5 notable new developments in brain research

20170112120000, Teo Jun Hong
Brain blobs depicted with as a control variant, and with the PTEN variant. Photo credit: Yun Li and Julien Muffat
Here is a brief look at how the latest findings from various research related to the way the brain works, such as the effects of chemo brain.

1. Cancer patients suffer from long-term “chemo brain” post-treatment

“Chemo brain” involves symptoms such as cognitive impairment that cancer patients face after chemotherapy, leading to a mental fog before, during, and after treatment. With changes so subtle, cancer patients often only report the issue after it affects their everyday life, where they described the effects as a "substantial and pervasive problem” to their daily life.

Researchers found that “chemo brain” can last as much as six months after treatment. Janelsins, the lead researcher, found that more than 40% of breast cancer patients have reported a perceived decline in their ability to think, before and after chemotherapy, as compared to 10.4% of healthy women over the same time frame.

When the same scores were compared six months later between women who had completed the tests pre-chemotherapy, and their healthy counterparts, the breast cancer survivors were about three times more likely to experience the same decline in brain function as the latter group.

In addition, survivors who had reported greater levels of anxiety and depression before treatment were more likely to experience “chemo brain” than those patients with good mental health.

2. Stability of “shaky hands” with non-invasive treatment

Millions of individuals worldwide suffer from what is known as “essential tremor,” a non life-threatening condition that greatly affects one’s quality-of-life. One sufferer, Alexandra Lebenthal, reports that the condition even interferes with basic tasks such as taking a glass of drink from a tray at a party or snapping a picture with her phone.

Medications did not improve her condition. Luckily, she was amongst the first patients undergo a new FDA-approved non-invasive treatment for essential tremor.

The outpatient procedure - authorised on only one side of the brain by the FDA – focuses ultrasound waves guided by an MRI, to target and ablate tissues deep in the brain.

Dr Michael G. Kaplitt described the procedure as allowing doctors to “send ultrasound waves to specific spots in the brain and actually change the way the brain functions.” Patients have reported as much as a 50% improvement post-treatment, with Lebenthal describing her improvement as, “… so just (sic) unbelievable.”

3. Concussion-detecting goggles

In the past, a concussion can only be performed with tedious tests. An innovative chair platform at the I-Portal®-Neuro-Otologic Test Center promises to ease the diagnostic process. Their study enlisted 100 individuals to take a seat on the chair equipped with specially designed goggles able to measure an individual’s eye movement in a variety of ways.

The research found that there were subtle differences between the two groups of subjects tested. The group that was recently diagnosed with mild traumatic brain injury tested positive for concussion with an accuracy of up to 89%, and could certify that healthy individuals with a 95% accuracy.

One of the three tests measured participant’s ability to generate anti-saccades, a barometer of executive functions. They are asked to stare straight ahead until a dot pops up on either side, and they are then asked to steer their eyes in the opposing direction. The less able they can do that, the more damage to their frontal cortex they might have.

4. Pregnancy alters mothers’ brains for up to 2 years

Researchers have found that pregnancy changes the way the brain functions and thinks to aid mothering. The research discovered that conceiving would alter the size and structure of areas involved in perceiving the feelings and perspectives of others.

The changes were also found to be for the long-term, lasting as much as two years post-delivery, and at least into the toddler years. It was also found that the more pronounced the brain changed, the higher the reported emotional attachment mothers had to their babies. There was also a loss of grey matter reported, in the areas responsible for social cognition and the ability to register and consider how other people perceive things.

Lead researcher Elseline Hoekzema, explained that pregnancy may help a woman’s brain specialise in “a mother’s ability to recognise the needs of her infant, to recognise social threats or to promote mother-infant bonding.”

The researchers also analysed if any changes occurred pre and post fathership; there were no changes reported. However, for the mothers, the changes were so apparent and were distinguishable from imaging results alone.

5. Brain blobs to improve study of Zika virus

Brain blobs, developed by scientists from MIT, Harvard and the Austrian Academy of Sciences, were derived from stem cells with the help of the CRISPR gene editing technique. These brain blobs would help researchers study how brains develop, and would also allow them to study how Zika affects the brains of newborns, causing microcephaly.

These brain blobs, with their genomes edited, allowed researchers to form more complex and human-like models of our brains, and can then be used to analyse the effects of illnesses on our brains. When Zika was introduced at the time of folding, it limited both the growth of the organoid and the amount of folding; a similar virus, the dengue, did not cause the same effects.

The researchers explained that research on the effects of Zika on developing brains are tough before the advent of this technique, as foetal brain tissue are rare to come by. MIMS

Read more:
4 futuristic surgical tools that will reshape the face of medicine
7 bio-inspired inventions that are transforming medicine
The 7 best medical research developments of 2016

Sources:
http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/315015.php
http://www.cbsnews.com/news/shaky-hands-essential-tremor-steadier-non-invasive-device-exablate-neuro-treatment/
http://www.medicaldaily.com/do-i-have-concussion-scientist-designed-goggles-are-new-diagnostic-tool-400083
http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/19/health/pregnancy-brain-change.html?_r=0
http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nn.4458.html
http://gizmodo.com/these-scientists-genetically-engineered-brain-blobs-to-1790706709