A Scottish study has made a major breakthrough in understanding how motor neurone disease (MND) affects the processes within the brain.
The disease is caused by the breakdown of motor neurons, the cells in the brain and spinal cord in charge of muscle control. These cells are connected together by synapses, which were the primary focus of the study.
It discovered that the loss of synapses is associated with a decline in brain function, including thinking, planning, reasoning and emotions, which is seen in up to 50 per cent of patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) – the most common type of MND. The discovery was made using extremely powerful technology, used in MND for the first time, allowing the scientists to view detailed images of synapses which are around 5,000 times smaller than the thickness of a sheet of paper. The research was funded by the charity MND Scotland and led by the University of Edinburgh’s Dr Chris Henstridge, who believes the results could open up an entire new field of synapse-focused MND research.
He said: “In terms of my project, this is the first big aim I sought to address with the grant I received from MND Scotland last year, so I’m pleased to have achieved that, within around 12 months.”
Dr Henstridge made the link after comparing the data from people with MND who may have experienced some changes in their behaviour or ability to reason and make decisions. He then compared this data against those who have MND but who do not experience any of these changes, and against people who do not have the disease.
The study was possible thanks to the patients and staff from the Scottish MND Register, one of the first disease registries of its kind anywhere in the world. The register compiles accurate statistics of people with MND in Scotland and gives MND patients across Scotland the opportunity to donate their DNA for research purposes. The discovery mirrors similar findings in Alzheimer’s disease, which have since inspired a new area of research into the role synapses play in cognitive change in neurodegenerative diseases.
Dr Henstridge said: “Up to 50 per cent of ALS patients have some kind of change in brain function as well as motor problems. For a long time, researchers have tried to uncover the mechanism that might be driving this change in brain function.
“We have discovered that a breakdown in connections between neurons in the brain is associated with a decline in brain function in ALS.”