Tag Archives: brain

Pontine Glioma

Childhood cancer is ordinarily treatable. Although it can be scary when one’s child develops cancer, children’s resilience means cancers in children respond very well to treatment. The only exception is brain tumors, which, because it requires such precision to treat anything in the brain, are the riskiest for children. That includes a cancer of the brainstem called a pontine glioma, one of the most dangerous tumors to treat.

The brainstem is the part of the brain that controls essential function. It’s difficult to label any part of the brain the most important—the entire thing is important—but it is the brainstem in which dysfunction has the most inevitably noticeable and broadest, and widest ranging effects. The pons, where pontine glioma develops, is responsible for breathing.

Children who develop pontine glioma will have trouble walking, standing, and speaking, because the tumor affects parts of the brain that communicate with the arms and legs, as well as the speech areas. It also affects the facial muscles, making eye movement and swallowing difficult and causing one side of the face to droop. Children with this type of tumor may also have trouble closing their eyes all the way, and may have double vision. Pontine gliomas often grow rapidly, causing damage as they do.

It is not known what causes these tumors to develop. There is a type of fungal infection of the scalp that is ordinarily treated with radiation, and children who have had this radiation treatment are more prone to developing glioma of the brainstem, but not all cases can be traced to that source. In a recent study, researchers found that the genetic code of the tumor contains gene mutations that had not previously been linked to any form of cancer, and they say this may prove to be a useful diagnostic tool in the future.

Sadly, children diagnosed with pontine glioma are not expected to survive more than nine months. Fortunately, however, new treatments are being developed that could well save lives. Now that mutations linked with pontine glioma have been discovered, scientists are tracing the effects of those mutations, determining how they relate to tumor development, and finding ways to prevent tumors from developing and destroy them when they do.

Migraine Predicts Parkinson’s

Researchers believe they have found a connection between a tendency to get migraines and risk of Parkinson’s disease. In particular, people who get migraine with aura—an alteration in vision that often presages a migraine—are twice as likely to develop Parkinson’s later in life as people without migraines. Migraine affects an estimated 30 million people and is the most common brain disorder in adults, so potentially millions of people are at risk for Parkinson’s disease, as well as for the cardiovascular illnesses with which migraine is also associated.

In addition, people in the study with a family history of Parkinson’s were more likely to get migraines, providing more evidence of a connection. The reason for the link, if it exists, is not entirely clear, but one possibility is that dopamine, a messenger chemical in the brain that has been implicated as a major cause of Parkinson’s, is also involved in migraines. Past research has indicated that dopamine receptors may be involved in migraines.

The dopamine issues that cause migraines, however, are imperfectly understood themselves. Their causes—called triggers—vary from person to person. Among the most common migraine triggers are onions, alcohol, secondhand smoke, and MSG. Some chemical compounds are also common triggers, such as the nitrates used in curing meat or tyramine, which naturally forms in aged foods such as wine or certain cheeses. Stress is another frequent cause of migraines. A recent study found that referring to a stressful situation as a "headache" isn’t just a metaphor; people with more stress in their lives are more prone to headaches of the literal sort. With migraines, it seems the let-down after is a bigger problem, and keeping stress levels even is important for prevention.

In fact, avoiding triggers in general is the most effective way of preventing migraines. There is a learning curve to this, since avoiding triggers requires first determining what they are. However, once a patient’s triggers have mostly been determined, avoiding them can significantly reduce migraine instances. In addition, medications and medical devices are available to prevent migraines or lessen their severity or duration. Two new electromagnetic stimulation devices, for example, seem to be useful for stopping migraines as soon as they start, if not sooner.

Spotting Dementia

Dementia is surprisingly visible. In particular, people who have it often recognize that they have it, at least in the early stages—elderly people who have a feeling that their faculties aren’t what they once were, and that this is getting worse, tend to be proven correct in their assessment when given professional screening for Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. The symptoms they are, on some level, noticing are generally poor memory for recent events or an apparent inability to pay attention, poor judgment, decline in organizational skills, disorientation, trouble dealing with abstract issues, and difficulty communicating.

The onset of dementia is a gradual process, but these symptoms, especially en masse, are not often difficult to recognize. What’s hard is being willing to recognize them. There is a fear that dementia means the end of living independently, the end of participating fully in one’s life, the end of enjoyable activities. The majority of dementia cases are due to age, meaning patients have generally been living in the adult world for some time, and the prospect of losing that may be difficult to bear. Current treatments are in fact focused on keeping the patient as independent as possible for as long as possible.

