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Predicting Autism: Researchers Find Autism Biomarkers in Infancy

By using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to study the brains of infants who have older siblings with autism, scientists were able to correctly identify 80 percent of the babies who would be subsequently diagnosed with autism at 2 years of age.

Researchers from the University of Washington were part of a North American effort led by the University of North Carolina to use MRI to measure the brains of “low-risk” infants, with no family history of autism, and “high-risk” infants who had at least one autistic older sibling. A computer algorithm was then used to predict autism before clinically diagnosable behaviors set in. The study was published Feb. 15 in the journal Nature.

White Matter Hyperintensity May Serve as Biomarker for SCD, Study Says

An analysis of white matter hyperintensity (WMH, a measure of the risk of stroke) may serve as a biomarker to track the progression of blood vessel anomalies associated with sickle cell disease (SCD) and to check whether treatments were effective, according to new research.

The research study, “Enhanced Long-Term Brain MRI Evaluation Of Children With Sickle Cell Disease Following Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation,” was published in the journal Biology of Blood and Marrow Transplantation.

HSS Uses Grant to Test New MRI Techniques & Biomarkers for Arthritis Prevention Treatments

In recent years, researchers have been frustrated because there are no tools to identify early stages of osteoarthritis and thus no good way to test therapies for preventing or slowing the disease. Now, three institutions have been awarded $1 million from the Arthritis Foundation to validate the use of new MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) techniques and newly identified biomarkers to solve this vexing problem. Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, University of California-San Francisco (UCSF), and Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota will share the $1 million.

“There is no magic bullet for treatment of osteoarthritis yet, but once we have a potential oral drug, therapeutic injection, or surgery for treating the disease, we will need a way to identify patients who might need it and follow their response to the treatment,” said Scott Rodeo, M.D., orthopedic surgeon and co-chief of the sports medicine and shoulder service at Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) and co-principal investigator of the tripartite grant. “Using X-rays to measure joint space narrowing is the gold standard for assessing the presence and progression of osteoarthritis, but X-rays are next to worthless for detecting the early changes of arthritis. This study will help us understand the early factors that lead to the degenerative changes in ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) injured knees.”

Acute ACL injury is a major risk factor for developing osteoarthritis. In the past several years, researchers have discovered that long before osteoarthritic changes in joint space can be detected on X-ray, biochemical changes can be detected in cartilage using newer quantitative MRI techniques. Many studies have also shown that ACL injury is associated with quantifiable changes in biochemical biomarkers that can be detected in synovial fluid (joint fluid), blood, and urine.

The Arthritis Foundation grant will be distributed over one year and then the three grant recipients have made an institutional commitment to provide annual patient follow up after that. Each institution will recruit 25 patients who are at a maximum of 14 days out from tearing their ACL. Patients will be evaluated at baseline, six weeks, six months, 12 months and yearly thereafter with traditional MRI and newer MRI techniques.

Specifically, the new quantitative MRI techniques, developed by researchers at HSS and UCSF, measure T1ρ and T2 values of articular cartilage and the meniscus. Articular cartilage is the smooth cushion that lines the end of the bones where they meet at the joints. The meniscus is a knee structure that spans and cushions the space between the joint surfaces of the thighbone and shinbone. In scientific speak, T1ρ measures proteoglycan depletion, and T2 evaluates abnormal collagen orientation. Proteoglycans are conjugates of proteins and long carbohydrate molecules joined together with sugars.

“Imagine you are playing basketball and you jump up to make a basket, your ability to withstand the load when you come down is a function of proteoglycan,” said Hollis Potter, M.D., chief of the division of magnetic resonance imaging, director of research in the Department of Radiology and Imaging at HSS. “If you pivot and throw the ball to someone else, your ability for your cartilage to withstand that load is a function of the collagen. You need both to be healthy.” Dr. Potter is the HSS site leader of the grant.

At each time point that researchers collect MRI data, they will also collect samples of synovial fluid, blood, and urine from patients and evaluate knee function using surveys such as the Knee Outcome Survey, international knee documentation committee (IKDC) evaluation forms, and Marx Activity Level. These surveys gauge whether a patient has knee impairment; the degree of symptoms such as knee swelling and pain; and how much knee impairment impacts overall well-being, daily living, work, and athletic and social activities. The majority of participants in the study will undergo ACL reconstruction, and surgeons will evaluate these patients arthroscopically at the time of the operation. Clinicians will correlate fluid biomarkers and quantitative MRI results with traditional imaging, clinical, and functional outcomes.

Osteoarthritis is an extremely heterogeneous disorder in terms of the factors that contribute to the loss of joint function. Researchers need to be able to identify where a patient is in the progression of the disease to be able to target specific processes that are responsible for the symptoms and loss of joint function.

“Not everyone who has an ACL tear will develop osteoarthritis, but some do,” said Dr. Rodeo. “The goal is to identify biomarkers that reflect alterations in the joint environment that may be predictive of developing arthritis.” Once these are identified, researchers can test therapies to slow or prevent the disease, which can be crippling and lead to disability.

“There remain many unanswered questions regarding the optimal care of patients with ACL injuries,” said Steven Goldring, M.D., Chief Scientific Officer, St. Giles Chair, Hospital for Special Surgery. “This study is a paradigm of interdisciplinary research that brings together experts in orthopedics, radiology and basic science from multiple leading medical centers with the single goal of developing the most effective therapies to improve outcomes in patients with ACL injuries. The Arthritis Foundation should be congratulated in initiating this groundbreaking program.”

