A multidisciplinary group of clinical and bench researchers has been formed at the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) to study cerebrovascular disease. The Cerebrovascular and Neurocognitive Research Group (CNRG), which consists of faculty from Neurology, Neurosurgery, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Microbiology and Immunology, and Vascular Biology will leverage advanced brain imaging technologies to investigate a number of diseases, including stroke, cerebral small vessel disease (CSVD), and vascular dementia.
These efforts are being supported in part by a new $2.7 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, to study how chronic inflammation drives cerebrovascular disease and disrupts the structure and connections between different parts of the brain.
The new study, which involves Giovanni Schifitto, M.D., M.S., Miriam Weber, Ph.D., and Bogachan Sahin, M.D., Ph.D., with the Department of Neurology, Jianhui Zhong, Ph.D., with the Department of Imaging Sciences, Sanjay Maggirwar, M.B.A., Ph.D., with the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, and Zhengwu Zhang, Ph.D., with the Department of Biostatistics and Computational Biology, will focus on a specific population of immune cells, called monocytes, that can trigger inflammation and at the he same time facilitate blood clot formation. The end result of this process is reduced blood flow in the brain, leading to mini-strokes and, over time, cognitive impairment.
The new research will specifically seek to understand how the damage caused in CSVD disrupts the brain’s communication networks. Using advanced MRI imaging technology that can capture precise details of brain structure and function and the computational resources of Center for Integrated Research Computing, the team will seek to build a comprehensive map of the neural connections in the brain – called a connectome – and observe how these connections are disrupted in CSVD over time. This information can be used to develop a series of neuroimaging biomarkers of the disease to diagnose and evaluate new treatments.
The researchers will follow 220 study participants – both HIV positive and negative – over a period of three years. While CSVD can arise due to high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking, and other risk factors, the condition tends to be more prevalent in individuals with HIV. It is estimated that 50-60 percent of people who are HIV positive may develop some form of CSVD by the time they reach their 50s. While the HIV infected population is at higher risk of cerebral vascular disease, researchers believe that their findings may ultimately be applicable to the general population.