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By Robert Kimball

Staff Writer

Software helps physicians 'read' changes in brain anatomy

It's a given in medicine, and especially surgery, that the sooner one can diagnose and operate, the greater the chances are for the best possible recovery for the patient. In today's evolving world of technology, more and more doctors are relying on computer technology to assist in this effort.

One Danish company, Brainreader (Horsens, Denmark) has launched a new software product that it claims has the potential to speed the detection of changes in a patient's brain volume, a key indicator in the diagnosis of degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer's disease, epilepsy and depression.

The software, Neuroreader, also can help identify changes in brain volume associated with concussions and other traumatic brain injuries. The Neuroreader analyzes MRI scans of patients' brains and benchmarks it against a database of healthy brain tissues.

The software measures 45 specific structures within the brain.

For example, if a physician is examining an Alzheimer's patient, he will upload the MR image to the Brainreader server. The software has an intuitive interface and can produce an automated report featuring analysis of the brain structure.

Risk taking and dopamine levels in the brain

Why are some people more prone to take risks than others? Base jumping . . . swimming with sharks . . . high-stakes card games and other gambling. The answers to these questions lie in our brain makeup. Each person is an individual with his or her own levels of risk taking thresholds. According to researchers from London, dopamine is the main culprit in determining one's risk aversion – or lack of it.

According to a study published in July in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers examined levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain that can lead to increased risk taking.

Dopamine is involved in reward learning, and previous research has linked dopamine drugs such as L-DOPA with compulsive gambling problems in people with Parkinson's disease. This study found that increasing dopamine levels in healthy adults led participants to choose more risky options in a gambling task.

The subjects put more leverage on risk when trying to get a bigger return after receiving L-DOPA but not placebo. But, if the losses were eminent, L-DOPA didn't affect the participants at all.

As far as state of mind, subjects were happy after just a small reward than they were while on placebo.

The researchers proposed that L-DOPA made potential rewards more appealing but did not affect subjects' perception of potential losses.


Brain's circuit can help with anxiety and fear reactions

Of the literally millions of tasks our brains are capable of, alerting us to potential threats, noises, unpleasant odors, and approaching danger (that person has been following me for a few blocks, should I be concerned?) are made capable by electrical impulses continuously buzzing down our sensory neurons, alerting the brain's "fear circuitry. This phenomenon has often been termed the "fight or flight" mechanism.

On the other hand, our brains can tell us when a threatening situation or stimulus is harmless or resolved.

If life were perfect, these events would occur all the time, but unfortunately, sometimes this system fails and unpleasant situations stick around, which is believed to be rooted in post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Researchers are trying to identify a neuronal circuit responsible for the brain's ability to purge bad memories, findings that could have implications for treating PTSD and other anxiety disorders.

Like most emotions, fear is neurologically complicated. But previous work has consistently implicated two specific areas of the brain as contributing to and regulating fear responses. The amygdala, two small arcs of brain tissue deep beneath our temples, is involved in emotional reactions, and it flares with activity when we are scared. If a particular threat turns out to be harmless, a brain region behind the forehead called the prefrontal cortex steps in and the fright subsides. Our ability to extinguish painful memories is known to involve some sort of coordinated effort between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex.

Andrew Holmes at the National Institutes of Health presents this study, which confirms that a working connection between the two brain regions is necessary to do away with fear.

Holmes sees the amygdala and prefrontal cortex as two major hubs in a complex communications network. In the case of impaired fear extinction such as PTSD, however, it is just the one connection between the two regions that is faulty, not the hubs themselves.


Make mine a small latte, please

Each morning in offices around the county, the break room is a very popular place. Donuts? Maybe on Friday. But, the number of co-workers will no doubt be huddled around the coffee machine. Earlier this year, Zagat published information that Americans consume an average of 2.1 cups of coffee per day (both in and outside the office).

In addition, it has been shown that coffee can be advantageous to certain aspects of your health – heart disease, longevity, depression, Type 2 diabetes, and Parkinson's.

It has even been reported that people might want to consider drinking more coffee (especially with all the different options available today).

Unfortunately, with good news, comes some bad as well.

The Washington Post reported recently that a study evaluating 1,445 people found that consistently drinking one to two cups of coffee each day is associated with a significant reduction in the risk of mild cognitive impairment (MCI), which can be a cause of dementia and Alzheimer's, compared to those who never or rarely consumed coffee. That supports previous work, published in 2010, that showed that caffeine may have a neuroprotective effect.

One surprise of this study was that people who went from one cup to more than one cup had twice the rate of MCI as those who reduced their drinking to less than one cup and 1.5 times the rate of MCI as those who continued to drink one cup a day.

The research, which involved participants in the Italian Longitudinal Study on Aging and were between the ages of 65 and 84, was published in the latest issue of the Journal of Alzheimer's Disease.

The results suggest that "cognitively normal older individuals who never or rarely consumed coffee and those who increased their coffee consumption habits had a higher risk of developing MCI," said co-authors Vincenzo Solfrizzi and Francesco Panza, researchers at the University of Bari Aldo Moro (Bari, Italy).

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