Research into neurological disease is often a slow burner, filled with false hope and practical struggles due to the inaccessibility of the brain. But, with a recent increase in awareness of mental health, we’ve seen a surge in exploration into some of the most common psychological disorders, yielding some fascinating findings.
Schizophrenia is a disease of the developing brain whereby a number of factors prevent the proper growth of myelin. Myelin is the outer wrapping of neurones (brain cells) which allows the messages within them to be transmitted with increased speed and accuracy. With impaired myelin, signals between brain cells are disrupted and the thoughts of the individual are subsequently confused. Myelin is formed of cells called oligodendrocytes, and in August 2017, researchers identified a genetic defect in the oligodendrocytes of their schizophrenic subjects which resulted in reduced myelin formation. This insightful discovery brings scientists closer to unravelling the mysteries of the schizophrenic mind.
An out-of-the-box suggestion for the cause – and potential treatment – of depression was divulged in January 2017, which focused on the bacteria inhabiting the gut. Collectively termed the microbiome, gut bacteria have the power to greatly influence various metabolic pathways, such as the kynurenine pathway, an imbalance of which can lead to depression. But one tiny bacteria could hold the key. The study, published in Nature, found that patients with a family history of depression show low levels of Lactobacillus, the bacteria responsible for regulating kynurenine levels. What is more exciting is treatment to increase their number of Lactobacillus somewhat alleviated their depressive symptoms. This creative research could mark the start of a revolutionary new treatment for depression.
The latest figures indicate that 1.1 per cent of the UK population have a diagnosis of autism, ranging in severity from minor behavioural symptoms to a total inability to communicate. This high prevalence has prompted earlier and earlier diagnosis, which has in turn fuelled research developments. In March 2017 scientists investigating two-year-olds newly diagnosed with autism found that these toddlers had more cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) than non-autistic children of the same age. Additionally, the greater the increase in CSF, the greater the severity of autism symptoms. CSF is a liquid that flows throughout the brain and spinal cord, delivering nutrients to brain cells and removing their waste products. A disruption to this fluid network means it cannot function as efficiently, resulting in an overall reduction in brain health. The study concluded that this information could result in a diagnosis of autism as early as six months using CSF imaging techniques; and the earlier it is diagnosed, the sooner treatment can be implemented to tackle the symptoms.
Parkinson’s Disease is characterised by the death of neurones (brain cells) in the part of the brain that controls movement, the substantia nigra. The concept of treating Parkinson’s Disease using healthy brain cells to replace those that have died in Parkinsonian brains is not new. Regrettably, many transplanted neurones do not survive long in their new home, which has prevented this treatment from taking off. However, in November 2017, a study published in Nature showed the use of a clever new substance to house the transplanted neurones; collagen. Collagen is the structural protein that naturally surrounds the cells of the body, so it should come as little surprise that this medium yielded a five-fold increase in the survival of transplanted neurones – a promising result for the future of treatment for Parkinson’s Disease.
Officially classified as a learning difficulty despite having no effect on intelligence, dyslexia has always had a somewhat curious link with vision. Previous research attempted to pinpoint the exact connection between the visual system and the symptoms of impaired reading and writing observed in dyslexia. But it was not until October 2017 that the connection was finally established. French scientists discovered a crucial difference between the fovea, the part of the eye containing the most receptors and therefore the clearest vision of people, with and without dyslexia. The fovea in the eyes of non-dyslexic individuals are slightly misaligned with one another, allowing the brain to choose only the most appropriate fovea to compute information from when focussing on a small area. In contrast, the fovea of dyslexic patients are symmetrical, leaving both fovea vying for the brain’s attention and confusing it, tangling words and sentences and presenting as dyslexia. As with the other neurological conditions, the more that is known about the underlying mechanisms, the more that can be done to combat them.
As yet there is no viable cure for any of the above neurological conditions, patients are instead forced to settle for therapies to manage their symptoms. With experimental research obtaining fresh information about their fundamental processes or novel treatment avenues to explore, the quality of life for patients with these diseases will continue to improve.