Using a new imaging technique to shed light on changes to nerve cells in MND

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) technology is advancing rapidly as a tool for diagnosing and monitoring disease. In MND, MRI scans are used to understand changes that happen to the brain because of this disease.

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Prof Nigel Leigh

Prof Nigel Leigh from the Brighton and Sussex Medical School (University of Sussex) is carrying out a study looking into changes to motor neurones using a new imaging method (our reference: 824-791).

Neurite Orientation Dispersion and Density Imaging (NODDI) is a type of MRI scan, and can see whether MND is affecting specific parts of motor neurones, called neurites, found within the brain. Neurites are the tiny parts of the nerve cells that branch out from the main body of the nerve cell, and are important in the functioning of the brain.

Prof Leigh and his team hope that the new imaging approach will tell us more about the sequence of events that cause motor neurones die, and how this relates to the symptoms of people with MND. Continue reading

Using surface EMG to see if fasciculations can be used as a biomarker for MND

What are fasciculations?

When motor neurones in the spinal cord become damaged this makes them electrically unstable, meaning they spontaneously discharge electrical impulses that cause small groups of muscles to contract. These contractions, known as fasciculations, are a common symptom of MND. Research suggests that they might be a good marker of motor neurone health.

Tracking fasciculations with surface EMG

Prof Chris Shaw

Prof Chris Shaw

Led by researchers Prof Chris Shaw and Prof Kerry Mills, Dr James Bashford is using technology called surface EMG to collect data on the site and frequency of fasciculations in different muscles in people with MND. Fasciculations in people with MND are different to benign fasciculations, which can occur in people without the disease and are generally harmless. James and the team hope to show that fasciculations in those with MND have a unique ‘fingerprint’ which can be accurately identified and tracked.

Data collected will be compared to other information currently used to track the progression of MND. James and the team hope surface EMG might provide a more sensitive way of measuring disease progression than previously used methods. This one year feasibility study is being carried out at King’s College London at a cost of £95,000 (our reference: 932-794). Continue reading

Developing ultrasound imaging as a potential non-invasive diagnostic tool for MND

When diagnosing MND, it is important to look at the activity and impact of the motor neurones themselves – is the electrical message being carried down the nerve properly, and is it reaching the end of the nerve in the muscle? Malfunctions in the electrical activity at the muscle end of the nerve cell result in the muscle twitching that many people with MND experience.

One of the tests used to diagnose MND is an electromyography or EMG test. It involves putting needles into a muscle to measure electrical activity. It can be a painful and unpleasant experience, which doctors and patients are only willing to do when necessary.

There is evidence that ultrasound imaging may be able to detect the same malfunctions in the electrical activity of muscle as EMG, by looking at the way the muscle behaves when electrical activity occurs. Ultrasound images produce the typical grey scale images, for example pictures from baby scans, and can be used to provide images of any muscles in the body. Continue reading

Investigating miRNAs as a biomarker for MND

There is a critical need to find a biomarker for MND to speed up diagnosis, monitor disease progression and improve clinical trials. A biomarker is a biological change that can be detected in a person to signal that they have MND, and that can be measured over time to monitor how the disease is progressing.

Previous research has suggested micro RNAs (miRNAs) present in the blood might be a biomarker for MND. miRNAs are short forms of RNA, the cell’s copy of our genetic material DNA. They are stable in the blood, can be easily measured with a blood test, and evidence suggests that they are linked to MND progression. To put it simply, if the biomarker hunt was a music festival, miRNAs would be a headlining act that a lot of people are excited about! Continue reading

Developing a blood test for MND by linking changes in the brain and spinal cord

Developing a way to rapidly diagnose and track how MND progresses over time is a ‘holy grail’ of MND research. The search for so called ‘biomarkers’ is an area that researchers funded by the MND Association are actively pursuing.

MND Association grantees Dr Andrea Malaspina and Dr Ian Pike (Blizard Institute, Queen Mary University of London) and Prof Linda Greensmith (University College London) are currently working on a project to find these biomarkers (our reference: 871-791). People with MND have been helping the researchers by regularly donating blood and spinal cord fluid samples.

