Cerebrum Fall 2020

ADVANCES Notable brain science findings


The effects of high blood pressure and diabetes can already be seen among middle-aged people, who appear otherwise healthy, as reduced scores on tests of COGNITIVE FUNCTION and in altered

bereavement therapy, CBT, and others, they showed significant improvement in measures of immune system function. Beneficial immune system functions showed an increase for at least six months after the intervention, while harmful immune system functions showed a decrease. l The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved another use of the anesthetic and party drug KETAMINE : as a nasal spray for suicidal patients with major depression. The drug, Spravato , which contains esketamine, a chemical cousin of ketamine, was approved last year for people with Research supported in part by donations from the Ice Bucket Challenge , the social media sensation that raised more than $200 million worldwide, has led to an experimental medication that may slow the progression of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS , according to a study at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Sean M. Healey & AMG Center for ALS. The drug is not a cure, but it may help slow the inexorable disability caused by ALS, which rapidly destroys the nerve cells that control the muscles that allow us to move, speak, eat, and even breathe. l The drug’s advantage over other depression treatments is its speed: People report relief from some symptoms within 24 hours, compared with weeks for other drugs. l Another reminder for researchers to take care to describe their analysis: REPRODUCIBILITY . A study led by researcher Russel Poldrack asked 70 teams of scientists to analyze the same set of fMRI data. Using different software, steps, and setting different thresholds for results, the groups came to different conclusions more than half the time. “There was something about going from the intermediate steps of analysis workflow, to determining the right threshold, to denoting a final yes/no answer that changed things,” Poldrack told a reporter. “It was really striking.” He suggests researchers describe their methods precisely and consider running multiple analyses before they submit results for publication. l major depression who had not responded to other treatments. Now, the FDA has extended its approved use to people who are having suicidal thoughts or have recently attempted self-harm.

brain structure, according to a review of health data from 22,000 people in the UK Biobank project. Researchers found the effect was strongest in people ages 44-69 and increased in proportion to how far above 140mm a person’s systolic blood pressure (BP) was. Earlier studies have shown that mid- life troubles with blood pressure and diabetes increase the risk of dementia in older age; this study suggests that people with “mildly” high BP try to keep their number below 140. l

PARKINSON’S DISEASE (PD) may originate in two separate ways: A “brain-first” (top-down) type that starts in the brain and spreads into motor and other systems, or a “body-first” (bottom-up) type

that starts in the autonomic nervous system in the gut and spreads to the brain. Using PET brain imaging and CT colon imaging from 37 volunteer patients with Parkinson’s and 22 volunteers who had one symptom (Isolated REM sleep behavior disorder) but not PD, the researchers could trace the two pathways. The sleep symptom is an early signal for the body-first subtype, they reported in the journal Brain . l

Studying living brains is tough: They are dense and well-protected by skull and other materials. To investigate at the molecular level, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) uses contrast agents,

which often contain metals that are foreign to the body. Now, researchers have described a method that uses something already in our bodies: AIR . Our cells contain gas vesicles, tiny genetically encodable protein structures filled with air, which read on scans differently than water and can be tracked as they move through the brain. Best of all, turning them from “on” to “off” can be safely done via ultrasound; a calibrated soundwave will burst the vesicle, and the air drains out, changing the image and showing that the effect a researcher is studying is real, not just a mistake in the scan. l

Psychosocial interventions—especially COGNITIVE BEHAVIORAL THERAPY (CBT)—may also result in improvements in how the human immune system works. A meta-analysis of 56 randomized

controlled studies found that after people underwent one of eight interventions, including psychotherapy, psychoeducation,


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