There is a ray of hope, however. A new diagnostic tool makes early detection easier and more accurate, and a biochemical compound has been shown to reverse signs of Alzheimer’s in laboratory animals. The diagnostic technique analyzes data from multiple sources to determine whether a patient has dementia, and what specific type they have. The analysis facilitates the determination of the proper course of treatment—mild cognitive impairment, which is not a form of dementia but can be a precursor to it, may need little more than close monitoring.

As for the possible cure, it is a compound called antisense oligonucleotide. In mouse studies it was shown to erase both physiological symptoms of Alzheimer’s and, as best as can be determined in mice, behavioral indicators. Another study looked at the effects of the compound on specifically human forms of the proteins and genes implicated in Alzheimer’s disease, and found that it was effective. It has yet to be tested on humans directly.

Ending Meningitis Worldwide

The membrane sheath that protects and cushions the brain and spinal cord is called the meninges; when it becomes inflamed, that is the condition known as meningitis. Generally, this inflammation is due to an infection, which is usually viral though sometimes bacterial or fungal. Meningitis can also be a reaction to medication. The four are different conditions in terms of mechanism and treatment, but the effects and symptoms are similar. In all, meningitis from all causes strikes about 25,000 people annually.

Meningitis symptoms include fever, nausea and headache, loss of appetite, and seizures. Fever is a particularly important symptom to be aware of; when it is accompanied by confusion, vomiting, a severe headache, and a stiff neck, this indicates a need for immediate medical attention. In the absence of thee symptoms, a health care professional should still be consulted, though viral forms of meningitis do sometimes go away without intervention.

Meningitis can be prevented like any other infection. Good hygiene practices and washing hands appropriately—such as before handling food and after riding public transportation or coming in from outside—will prevent a great deal of infection. Cooking food thoroughly can help prevent the spread of infections that can lead to meningitis. Meningitis can also be prevented with vaccinations. The vaccine for the most common form, meningitis B, is almost 75 percent effective.

Another vaccine is effective against meningitis A, a form of the disease common in sub-Saharan Africa. "Effective" is an understatement—in places where vaccination programs operated, there were zero recorded cases of meningitis A in 2012, and a 94 percent reduction in overall meningitis cases. Recently, advances in vaccines have allowed the vaccine to reach remote areas where a program was not previously feasible. Vaccines have been developed that don’t need refrigeration, allowing more distant areas to be covered.

Cold has also been used to treat meningitis. Induced hypothermia has been used to prevent the inflammation in meningitis from doing permanent damage. Medical induction of hypothermia appeared to reduce pressure in the brains of trauma patients, and the thought was that the same effect would be observed in people with meningitis. However, in tests, this technique had a high mortality rate and the recommendation was that the treatment not be used.

Neurological Conditions, Mental Illness, And Developmental Disability

Scientists investigating developmental disability have come to the conclusion that these disabilities, mental illnesses, and neurological disease are all aspects of the same type of disorder. Under current models, the three types of condition are perceived as clinically distinct, meaning that they are treated as different and unrelated disorders, with different causes, different prognoses, and different courses of treatment. However, there is a growing body of opinion that, rather than being distinct, these conditions exist along a continuum, and are all fundamentally linked.

"Recent genetic studies conducted in thousands of individuals have shown that identical genetic mutations are shared among neurodevelopmental disorders that are thought to be clinically distinct," said autism researcher Andres Moreno De Luca, M.D., a co-author of a recent article laying out this new model, in a statement. "What we have seen over the past few years is that genetic mutations that were initially found in individuals with one disorder, such as intellectual disability or autism, are then identified in people with an apparently different condition like schizophrenia, epilepsy, or bipolar disorder."

This model means that the research techniques and approaches used for mental illnesses such as schizophrenia can also be brought to bear on intellectual disabilities. It means the treatment approaches used for mental illnesses may also have application for neurological disorders thought to be untreatable. Perhaps more importantly, demonstrating an underlying genetic or biological abnormality linking all these conditions could go a long way towards eroding the stigma attached to them, a stigma which in some cases does more to impede people in society than the conditions themselves.

As for what this underlying cause is, this remains unclear. However, recent studies have found a link between treatments for male infertility and both developmental issues and autism in the resultant offspring. The risk was associated with an in vitro technique called intracytoplasmic sperm injection, in which a miniature syringe is used to inject a single sperm cell directly into an ovum under a microscope. This procedure is reserved for severe cases of male infertility.

