Euan MacDonald Centre Researchers Attend International MND Symposium

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Last week, the 27th International Symposium on ALS/MND took place in Dublin. Organised by the MND Association, this is the largest medical and scientific research conference on MND and ALS in the world. We sent some of our top researchers along to present their findings, and to tell the MND community how we’re helping to #BeatMND.

Thomas Bak, a Clinical Research Fellow in Anne Rowling Regenerative Neurology Clinic and Reader in Human Cognitive Neuroscience, spoke on the cognitive symptoms of ALS. Thomas says: ‘My work focuses in general on cognitive and behavioural symptoms in ALS. I try to characterise such symptoms, describe their manifestations, frequency, severity and importance for everyday life of patients and their carers. However, I also wanted to go beyond a pure description and ask the question: why is an essentially motor disease accompanied by cognitive and behavioural changes? This is exactly the question I addressed in my talk at the Symposium’.

Guy Bewick, a Euan MacDonald Centre PI and Senior Lecturer at the University of Aberdeen, presented a poster on neuromuscular transmission. Guy says: ‘MND causes severe weakness, and reducing this will greatly reduce symptoms. We tested if a natural compound at nerve-muscle connections (called Transforming Growth Factor-β2 (TGF-β2)) can boost nerve-muscle signalling in MND mice. We found, not surprisingly, that defective nerve-muscle signalling coincided with nerve damage and MND symptoms (weakness, tremors, and abnormal walking). We found that TGF-β2 reversed the reduction in nerve-muscle signalling at early disease stages. This may explain why TGF-β2 injections reverse symptoms in MND mice and may, therefore, be a useful therapeutic target in early MND/ALS for treating weak signalling from diseased motor neurones’.

Amit Chouhan, a 2nd year PhD student at University of St Andrews, spoke about the functional interactions between neurons and glia (astrocytes) and the effect on different neurological diseases, including ALS. Before the Symposium, Amit told us ‘I’m really looking forward to interacting with and learning from the experiences of fellow researchers working in this field. I’d like to incorporate tools and technology developed by them in my work, and develop collaborations with other research labs around the globe to further enhance the depth and quality of my ALS research’.

Christopher Crockford, a final year PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, will be talking about the relationship between cognition, behaviour, and disease staging in ALS. Christopher says: ‘Up to half of individuals with MND will experience changes in their behaviour and the way in which they think (for example, problem solving, memory and language). This study explores how these changes are related to physical symptoms of the disease. I’m really looking forward to presenting the first results of this research to better assist clinicians in incorporating cognitive and behavioural status in their practice’.

Mark Harmon, a third year PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, presented a poster on optical methods for detecting the endoplasmic reticulum, which is a network of tubes within the cell. Mark explains, ‘Problems with the endoplasmic reticulum and the mitochondria (the cellular energy “power houses”) have long been studied in MND research. More recently however, the importance of the interaction between these cellular components in disease progression has come to light. My project focuses on developing a method to visualise their points of contact, and investigate how abnormal proteins that cause ALS may alter these contacts. This was the very first time I presented my work at an international conference – which is very exciting!’

Christopher Henstridge, a postdoctoral researcher at University of Edinburgh, presented a poster on cognitive decline in ALS patients. Christopher says: ‘Approximately half of all MND patients have changes in their behaviour and brain function. In this study, we aim to analyse the connections between cells in the brain, to discover if a loss of connections is associated with the changes in behaviour and brain function. This type of research is vital for advancing our understanding of MND and necessary for the design of potential new drugs for the disease. I was really looking forward to presenting my work for the first time at an MND conference, and learnt lots about the fantastic work being done around the world to combat the disease’.

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Caroline McHutchinson, a second year PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, presented a poster at the Symposium on the neuropsychiatric symptoms in people living with MND, and their family members. Caroline says: Some people living with MND experience changes in their behaviour and/or personality. Recent research suggests that there is a higher rate of neurological, psychological and psychiatric conditions within the family members of people living with MND. I aim to determine the frequencies of neuropsychiatric symptoms in people living with MND and their family members, compared to the general population, and examine whether certain factors relate to the presence and severity of behaviour changes in MND. It was great to meet new people who work in this field and extend my network with other researchers’.

Ratko Radakovic, a Research Associate at the University of Edinburgh, presented a poster on apathy in MND. Ratko explains: ‘Apathy is a behaviour change composed of different types of demotivation, and is observed in people with MND and frontotemporal dementia, which are thought to be related. My study aims to explore these different types of apathy at an individual case-by-case level within these patient groups, while also looking at certain gene mutations. I hope to further understand demotivation and the importance of its assessment, and explore person-centred interventions. It was great to see the multitude of different researchers and practitioners gathering at the Symposium, in order to better understand this disease and best help those living with it’.

Cornelia Roesl, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh, presented a poster on neuromuscular junctions. Cornelia says: ‘This project aims to find small molecules, which will have a fluorescent marker attached, to bind to nerve endings. Using a specialist microscope, doctors could use these molecules to get a visual output of patients’ nerve endings, which are the first to degenerate in MND. This could potentially improve the diagnosis of people living with MND, and replace the painful biopsies that are currently used’.

Hannah Smith, a third year PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, presented a poster on her findings in motor axon development in zebrafish. Hannah explains, ‘Chondrolectin is a gene linked to Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA), a childhood form of MND. I have used genetic manipulation to ‘knock out’ this gene in zebrafish, preventing the correct growth of the motor nerve from the spinal cord. My project investigates this effect further, as well as using it to test new potential drugs that encourage nerve growth’.

Check out our Storify to see what we got up to in full.