Brain Highlights

20 March 2014

Interview with

Kate McAllister, Katherine Manning, Dr Martin O'Neill

And closing this months Naked Neuroscience podcast I'm reporting from the Cambridge Neuroscience 2014 meeting, and I thought I'd get a glimpse of some of the other research being presented, so caught up with PhD students Kate McAllister, Katherine Manning and post doc researcher Dr Martin O'Neill for their views.....

Firstly, Martin...

Martin -   I like the work on obsessive compulsive disorder by Valerie Voon from the Department of Psychiatry here in Cambridge.  It shows that patients with OCD, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, are impaired in their ability to gather information under conditions of uncertainty, rendering them more cautious in their decision making when faced with uncertain information. This caution or lack of willingness to accept uncertain information may underlie the compulsive behaviours observed in people that suffer from OCD. 

The reason this research grabbed my attention was because my own research is on the basic brain mechanisms and involved in risky decision making and it's quite separate from OCD research.  A lot of my research is basic research so I'm interested in how the brain functions in normal day-to-day situations and risk.  When I refer to risk, I also refer to uncertainty, and this is really embedded in most decisions that we make frequently.  You know, very few things in life occur with absolute certainties.  So, I'm interested in the basic mechanisms, but as research here shows that its basic approaches can also be applied to investigations of clinical conditions such as OCD.  But then in turn, the findings from these clinical conditions are actually informing us also and our sort of basic approach to neuroscience.

Hannah -   Thank you very much, Martin.  Kate McAllister, what's caught your attention today?

Pathology Week - StudentsKate -   I was really interested in Professor Ian Goodyer's work, outlining the establishment of the Neuroscience And Psychiatry Network or NSPN which is a collaboration between London and Cambridge.  So, the NSPN has been setup to create a database of adolescent brain data.  So, the teenage brain undergoes huge changes during adolescence like two main ones.  One of which is myelination.  So, improving connectivity between brain cells and also, synaptic pruning so, honing neurons and neuronal connections to their optimum.  Teenage years are actually also a really critical time in developing neuropathologies.  So, a lot of psychiatric disorders begin in adolescence.  And also, it's the first time that we're most susceptible to risk-taking behaviours.  So, like drug-taking and substance abuse, and things like that.  So, the NSPN is going to look at between 2 and 2,000 typically developing people between the ages of 14 and 24.  They're going to look at participants using cognitive tasks, behavioural insights, but also scanning.  Something that's been quite a theme throughout the whole day today that I've noticed actually has been the needs for collaborative large scale studies.  As much as we have really amazing neuroscience research that's going at the moment, we still really don't understand that much about the brain and I mean, we understand even a little bit the adolescent brain.  So, we're really interested to follow the study and see what they find over the next few years about that's really critical periods of neuromodulation.

Hannah -   Thank you very much.  Katie Manning...

Katie -   So, I thought a study done by Dr. James Rowe and colleagues, they're mostly based here at the University of Cambridge was really interesting.  They looked at a hypothesis that neurodegenerative disorders - so, disorders that progressively affect the brain - involved great damage to areas of the brain which have more functional connections within the brain.  So, this is looking at how areas of the brain are connected in terms of communicating with each other rather than say, just in terms of anatomy.

Hannah -   And so, they were looking at neurodegenerative disorders like for example Alzheimer's or more Parkinson's or Huntington's?

Katie -   So, this has been looked at in Alzheimer's before and they're wanting to see if this idea was also applicable to other neurodegenerative disorders.  In this study, they looked at Parkinson's disease, progressive supranuclear palsy, and corticobasal syndrome.

Hannah -   And what is it exactly that they found?

Katie -   They were using functional magnetic resonance imaging, so fMRI for short to Kings Cross Station crowd controlbuild up a picture of the network by looking at the activity in different areas of the brain and how that correlates with the activity in other areas.  One of the things that you find when you do that because there are some areas which get lots of connections to, from or through them, and these areas are called hubs.  And so, the hypothesis was that these hubs are particularly affected in neurodegenerative disorders and these areas which show the greatest connectivity loss.

Hannah -   So, if we're looking at these hubs, these networks in the brain, it's almost like a transport system of communication from one area of the brain to another.  How would this compare to, for example, I don't know, a city like Milton Keynes which is here in the UK which got lots of roundabouts but lots of main road systems.  And then if you look at London for example, which has got lots of convoluted side roads, is that the similar thing that they're looking at here in terms of these hubs and these nodes of connectivity?

Katie -   Yeah, it is really.  I mean, perhaps a good knowledge to look at it would be sort of like King's Cross Station.

Hannah -   So, King's Cross Station is one of the major train stations in London in the UK?

Katie -   Yeah.  People are travelling from all areas of the country to get somewhere else.  And so, that might be coming straight through King's Cross and just crossing over.  So, using a sort of a stop on the pathway.  So, in this study, they had 150 participants and some of those had one of the three disorders.  And then there are also some disorder-free participants.  So, these are the control participants and they're used for comparison.  They also completed some tasks to measure their cognitive abilities.  For all three of the neurodegenerative disorders that were investigated in the study, the researchers did find reduction in the connectivity of hubs compared to the controls.  Actually also, as they predicted, they found that weaker hub connectivity was also related to poor performance on some of the cognitive tasks.  So, they suggested these hub regions are particularly vulnerable in many neurodegenerative disorders and that their reduced connectivity that might then be really important in understanding these disorders, and in the future, be able to inform us in evaluating patients and finding information that might be useful for clinical treatment.

Hannah -   So, I suppose the next step is looking at ways of making sure that the King's Cross Train Station in these patients' brain kind of gets up into gear and starts working again.

Katie -   Yes, so I guess the next view for this treatment down the line is how it can be used to help patient groups.  In fact, understanding the functional networks of the brain in both health and how this is affected in people with certain disorders and in people at high risk of developing these disorders is an area of neuroscience in which there's not a lot of research going on at the moment.

Hannah -   Well unfortunately, that's all we have time for this month.  Thanks to Cambridge Neuroscience for this special podcast featuring Barbara Sahakian, Michael Owen, Trevor Robbins, Katherine Manning, Kate McAllister, and Martin O'Neill, reporting from the Cambridge Neuroscience Seminar. 

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