Trinity researchers show how motor neurone disease affects multiple brain networks

The discovery will help to develop treatments for neurological diseases

A research team from the Academic Unit of Neurology at Trinity have identified noticeable changes in the patterns of electrical brain wave activity in motor neurone disease (MND) patients.

This ground-breaking discovery will help to develop new methods of treating the disease, which affects over 350 people in Ireland.

Motor neurone disease, also known as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), is a disease which causes progressive paralysis and increasing physical disability. One person is diagnosed with the condition every 3 days in Ireland. It is often fatal within 2 to 5 years.

Using electroencephalography (EEG), the team at Trinity has been able to capture second to second changes in electrical signalling in patients with MND. This has allowed researchers to identify specific groups of nerves that behave unusually. This is the first time that a team has utilised EEG in this way to study abnormal neuronal activity in MND patients.

This inexpensive technology offers an alternative to functional MRI at a significantly lower cost. So far, the team has been able to study, in detail, more than six different brain networks associated with the disease.

Lead author of the study, Stefan Dukic said: “In MND, we have for the first time found specific and reproducible changes in electrical brain signalling using electroencephalography (EEG) recordings. The new findings have identified previously unrecognised abnormalities in the brain networking. This advances our understanding of the specific brain networks that become dysfunctional as the disease progresses.”

Fr Tony Coote, Assistant Professor of Neural Signalling, and senior author of the study, Dr Bahman Nasseroleslami, said: “the emerging technologies such as advanced signal analysis and electrical source imaging of the brain are changing our understanding of MND and related diseases. We can now use EEG, which is inexpensive compared to MRI, to probe brain networks instantaneously and identify  important changes that reflect the impact of the disease on the patients.”

Head of the Academic Unit of Neurology at Trinity, Professor Orla Hardiman, a world expert in the disease, said: “In MND research, these findings are a major leap from the current state-of-the-art approach to studying the disease. The work of Dukic and Nasseroleslami has shown how we can now begin to carefully quantify changes in specific parts of brain networks. This will have major implications on how we classify subtypes of the disease. It can also help to tell us what patient groups may respond to new therapies.”

Professor Hardiman added: “There is an urgent need for new treatments that can slow disease progression, and the development of new biomarkers that can help to identify patient subgroups is a very important unmet need.”

The research was funded by the Health Research Board of Ireland, the Irish Motor Neurone Disease Research Foundation, Irish Research Council and Science Foundation Ireland.

Cian Lynch

Cian Lynch is the current Science Editor of Trinity News.