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Current brain research on mental illness, memory and sleep

7 March 2018

At the Department of Neuroscience at Uppsala University, a great deal of research is under way about neurological damage and diseases of the brain.

Is there a connection between immunological diseases and mental problems? Is it possible to counter memory loss in dementia? How significant is sleep to the health of the brain? These are three examples of current research on the brain at Uppsala University, and you will have the opportunity to ask your questions to researchers in connection with the Bissen Brainwalk in Uppsala on 17 March 2018.

Diseases as a result of neurological damage, diseases or retardation cost society a great deal, both in suffering and money. At the Department of Neuroscience at Uppsala University, a great deal of research is under way in this area.

For example, there has been a clinic for autoimmune psychiatry in Uppsala since January 2015. It was founded by Janet Cunningham, M.D. and Associate Professor in Experimental Psychiatry, who researches the immune system’s role behind certain kinds of severe mental illness.

Immunological diseases with mental symptoms

Janet Cunningham, M.D. and Associate Professor in
Experimental Psychiatry.

At the clinic, patients with established or suspected immunological disorders in the nervous system that give rise to mental symptoms are examined and treated. The researchers have already gathered data and samples from more than 1,000 patients. Since the symptoms vary and are often both mental and neurological, specialists from neurology, rheumatology and gastroenterology are involved in the patient assessment.

“By doing repeated radiological exams, measuring inflammatory markers in the spinal fluid, blood and saliva, and estimating the degree of mental symptoms over time, we hope to be able to identify several disease markers and improve the psychiatric diagnostics,” says Janet Cunningham.

The purpose of the project is to identify biological changes in the immune system that are linked to mental illness and thereby contribute to greater knowledge of underlying disease mechanisms.

“At the clinic, we have already identified several patients with these conditions who have received especially adapted treatment and been able to achieve freedom from their symptoms. We are convinced that these studies can provide knowledge for improved diagnostics and optimised treatment targeted at the immune system for this new patient group,” says Janet Cunningham.

Countering memory loss in dementia

Klas Kullander, Professor of
Medical Developmental Biology.

The first symptom of Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most common and most well-known dementia disease, is poor memory. Primarily short-term memory is affected and, for those affected by dementia symptoms, the loss of memory functions becomes a major everyday problem.

Klas Kullander, Professor of Medical Developmental Biology, conducts research on countering memory loss in dementia and the analysis of memory circuits. His research team studies nerve cell circuits that are important for learning, memory, motor skills and cognition, with genetic, molecular biology and electrophysiological methods.

Focus for the research on dementia is the hippocampus, which sits in the brain’s temporal lobes and is used to form new memories.

“We know that the hippocampus brain structure is central to memory formation, but how memory and learning take place is not sufficiently established on a neural circuit level. In this project, we will investigate a special interneuron in the hippocampus, the so-called OLM cell and its role in memory formation,” says Klas Kullander.

The research team has shown that the OLM cell’s activity affects the encoding of memories in the brain. When the OLM cells are overactivated, memory and learning does not work as well, but when they instead are inactivated, the formation of new memories works better.

“This has given us greater understanding of an individual component in the memory circuits, but above all it provides hope of being about to counter the loss of memory formation in Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Now, we want to study these cells and circuits more closely to see if it is possible to apply to people with incipient memory problems,” says Klas Kullander.

Lack of sleep affects the brain

Jonathan Cedernaes,
sleep researcher and physician.

Everyone needs sleep, but today many sleep far too little, and many do shift work, which also disrupts sleep. Jonathan Cedernaes, sleep researcher and physician, conducts research on the significance of sleep to brain health.

The goal for the studies, which Bissen Brainwalk supports, is to understand how different kinds of sleep loss affects the health of the brain in healthy young individuals, and what steps can be taken to counter this risk.

“We know that sleep is important to brain health and that the brain, among other things, is cleared from toxins when we sleep, at the same time that memories are processed and strengthened. Our results and those of others indicate that the brain can be damaged by a lack of sleep, and that inadequate sleep can lead to a higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease, for example,” says Jonathan Cedernaes. 

However, the question is how different kinds of sleep loss can affect this, and if, for example, several nights of moderate sleep loss is worse than a whole night of staying awake.

“In our research, we also want to find out how a lack of sleep interacts with various lifestyle factors, such as exercise and diet, to influence brain health. Being aware of the significance of such factors in sleep loss can lead us to be able to formulate recommendations for how people who suffer sleep loss – including those who need to do shift work – can counter the negative effects that this has on brain health and ageing,” says Jonathan Cedernaes.

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Facts

The Department of Neuroscience has 14 research subjects in neuroscience with around 40 specialisations that are then divided into more than 110 different research projects that cover research on the brain, all diseases of the brain, damage and impairment very broadly, both preclinical and clinical. A large part of the research is conducted in immediate proximity to the healthcare services at Uppsala University Hospital.