Disruption in brain dynamics could underlie the pathophysiology of Huntington’s disease
In 2011, IBM neuroscientists unveiled the Neural Tissue Simulator, a computer program that could simulate the way neurons talk to each other in the brain. A follow-up study by the same authors published earlier this year provides a potential new strategy for researchers studying the biological basis of Huntington’s disease.
Huntington’s disease, initially known as ‘chorea’ owing to the jerky, dance-like involuntary, uncoordinated body movements exhibited by patients, is of neurodegenerative origin with strong genetic links and is caused by a mutation in the gene producing the huntingtin protein. People with this affliction typically experience seizures and problems in chewing, swallowing and speaking, progressive cognitive impairment and motor function decline. The mortality associated with this disease is very high, with affected people dying within 20 years of onset of symptoms. While animal studies have provided hints about its role in normal physiology, the exact mechanism by which the mutant huntingtin protein causes such severe and widespread damage in the body remains elusive.
In their paper in Frontiers of Neuroanatomy, James Kozloski and team propose a new computational approach that aims to take a closer look at how mutant huntingtin affects biological neural networks. They believe that the abnormal protein somehow perturbs the normal communication patterns that neurons use to talk and listen to each other, resulting in wrong signals and messages being conducted through the brain. “It could be that the Huntington’s gene is causing the neuron to relate to its neighbors in a way that’s slightly different from how it’s supposed to. If that’s so, the circuit might be adjusting to a whole different set of conditions,” explains Kozloski.
The main advantage of the Neural Tissue Simulator is that it can predict how neurons interact in a specific region of the brain, as well as extrapolate these interactions to a global scale. While these studies are yet to be conducted, the team claims that using approaches that are at the interface of medicine and information technology could help speed up the research in this rather stagnant field.