MS: What We Know and What We Need to Learn

Multiple sclerosis is a neurological disease that can affect a person’s mobility and basic body functions. While we have learned more about this disease and treatments, there is much more to know, according to David Hafler, M.D., and Benjamin A. Lerner, a medical student and research fellow at Yale School of Medicine, authors of the latest Report on Progress.

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2015 Winners of “Design a Brain Experiment” Competition

For the past four years, the Dana Foundation has received countless submissions for its annual “Design a Brain Experiment” competition. In the fall, high school students all across the country are asked to come up with innovative theories that challenge our knowledge about the brain. The proposed experiments are judged on originality, innovation, and scientific accuracy (students are not asked to complete their experiments, so creativity is encouraged).  For this year’s Brain Awareness Week, we are happy to announce the two participants that have taken home the first and second place awards! Continue reading

Campaigning for brain awareness in Sri Lanka

With the help of European Dana Alliance member Ann Kato and her husband,
researcher Gabor Kato, Sri Lanka was a late addition to the roster of new
countries hosting Brain Awareness Week activities in 2009. The Katos, along
with Ranil De Silva of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, Nugegoda,
organized a four-hour program in basic neuroscience at the Sri Lanka Medical
Association in Colombo on Nov. 8 and a six-hour program on Nov. 10 at the Sri
Sumangala Girls’ College in Weligama. The events were such a success that De
Silva and the Katos are planning a second BAW event in Sri Lanka this year. (Brain Awareness Week 2010 is March
15–21.)

Gabor Kato at girls' college Gabor Kato at the Sri
Sumangala Girls’ College in Weligama

The Sri Lanka
Medical Association event included lectures on how the brain works, what
happens during brain disease and how to maintain health with food and exercise.
Students, teachers, parents, doctors and the general public listened with great
interest and asked many questions, especially about maintaining and improving
memory, Ann Kato said. Many people also wanted to discuss their sleep problems,
and it appeared that everyone had a family member or a friend with a brain
disorder such as multiple sclerosis, schizophrenia, Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s,
she added.

At the girls’
college, more than 400 high-school students, teachers, health-care workers and
members of the public spent nearly five hours learning about both the healthy
and diseased brains. De Silva translated the English lectures into Sinhalese,
as this audience did not have the same command of English as did the Colombo
group. In addition to lectures, the program included lighting of a traditional
oil lamp and two dance sessions by students, according to Ann Kato.

Girls' college processionProcession going to the auditorium at the Sri
Sumangala Girls’ College

There was room for
improvement. While the girls enjoyed the presentations, they asked for more
“cartoon-like” clips of how the brain functions. Two boys in the audience
wanted reassurance that the brain stays alive following death; perhaps they thought
the brain was immortal due to belief in reincarnation, Ann Kato said.

The Katos have
been supporting education efforts in Sri Lanka ever since they toured the
country after the devastation of the 2004 tsunami. They have repeatedly visited
the public girls’ college,
which serves 2,700 children from grades 3 to 12, to offer teaching assistance
and supplies. The school was severely damaged during the tsunami; thirteen students
died and more than half the children lost close members of their families.

While non-governmental
organizations helped rebuild most of the school’s buildings, it still lacks basic
items such as textbooks, pencils and notepads, as well as computers for the
technology lab. The Katos have collected and sent such supplies and offer university
scholarships for top students. At first, they paid out of pocket to fill urgent
needs; since then, they have received donations from friends and other
nonprofit groups and continue to look for sponsors for scholarships and other
relief.

Nicky Penttila

Photos courtesy Ann and Gabor Kato

Magnetic brain scans become more attractive

The first image many of us conjure up when someone mentions
brain scanners—whether for medical diagnosis or basic research—is the sterile
white isolation and intimidating din of a magnetic resonance imaging device.
But for many diseases, the key to better diagnosis may not be looking into
brains, as with MRIs, but looking near
them.

A new study appearing
in the Journal of Neural Engineering suggests
that magnetoencephalography (MEG) can identify the vast majority of people
suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In MEG, a helmet surrounding the head measures the tiny magnetic
fields generated by the brain’s electrical activity. This offers distinct
advantages and disadvantages over other scanning methods. For instance, MEG is
noninvasive, unlike positron emission tomography (PET), which requires patients
to ingest a mildly radioactive solution. MEG is also very fast—it works in
about 10 milliseconds—because it measures neural activity directly; MRIs
measure blood flow in the brain instead and take 20 times longer. On the other
hand, readings from MEG offer less spatial resolution than many other scanning
methods and provide less precise information about regions deep inside the
brain.

In the new research, Apostolos
Georgopoulos
, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Minnesota
and a member of the Dana Alliance for
Brain Initiatives
, and his colleagues found that MEG correctly identified at
least 67 of 74 veterans suffering from PTSD, from a group that also included
250 people with no reported neurological or mental health issues. The veterans were
a varied group, with participants both from the current Iraq and Afghanistan
campaigns as well as from World War II and Vietnam.

The researchers also reported that the strength of their
readings corresponded with the severity of symptoms in a PTSD sufferer. In other
words, a MEG test might not just identify who has PTSD but also how damaging
the disorder is and even what treatments might work best.

MEG has shown potential to diagnose other brain symptoms. In
2007, for instance, Georgopoulos and his team reported that MEG could
help detect
multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia,
Sjögren’s syndrome, chronic alcoholism and facial pain. And earlier this month,
we reported on a small
study that used MEG to identify children with autism
.

As we mentioned in that post, small tests such as the PTSD
study aren’t useful in the clinic until they have been confirmed in more
expansive tests with more diverse sets of people. Still, many neurological
disorders, including a large percentage of PTSD cases, are difficult and
time-consuming to diagnose. Objective detection methods such as brain scans could
dramatically shorten that process, as well as reduce uncertainty about the
accuracy of a diagnosis or the severity of a particular case.

For soldiers, who are at high risk for PTSD, this is
crucial; their final diagnosis can drastically alter what jobs they are
expected to do, where they are sent during their next deployment and what kind
of benefits they can receive. In the most extreme cases, a doctor’s finding might
mean the difference between re-entering a dangerous war zone and safely recovering
from trauma on U.S. soil. For those kinds of cases, a fast, efficient way to
assess PTSD can’t come fast enough.

—Aalok Mehta

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