Health Flash

Health Flash: 11.14.18

insights into brain development
Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine have developed a new technique to analyze overlooked data from MRI scans, revealing which brain cells have been lost through injury or disease. Most researchers studying brain function only are interested in seeing how the MRI signal changes when a person performs a task, and they discard parts of the signal that hold steady. By analyzing the background data, the research team discovered a signal called R2t* that remains largely unchanged but varies across parts of the brain. By determining which genes were more active when the signal was strong, they found that it reflected the different kinds and numbers of brain cells and the extent of connections between them. An MRI scan using this analysis technique can provide information about how densely packed and interconnected neurons are in any part of the brain. The findings are published online in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and may lead to new, simpler ways to diagnosis brain conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and a better understanding of how a healthy brain develops.

hope for eye cancer
A compound present in the primrose family of plants, FR900359, exploits a newly identified weakness in cancer of the eye. According to a study published in Science, it shuts down the overactive signaling that drives tumor growth. Uveal, or ocular, melanoma is caused by genetic errors in proteins called G alpha q. In its active state, the protein is bound to another molecule that keeps it turned on. Researchers at Washington University suggested splitting G alpha q from the molecule that keeps it active. The separation happens naturally at a low rate, but a drug could trap the protein in its inactive state and shut down the cancer-causing signaling cascade. The team found that FR900359 binds to the protein and keeps it deactivated. In labgrown cells, the plant compound shut down cancerous cells’ growth and appeared to revert a subset of them to a state resembling normal. The next step is testing whether FR900359 can treat uveal melanoma in mice.

nerve regeneration
Peripheral nerve damage can cause numbness, tingling and weakness in people’s hands, arms or legs, and doctors can do little to help speed up the months-long recovery. Researchers at Washington School of Medicine and Northwestern University have developed an implantable, biodegradable device that delivers regular pulses of electricity to damaged peripheral nerves. In severe cases of such nerve damage, surgery may be required, and it is standard practice to administer electrical stimulation to injured nerves during the procedure to aid recovery. “We know that electrical stimulation during surgery helps, but once the surgery is over, the window for intervening is closed,” says co-senior author Dr. Wilson Ray. “With this device, we’ve shown that electrical stimulation given on a scheduled basis can further enhance nerve recovery.” The device wraps around an injured nerve and delivers electrical pulses for days, then harmlessly degrades in the body. During testing with rats, it helped the animals regrow nerves in their legs and recover nerve function and muscle strength more quickly. The study is published in Nature Medicine.