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Catching a chemical before it does damage

Long before it leads to loss of function‚ ataxia causes changes in the brain that cannot be detected through physical symptoms.

Gülin Öz, Ph.D.

At first‚ biochemical changes to brain nerve cells‚ or neurons‚ are small. Gradually‚ however‚ they alter the metabolism of neurons and then impair them. Left unchecked‚ these changes can lead to the death of neurons and signal the arrival of ataxia symptoms. And once neurons die‚ their function never returns.

University of Minnesota ataxia researcher Gülin Öz, Ph.D.‚ is using magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) to try to detect cellular changes before they cause irreversible damage. Öz is looking beyond structural changes of the cerebellum to explore the biochemical makeup of this region of the brain.

Using high-field MRI scanners three to six times stronger than those in most hospitals‚ Öz is able to measure 18 chemicals found the cerebellums of mice and up to 12 found in human cerebellums and then detect alterations in a subset of those chemicals that change with disease. Monitoring these changes‚ says Öz‚ could lead to earlier detection of ataxias and better assessments of therapies in future clinical trials.

So far‚ Öz’s team has scanned people with spinocerebellar ataxia (SCA) types 1‚ 2‚ 6‚ Friedreich’s ataxia‚ ataxia with oculomotor apraxia type 2‚ and multiple system atrophy and has found different patterns of chemical changes with these ataxias.

“In neurodegenerative diseases such as ataxia‚ biochemical changes can occur years before symptoms occur‚” says Öz‚ an assistant professor of radiology. “If we can intervene while the dysfunction is occurring‚ then there’s a chance that treatments can reverse any alterations and rescue the cell.”

Thanks to seed money provided by the Bob Allison Ataxia Research Center last year to get this research off the ground‚ Öz recently received funding from the National Institutes of Health for two studies. The first study will explore how MRS can help detect pre-ataxia changes that occur in mice that are bred to have SCA1. The second study will compare MRS brain scans of people who have ataxia with brain scans of people who do not have the condition—to determine which biochemical changes can be markers for ataxia’s presence.

Öz‚ who did her postdoctoral training at the University’s renowned Center for Magnetic Resonance Research before accepting a faculty position here in 2006‚ says the University offers a unique opportunity for research.

“Having the equipment is great‚ but it’s not enough on its own‚” she says. “You need the expertise and support surrounding you‚ too‚ to get the good science‚ the good data. All of that is here. This is the best place to be doing research on neurodegenerative diseases.”

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