BioQuakes

AP Biology class blog for discussing current research in Biology

Tag: MRI

New Research Shows Possible Early Diagnosis of Autism

Normally autism in children is diagnosed at around ages two or three but studies have been done to try to predict autism before behavioral symptoms occur.  University of North Carolina partnered with other universities to experiment with MRI machines to see if they could diagnose autism earlier than 24 months (2 years)

Autism is a big problem in our country and the rest of the world.  About 3 million people have autism in the United States and millions more throughout the world.  The study focused on hyper-expansion of brain surface area in children of 6-12 months of age. According to this article “Brain overgrowth was tied to the emergence of autistic social deficits in the second year.” They found that 8 out of 10 kids with a hyper-expanded brain as well as an autistic sibling would be diagnosed with autism in the future.

The fact that MRI’s can show enlarged surface area of the brain at such a young age is important in predicting whether or not a child will be later diagnosed with autism.  This is an important experiment because if doctors can predict autism before symptoms occur there may be ways for them to intervene with brain growth before a child’s brain permanently has autism and behavioral changes occur at 24 months.

 

 

MRIs Catch Autism Prior to Symptoms

Mark Lythgoe & Chloe Hutton / Wellcome Images Image Link

Research

By using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), researchers are now able to accurately study and predict which infants, among those with older autistic siblings, will be diagnosed by the age of 2. According to an article on Science daily, in the past couple of years, researchers have correctly predicted 80 percent of these infants who would later meet criteria for autism at 24 months of age.

A study published in Nature, shows how early brain biomarkers can be very beneficial in identifying infants at the highest risk for autism prior to any symptoms. Joseph Piven, professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, explains how typically autism cannot be detected in infants until they ages 2-4, but for infants with autistic siblings, it can be determined at an earlier age.

People diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), experience social deficits and  demonstrate very specific stereotypical behaviors. According to this study, it is estimated that one out of 68 children develop autism in the United States and that  for infants with older siblings with autism, the risk may be as high as 20 out of every 100 births. Despite these high numbers, it remains a difficult task to detect behavioral symptoms prior to 24 months of age.

Piven, along with a couple of other researchers, conducted MRI scans of infants at six, 12, and 24 months of age. They discovered that increased growth rate of surface area in the first year of life was linked to increased growth rate of overall brain volume in the second year of life. This meant that brain overgrowth was tied to the emergence of autistic social deficits in the second year. The researchers then took the information they had and used a computer program that classified babies most likely to meet criteria for autism at 24 months of age, and developed an algorithm that they applied to a separate set of study participants.

The researchers found that there were brain differences at 6 and 12 months of age in infants with older siblings with autism and infants with older ASD siblings who did not meet criteria for autism at 24 months.

Plans for the Future

This research and test would be very beneficial to a family who already has a child with autism and has a second child who may or may not be affected. The ideal goal would be to intervene and provide as much assistance to the infant and family prior to the emergence of symptoms. By intervening at early stages and when the brain is most susceptible, researchers hope to improve the outcomes of treatment.

In the nature study, Piven describes how Parkinson’s and Autism are similar in that when the person is diagnosed, they’ve already lost a substantial portion of the dopamine receptors in their brain, making treatment less effective.

One mother who has benefitted from this discovery and is extremely grateful is Rachel O’Connor. When interviewed by News12, she shared how early intervention “has brought out some language in [her] daughter,” and how her daughter “can now say what she wants and she desires. She makes better eye contact.”

 

OUCH! : Why some people may be more sensitive to pain than others.

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Have you ever noticed that some people are more “sensitive” to pain than others? Many may wonder if a person’s sensitivity pain could be simply psychological or if there is a true genetic disposition to be more prone to pain. New research suggests that it IS a biological disposition that causes people to feel more pain than others!

In the study, researchers asked 116 perfectly healthy people to rate the pain they felt when a small area of their skin was heated to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. After a few days of testing the subjects were placed in MRI machines. The findings of the MRIs, to the surprise of the researchers did indeed show a link between a persons sensitivity to pain and the thickness of a persons brain cortex, an area previously linked to attention control and introspection.  What researchers discovered was that the thinner the cortex of these areas, the more sensitive people were to painful stimuli.

According to Nichole Emerson, a graduate student at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, “Subjects with higher pain intensity ratings had less gray matter in brain regions that contribute to internal thoughts and control of attention”.

These findings can not only explain the cause of pain, but also may lead to breakthrough in how doctors in the near and distant future treat patients suffering from chronic pain.

The areas identified in the new study have been previously associated with resting or daydreaming; often referred to as “default mode”. This may explain why people with less gray matter area are more sensitive to pain. Default mode activity may compete with the brain activity that generates an experience of pain. In simpler terms, People who spend more time daydreaming may be less sensitive to pain.

