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New Brain Sensor Could Transform our Understanding of Many Neurological Diseases

Researchers at the University of Virginia School of Medicine have designed a tool to track communications within the brain like never before.

J. Julius Zhu, PhD, has developed a new brain sensor that could transform our understanding of many neurological diseases. Image Credit: University of Virginia Health System.

The new tool has already provided clarification for why Alzheimer’s drugs exhibit limited effectiveness and why patients get even worse after discontinuing the drugs.

The team anticipates that the new technique will have an enormous effect on people’s understanding of autism, sleep disorders, depression, neurological diseases and serious psychiatric conditions. According to the researchers, this approach will accelerate scientific research into the workings of the brain and thus enable the advent of new treatments.

We can now ‘see’ how brain cells communicate in sharp detail in both the healthy and diseased brains.

J. Julius Zhu, PhD, Study Lead Researcher, Department of Pharmacology, University of Virginia School of Medicine

Understanding Alzheimer’s

The latest technique developed by Zhu together with his colleagues allows researchers to analyze transmissions within the brain at both the microscopic level and the much smaller nanoscopic level.

It integrates a biological 'sensor' with two distinct forms of cutting-edge imaging.

The method can measure 'neuromodulatory' transmissions, linked with major brain disorders, such as schizophrenia, depressive disorders, Alzheimer’s and addiction.

They are associated with sleep disorders, eating disorders, epilepsy, and autism.

Neuromodulatory transmissions are the 'slower' transmissions that occur in the brain. Normally, lots of neurons in huge regions are considered to be involved in these transmissions. This is contrary to the much quicker transmissions that take place between neurons.

However, Zhu’s new tool has already demonstrated that it is not so easy.

In Alzheimer’s disease, Zhu and his collaborators found a stunning degree of 'fine control and precision' in the purported shotgun neuromodulatory transmissions. Extensively used Alzheimer’s drugs called acetylcholinesterase inhibitors might suppress this exact communication.

That might be the cause for the limited effectiveness of the drugs, the researchers noted.

The team then determined possible variations in the brain that could be due to the long-term use of the drugs, which could denote why patients often get much worse when they discontinue the drugs.

The new method points out Alzheimer’s defects in the unprecedented spatial and temporal resolution, defining the precise targets for medicine.

J. Julius Zhu, PhD, Study Lead Researcher, Department of Pharmacology, University of Virginia Health System

According to the team, Alzheimer’s is just the tip of the iceberg. The new system has 'broad applicability' over the spectrum of psychiatric and neurological diseases and disorders, as they report in two new scientific papers.

The researchers forecast that in the coming years, it will help doctors comprehend neurological illnesses and psychiatric issues, screen drugs for possible treatments, determine disease-causing genes and develop improved, more personalized medicine customized for particular requirements of the patient.

If we see problems, we will be ready to treat them.

J. Julius Zhu, PhD, Study Lead Researcher, Department of Pharmacology, University of Virginia

Journal Reference:

Lin, L., et al. (2021) Genetically encoded sensors enable micro- and nano-scopic decoding of transmission in healthy and diseased brains. Molecular Psychiatry.

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