Posts Tagged MRI

Alcoholism Affects Men’s and Women’s Brains Differently


Alcoholism Affects Men's and Women's Brains DifferentlyNew research has demonstrated that the effects on white matter brain volume from long-term alcohol abuse are different for men and women.

Researchers from Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) and Veterans Affairs (VA) Boston Healthcare System also suggest that when they stop drinking, women recover their white matter brain volume more quickly than men.

Previous research has linked alcoholism with white matter reduction, according to the researchers, who explain that white matter forms the connections between neurons, allowing communication between different areas of the brain.

In this latest study, a research team, led by Susan Mosher Ruiz, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research scientist in the Laboratory for Neuropsychology at BUSM and research scientist at the VA Boston Healthcare System, and Marlene Oscar Berman, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry, neurology and anatomy and neurobiology at BUSM and research career scientist at the VA Boston Healthcare System, employed structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to determine the effects of drinking history and gender on white matter volume.

They examined brain images from 42 abstinent alcoholic men and women who drank heavily for more than five years and 42 nonalcoholic men and women. The researchers found that a greater number of years of alcohol abuse was associated with smaller white matter volumes in the alcoholic men and women. In the men, the decrease was observed in the corpus callosum, while in women this effect was observed in cortical white matter regions.

“We believe that many of the cognitive and emotional deficits observed in people with chronic alcoholism, including memory problems and flat affect, are related to disconnections that result from a loss of white matter,” said Mosher Ruiz.

The researchers also found that the number of daily drinks had a strong impact on alcoholic women, with the volume loss 1.5 to 2 percent for each additional drink. Additionally, there was an 8 to 10 percent increase in the size of the brain ventricles, which are areas filled with cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) that play a protective role in the brain. When white matter dies, CSF produced in the ventricles fills the ventricular space.

The researchers also found that in men, white matter brain volume in the corpus callosum recovered at a rate of 1 percent per year for each year of abstinence. For people who abstained less than a year, the researchers found evidence of increased white matter volume and decreased ventricular volume in women, but not in men. However, for people in recovery for more than a year, those signs of recovery disappeared in women and became apparent in men.

“These findings preliminarily suggest that restoration and recovery of the brain’s white matter among alcoholics occurs later in abstinence for men than for women,” said Mosher Ruiz. “We hope that additional research in this area can help lead to improved treatment methods that include educating both alcoholic men and women about the harmful effects of excessive drinking and the potential for recovery with sustained abstinence.”

The research was published online in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

Source: Boston University Medical Center

Brain scan photo by shutterstock.

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Stress Changes Learning in the Brain


Stress Changes Learning in the BrainA new experiment from German scientists suggests stress invokes our brain to use different and more complex processes during learning.

In the study, cognitive psychologists Drs. Lars Schwabe and Oliver Wolf discovered that the presence or absence of stress is associated with use of different brain regions and different strategies in the learning process.

Stress appears to make the brain work harder and use a more complex approach when learning. Study findings are reported in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Researchers discovered that non-stressed individuals applied a deliberate learning strategy, while stressed subjects relied more on their gut feeling.

“These results demonstrate for the first time that stress has an influence on which of the different memory systems the brain turns on,” said Schwabe.

In the study researchers analyzed the data from 59 subjects. Two groups were assigned with one group asked to immerse one hand into ice-cold water for three minutes (while being observed by video surveillance).

As expected, this activity stressed the subjects with data collected and confirmed by hormone assays.

The other group was asked to immerse one of their hands in warm water. Then both the stressed and non-stressed individuals completed a task called weather prediction. The task involved having subjects look at playing cards with different symbols and then using the cards to predict which combinations of cards forecast rain and which sunshine.

Each combination of cards was associated with a certain probability of good or bad weather. People apply differently complex strategies in order to master the task.

During the weather prediction task, the researchers recorded the brain activity with MRI.

Researchers found that both stressed and non-stressed subjects learned to predict the weather according to the symbols. However, the way in which they learned the task varied.

Non-stressed participants focused on individual symbols and not on combinations of symbols. They consciously pursued a simple strategy.

The MRI data showed that they activated a brain region in the medial temporal lobe – the hippocampus, which is important for long-term memory.

Stressed subjects, on the other hand, applied a more complex strategy.

They made their decisions based on the combination of symbols. They did this, however, subconsciously, i.e. they were not able to formulate their strategy in words.

In this group of stress participants, brain scans showed that the so-called striatum in the mid-brain was activated — a brain region that is responsible for more unconscious learning.

“Stress interferes with conscious, purposeful learning, which is dependent upon the hippocampus,” concluded Schwabe. “So that makes the brain use other resources. In the case of stress, the striatum controls behavior — which saves the learning achievement.”

Source: Ruhr-University Bochum

Abstract of the brain with key photo by shutterstock.

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Brain Scans Show Teen Drinking Impairs Brain Efficiency


Brain Scans Show Teen Drinking Impairs Brain EfficiencyNew research suggests brains scans can identify patterns of brain activity that may predict if a teen will develop into a problem drinker.

The study also confirms that heavy drinking affects a teenagers’ developing brain.

Using special MRI scans, researchers looked at forty 12- to 16-year-olds who had not started drinking yet, then followed them for about three years and scanned them again.

Researchers discovered that half of the teens started to drink alcohol fairly heavily during this interval.

Investigators also found that kids who had initially showed less activation in certain brain areas were at greater risk for becoming heavy drinkers in the next three years.

However, once the teens started drinking, their brain activity looked like the heavy drinkers’ in the other studies — that is, their brains showed more activity as they tried to perform memory tests.

