The nerve cells in the brains are believed to communicate through a synapse network. When the connections are broken, the brain starts to malfunction and the symptoms are the same as in the Alzheimer disease and epilepsy.
The new technique was discovered by Yale scientists and may prove to be a more efficient way to monitor the synapse function.
“This work represents a breakthrough in the ability to study an important process in the brain that is not only part of normal brain development, but that also may be involved in several neuropsychiatric diseases,” said Dr. Peter Herscovitch, who directs PET scanning at the National Institutes of Health’s Clinical Center.
A human brain can contain trillion of synapses and their number changes over time. The synaptic configuration is believed to form early in life when the brain makes sure that its populated with the correct number of connection in the proper areas in order to help the person function properly.
However, in diseases such as schizophrenia and autism, the synapses do not work the same as in the brain of a healthy person. The density is different, and while early modifications can be related to epilepsy, the synapse loss that occurs later in life can be associated with Alzheimer.
Until now, a direct measurement of synapses was only possible during brain surgery, and it was thus avoided. The most information obtained was through autopsies, which even through benefited the science they were not useful at all in the case of the person that was suffering from the disease.
The team of researchers from the Yale University developed a radioactive substance that can bind with synapse protein and display brain cell connections. The PET scan of the brain revealed the synapses that lit up, while the other regions that were not activated showed no synapses.
The scientists tested the method on animals and obtained a confirmation of the fact that tracer manages to mix correctly with synapses and displays them to the monitor.
The radioactive substance was also tested on ten healthy volunteers and three epilepsy patients. When the brain scans were compared, the ones of the epileptics showed the loss of synapses in certain regions of the brain, as opposed to the synapse display in the healthy participants.
In order to make the tracer useful to doctors, the scientists need to perfect it and to analyze its capacities further. At this moment, the tracer disappears quickly from the brain, but it still can be used in brain research.
The team of scientists will be working on a more complex project that will involve monitoring the density of synapses in Alzheimer patients, hoping they will find a connection to the development of the disease.
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