Researchers at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) have identified changes in brainwave activity that may lead to the development of new treatments for motor neurone disease (MND).
The team from the college's Academic Unit of Neurology have identified characteristic changes in the patterns of electrical brainwave activity in MND. These findings show how the disease affects the neural communication in different brain networks.
MND is the name given to a group of diseases in which there is progressive degeneration of the motor neurones in the brain and spinal cord. Motor neurones are the nerve cells that control muscles, and their degeneration leads to weakness and wasting of the body's muscles.
This causes an increasing loss of mobility in the limbs and difficulties with speech, swallowing and breathing. Death usually occurs within an average of two to three years.
There are over 350 people living with MND in Ireland and one person is newly diagnosed here every three days.
Using electroencephalography (EEG), the researchers have been able to capture second-to-second changes in electrical signalling, and have identified specific groups (networks) of nerves that behave abnormally in MND.
This marks the first time researchers have used EEG in this way in MND. Their results show that this inexpensive technology can give important information about abnormal brain activity that rivals an MRI scan, but at a fraction of the cost.
Using this method, the researchers have been able to identify and study in detail at least six different brain networks associated with MND.
"The human brain works by electrical signalling between billions of neurones in different networks. This electrical signalling between neurones allows us to perform everyday tasks such as movement, sensing and thinking. In MND, we have, for the first time, found specific and reproducible changes in electrical brain signalling using EEG recordings.
"The new findings have identified previously unrecognised abnormalities in the brain networking. This advances our understanding of the specific brain networks that become dysfunctional as the disease progresses," explained the study's lead author, Stefan Dukic, a PhD student in TCD and the University Medical Centre Utrecht in the Netherlands.
According to the study's lead author, Dr Bahman Nasseroleslami, the findings show that "we can now use EEG, which is inexpensive compared to MRI, to probe brain networks instantaneously and identify important changes that reflect the impact of the disease on patients".
Meanwhile, according to MND expert and head of the Academic Unit of Neurology, Prof Orla Hardiman, these findings are "a major leap from the current state-of-the-art approach to studying the disease".
"The work of Dukic and Nasseroleslami has shown how we can now begin to carefully quantify changes in specific parts of brain networks. This will have major implications on how we classify the sub-types of the disease. It can also help to tell us what patient groups may respond to new therapies.
"There is an urgent need for new treatments that can slow disease progression, and the development of new biomarkers that can help to identify patient subgroups is a very important unmet need," Prof Hardiman added.
Details of these findings have been published in the journal, Human Brain Mapping.
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