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Brain pH Imaging Might Help Treat Depression

May 22, 2012
Written by: , Filed in: Neuroradiology
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A new MRI technique that measures acidity levels in the brain could provide another tool for studying brain activity—maybe even for treating anxiety and depression.

And, just to get the joke out of the way: no, it’s not that kind of acid, man.

John Wemmie, MD, PhD, a University of Iowa neuroscientist, has been studying brain receptors that are activated by increased acidity. “The presence of these receptors implies the possibility that low pH might be playing a signaling role in normal brain function,” he said.

Dr. Wemmie is an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine. He was quoted in a university news release.

To measure brain acidity levels, he tapped the MRI expertise of Vincent Magnotta, PhD, an associate professor of radiology, psychiatry, and biomedical engineering at Iowa. Dr. Magnotta developed an MRI strategy that measures pH levels, as detailed in a study published online (with open access) earlier this month in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In case you don’t have time for the full study, here’s Dr. Wemmie’s executive summary:

Our study tells us, first, we have a technique that we believe can measure pH changes in the brain, and, second, this MRI-based technique suggests that pH changes do occur with brain function.

OK, we have a new toy, er, tool. What do we do with it?

Well, we can measure brain activity. Functional MRI currently does so by detecting oxygen levels in blood flowing to active brain regions. If pH levels are involved in brain signaling, the new MRI technique could measure brain activity in an entirely different way, giving us a second window into the working brain.

Dr. Wemmie’s research also has indicated that pH changes play a role in anxiety, depression, and other mental disorders. “Brain activity is likely different in people with brain disorders such as bipolar or depression, and that might be reflected in this measure,” he said, adding:

And, perhaps most important at the end of the day: Could this signal be abnormal or perturbed in human psychiatric disease? And, if so, might it be a target for manipulation and treatment?

Related seminar: Neuroradiology Review

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