The cosmetic outer signs of aging are known to all of us. Graying hair, bone loss, fatigue and memory difficulties all come with aging. But what actually happens to our brain as we get older? What goes wrong when aging develops into a neurological disease like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s? This is a primary focus of neurological specialists around the world working to map the brain and unlock its many mysteries.
Magnetic resonance imaging or MRI scans allow us to look into the human brain in a non-invasive manner and learn about the changes that occur in it with age.
What are the Changes
Many studies show that brain volume decreases as we get older. It occurs even earlier in patients with different neurological diseases. A clinical MRI only provides an image to estimate the volume of the brain, it cannot quantitatively measure what actually changes in the molecular composition of the human brain with age, and what distinguishes normal aging from the ravages of Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.
A research group at the Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem has developed new approaches that transform the MRI from a “camera of the brain” into a measuring device that can quantify and characterize changes in the biological composition of brain tissue. These methods are called quantitative MRI.
Instead of producing images of the brain, biophysical models to obtain brain maps that contain quantitative information about the tissue. Using these maps, it is possible to compare accurately different scans of the same subject, or between healthy brains and those showing signs of disease. Following this logic, it was discovered that brain tissues with different molecular compositions have unique MRI signatures.
In the study, a new MRI technique was used to decode the molecular composition of synthetic lipids and protein compounds. Also compared were post-mortem brain scans to a real molecular examination of tissue.
When fully implemented, this method can predict the concentrations of different lipids and also the ratio of proteins to lipids in the brain.
In the research, young and old individuals were scanned and showed that the molecular signatures of different brain areas change with age. In some areas, for example, in the white-matter, there is mainly a decrease in the volume of brain tissue. In contrast, in other brain areas such as the gray matter, tissue volume is maintained with age, but we have identified extensive molecular alterations between younger and older subjects.
The hope is, that in the not-too-distant future this method will be used to distinguish non-invasively between normal aging and cases in which the aging process is accelerated by diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.
So, will MRI imaging replace invasive examinations for measuring the biological composition of the brain? It may well take some time, but that is the goal.
More research is needed to accurately and specifically measure the composition of brain tissue. But so far this is a significant step toward this goal.
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