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Issue 478, 4 March 2002

Keeping the beat with our brain cells

As we grow older, we become more forgetful and absentminded, but what is really going on in our brains as the years pass by? In the first in vitro research of its kind into ageing, two Leeds scientists are looking at how brain cells transmit information, in the hope of finding treatments for diseases like Alzheimer's.

Areas of the brain communicate with each other by producing distinctive electrical 'beats' in rhythmical patterns which can be picked up by an electroencephalogram (EEG) recording.

During different kinds of brain activity, we produce different rhythms: the slow delta band rhythm during sleep; the theta band when our brains deal with spacial navigation. Neurophysiologists Eberhard Buhl and Miles Whittington are interested in the gamma band, used when the brain is bringing together sensory input from different areas such as sight, sound and memory to create one picture. Known as feature binding, it is vitally important for our cognitive functions.

Rhythm research Eberhard Buhl (above left) and Miles Whittington

Professor Buhl: "EEG tests allow us to watch as the brain processes information, track the signals and understand them, but we are still not clear how they are made. By combining different strands of research – computer models and in vitro signals – we aim to understand these processes and find a therapy for age-related diseases."

The scientists are working with small groups of nerve cells – between 10,000 and 100,000 – recreating the signals in vitro to see how they are produced, and how they change as the cells age, in the presence of disease or when chemicals are added.

Dr Whittington: "During diseases such as Alzheimer's, brain cells produce weaker signals, reducing effective communication between different parts of the brain. There is very little evidence to show what happens in the cell to weaken these signals, but we hope our research will provide an answer."

With Professor Roger Traub of New York University, the scientists are also creating a computer model of brain cell networks, reducing the parameters to build up a clearer picture of what happens in the cell.

The research is funded jointly by the Medical Research Council and Glaxo Smithkline Beecham.

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