Hearing Loss And Your Brain

Most people, as they age, gradually lose their hearing. There are a number of reasons for this. the muscles gradually become stiffer all over, including in the ears. This usually erodes hearing near the top of the pitch range. Additionally, most people are exposed to loud noises—music, trains, highway traffic, even conversation—which can gradually diminish hearing; over the decades, it adds up. While total deafness isn’t common, older people do tend to hear less well than younger people do. In many cases, there is a genetic component to hearing loss as well. Some illnesses (including some that can be prevented by vaccination), medications, or chemical exposure can also cause deafness or diminished hearing ability.

Interestingly, not all noise damages hearing the same way. Research now shows that the time of day at which noise exposure occurs has a bearing on how it affects the ability to hear. It turns out that noise exposure at night results in a greater degree of permanent hearing loss than exposure during the day. Damage to hearing sustained during daytime heals more thoroughly than at night.

A surprising danger of hearing loss is that as a person’s hearing starts to g, their brain becomes smaller. Some brain shrinkage is a normal part of aging, though the effect is not always significant. However, a recent study found that for people with impaired hearing—particularly if left untreated—this loss of brain volume is accelerated. Some of this shrinkage is in the auditory processing regions of the brain. According to MRI scans, however, some of the accelerated shrinkage takes place in the parts of the brain where memory and cognition are located, which makes it a dementia danger.

Another effect of hearing loss on the brain involves mood. Hearing loss—though not total deafness—was associated in a study with higher rates of depression. The correlation was stronger in women than in men. Researchers suspect, however, the hearing loss is not a cause of depression; rather, people who live alone, heavy drinkers, and people with a relatively low educational level were more likely both to have depression and to have suffered some hearing loss.

Brain Training

"Neuroplasticity" refers to the ability of the brain to reshape itself and to adapt to changes. This is, essentially, what learning is, but the term encompasses much more than that. For example, if the brain is damaged, such as by a stroke or head trauma, it has the ability to restructure and redesign itself so that the operational parts are able to partly take over the functioning of the damaged areas. This isn’t always perfect—there’s only so much real estate available, and the remapped parts have to perform their original functions as well—but it does happen, which is why stroke and traumatic brain injury is survivable in the first place.

Several companies sell "brain training" programs that are said to enhance neuroplasticity, but the evidence in favor of this is mixed at best. These programs take the form of games, which challenge and develop pattern recognition, memory, attention span, and other cognitive functions. However, there is little evidence these techniques have a significant effect in people who don’t have some kind of deficit to begin with. In fact, according to a recent study, the games are very effective mostly at improving performance on the games themselves—the more practice someone gets at playing a game, the better they are at that, but not at the tasks on which the game supposedly improves performance.

That’s not to say it’s entirely useless, however. Baseball players who completed a game designed specifically to enhance vision did show improvement in vision, and, correspondingly in playing baseball. At higher levels, baseball players tend to have significantly better levels of visual acuity than most people, since it’s a major component of the game. The trained players did nearly 5 percent better at the plate and scored far more runs than controls.

Training can also be useful for children diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The usual treatment for ADHD is stimulant medications, but doctors and parents can be reluctant to prescribe such medications long-term. Neurofeedback games—which directly reward focus and concentration—and cognitive training games have even investigated as possible alternatives. A study earlier this year found a slight improvement for students who received cognitive training, and dramatic improvement for those who had gone through the neurofeedback therapy. In these cases, they were able to generalize the cognitive skills, sing them in the classroom and elsewhere as well as in the lab.

Sleep Debt

Scientists are learning more ans more about what, exactly, sleep is good for. It’s healthy, for one thing: people who experience chronic sleep deprivation, regularly getting too little sleep, are prone to a number of problems, including diabetes, depression, cardiovascular disease, even weight gain. A wakefulness binge, a single incident of not sleeping, can cause problems as well; not sleeping for days on end can be harmful or even fatal. Sleep is also when the brain goes through its self-cleaning cycle, flushing out cellular waste products generated by ordinary brain activity so they don’t damage cells.