QMUL-Blizad MND group

Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) Blizard Institute MND group

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Developing the Biomarkers in Oxford Project

Biomarkers in Oxford (BioMOx) is a research project with the aim of identifying a diagnostic biomarker for MND, which could be used to track the progression of this condition.

What are biomarkers?

The aim is to identify biomarkers, or ‘biological fingerprints’ for MND. This could be through testing blood and spinal fluid (CSF) samples from people with MND, or using MRI scans and other imaging techniques to look at changes in the brain.

By understanding the very earliest changes detected in these samples at the start of MND (the biomarker), it is hoped that they could be used to work towards disease prevention and to develop more targeted therapy for those already affected by MND.

For example, including a biomarker element in future clinical trials will help us learn more about the disease and identify participants most likely to benefit from the drug being tested.

Being able to track the progression of the disease could also help with effective care-planning for people with MND. Continue reading

Using DNA Bank samples to create iPSC models of MND

Induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) technology has enabled researchers to create and study living human motor neurones in the lab, derived originally from patient skin cells.

DNABankLogoThis project (our reference 80-970-797) is a collaboration between the labs of Professors Chris Shaw and Jack Price at King’s College in London and Siddharthan Chandran in Edinburgh. It aims to use the already collected white blood cell samples within the UK MND DNA Bank to create a larger number of new iPSC models of MND. Ultimately creating an MND iPSC cell bank, these models will enable researchers to better understand the disease and screen potential new drugs. Continue reading

Developing a drug screen using nerve cells from a mouse model of MND

In a previous research project funded by the MND Association, Prof Kevin Talbot and colleagues from the University of Oxford developed a new TDP-43 mouse model of MND. Compared to other mouse models of MND, this one accurately reflects the symptoms of the disease and levels of the TDP-43 protein as seen in humans.

TDP43 location in the cell

Location of TDP-43 protein (shown in red) in healthy nerve cells, and how it moves into different parts of the cell in MND

This model of MND also shows how the TDP-43 protein becomes displaced from the nucleus (command centre of the cell) out into the cell cytoplasm, which makes up the cell body. Once TDP-43 has moved to the cytoplasm it is very difficult to shift, as it forms protein aggregates or clumps. It is thought that these clumps contribute to motor neurone cell death.

Prof Talbot’s latest project, together with researcher Dr David Gordon, is using cultured nerve cells from this new mouse model to screen a large library of drugs (our project reference: 831-791).

In the next two years, they will create an automated computerised imaging system that can detect the TDP-43 protein within the nerve cells (and see if it has moved out of the nucleus). With this imaging software the researchers aim to screen thousands of drug compounds in a short space of time, including some which have been approved for other illnesses. A ‘good’ drug will make TDP-43 stay in the correct location within the nerve cell’s nucleus. Continue reading

Investigating C9orf72 and TDP-43 proteins in a fruitfly model of MND

Background to C9orf72 toxicity

We know that damage to C9orf72 (both the gene and the protein it makes) is a crucial step in why some people get MND and why some people get frontotemporal dementia. There are three possible reasons why C9orf72 is toxic. 1) the way the gene is damaged alters how it normally works. 2) the formation of clumps of RNA – a by-product of the damage and not normally seen in cells, and 3) the formation of very short, new and unwanted proteins called ‘dipeptide repeats’ or ‘DPRs’, again these are not normally seen..

There’s evidence of all three types of toxicity within the motor neurone, but we don’t know how they work together or if one is more toxic than another. We also know that the protein TDP-43 forms clumps in motor neurones affected by the C9orf72 gene. Continue reading

Can zebrafish help us to learn more about MND?

A team at the Sheffield Institute for Translational Neuroscience are creating a zebrafish model to study the C9orf72 gene mutation in MND, and work out its role in the brain and spinal cord (our reference 864-792).

Zebrafish are a good way of modelling what happens in human MND. We know that many of the genes linked to causing MND in humans are also found in zebrafish. For example, changes to a gene called SOD-1 in humans are linked to about 20% of all cases of inherited MND, and when you genetically change the same gene in zebrafish they develop symptoms similar to MND.

A faulty or changed C9orf72 gene is associated with about 40% of all cases of the inherited form of MND. This change (or mutation) is also found in people with a form of dementia called frontotemporal dementia (FTD). FTD can alter abilities in decision-making and behaviour. Continue reading