When my husband and I recently attended the Network PKU Conference in Denver, Colo., there was a very interesting presentation given by Dr. Shawn Christ, director of the Clinical Neuropsychology Laboratory at the University of Missouri’s Brain Imaging Center. His research focuses on the brain and why conditions like PKU impact its structural and functional integrity.
After reminding attendees that hi-phe levels can build up and cause damage, Christ explained that he and his team have started using magnetic resonance imaging, or MRIs, to study impact to the brain. The equipment located at the Brain Imaging Center not only uses magnetic fields to generate images of the brain, but is also outfitted with hi-definition projectors and surround sound speakers for conducting visual and auditory memory experiments.
When used on PKU patients, MRI scans can capture any damage that might have been caused to the white brain matter, thus providing a glimpse into the structural integrity of the brain. What’s more though, Dr. Christ has begun looking at the functional integrity of the brain by asking research subjects to solve math problems while undergoing an MRI. Another test the team might use examines memory function by asking participants to watch a series of letters and then push a button when the letter they see is the same as what they saw two letters before.
Dr. Christ performed these tests with six PKU patients (who had elevated protein levels) and six non-PKU patients. He then looked to see what parts of the brain people with PKU are using differently than those without PKU. What Dr. Christ found was that PKU patients were activating specific areas of the brain more than the non-PKU participants. In other words, they were compensating.
Fascinating, huh? Well, it gets better. The research, as it turns out, can be applied beyond PKU. That’s because people with learning disabilities, autism and even schizophrenia will all benefit from research focused on brain structure and function. Here’s a video created by the MU News Bureau that further explains the possibilities:
In the future, Dr. Christ hopes to explore why it is that some PKU patients are more affected by hi-phe levels than others. He is also planning to team up with BioMarin to see what happens in the brain when phe levels are dropped using Kuvan treatments.
I’m certainly looking forward to hearing more about the ongoing research Dr. Christ and the other researchers are pursuing at the University of Missouri’s Brain Imaging Center!