Seeing Well Is Thinking Well
A 10 year study involving 511 women with a mean age of 69 years old found that damaged blood vessels in the eye could translate into vascular damage in the brain. Every year of the study they took tests to assess their thinking and memory and their eyes were test four years after the study began. Eight years into it, brain scans were done on each woman. The 39 women with retinopathy did worse on the cognitive tests and had more areas of small vascular damage in the brain, which were greater when just looking at the parietal lobe. They accounted for diabetes and hypertension which can lead to problems in blood vessels in the eye and brain. There was no difference in visual acuity between both groups.
Activated by Injury
A new study that involved microdissecting the spinal cords of rats has demonstrated the existence of stem cells in the meninges, the membrane that covers the brain and spinal cord, giving researchers hope that they could be used to help individuals who suffer from spinal cord injuries. Meningeal stem cells can self-renew and proliferate and when a spinal injury occurs, they multiply and go to the site of injury where they form glial scars. It is this activation that leads scientists to believe that they could be used to treat spinal cord injuries that can range from pain to complete paralysis and take a heavy toll in terms of medical cost and quality of life. This discovery will hopefully lead to finding drugs that can activate meningeal stem cells in the same way.
Smoking Is Greatest RIsk Factor
Researchers evaluating data from over 1,300 volunteers who participated in the Framingham Offspring Study have found that poor health and lifestyle choices such as smoking, obesity, and out of control blood pressure and blood sugar are each linked to potentially dangerous vascular changes which can cause the brain to shrink, leading to mental declines in old age. The study group, who were all initially healthy with an average age in the mid-fifties, underwent MRI brain scans over the course of a decade. Smokers lost the most overall brain volume while those with diabetes experienced brain shrinkage in the hippocampus, the portion of the forebrain which regulates emotion and memory. Those who were obese showed the most rapid decline in tests of executive function.
Fortification Helps the Brain
In a Swedish study published this week, teens who consumed more folic acid got better grades in school than those who consumed the least. However, the study may not mean much to US teens, because folic acid deficiency is rare in North America because certain foods, including pastas and breakfast cereals, are fortified with the B vitamin to prevent severe birth defects in babies. Researchers with Orebro University Hospital conducted the study on almost 400 15-year-olds during a time when Sweden did not fortify foods. Those teens who consumed the most folic acid from foods such as leafy green vegetables and legumes scored grades of 139 out of 200 on average compared to 120 for those kids in the bottom third for folic acid consumption.
Inflammation in Brain
A high-fat diet may not contribute to obesity only by providing excess calories. A new study from the University of Washington finds that overconsumption of the “Typical American Diet” may also involve injury to nerve cells in a key part of the brain the controls body weight. Researchers studied rats and mice given high fat diets for periods ranging from one day to eight months. Within the first three days of the diet, rats consumed nearly double their usual daily amount of calories, gained weight, and developed inflammation in the hypothalamus, the part of the brain involved with appetite and body weight. While there was a period of time where the brain appeared to heal itself, that protective response failed over time, leading to damage and loss of critical weight-regulating neurons.
For Those at Risk
Coffee has had a bad reputation for being harmful to health, but recent studies have found positive benefits to consumption of a cup. Unfortunately, not the researchers at the University Medical Center in Utrecht, The Netherlands. They found coffee to be one of eight triggers that could temporarily raise one’s risk of rupturing an intracranial aneurysm (IA) – a weakness in the wall of a brain blood vessel that causes it to balloon and possibly rupture. An estimated 2 percent of the general population has an IA, but few rupture. Coffee consumption increase the risk by 10.6 percent, find the researchers. Other triggers include cola consumption, vigorous physical exercise, nose blowing, being angry or startled, and having sex. The risk is also slightly higher after consuming alcohol.
First Surgery with These Results
A group of 29 patients with an average age of 41 who were progressively losing brain tissue due to cerebrovascular disease underwent a brain bypass surgery. The hope was for prevent further tissue loss by restoring the blood flow. To the researchers’ surprise brain tissue loss was reversed based on magnetic resonance imaging scans that showed brain tissue was 5.1 percent thicker 11 months after the surgery. No other surgical procedure has ever restored loss brain tissue and re-growth is not something that occurs on a regular basis. Chronic cerebrovascular disease is a major health issue right now because it impairs neurocognitive function-i.e., perception, memory, awareness, etc.-and can cause dementia to progress at a faster rate and decreases the quality of life.
Connect the Neurons
Scientists in London are working on a computer model of the brain by developing a technique where they can decipher both the neurons’ functions and their connection to other neurons via synapses. Using the visual cortex of the mouse brain, researchers first determined which neurons responded to certain stimuli. Then they applied small currents to groups of neurons to observe the responses of other neurons and figure out if they were connected by synapses. Once they figure out their function and connection to other neurons, they drew a wiring diagram of the visual cortex. They plan to do this with parts of the brain linked to other senses and hope to eventually map the whole brain so science can better understand diseases of the brain.
