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Huntington’s Disease Goes Beyond Nerve Cells

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Huntington’s disease causes neurons in parts of the brain to gradually break down and die. The disease attacks areas of the brain that help to control voluntary movement, as well as other areas. Now new research has revealed that the disease not only affects nerve cells in the brain but also has widespread effects on microscopic blood vessels.

The findings are published in Brain Communications in an article titled, “The phase coherence of the neurovascular unit is reduced in Huntington’s disease,” and led by Juliane Bjerkan, Gemma Lancaster, Peter McClintock, and Aneta Stefanovska from Lancaster University; Jan Kobal, Sanja Šešok, and Bernard Meglič from the University Medical Centre in Ljubljana; Karol Budohoski from the Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Trust; and Peter Kirkpatrick from Cambridge University.

These changes to the vasculature were also observed in the pre-symptomatic stages of the disease, demonstrating the potential for this research for predicting brain health and evaluating the beneficial effects of lifestyle changes or treatments.

The vasculature and brain work together to ensure that the brain receives sufficient energy. To assess the function of neurovascular units, the researchers combined noninvasive measurement techniques and novel analysis methods developed by Lancaster’s Nonlinear and Biomedical Physics group.

Probes emitting infrared light were placed on the heads of participants in the study. The infrared light penetrated the skull harmlessly and enabled researchers to measure the brain’s blood oxygenation.

Electrodes, which can measure electrical activity from neurons, were also placed on the heads of participants. The researchers then studied the rhythms related to the functioning of the brain and the cardiovascular system using mathematical techniques. These rhythms included the heart and respiration rates, related to the transport of nutrients and oxygen, as well as slower rhythms associated with local control of blood flow.

Stefanovska said: “We are hopeful that the method described could be used to monitor the disease progression and to evaluate the effect of potential treatments or lifestyle changes in Huntington’s disease and other neurodegenerative diseases. We also hope that our study will stimulate new treatments of Huntington’s disease targeting the vasculature and brain metabolism.”

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