MRI technique shows molecular make-up of the brain

Friday, 16 August, 2019

MRI technique shows molecular make-up of the brain

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) gives us a picture of our body’s insides — organs, bones, nerves and soft tissue. But what if MRI scans could show us the molecular make-up of our body parts, and help doctors more quickly determine the onset of disease and begin treatment?

Professor Aviv Mezer and his team at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have now successfully transformed an MRI from a diagnostic camera into a device that can record changes in the biological make-up of brain tissue. Described in the journal Nature Communications, their breakthrough is especially important for doctors looking to understand whether a patient is merely getting older or developing a neurodegenerative disease, such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.

“When we take a blood test, it shows us the exact number of white blood cells in our body and whether that number is higher than normal due to illness,” said PhD student Shir Filo, who worked on the study. “MRI scans provide images of the brain but don’t show changes in the composition of the human brain — changes that could potentially differentiate normal ageing from the beginnings of Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.”

Unlike current MRI scans, the new technique provides biological readouts of brain tissue — the ability to see what’s going on on a molecular level, and to direct a course of treatment accordingly. According to Prof Mezer, “This could allow doctors to compare brain scans taken over time from the same patient, and to differentiate between healthy and diseased brain tissue, without resorting to invasive or dangerous procedures, such as brain tissue biopsies.”

Looking ahead, Prof Mezer believes that the new MRI technique will also provide a crucial understanding into how our brains age.

“When we scanned young and old patients’ brains, we saw that different brain areas age differently. For example, in some white-matter areas, there is a decrease in brain tissue volume, whereas in the grey matter, tissue volume remains constant. However, we saw major changes in the molecular make-up of the grey matter in younger versus older subjects.”

This means that MRIs will in future be able to distinguish molecular signs of normal ageing from the early signs of disease, meaning patients will more likely receive correct diagnoses earlier. This should accelerate their treatment process and help them maintain an improved quality of life for longer — all via a non-invasive technique.

Image caption: The new MRI technique provides users with a molecular map of different areas in the brain. Image credit: Shir Filo/Hebrew University.

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