The Secret Brains of Bees
Researchers showed that older bees can improve their memory and ability to learn, helping researchers understand diseases like dementia. A laboratory learning test that linked a scent to a reward showed that older bees took more time to make the connection but bees with dementia-like symptoms never did. Then the older bees were made to tend to the larvae instead of their normal job of gathering food. As a result, 50 percent of the older bees improved on the learning test. Researchers analyzed the brains of the bees that improved on their test and found that two of the eight proteins linked to growth, repair and maintenance of neurons doubled compared to the other bees. It showed the bee brain, which works like the human brain, was flexible which may be true of other animals and humans.
Stimulates Brain Activity
Seeing someone else light up seems to provoke a physical response in smokers, but it is unknown if this might be a reason why some relapse when trying to quit. A new study from Dartmouth College finds that watching an actor smoke in a movie activates areas of a smoker’s brain that are known to interpret and plan hand movements. The researchers say that these movements mimic the motions of lighting a cigarette. The study involved 17 smokers and 17 nonsmokers who watched a portion of a movie with smoking scenes while undergoing a functional MRI. When watching an actor light up, smokers exhibited more activity in a certain brain area involved in perception and coordination. This activity corresponded to the hand they typically used to smoke.
Talk to the Hand
We often say our bodies sometimes don’t do what our brains ask them to, but a New Jersey woman has lost control of her own left hand as a result of a surgery she had to control her epilepsy. The condition is called Alien Hand Syndrome, and it results when abnormal signals from the brain cause a part of the body to act as if it were under the control of an alien intelligence. Karen Byrne, a 55-year-old woman from New Jersey, had her corpus callosum severed in an effort to control symptoms of epilepsy. This portion of the brain keeps the left and the right hemispheres in communication. Now, each half is capable of its own independent will. Byrne’s left hand often participates in actions without her knowledge. She is now on a medication that better controls the condition.
Especially in Kids
New research from Oklahoma State University suggests that consuming energy drinks early in life may make some more prone to anxiety, depression and addictive behaviors later on. Dr. Conrad Woolsey calls the drinks a “pharmacological Molotov cocktail.” Because the human brain does not fully develop until age 25, it is more susceptible to being affected by the ingredients in the pumped-up soft drinks. Energy drinks often contain additives such as taurine and inositol which are used in some anti-anxiety and antidepressant medication. When taken alongside a stimulator, like caffeine or guarana, they can affect the action of neurotransmitters in the brain. Overstimulation of stress neurotransmitters early in life can cause them to be overactive later, leading to anxiety and depression.
Iron and Folic Acid
Ensuring an adequate supply of certain vitamins and minerals during pregnancy not only protects baby from the risk of physical conditions such as spina bifida, but they may also enhance mental skills that can help children become smarter, more organized and have better fine motor skills, positively affecting educational future. Researchers from the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health focused on two important nutrients when studying children born to mothers in rural Nepal. Iron is essential for the development of the central nervous system, they write, and iron deficiency is the most common and widespread nutritional disorder in the world. Folic acid impacts neurocognitive function. Both have a significant impact on intelligence, executive function and motor skills.
Next to Study: LIfespan
Spirulina, a blue-green algae used as an ancient food source by the Aztecs, may have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects that could delay the onset of motor symptoms and disease progression in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig’s disease. University of South Florida researchers tested compounds from spirulina in pre-symptomatic mice that were bred to have ALS and found that the supplements over a 10-week period reduced inflammatory markers and motor neuron death. “Evidence for oxidative stress has been associated with ALS,” said study lead author Svitlana Garbuzova-Davis PhD DSc. “The future of our future ALS experiments will include…an examination of lifespan following dietary spirulina supplementation.”
B for Brain
A study demonstrated that very large doses of vitamin B can slow the rate of brain shrinkage in the elderly with memory issues, which could delay progression to dementia. A two-year study involving 168 people with “mild cognitive impairment,” a risk factor for dementia, involved giving them either four times the recommended daily intake (RDI) of folic acid, 300 times the RDI of B12, 15 times more B6 or a placebo. Brain scans were taken at the beginning of the study, with the rate in brain shrinkage as the endpoint. The individuals on the vitamins had a shrinkage rate of 0.76 percent a year compared to 1.08 percent in the placebo group. Vitamin B controls the amount of homocysteine in the blood, an amino acid associated with a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Toxic Protein in Spinal Cord
Scientists believe that head injuries athletes experience may be tied to ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The same toxic proteins found in the spinal cords of athletes who suffered head injuries and developed ALS were present in the brains of athletes who suffered chronic traumatic encephalopathy. It was also observed that a very high number of football players have developed ALS. Athletes that did not die of ALS and people who were not athletes but died of ALS did not have the toxic proteins in the spines. ALS attacks neurons in the brain and spinal cord leaving patients unable to move or speak. Results were reported on HBO’s “Real Sports” and will be published in the Journal of Neuropathology and Experimental Neurology.