That’s why it’s important to get enough sleep—seven to eight hours each night, according to experts. When someone doesn’t get enough sleep, they accumulate sleep debt, and sleep debt, like any debt, comes with interest. That’s because it’s not enough to average seven hours a night; the cleaning process takes time. In one study, people who slept six hours a night for ten nights showed the same degradation in performance as people who had gone just one night without any sleep at all. Someone who is chronically sleep-deprived and gets one good long night is only back to normal for about six hours the next day. After that, the lack of focus, inattentiveness, and poor memory come back. That means the all-too-common pattern of short nights during the week and sleeping in on weekends isn’t actually a successful sleep strategy.

There is some good news. While it’s not always possible to get enough sleep to make good the debt, subjects in a study who had been made to believe they’d had exceptionally restful sleep were actually better rested than people who’d been told they’d slept poorly. The difference didn’t show up in all the measures used in the study, but the researchers did see a clear difference. However, even convincing yourself you slept well can only go so far.

To really get a good night’s sleep, look at the venue. A dark, cool room with as few distractions as possible is the optimal environment. At the very least, the sleep space and the serious activity space—a home office, for example, or the computer desk—should be distinct and quite separate. Exercise at night isn’t as disruptive to sleep as once believed, but caffeine and afternoon naps are; both should be avoided within six hours of bedtime.

It Still Knows How To Pound

Migraines are painful, unpleasant, inconvenient—and they might be rewiring your brain. Researchers say migraine symptoms—particularly migraine aura, visual symptoms such as spots, flashes, shapes, or temporary blindness, or a pins-and-needles sensation, that can last up to an hour shortly before the onset of the pain, nausea, light and sound sensitivity, and lightheadedness—may be associated with the development lesions, changes in brain volume, and alterations to the glial "white matter" of the brain.

It’s not clear whether these changes are caused by migraines, or cause them, or are caused by another factor that makes people susceptible to migraine. If the headaches themselves are causing the brain changes, that suggests that reducing the frequency of attacks, or stopping them altogether, can stop if not reverse the changes. That means avoiding migraine triggers.

Triggers vary, but there are some things that tend to set off migraines. Certain foods can do it; onions are associated with migraine in many people. Aged cheeses, alcoholic beverages, pickled, aged, smoked, and fermented foods, soy-based foods, chocolate, bananas, figs, snow peas, and a variety of other foods contain a compound called tyramine, which is often a migraine trigger. Cured meats also often have nitrates. Sometimes, giving things up can be a trigger; a migraine is a common symptom of caffeine withdrawal. Other triggers are environmental, such as secondhand smoke, or circumstantial, such as menstruation or changes in sleep.

When avoiding triggers isn’t enough or is not possible, there are a few medical treatments for migraines, though the nature of the condition makes researching remedies difficult. Beta blockers, the antidepressant amitriptylene, and anti-seizure medications seem to prevent attacks. In recent studies, a blood pressure drug called candesartan has proven effective as well.

How Fish Is Brain Food

Omega-3 fatty acids are an essential nutrient, meaning we have to get them from food because the human body doesn’t have the ability to manufacture them out of components. There are three types of omega-3 fatty acids, but the two most important of them—the "long-chain omega-3 fatty acids"—are typically found together in the same source. Humans do have the ability to convert the third kind, called ALA, into one of the long-chain kinds, but the process is not very efficient.

These nutrients serve important functions in the body and play an important role in the brain. One of the long-chain varieties, called DHA, has shown signs of being able to slow or stop dementia. Even in healthy people, insufficient levels of DHA have been found to be associated with "senior moments" and other indicators of mental decline with age; a new study suggests DHA may prevent the loss of brain cells that normally comes with age. The other long-chain omega-3, EPA, helps treat hyperactivity symptoms, and ALA can reduce depression.

DHA does some other tricks as well. It helps inhibit tumor growth in some kinds of cancer, and it can enhance the effectiveness of chemotherapy. There is some evidence that the short-chain ALA can be used to help lower the incidence of coronary heart disease. EPA also buffs chemotherapy, and it can help protect the liver. In addition, EPA’s effect on drugs can help people avoid overdose without compromising the effectiveness of medications used as intended. Both kinds of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids help fight inflammation.

Many people turn to supplements to make sure they get the omega-3 fatty acids they need. Not all supplements deliver what they promise, however. Over-the-counter supplements are lightly if at all regulated in the United States; in many cases, manufacturers don’t even have to prove that the products contain the ingredients in the amounts listed on the label. A recent study found that a lot of fish oil supplements had lower levels of omega-3 acids than labeled—in some cases, a third less. Other studies suggest fish oil supplements may not be as effective as fish oil in fish even when the supplements are accurately labeled.