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YOUR HEALTH: Tracking the brain

Research that could help Alzheimer's patients and other people

LOS ANGELES — For the first time ever, neuroscientists at UCLA are measuring human brain waves while a person is in motion. 

If you think about it, it's something we do automatically, without thinking twice: how do you navigate through crowded spaces? 

Now, perhaps even more important during this pandemic, scientists are asking how does the human brain signal that we need to keep our distance? 

To find an answer, they're observing epilepsy patients with previously implanted brain sensors. 

Those sensors are in the section of the brain linked to memory and a person's navigation.

"We have them come in and we're able to record their brain activity from this device," said UCLA Neuroscientist Nanthia Suthana.

The patients wore a specially designed backpack with a wireless system that captured brain waves and eye movements in real time. 

Researchers instructed patients to explore an empty room, find a hidden spot, and remember it.

"And we're able to look at the activity deep in the brain, in an area that we know is important for memory," said Suthana.

"It's actually an area that is first affected in Alzheimer's disease."

Scientists found the brain waves were stronger when the participants returned to search for a hidden spot or saw another person approach the location.

"So, we're very interested in how this area works, such that we can inform potential future therapies for treatments of Alzheimer's disease," she added.

The scientists say earlier studies in rodents showed the animal's brains worked in similar ways to help them keep track of their location.

Prior to developing the wireless backpack, the studies couldn't be replicated in humans because imaging machines would require them to be tethered in one place. 

The UCLA has made the backpack available to other researchers to speed discoveries about brain disorders. 

And the research is truly international.

Targeted pulses of ultrasound can be used as a highly accurate treatment for a range of brain diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and neuralgia. 

The new ultrasound techniques are a genuine advantage for clinical practice. 

"The techniques developed in Vienna and Toronto represent innovative additional options we can use to supplement the existing established treatments, said Roland Beisteiner, who oversaw the development at the Department of Neurology of MedUni Vienna and Vienna General Hospital.

"The patient data that has now been published show that the transcranial ultrasound innovations are safe and ready for broad clinical application," he added.

The huge advantage of this technique is it is virtually free from any side-effects.

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Jim Mertens at jim.mertens@wqad.com or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at mthomas@ivanhoe.com.