by the end of the year.

Knight says that Tsai’s animal studies clearly show that oscillations have an effect on cellular metabolism — but whether the same effect will be seen in humans is another matter. “In the end, it’s data that will win out,” he says.

The studies may reveal risks, too. Gamma oscillations are the type most likely to induce seizures in people with photosensitive epilepsy, says Dora Hermes, a neuroscientist at Stanford University in California. She recalls a famous episode of a Japanese cartoon that featured flickering red and blue lights, which induced seizures in some viewers. “So many people watched that episode that there were almost 700 extra visits to the emergency department that day.”

A brain boost

Nevertheless, there is clearly a growing excitement around treating neurological diseases using neuromodulation, rather than pharmaceuticals. “There’s pretty good evidence that by changing neural-circuit activity we can get improvements in Parkinson’s, chronic pain, obsessive–compulsive disorder and depression,” says Insel. This is important, he says, because so far, pharmaceutical treatments for neurological disease have suffered from a lack of specificity. Koroshetz adds that funding institutes are eager for treatments that are innovative, non-invasive and quickly translatable to people.

Since publishing their mouse paper, Boyden says, he has had a deluge of requests from researchers wanting to use the same technique to treat other conditions. But there are a lot of details to work out. “We need to figure out what is the most effective, non-invasive way of manipulating oscillations in different parts of the brain,” he says. “Perhaps it is using light, but maybe it’s a smart pillow or a headband that could target these oscillations using electricity or sound.” One of the simplest methods that scientists have found is neurofeedback, which has shown some success in treating a range of conditions, including anxiety, depression and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. People who use this technique are taught to control their brainwaves by measuring them with an EEG and getting feedback in the form of visual or audio cues.

Phyllis Zee, a neurologist at Northwestern University in Chicago, Illinois, and her colleagues delivered pulses of ‘pink noise’ — audio frequencies that together sound a bit like a waterfall — to healthy older adults while they slept. They were particularly interested in eliciting the delta oscillations that characterize deep sleep. This aspect of sleep decreases with age, and is associated with a decreased ability to consolidate memories.

So far, her team has found that stimulation increased the amplitude of the slow waves, and was associated with a 25–30% improvement in recall of word pairs learnt the night before, compared with a fake treatment7. Her team is midway through a clinical trial to see whether longer-term acoustic stimulation might help people with mild cognitive impairment.

Although relatively safe, these kinds of technologies do have limitations. Neurofeedback is easy to learn, for instance, but it can take time to have an effect, and the results are often short-lived. In experiments that use magnetic or acoustic stimulation, it is difficult to know precisely what area of the brain is being affected. “The field of external brain stimulation is a little weak at the moment,” says Knight. Many approaches, he says, are open loop, meaning that they don’t track the effect of the modulation using an EEG. Closed loop, he says, would be more practical. Some experiments, such as Zee’s and those involving neuro-feedback, already do this. “I think the field is turning a corner,” Knight says. “It’s attracting some serious research.”

In addition to potentially leading to treatments, these studies could break open the field of neural oscillations in general, helping to link them more firmly to behaviour and how the brain works as a whole.

Shadlen says he is open to the idea that oscillations play a part in human behaviour and consciousness. But for now, he remains unconvinced that they are directly responsible for these phenomena — referring to the many roles people ascribe to them as “magical incantations”. He says he fully accepts that these brain rhythms are signatures of important brain processes, “but to posit the idea that synchronous spikes of activity are meaningful, that by suddenly wiggling inputs at a specific frequency, it suddenly elevates activity onto our conscious awareness? That requires more explanation.”

Whatever their role, Tsai mostly wants to discipline brainwaves and harness them against disease. Cognito Therapeutics has just received approval for a second, larger trial, which will look at whether the therapy has any effect on Alzheimer’s disease symptoms. Meanwhile, Tsai’s team is focusing on understanding more about the downstream biological effects and how to better target the hippocampus with non-invasive technologies.

For Tsai, the work is personal. Her grandmother, who raised her, was affected by dementia. “Her confused face made a deep imprint in my mind,” Tsai says. “This is the biggest challenge of our lifetime, and I will give it all I have.”

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-02391-6

Regular use of nicotine may normalize brain activity impairments linked with schizophrenia, according to a study using a mouse model, published online in Nature Medicine. The finding may explain why up to 90% of people with schizophrenia smoke—most of them heavily.

“Basically the nicotine is compensating for a genetically determined impairment,” said researcher Jerry Stitzel, PhD, of the University of Colorado Boulder. “No one has ever shown that before.”

Dr. Stitzel is part of an international research team that investigated whether a variant in the CHRNA5 gene, which is believed to increase schizophrenia risk, is associated with a reduction of neural firing in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, or hypofrontality. Researchers also examined whether nicotine could interrupt the effect.

In mice with the CHRNA5 gene variant, brain images confirmed hypofrontality, researchers reported. Behavioral tests further revealed that the mice shared key characteristics of people with schizophrenia, such as an inability to suppress a startle response and aversion to social interaction. The findings, they explained, suggest the CHRNA5 gene variant plays a role in schizophrenia by causing hypofrontality.

Nicotine, however, seemed to reverse hypofrontality. When researchers gave the mice daily nicotine, their sluggish brain activity improved within 2 days. Within a week, it was normal.

Researchers believe the nicotine corrected the impaired brain activity by acting on nicotinic receptors in regions important for healthy cognitive function.

Noting that hypofrontality is also linked with addiction, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, bipolar disorder, and other psychiatric conditions, researchers believe the discovery could lead to new nonaddictive, nicotine-based medications.

“This defines a completely novel strategy for medication development,” said lead author Uwe Maskos, PhD, of Institut Pasteur, Paris, France.

—Jolynn Tumolo

References:

Koukouli F, Rooy M, Tziotis D, et al. Nicotine reverses hypofrontality in animal models of addiction and schizophrenia. Nature Medicine. 2017 January 23;[Epub ahead of print].

Nicotine normalizes brain deficits key to schizophrenia [press release]. Boulder, CO: University of Colorado Boulder; January 23, 2017.