#LoveIrishResearch BLOG: Altered neural communication in motor neuron disease

For the final post in our series of health-themed blogs by Irish Research Council and Health Research Board-funded researchers, we thank Dr Bahman Nasseroleslami (IRC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Academic Unit of Neurology, Trinity College, Dublin) for this piece about his research into Motor Neuron Disease, under the mentorship of Professor Orla Hardiman (Professor of Neurology and Head of Trinity Biomedical Sciences Institute, TCD). Professor Hardiman has led research on a number of Health Research Board projects, including a recently concluded project on Biomarkers in Neurodegeneration.

Altered neural communication in motor neuron disease may facilitate early diagnosis and personalised therapy

Motor Neuron Disease (MND or ALS) is a degeneration of the neural cells controlling the muscles, which eventually leads to a loss of all voluntary movement and death or permanent ventilation, with the risk of a locked in state.  The average life expectancy is 3-5 years from first symptoms.  Early diagnosis and identification of the subtypes of the disease that may respond to emerging therapeutics is critical, but still an unresolved challenge for clinicians. While the disease has been long known to progressively destroy specific pathways carrying the neural signals to muscles, it is not yet understood how exactly the affected and unaffected pathways work together in the disease.

Researchers in the fields of motor control and neurophysiology have been making advances in deciphering how different neural pathways are involved and communicate to control human movements. One of the widely-used non-invasive research technique is to record the electrical activity of the brain from over scalp (brainwaves or EEG) and of the muscles from over the skin (EMG). These recordings are then analysed by advanced engineering techniques to understand how the different parts of the brain and the muscles communicate with each other. Recently, based on the emerging evidence, it is being more and more accepted that the nervous system that controls movements (the motor system), is actually a combination of several sub-systems that work together.

Dr Nasseroleslami, trained in Biomedical Engineering with research experience in motor control and neurophysiology, has been working on applying the techniques from engineering and neurophysiology to studying Motor Neuron Disease. Mentored by Professor Hardiman, the Lead Consultant Neurologist in the National ALS Clinic at Beaumont Hospital, and Professor of Neurology at Trinity College Dublin, he is part of a group that has been extending the research together with Professor Richard Carson (Trinity), Professor Madelleine Lowery (University College Dublin), Dr Edmund Lalor (University of Rochester, USA) and Dr David Haillday (University of York, UK).

The preliminary findings suggest that there is a significant change in the way that brain networks communicate in MND, which is proportional to the level of damage in the disease. The ongoing studies seek to further refine the altered communication in specific sub-systems that play a role in controlling human movement.

Throughout the project, continuous interaction between researchers has brought together the required pieces of knowledge from engineering, neurophysiology and neurology. A prominent example is the design of the new experiments where clinical knowledge (disease symptoms and clinical examination), neurophysiological experience (common laboratory tasks and practice) and technical and analytical considerations (computational feasibility) were forged to develop a completely new paradigm of how to examine the motor system in disease states. This has led to a study that is uniquely multi-disciplinary and is making contributions to all of the research disciplines.