‘Heart of brain’ breakthrough may aid treatment of disorders, Hong Kong scientists say

Researchers prove a region in organ drives connected functions, and discovery could help treat Alzheimer’s disease, depression and autism

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 September, 2017, 3:52pm
UPDATED : Monday, 18 September, 2017, 10:57pm

Hong Kong scientists have made a breakthrough in their four-year research on the connectivity of brain functions and how this may help in the early diagnosis and treatment of brain diseases.

A team of researchers from the University of Hong Kong found that the hippocampus, a horseshoe-shaped structure in the middle of the brain that helps process long-term memory, was one of the drivers behind how different brain parts communicate with each other.

There is currently very limited research on the connectivity and related functions of different regions in the brain, one of the least understood parts of the human body.

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The discovery, which was published in international academic journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America in August, proves for the first time the role of the hippocampus in driving functions within the brain.

“Different parts of the brain are always talking to each other and they are massively interconnected, but there is very limited knowledge about the brain circuit, its network and how it actually works,” said Ed Wu Xuekui, chair professor in biomedical engineering at HKU’s department of electrical and electronic engineering.

During the research, the team conducted experiments on rodents, which have a similar brain structural connectivity to humans.

Different parts of the brain are always talking to each other and they are massively interconnected
Ed Wu Xuekui, chair professor

Through a process known as optogenetics, which stimulates neurons in specific brain regions, scientists were able to prove that introducing low frequencies to the hippocampus could increase its connectivity with other parts of the cerebral cortex.

The cerebral cortex is a wrinkly, outermost layer of the brain, an area long heralded as a high-powered processor responsible for memory, consciousness and five senses.

The research also showed that low frequency stimulation can enhance visual processing by 20 per cent in rats.

The project found that the hippocampus could be considered the “heart of the brain” as it was able to drive and propel interaction between different brain regions, scientists said.

Dr Russell Wade Chan, one of the researchers in the team, said the breakthrough could potentially help earlier diagnosis and treatment of brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, depression and autism.

Patients with Alzheimer’s have reduced functional connectivity between the left and right parts of the hippocampus, but more research is needed to prove further correlations.

“It’s like mathematically modelling the brain, if we don’t know the origins or mechanisms of the brain, it’s hard to diagnose the disease,” Chan said.

Research has already shown that electrical stimulation of the brain can reduce hand tremors of patients with Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative brain disorder that impairs movements.

According to the team, clinical trials were being conducted with optogenetics and it could be a targeted method to treat brain disorders soon.