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Brain imaging helping to develop treatments

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Jeffrey Lewine, a professor of translational neuroscience at the Mind Research Network, offers an update on research being done at MRN during Wednesday’s Economic Forum gathering. (Rick Nathanson, Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — More than 2 billion people worldwide – or one person out of every four – are struggling with a neurological or psychiatric disorder, according to Jeffrey Lewine, a professor of neuroscience and director of business development at the Mind Research Network.

However, modern brain imaging tools are increasing how we understand the neurobiology of disease and pointing the way toward developing treatments for brain disorders, he said.

Lewine and Kent Kiehl, MRN’s executive science officer, provided an update on the work being done at the organization during a Wednesday breakfast meeting of the Economic Forum of Albuquerque.

“The economic and personal toll of things like Alzheimer’s disease, autism, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, or traumatic brain injury is incalculable,” said Lewine. “And in some ways, we’re fighting a losing battle. More and more individuals are coming down with these conditions and we are not keeping pace with treatments.”

He noted that the past two multi-billion-dollar clinical trials on schizophrenia medication both failed, as did the past three trials into Alzheimer’s medications.

“We need to get a better understanding of these diseases so we can develop more effective therapies,” which is exactly what MRN is doing.

The nonprofit research organization is located on the University of New Mexico campus, but is not part of the university. Its $14 million annual budget comes from private and federal sources, including the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense. MRN has more than 100 ongoing studies led by 25 senior staff investigators who collaborate with universities, national laboratories, and national and international science foundations.

Among the primary diagnostic tools used are magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, which Lewine described as “a big magnet” that uses radio frequencies to construct a detailed picture of the brain’s anatomy; and magnetoencephalography, or MEG, which maps brain activity by recording magnetic fields produced naturally within the brain.

Treatments include transcranial magnetic stimulation, which uses a magnetic field to stimulate nerves in the brain and has been shown effective in the treatment of people with depressive disorders.

Transcranial direct current stimulation is “basically hooking up your head to a 9 volt battery” to alter brain activity, said Lewin. This is being explored as a treatment for people with traumatic brain injury, auditory hallucinations, schizophrenia and substance abuse disorders.

Transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation, which delivers electrical impulses to branches of the vagus nerve, is being explored as a way to treat tinnitus, traumatic brain injury, headaches, stroke and autism.

Kiehl said he has been working on a project involving a mobile MRI scanner that has imaged the brains of 4,000 incarcerated individuals from New Mexico and Wisconsin. The images allow researchers to see anomalies in the brain and create markers for treatment, particularly for alcohol and drug abuse.

Incarcerated people tend to be overwhelmingly male and younger. MRI imaging has been used to age different portions of a person’s brain, and brain age is a better predictor of behavior than a person’s chronological age.

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Kent Kiehl, executive science officer at the Mind Research Network, uses a laser pointer during a Wednesday presentation before the Economic Forum of Albuquerque. (Rick Nathanson, Albuquerque Journal)

Kiehl suggested that everyone, including children, should have their brain scanned. In the event someone later has a head injury, a new image can be taken allowing for a before and after comparison.

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