University of Winnipeg research could help with understanding brain diseases and disorders

WINNIPEG –

New research on the human brain out of the University of Winnipeg could end up changing how doctors can diagnose and treat central nervous system disorders.

Dr. Sheryl Herrera with the U of W, and Maxina Sheft with Georgia Tech co-authored a paper that examined the first axon diameter measurement in the human brain of only two one-thousandths of a millimetre.

Axons are part of nerve cells in the brain and they help transmit electric signals in the brain and before this paper their diameter could only be measured up to five one-thousandths of a millimetre.

Dr. Melanie Martin, who is a physicist at the U of W and was part of the team doing the research, said the smaller measurements could be found using oscillating gradient spin echo sequences.

“What we are looking at is the diffusion of water molecules within the brain. So diffusion is random motion,” said Martin. “The molecules will move around and bump into other molecules, and just looking at the movement of the molecules in tissue, we can see how big it is.”

She said they can view these axons through an MRI and they can determine how big the axon is based on far the water has diffused.

Finding the different sizes of the axons could help doctors understand more about central nervous system disorders, according to Martin.

“It turns out the size of the axons are thought to change in disorders and diseases.”

Martin used schizophrenia, for example, noting that previous research done on brains with schizophrenia during an autopsy found that the axons were smaller.

“Schizophrenia is usually diagnosed in (people’s) 20s. It’s difficult to diagnose, the person has to trust the doctor and explain the symptoms, so typically it takes about a year to get a diagnosis. But if this is true, that the axons are less dense and we can pick it up with MRI, the hope is MRI can diagnose this faster.”

She said the next step is to learn if these axons are the same size at birth and if they are, doctors might be able to find ways to treat the disorder or prevent it from happening altogether.

“When I go to talk about this research across the world, there’s usually neuroscientists in the audience and they always stick up their hand and they’re like, ‘Have you thought about this disease?’ I come from a physics background, not the neuroscience background. So it’s always fascinating to me to hear of another disease and read more about it and say, ‘Well hey, this actually might work.'”

She added this could help play a role in better understanding disorders like fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

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