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Scans Can Detect Degenerative Brain Disorders

August 26, 2010
Written by: , Filed in: Diagnostic Imaging, Neuroradiology
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A new imaging method using magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) can noninvasively test for and distinguish among different types of degenerative brain disorders, according to researchers at the universities of Minnesota and Washington.

This could have tremendous implications for both neuroscience researchers and clinical neurology. For example, people at risk of carrying the gene for Huntington’s disease, which usually doesn’t cause symptoms until middle age, could elect to be screened before deciding whether to have children. Treatment for a wide range of neurological disorders could begin early enough to delay or ameliorate symptoms.

Neurological degenerative disorders, such as Huntington’s, are difficult to diagnose. MRI can reveal loss of brain tissue, but cannot distinguish the disease that is causing the loss—Huntington’s, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, or whatever it may be.

“We discovered that MRS can reliably identify brain pathology in Huntington disease model mice by measuring 17 different brain metabolites at the same time,” said Jason B. Nikas, MD, the project leader, as quoted in a news release. “This technology, if expanded to humans and applied to a range of neurological disorders, could potentially provide diagnostic information to distinguish different causes of dementia and other forms of neurological illness, rapidly and noninvasively, with current-generation MR scanners.”

Dr. Nikas is with the department of neurosurgery at the University of Minnesota Medical School.

Unlike MRI, which detects the response of hydrogen atoms in water molecules in tissue, MRS can read and quantify complex biological molecules. Dr. Nikas and his colleagues measured the amounts of 17 different biochemical substances in the brains of mice and found that the Huntington mutation R6/2 caused a signature change in the levels of those substances. Using MRS, they were able to successfully identify which mice had the mutation 100 percent of the time.

“Scanning animals noninvasively by MRS could be useful in the monitoring of various interventions in mice with genetic disorders,” Dr. Nikas said. “However, it could be even more valuable for identifying human subjects who were asymptomatic but showed the MRS signature of a particular disease, which they might develop years later; moreover, it could be very valuable in assessing disease progression and/or the efficacy of an applied medical treatment.”

The research will be published in the October 15 issue of The Journal of Comparative Neurology.

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