Stay in School
Previous research has suggested for each additional year of education, people have an 11 percent lowered risk of developing dementia, but the reason for the association has been unclear. Some theories conclude that the higher socioeconomic status and healthier lifestyles of educated persons is the most likely answer. A team of researchers disagree. Examining the brains of 872 people, the scientists found that more education makes people better able to cope with changes in the brain associated with dementia. The study shows that despite having similar brain pathology, those with more education are better able to compensate for the effects of dementia over those with less. Co-author Dr. Hannah Keage of the University of Cambridge says education in early life is particularly important.
When Dark Chocolate Is Good
Researchers at Johns Hopkins have discovered that the compound epicatechin, found naturally in dark chocolate, may help protect the brain after a stroke. Epicatechin increases cellular signals that is known to shield nerve cells from damage. They found that the lab animals that had ingested the epicatechin before or after a stroke had suffered significantly less brain damage than the ones that had not been given the compound. Before you go and pig out on a bunch of dark chocolate, Sylvain Doré, Ph.D., from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, states that “Only few chocolates have the active ingredient. The fact that it says ‘dark chocolate’ is not sufficient.” The research also didn't conclude how much dark chocolate one needs to consume for it to be effective.
Sees Breast Cancer Metastases
Whole body MRI is better at detecting breast cancer metastases than other forms of imaging, finds a new study. Breast cancer cells can spread to the bones, liver, brain or lungs and tumors may be found months or years later. According to the study, whole body MRI, which is non-invasive and emits no radiation, detects metastases sooner than other forms of imaging. "Of the 99 patients [involved in the study], MRI accurately revealed that 47 were positive for metastases while 52 were negative. Of those patients who were positive for metastases, whole body MRI frequently detected bone metastases earlier when the patient was still asymptomatic," said lead author Joshita Singh. Other imaging modalities include PET/CT scans, x-rays and ultrasound for the detection of breast cancer metastases.
Is Dementia Contagious?
Researchers have learned that spouses of dementia patients have an increased risk of developing dementia themselves. While the cause is unknown, it has been suggested that the stress, exhaustion, and poor dietary habits that go along with caring for a loved one could be contributing factors. Studies have shown that new mothers struggling with irregular feeding schedules can exhibit mild memory loss, but the symptoms are usually temporary because babies adjust to schedules, allowing sleep patterns and exhaustion to reverse themselves. Caring for a spouse with dementia doesn’t allow stress factors to lower, which could result in chronic distress. Chronic distress can affect parts of the brain, specifically the hippocampus, which is known to suffer from shrinkage in patients with dementia.
Blink If You're Daydreaming
A new study suggests that you tend to blink more often when you're daydreaming or when your mind is wandering off. Daniel Smilek, cognitive neuroscientist of the University of Waterloo, researched on what happens when the mind wanders. 15 volunteers participated in this experiment. They were asked to read a passage from a book on a computer whilst a sensor tracked their eye movements, including blinks. At random intervals, they were to indicate if they were paying attention or not. The findings suggest we blink more when we're not paying attention to limit the brain from receiving external information. When we daydream, the part of the brain that processes external surroundings become less active and wishes to receive less information.
Potential for Lobster Shells
Researchers from the Center for Paralysis Research at the Purdue School of Veterinary Medicine discovered a natural, non-toxic compound in shellfish that is capable of targeting and repairing damaged spinal cord cell membranes. In laboratory experiments, chitin, which converts to chitosan, was added to a compressed section of the spinal cord of a guinea pig and appeared to effectively repair the damaged cells and their mitochondria. The chitosan repair also allowed for nerve signals to once again travel through the spinal cord to the brain, evidenced by measuring the effect on the hind leg of the paralyzed guinea pig. The research, published in the Journal of Experimental Biology, holds promise as a future treatment for human spinal cord injuries.
Results in Mental Disorders
Stifling your kids? You may be damaging their brains, according to a new Japanese study which found a link between overprotective parents and defects in a part of their childrens’ brains. Kosuke Narita, who led the study, scanned the brains of 50 young people who also filled out a survey about their parental relationships while growing up. Those whose parents were controlling or overprotective, or who had neglectful fathers, showed less gray matter in the prefrontal cortex, which is connected with schizophrenia and other mental illnesses. Scientists attribute this abnormality to the release of an excessive amount of the stress hormone cortisol. The controversial study is being challenged by some researchers for not taking other factors, such as socioeconomic status, into account.