Research in neurosciences transcends boundaries

“Boundaries in research addressing different brain diseases are starting to be a thing of the past,” says Academy Professor Asla Pitkänen.

Led by Pitkänen and Professor Mikko Hiltunen, the Neurosciences research area takes a unique approach in bringing together research addressing Alzheimer’s disease (AD), traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post traumatic epilepsy (PTE). This approach is rooted in the idea of these diseases sharing common characteristics and associations.

Many head injuries increase the risk of both epilepsy and Alzheimer’s disease, and many AD patients also suffer from epilepsy. “Despite a different diagnosis, many of the molecular-level mechanisms are similar. For instance, epilepsy may manifest in dozens of different subtypes,” Pitkänen says.

“When it comes to patients with AD, few have ‘pure’ Alzheimer’s disease – the prevalence of other memory disorders and comorbidities is common. Hence, their treatment should be tailored accordingly,” Hiltunen says.

The objective is to chart shared and disease-specific molecular mechanisms and to use this information in developing novel prevention and treatment methods, and in establishing new biomarkers for risk assessment, diagnosis and monitoring. This much needed novel information will be generated by applying methods of bioinformatics to the analysis of big data, i.e., extensive masses of data.

These data masses are created by combining, in a novel way, experimental data with patient data from several research projects in the field of neurosciences.  Significant amounts of measured data are yielded by the comprehensive "omics" methods, for example genomics focusing on the level of genes, transcriptomics on gene expression, proteomics on cell proteins and peptides, and metabolomics on metabolic pathways.

Pitkänen emphasises that expensive devices and methodological expertise must serve the needs of as many research groups as possible. Recruitments made possible by the university’s strategic funding will be used to enhance expertise in, e.g., neurobioinformatics and neuroimaging, and to intensify the use of the research infrastructures and the processing of research data. Research groups involved in the Neurosciences research area have secured funding from the Academy of Finland, Finnish science foundations and EU programmes, and they have extensive international networks. The research area was running a strategic spearhead project also during the university’s previous strategy period.

Burning need for breakthroughs

In research addressing the mechanisms of post traumatic epilepsy, Pitkänen is one of the world leaders. “Post traumatic epilepsy is a widespread problem, as in Finland alone 38,000 people suffer a head injury every year. Even a relatively mild head injury quadruples the risk of epilepsy.”

According to Pitkänen, frequent head injuries suffered by athletes, for example, is an under discussed topic, but now, however, things might be changing. In the US, the Department of Defence has started to fund research into post traumatic epilepsy, a decision hailing from the prevalence of epilepsy among veterans of war.

A head injury can lead to epilepsy via several different molecular-level chains of events. These events must be measurable in order to know who might develop epilepsy, and who might benefit from preventive treatments. Pitkänen’s goal is to find new biomarkers indicative of changes in the brain, and to combine different biomarkers. Another goal is to use an animal model to test a new type of treatment that blocks two "epilepsy pathways" in the brain.

To date, no cure for Alzheimer’s disease exists, so there is a burning need for scientific breakthroughs. Hiltunen’s research group has been involved in the discovery of several risk genes associated with Alzheimer’s disease, and the group has made significant openings in research addressing their biological mechanisms.

“We study cell and molecular level processes that cause risk genes to lead to Alzheimer’s, and their associations with comorbidities. We are also analysing AD-related epigenetic changes that affect gene expression,” Hiltunen says.

Diagnostics of Alzheimer’s disease and screening of risk groups is being developed in a work package led by Professor Hilkka Soininen. The goal is to better identify persons suitable for clinical trials and interventions, and to prepare recommendations to prevent the development of AD. Earlier research has demonstrated that certain lifestyle habits and maintaining cardiovascular health can help in the prevention of memory disorders.

Alzheimer’s disease is also associated with type 2 diabetes. Professor Heikki Tanila is carrying out an in-depth analysis of the association between glucose metabolism and AD-induced detrimental changes in the brain, and he also uses this data to test dietary treatments in animal models of Alzheimer’s disease.

Novel imaging methods could prove effective in detecting post brain injury metabolic and microstructural changes indicative of, for example, epilepsy or a memory disorder. Professor Olli Gröhn is in charge of the project’s imaging studies, which combine novel magnetic resonance imaging with other methods and tissue research.

Scientific breakthroughs in the diagnostics and drug therapy of brain diseases have plenty of commercial potential. In addition, such breakthroughs could result in significant savings in health care costs and reduce human suffering. “An important milestone already now is that there’s more general awareness of memory disorders being a life-long process and of certain lifestyle habits having the potential to protect our memory,” Hiltunen says.