EEG and MRI combined: Helping solve ALS

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  • Published: Dec 1, 2017
  • Author: David Bradley
  • Channels: MRI Spectroscopy
thumbnail image: EEG and MRI combined: Helping solve ALS

Combined forces

Combining EEG (electroencephalography) with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has led to new insights into the signalling problems that lead to the delibating symptoms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Image credit: By Frank Gaillard -, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Combining EEG (electroencephalography) with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has led to new insights into the signalling problems that lead to the debilitating symptoms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

New work by scientists at Trinity College Dublin suggests that the neurodegenerative disease ALS as well as other related conditions may be associated with important changes in neural communication between different networks within the brain rather than simply arising because of changes in a single region.

ALS, also known more colloquially in the UK as motor neurone disease (MND) and in the US as Lou Gehrig's disease, leads to the death of the neurons that control voluntary muscles, resulting in stiff muscles, muscle twitching, and ultimately such severe weakness that the patient becomes immobile as muscles atrophy. Difficulty in speaking, swallowing, and eventually breathing can all ensue and premature death is common. It is known that the hereditary form affects between 5 and 10 of every hundred patients, but the aetiology in 90 to 95% of cases is not known.

Electrochemical signalling

What is known is that our brains function by electrical and chemical signalling. Thus, recording brain wave patterns can be very helpful in investigating certain medical conditions such as epilepsy. The reach that such studies might have in other conditions, such as ALS, is yet to be fully realised. However, a team in the Academic Unit of Neurology at TCD in Ireland have recently focused on brain wave patterns in neurodegenerative condition such as ALS. By using MRI in conjunction with EEG, they have made the startling discovery that particular parts of the brain can be "over-connected" in such diseases while in other regions there is reduced activity as the brain networks disintegrate.

Earlier work by the TCD group had already suggested that potential changes in EEG recordings might advance our understanding of the brain regions that are associated with disease progression and how those changes correlate with death of motor neurons. The team suggested that changes that are not seen in the healthy brain are newly indicative of changing dynamics in the brain and point to previously unknown abnormalities. The team provides details of the latest work in the journal Cerebral Cortex. Fundamentally, the work reveals that ALS is not a disease of a specific isolated part of the brain.

Deeper understanding

"Understanding how the networks in the human brain interact in health and disease is a very important area that has not been adequately researched" explains Bahman Nasseroleslami, Senior Research Fellow and Neural Engineer, who is the lead author of the current paper.

"Using EEG to decipher changes in brain function has not been possible until recently," he adds. "The computational power, mathematical and statistical tools were just not available. But our findings have shown that we can now explore the living human brain in a very sophisticated and non-invasive way, and that we can link our dynamic EEG changes with anatomical changes captured by MRI." By coupling EEG and MRI the team has expanded considerably their capacity to investigate the way in which the healthy and diseased brain is working in real-time and to expose correlations between disease and changes in brain networks. "This is breakthrough science," enthuses Nasseroleslami.

"These findings will change how we study ALS," suggests team leader Orla Hardiman. "Our identification of specific changes in brain wave patterns in different forms of neurodegeneration will allow us to develop new drugs, and monitor the effects of these drugs in ways that have not been possible up to now."

The same approach used to investigate ALS will be equally applicable to many other related neurodegenerative disorders including frontotemporal dementia. Hardiman adds that the findings will also help develop our understanding of a purported link between ALS and schizophrenia. "There is much to do, but this is the first step in developing new and innovative measurements that will have a major impact on how we conduct future clinical trials," she says.

There is currently no cure for ALS. Two new cases are diagnosed each year for every 100,000 people, and onset occurs on average in the age range 55 to 65 years.

Related Links

Cerebral Cortex 2017, online: "Characteristic Increases in EEG Connectivity Correlate With Changes of Structural MRI in Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis"

Article by David Bradley

The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.

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