Researchers examine how brain cells communicate
WASHINGTON — The brain’s nerve cells communicate by firing messages to each other through junctions called synapses, and problems with those connections are linked to disorders like Alzheimer’s and epilepsy. Now Yale University researchers have developed a way to picture synapses in living brains.
The experimental technique, using PET scans, raises the possibility of monitoring synapse function in some common diseases.
A healthy human brain harbours trillions of synapses, a number that changes over a lifetime. Early in life, the brain “prunes” the many synapses between neurons so the right number is in each region, a process that can go wrong in disorders such as autism or schizophrenia. Changes in the density of synapses may signal where epilepsy seizures originate. Later in life, synapse loss is associated with Alzheimer’s disease. But measuring synapses has required autopsies, or attempts during brain surgery.
To find a non-invasive approach, the Yale-led team developed a radioactive compound, called a tracer, that is injected into the body and binds with a particular protein that is found in the brain’s synapses. During a PET scan, those synapses appear lit up against dark, synapsefree areas of the brain.
Animal testing confirmed the tracer was targeting synapses. Researchers then mapped the density of synapses in the brains of 10 healthy volunteers and three patients with epilepsy. Compared to the healthy brains, the technique revealed lost synapses in the epilepsy-affected regions of those patients’ brains, researchers reported Wednesday in the journal Science Translational Medicine.
“This work represents a breakthrough in the ability to study an important process in the brain that is not only part of normal brain development but that also may be involved in several neuropsychiatric diseases,” said Dr. Peter Herscovitch, who directs PET scanning at the National Institutes of Health’s Clinical Center and wasn’t involved in the research.