For autism, Parkinson’s, hope for faster diagnosis

For many brain diseases, diagnosis is no exact science.
Because of the complexity of the brain and of the symptoms that it can cause,
there are often no definitive tests, and neurologists lean on years of
experience, long and painstaking observations, and educated guesses to
determine what exactly is afflicting their patients. Not only is this
frustrating for everyone involved, but in some cases a delayed diagnosis can
make a disease much more difficult or even impossible to treat successfully.

Now, scientists have made progress on faster, more objective
methods to detect at least two serious neurological disorders in which early
and correct diagnosis is vital.

A small pilot study conducted by Timothy
and his colleagues at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia report
has found that a relatively unobtrusive brain-scanning technique may be useful
in detecting autism-spectrum
(ASD). These conditions, characterized by problems in
communication and social interaction, are often diagnosed after a child has
already begun school, when treatments to prevent reading and other learning
disabilities are less effective. They are also not that uncommon: A recent
study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that
almost 1 percent of children in the U.S. have an ASD

For the study,
reported online in the journal Autism
this month, the scientists measured brain responses from 25
children with ASDs and 17 without using magnetoencephalography, in which a helmet
surrounding the head is used to measure the brain’s magnetic field. On average,
the ASD group had a tiny delay—about 11 milliseconds—in brain responses to
sounds. According to the researchers, this may be explained by one
of their previous studies
, which found that people with ASDs have reduced
amounts of white matter, or myelination, a type of insulating material that
speeds up transmission of nerve signals.

In the second study, slated
to appear in the February issue of Lancet
researchers from the Feinstein Institute for Medical
Research, led by David
, used positron emission tomography (PET), which measures blood
flow and chemical changes in the brain, to successfully diagnose whether a person
had Parkinson’s disease, multiple system atrophy, or progressive supranuclear
palsy. These movement disorders often show nearly identical symptoms at the
start but require different types of treatments.

In 167 patients, a computer program analyzing PET results
matched the diagnosis made by experienced specialists more than 80 percent of
the time. The doctors, however, had spent an average of 2.6 years assessing the
patients before coming to their judgments.

It remains to be seen whether the results of their studies
will end up reaching the doctor’s office, as many promising brain-scan findings
have ultimately failed to be precise or accurate enough upon additional testing.
The ASD study, for instance, looked at an extremely small number of people and tested
children with an average age of 10; it’s unknown whether such a delay would
still be detectable in young children or infants, for whom early diagnosis
would offer the most advantages.

The computer program used in the PET work will likewise need
additional testing through large, double-blind studies, according to the study
authors. But if confirmed, the findings could extend beyond better diagnosis,
they say; the research may also spur drug development for movement disorders by
allowing doctors to identify candidates for clinical trials much earlier than
previously possible.

—Aalok Mehta

The man and the movie: Kandel film surprises, touches

I admit to being somewhat biased about attending a limited run showing of In Search of Memory, a documentary outlining the life of Eric Kandel, Nobel laureate and brain science
communicator extraordinaire (see our previous coverage). Because I’ve known Kandel professionally for many years and have read his memoir of the same name, I thought the film would be an interesting but “been there, done that” experience.

I was wrong.  The movie was so much more.

I was surprised by how moved I was by Kandel’s life story, creatively told by the German filmmaker Petra Seeger. You don’t have to be interested in neuroscience to be captivated; even though his scientific accomplishments speak for themselves, they are only part of the tale. So we not only relive Kandel’s experiences as he searches for the workings of memory in the brain, but also his personal memories and self-exploration. Actually, it’s hard to look away; with Kandel, what you see is what you get. His personality is so infectious and genuine that he really could charm anyone.

His incredible journey saw him fleeing his birthplace of Vienna at nine years of age to escape the Nazis, to resettling in Brooklyn, to undergraduate studies at Harvard and eventually to overseeing his own lab at Columbia University. Researchers there enlighten us about the messy process of science—the all-nighters, experiments most often leading to nowhere, and the passion that drives those occasional “eureka” moments.

And we see glimpses of his everyday life—at temple; as a surprisingly spry and unassuming tennis player (his playing partner recounts that he knew Kandel was a researcher but didn’t know any details until he opened the newspaper one day to learn that about Kandel’s Nobel prize); and at a Passover seder at his home. We learn about the man behind the science, about the importance of his Jewish faith, about his passion for European art. His eyes swell with unanticipated moments of reflection and his infectious laugh engages those on camera and in the audience as well. We even see him wearing something other than his trademark slightly crooked bow tie.

As a bonus for those at the sold-out New York City showing, Kandel and his wife of more than 50 years, Denise (you learn from their banter in the movie that she is clearly the boss), made an in-person appearance. The couple shared their experiences and responded to questions from the audience, leaving only when the next scheduled showing forced an end to the session. Gracious as always, Kandel continued to give autographs and take photos with audience members for some time; then, after a few hardy group laughs, the evening was over.

If In Search of Memory comes to a theater near you, take an hour and a half to see it—it’s worth it.

-Barbara Best

PBS miniseries explores emotions

The previews for “This Emotional Life,” which
premieres tonight on PBS, look promising. The three-part miniseries examines
not only psychology and social relationships but also how our brains generate
our wide range of emotions. Along the way, expect stories from both celebrities
and “real people,” as well as insights from a long roster of experts.

“I can feel what I felt, as clearly as I felt it then,” says
Bob, an
Iraq War veteran who is battling post-traumatic stress disorder. Among the famous
faces, John McEnroe appears in the preview—aptly, talking about anger. One of
Dana’s own experts even makes an
on the series’ Web site: Bruce McEwen, author of The End of
Stress as We Know It

Love, anger, fear, happiness. Our emotions, and how they
affect our relationships, can be difficult, challenging, beautiful. I’ll be
watching to learn more about why.

—Dan Gordon

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