“That’s the opposite of what you’d expect, because their brains should be getting more efficient as they get older,” said lead researcher Lindsay M. Squeglia, Ph.D., of the University of California, San Diego.

Researchers say an operational definition of heavy drinking typically included episodes of having four or more drinks on an occasion for females and five or more drinks for males.

The findings add to evidence that heavy drinking has consequences for teenagers’ developing brains. But they also add a new layer: There may be brain activity patterns that predict which kids are at increased risk for heavy drinking.

“It’s interesting because it suggests there might be some pre-existing vulnerability,” Squeglia said.

Researchers say they are not advocating for teens to receive MRIs to determine their risk of excessive alcohol consumption. But the findings do give clues into the biological origins of kids’ problem drinking.

Experts say the findings suggest that heavy drinking may affect young people’s brains right at the time when they need to be working efficiently.

“You’re learning to drive, you’re getting ready for college. This is a really important time of your life for cognitive development,” Squeglia said.

She noted that all of the study participants were healthy, well-functioning kids. It’s possible that teens with certain disorders — like depression or ADHD — might show greater effects from heavy drinking.

Source: Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs

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Brain Abnormalities in Schizophrenia Due to Disease, Not Genetics


Brain Abnormalities in Schizophrenia Due to Disease, Not GeneticsThe brain differences found in people with schizophrenia are mainly the result of the disease itself or its treatment, as opposed to being caused by genetic factors, according to a Dutch study.

Schizophrenia is a mental disorder that significantly affects cognition and usually contributes to chronic problems with behavior and emotion. Along with a breakdown of thought processes, the disorder is also characterized by poor emotional responsiveness, paranoia, auditory hallucinations and delusions.

People with schizophrenia are likely to have additional conditions, including major depression and anxiety.

The strong familial link of schizophrenia is thought to be as high as 81 percent, and researchers have suggested that schizophrenia-related brain abnormalities may be present in unaffected relatives, a notion that has been supported by several studies.

For the current study, Heleen Boos and a team from University Medical Center Utrecht performed structural magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) whole-brain scans on 155 patients with schizophrenia, 186 of their non-psychotic siblings, and 122 healthy controls (including 25 sibling pairs).

Researchers used the images to measure volume, cortical thickness and to map the brain anatomy in order to evaluate group differences.

Compared with healthy controls, participants with schizophrenia had strong reductions in total brain, gray matter, and white matter volumes, and significant increases in lateral and third ventricle volumes after taking into account age, gender, intracranial volume, and left or right handedness.

However, there were no significant differences in brain volume between unaffected siblings and healthy controls.

Schizophrenia patients also showed cortical thinning compared with healthy controls, and had decreased gray matter density. Again, this was not found in unaffected siblings and healthy controls.

“Our study did not find structural brain abnormalities in nonpsychotic siblings of patients with schizophrenia compared with healthy control subjects, using multiple imaging methods,” the team says.

“This suggests that the structural brain abnormalities found in patients are most likely related to the illness itself.”

Source:  University Medical Center Utrecht 

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Stress Hormones Impede Healthy Behavioral Change


Stress Hormones Impede Healthy Behavioral ChangeFor many people, stress is the factor that unravels diets, exercise plans and other goal-directed tasks.

European researchers believe they have discovered why stressed persons are more likely to lapse back into old habits rather than follow a goal-directed agenda.

In a study, investigators determined stress hormones shut down the activity of brain regions for goal-directed behavior, yet do not affect the brain regions responsible for habitual behavior.

Researchers from the Ruhr-Universität in Germany, together with colleagues from the University Hospital Bergmannsheil, mimicked a stress situation in the body using drugs. They then examined the brain activity using functional MRI scanning.

The scientists found that the interaction of the stress hormones hydrocortisone and noradrenaline shut down the activity of brain regions for goal-directed behavior. Yet the brain regions responsible for habitual behavior remained unaffected.

During the research on different stress hormones, the cognitive psychologists used three substances: a placebo, the stress hormone hydrocortisone and yohimbine. Yohimbine is a product which ensures that the stress hormone noradrenaline stays active longer.

Some study participants received hydrocortisone alone or just yohimbine, while other participants received both substances. A fourth group was administered a placebo. Altogether, 69 volunteers participated in the study.

During the experiment, all participants, both male and female, learned that they would receive cocoa or orange juice as a reward if they chose certain symbols on the computer.

After this learning phase, volunteers were allowed to eat as many oranges or as much chocolate pudding as they liked. “This procedure weakens the value of the reward,” said Lars Schwabe, Ph.D.

“Whoever eats chocolate pudding will lose the attraction to cocoa. Whoever is satiated with oranges, has less appetite for orange juice.”

In this context, goal-directed behavior means: Whoever has previously eaten the chocolate pudding chooses the symbols leading to cocoa reward less frequently. Whoever is satiated with oranges selects less frequently the symbols associated with orange juice.

The findings show that only the combination of yohimbine and hydrocortisone attenuates or satisfies goal-directed behavior.

As expected, volunteers who took yohimbine and hydrocortisone did not behave in a goal-directed manner but according to habit. In other words, satiation with oranges or chocolate pudding had no effect.

Persons who had taken a placebo or only one medication, on the other hand, behaved goal-directed and showed a satiating effect.

The brain data revealed: The combination of yohimbine and hydrocortisone reduced the activity in the forebrain – in the so-called orbitofrontal and medial prefrontal cortex.

Researchers say that these areas have been previously associated with goal-directed behavior. The brain regions which are important for habitual learning, on the other hand, were similarly active for all volunteers.

Source: Ruhr-University Bochum

Brain abstract photo by shutterstock.

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