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Researchers use noninvasive device to detect brain disorders

Apostolos Georgopoulos, M.D., Ph.D., with the machine that creates MEG images

Researches from the Medical School and the Brain Sciences Center at the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center have discovered a simple, painless way to detect Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, and other complex brain disorders using a device that tracks magnetic signals in the brain.

The research, which appeared in the August 27 issue of the Journal of Neural Engineering, may allow physicians to diagnose brain disorders earlier, monitor their progress, and track the effectiveness of different treatments for these diseases.

Apostolos Georgopoulos, M.D., Ph.D., University of Minnesota professor of neuroscienceneurology, and psychiatry, and his research team used magnetoencephalography (MEG) to record tiny magnetic fields in the brain as research subjects stared at a point of light for 45 to 60 seconds.

By applying various mathematic algorithms to the MEG data, the researchers were able to classify the 142 research subjects by diagnosis. They found that they were able to identify six types of disorders with 100 percent accuracy: Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, chronic alcoholism, multiple sclerosis, Sjogren’s syndrome, and facial pain.

“This elegantly simple test allows us to glimpse into the brain as its working,” says Georgopoulos, who also heads the VA’s Brain Sciences Center. “We are approaching our 300th subject, and it looks better and better.”

Currently, there are no good tests to measure the brain as it functions. Several tests exist to examine brain structure, but they reveal little about how parts of the brain interact.

“This discovery gives scientists and physicians another tool to assess people’s disease progression,” Georgopoulos says. “In the future it could be applied when studying the effect of new treatments or drug therapy.”

All behavior and cognition in the brain involve networks of nerves continuously interacting at very fast speeds. The MEG’s 248 sensors record those interactions by the millisecond—measurements that represent the workings of tens of thousands of brain cells.

Georgopoulos and his team will collect more data on the six disease groups and will begin to analyze whether the technique works with other brain disorders such as depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, autism, and Parkinson’s disease.

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