05:11am Thursday 24 August 2017

Studying the Connectome: Sofka, Watts & Colleagues Apply New Brain Science to Alzheimer’s Disease

Ryan Sofka

When it comes to earlier diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease, the wiring of the brain itself may yield some important clues.

University of Vermont Associate Professor of Radiology Richard Watts, Ph.D., and a team of UVM researchers are using state-of-the-art neuroimaging techniques and sophisticated computer software to visualize this wiring, or network of interconnected fibers called the Connectome, in the hopes of finding a biomarker for Alzheimer’s Disease.  

Think of the Connectome as a quantitative measure of “how neurons talk to each other,” Watts says. Instead of focusing on specific parts of the brain, which have been traditionally studied as the “home” for certain functions like speech, or problem solving, the Connectome looks at neural networks across the whole, measuring not only the flow of information but the strength of the connections between different regions. This work is at the cutting edge of brain science: The Human Connectome Project, funded by the National Institutes of Health, is using similar technology in an attempt to map the interconnected network of neurons in a healthy, adult brain.

Watts and his team are applying this same idea to Alzheimer’s specifically. Their study includes 60 subjects: 20 who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, 20 with mild cognitive impairment, and 20 healthy controls. The team will be analyzing MRI data from these subjects with sophisticated computer software that calculates how strong the connections are between more than 80 regions of the brain.

“A good proportion of subjects [with mild cognitive impairment] will go on to develop Alzheimer’s,” Watts says. “The goal is to correlate cognitive deficits with the way the brain is wired up.”

Ultimately, the hope is to find a biomarker, or a single measure that helps to determine where on the spectrum a patient is from “being a healthy control to an Alzheimer’s patient.”

With the study generating vast amounts of data, one key member of Watts’ team is Ryan Sofka ‘17. The second-year medical student spent the summer and fall developing a workflow so that as the study got underway, data processing would go as smoothly as possible.

The computing power required is significant, and then there’s the statistical work to compare data from the three subject groups, with the hopes of identifying some sub-set of patients who show a pattern.

“It’s like a puzzle,” says Sofka, who plans to continue working on the project through his four years of medical school.

“He’s got great computational skills,” Watts says. “Ryan has been doing exceptional work in figuring out how to process the data that we’re acquiring.”

William Pendlebury, M.D., professor of pathology and neurological sciences emeritus, has been involved in the study recruiting patients with a team from the Memory Program at The University of Vermont Medical Center. His work on the project has been supported in part through a gift from the family of the late George Fearons, III, who owned and operated Stowe Travel Service for more than 50 years.

Finding a biomarker is probably “one of the biggest focuses in research today,” says Pendlebury, since treatment may depend on diagnosing the disease long before it manifests.

“From a pathological perspective, it can be 20 years before a person develops symptoms,” he says, adding that research into viable treatment options is also an area of intense focus.

And earlier intervention – through diet, exercise, and focused mental activity – may itself yield some benefit. Says Sofka: “If we could start interventions earlier, we may be able to push back the onset of symptoms. Any delay in that onset is significant.”


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