Dana Award Supports New Research in Brain Imaging

January 31, 2007

A physician seeking new ways to treat some of today’s most common diseases has been awarded a $300,000 grant by the Dana Foundation to continue developing a new type of imaging system that gives scientists unprecedented knowledge of how the brain is working.

Karl A. Kasischke, M.D., research assistant professor in the Department of Neurosurgery, will use the funds in a three-year project designed to provide precise information on how brain cells allocate and use energy. Such information is crucial in a host of chronic brain conditions and diseases, including stroke, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Kasischke is an expert in brain metabolism – how our brain uses energy. Our brain accounts for only about 2 percent of our body weight but burns up a good 20 percent of the energy we use every day. Today’s most sophisticated brain imaging technologies, such as PET scans and functional MRI, measure brain activity for whole regions of the brain, but Kasischke is trying to learn more by looking specifically at individual cells in the brain.

“With current technologies, you see the activity of a big clump of cells in the brain,” said Kasischke. “We’re developing techniques that allow us to see activity in single cells. There are many times when getting an image of a region isn’t as helpful as knowing what’s happening on a cell-by-cell basis.”

Kasischke is an expert on taking brain images that focus on nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide or NADH, a molecule present in nearly all our cells that indicates how much energy the cell is using. The molecule fluoresces ever so slightly under normal conditions, but Kasischke has learned how to use lasers to “interrogate” NADH, pumping light into cells and then watching how the molecule glows in response. It’s a new tool that Kasischke developed with colleagues at Cornell University to monitor energy levels in brain cells; now he’s using it to look at living brain cells.

Already Kasischke has made some surprising findings about the way that brain cells known as neurons and other, called astrocytes, communicate. He has shown that the two types of cells signal each other and work together continually – for instance, astrocytes can sense signals from neurons, and then send signals back to the neurons. Scientists had long thought that astrocytes were cells that simply nourished the neurons, but Kasischke’s work shows that the cells interact frequently with neurons. His colleague Maiken Nedergaard, M.D., Ph.D., has shown that the cells appear to be central to many diseases, such as epilepsy and spinal cord injury.

In his project funded by the Dana Foundation, Kasischke will look at energy levels in individual cells of the brain under normal circumstances, creating the world’s first road map of sorts of NADH in brain cells. He is also looking at conditions like stroke, where cells have a sudden, acute energy failure, and in diseases like ALS, where chronic energy failure in cells is typical of the disease.

In addition to the support from the Dana Foundation, Kasischke’s work is funded by the American Heart Association and the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Assn.

Kasischke earned his medical degree from the University of Ulm in Germany, then moved to Cornell to further his training as a research associate in biophysics at the School of Applied and Engineering Physics before joining the University of Rochester in 2005.

“I feel I can make a bigger contribution to people’s lives by looking for novel ways to study processes that are relevant to disease, than by treating individual patients directly,” he added. “This is especially true in neurology, where treatment options are limited. Chronic neurological disorders offer a fantastic target for new treatments.”

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