In addition to the grey matter of the brain, researchers also associated pain with the posterior parietal cortex (PPC). The PPC also plays an important role in how people maintain attention. People who can best keep their attention focused may also be best at keeping pain under control.

 

 

 

 

Why do you enjoy music?

Have you ever wondered why that new song you enjoyed hearing that new song on the radio? This recent study shows that there are four regions of our brain responsible for pleasure while listening to music. The main region is called the nucleus accumbensand is located in the “reward center” of the brain. This region is responsible for making predictions and when the prediction your brain makes is correct it releases feel-good chemicals. Along with guessing correctly pleasant surprises also cause this region to release those same chemicals. The other three regions look for patterns, compare the sounds to other sounds you have heard before, and link emotional ties within the song. This study took the brain activity of 19 people who were listening to music in an MRI machine. They were then asked whether they would like to buy the song they were listening to and there was a direct correlation between how much a person was willing to spend on a song and how much the nucleus accumbens was stimulated. This can lead to further investigation on how the brain deciphers complex sounds such as speech.

Photo taken by Ferrari + caballos + fuerza = cerebro Humano 
Link URL: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gallery-art/3497849677/

Forget about it!

What is the earliest memory that you can remember? Is it a good memory or a bad one? Hopefully it’s a good one. Recent studies have shown, however, that the brain has two ways of coping with bad memories.

Photo by Reigh LeBlanc

Students are taught in school that in order to “remember” something, there are a series of chemical reactions throughout the brain that allows you to find the memory you are looking for. But if you have a bad memory, how do you stop the reaction and forget?

Dr. Roland Benoit is a “cognitive neuroscientist at the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in England.” He and his team studied how one can stop these bad memories. They found that the brain uses two mechanisms. First, the brain can simply “block out the memory.” The other mechanism is to “recall a substitute memory.”

Dr. Benoit studied the outcome of MRI scans when participants were told to associate different words. They were first told to associate the words “beach” and “Africa.” Next, they were told to associate the words “beach” and “snorkel” (forgetting about “Africa.” Dr. Benoit and his team found that the left prefrontal cortex of the brain works with the hippocampus (the “hippocampus is an area of the brain connecting to conscious remembering”). When the group was told to forget about Africa, and focus on snorkel, the prefrontal cortex inhibited the function of the hippocampus. Thus, the brain has a mechanism built in to allow humans to virtually block out memories.

This study shows that there are different techniques to block out memories, especially if they are bad memories. Every human is going to have a different mechanism when it comes to blocking out memories. If you would rather replace a memory with something else or completely block out a memory, the choice is yours.

Intellectual Growth Spurts? They might just be possible

Photo Taken By Reigh LeBlanc

For many years, educators and researchers have been using the IQ test as the most comprehensive way of measuring a person’s intelligence. They have also upheld that this one-time measurement will be accurate throughout a person’s life; in other words, one’s intellectual capacity does not change over time. However, as it turns out, this logic may not be as infallible as it once seemed.

Back in 2004, Cathy Price and a group of other scientists tested the IQ’s of a number of teens and then took structural images of their brains using an MRI scanner. Four years later, the same experiment was conducted on the same individuals, and on average, the IQ scores were the same. Differences in scores that occurred for some students were simply attributed to him/her having an “off-day.”

What scientists are now increasingly interested in, however,  is the brain data for this group of inconsistent students. The MRI scans for these teens are showing that, as opposed to simply having varying levels of concentration during the two tests, they actually underwent significant changes in the density of grey matter in their brains. Grey matter is a major component of the brain, consisting of neuron cell bodies, glial cells, and capillaries. In the cases of these students, an increase in IQ score (sometimes up to 21 points) was accompanied by an increased density of grey matter in certain key areas of the brain, such as the left motor cortex.

If these results are confirmed by further experimentation, they could have a significant effect on our educational system. Proving that teenagers do, in fact, have a “malleable intellect,” would mean that judging kids based on one-time examinations such as the SAT may not be such a good way to determine their potential.

But don’t get too excited kids. If students’ intelligence can change over time, it is more likely that they would be encouraged to take more standardized tests, since they might perform better after allowing their brains to grow a little. In addition, although the exact causes of these spikes in IQ are unknown, it has been proven that certain mental exercises can cause a growth in grey matter. If grey matter density does parallel intelligence, we will se an increase in the emphasis on these activities in the training of young adults.

For these reasons, in the coming years we will likely see an increase in studies on this subject. If certain exercises or activities are proven to boost an individual’s intelligence, as many scientists are hypothesizing, this could revolutionize the way we that we train our children, both in school and at home.

Which activities do you think will be found to increase a person’s intellectual capacity?

For more information on this particular study, visit http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/335343/title/Teen_brains_growing_pains

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