ACL ruptures affect roughly 1 in 3,000 people per year in the United States alone. The cumulative population risk of an ACL injury in people between the ages of 10 and 64 years has been estimated to be 5%, but could be considerably higher. More than 175,000 ACL reconstructions are performed each year in the United States at a cost of $2 billion. Participation in sports that involve pivoting including soccer, basketball, football, and skiing put individuals at higher risk for tearing their ACL.

Source: EurekAlert!

Imaging in Mental Health and Improving the Diagnostic Process

What are some of the most troubling numbers in mental health? Six to 10 — the number of years it can take to properly diagnose a mental health condition. Dr. Elizabeth Osuch, a Researcher at Lawson Health Research Institute and a Psychiatrist at London Health Sciences Centre and the Department of Psychiatry at Western University, is helping to end misdiagnosis by looking for a ‘biomarker’ in the brain that will help diagnose and treat two commonly misdiagnosed disorders.

Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), otherwise known as Unipolar Disorder, and Bipolar Disorder (BD) are two common disorders. Currently, diagnosis is made by patient observation and verbal history. Mistakes are not uncommon, and patients can find themselves going from doctor to doctor receiving improper diagnoses and prescribed medications to little effect.

Dr. Osuch looked to identify a ‘biomarker’ in the brain which could help optimize the diagnostic process. She examined youth who were diagnosed with either MDD or BD (15 patients in each group) and imaged their brains with an MRI to see if there was a region of the brain which corresponded with the bipolarity index (BI). The BI is a diagnostic tool which encompasses varying degrees of bipolar disorder, identifying symptoms and behavior in order to place a patient on the spectrum.

What she found was the activation of the putamen correlated positively with BD. This is the region of the brain that controls motor skills, and has a strong link to reinforcement and reward. This speaks directly to the symptoms of bipolar disorder. “The identification of the putamen in our positive correlation may indicate a potential trait marker for the symptoms of mania in bipolar disorder,” states Dr. Osuch.

In order to reach this conclusion, the study approached mental health research from a different angle. “The unique aspect of this research is that, instead of dividing the patients by psychiatric diagnoses of bipolar disorder and unipolar depression, we correlated their functional brain images with a measure of bipolarity which spans across a spectrum of diagnoses.” Dr. Osuch explains, “This approach can help to uncover a ‘biomarker’ for bipolarity, independent of the current mood symptoms or mood state of the patient.”

Moving forward Dr. Osuch will repeat the study with more patients, seeking to prove that the activation of the putamen is the start of a trend in large numbers of patients. The hope is that one day there could be a definitive biological marker which could help differentiate the two disorders, leading to a faster diagnosis and optimal care.

In using a co-relative approach, a novel method in the field, Dr. Osuch uncovered results in patients that extend beyond verbal history and observation. These results may go on to change the way mental health is diagnosed, and subsequently treated, worldwide.

Study: Correlation of brain default mode network activation with bipolarity index in youth with mood disorders [Journal of Affective Disorders]

Source: EurekAlert!

Elevated Levels of Copper in Amyloid Plaques Associated with Neurodegeneration in Mouse Models of AD

Metals such as iron, copper, and zinc are important for many biological processes. In recent years, studies have shown that these nutritionally-essential metals are elevated in human Alzheimer’s disease (AD) brains and some animal models of AD. Scientists are now exploring whether these metals are causing the neurodegeneration seen in AD or are indicative of other ongoing pathologic processes.

In a new study, investigators used synchrotron x-ray fluorescence microscopy to image metal ions in the brain, focusing on the amyloid plaques that are the hallmark of AD. They found that, in two AD mouse models that exhibit neurodegeneration, the plaques contained about 25% more copper than an AD mouse model that shows little neurodegeneration. Looking at other metals, they found that none of the mouse models had significant increases in iron and very little increases in zinc. Metal content was not related to the age of the plaque. The study is reported in the current issue of Biomedical Spectroscopy and Imaging.

“Since excess copper should not be ‘free’ in the brain to bind to the plaques, these data suggest that the cellular control of copper is altered in AD, which may lead to toxic reactions between free copper ions and neurons,” comments lead investigator Lisa M. Miller, PhD, a biophysical chemist in the Photon Sciences Directorate at Brookhaven National Laboratory. In previous work, Dr. Miller’s group found very high levels of copper in human AD plaques.

Since elevated iron in the AD brain is well documented in both human brains and AD mouse models, the researchers measured iron content in the cortex of all three mouse models. They found that iron content was doubled in all AD mouse model cortices compared to controls, whether or not the models showed neurodegeneration. Upon further investigation, spectroscopic data revealed that the excess iron was present in the ferric (oxidized) state and consistent with the iron storage protein ferritin. “The increase in iron may be a reflection of changes in metalloprotein content and metal storage within the brain that is not well understood,” says Dr. Miller.

Nevertheless, since iron in ferromagnetic and detectable through MRI, Dr. Miller suggests that in the future iron may be used as a biomarker for AD at early stages of disease, even before plaques are formed.

Source: Elevated copper in the amyloid plaques and iron in the cortex are observed in mouse models of Alzheimer’s disease that exhibit neurodegeneration [Biomedical Spectroscopy and Imaging]

Source: EurekAlert!