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New insight into brain function can support dementia monitoring

Non-invasive technique gives new insight into how brain function alters

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A pioneering new approach to non-invasive recording of brain function has given new insight into how brain activity is altered through neurodegenerative disease. 

Researchers investigating brain performance in older people say the coordination between neuronal activity and the brain’s oxygenation is altered.

And the approach from the study – by scientists at Lancaster University and the the University Medical Centre in Ljubljana, Slovenia – can also enable the monitoring of neurodegenerative disease progression. 

With the rise of dementia in the global population, and the ongoing search for new treatments and drugs, the ability to enable this kind of insight into brain function is hailed as being particularly important. 

Professor Aneta Stefanovska, from Lancaster University, said: “The approach could thus be used for non-invasive evaluation of the decline of neurovascular function in normal ageing, as well as for monitoring the efficacy of treatment or lifestyle changes in a wide range of neurodegenerative disorders.

“The results promise a relatively simple and non-invasive method for assessing the state of the brain in healthy ageing, and in neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.”

The brain requires as much as 20 per cent of the body’s energy consumption, so the brain and the cardiovascular system have to work closely together to ensure sufficient energy supply to each part of the brain. This is done by many ‘neurovascular units’ tasked with feeding the neurons.

Non-invasive recording of the function of these neurovascular units in living humans has never been done before, but has now been achieved by using several measurement techniques coupled with novel analysis methods developed at Lancaster University.

The living brain’s blood oxygenation was measured using infrared light, which easily penetrates the skull. 

The neuronal activity in the brain is associated with electrical activity, which was simultaneously measured on the surface of the scalp.

The body is humming with rhythms, with the best-known rhythm being the heartbeat. Other rhythms include respiration, brain waves, and processes controlling blood pressure and blood flow by changing the diameter of blood vessels.

Simultaneously measuring oxygenation, brain electrical activity, respiration and electric activity of the heart let the researchers capture these rhythms and their imperfect timings. 

They then studied the strength of these rhythms and their coordination, by computing their ‘phase coherence’.

The results illustrate that the magnitudes of the oscillations in brain vasculature and the brain waves are altered in the older group. 

But more dramatic are changes in the coherence between them, indicating that the coordination between the energy supply and demand in the brain is adversely affected by age.

The world population is ageing and the incidence of dementia is increasing, with the ability to follow up treatment and monitor disease progression set to grow more and more important in the years to come.

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