Israeli researchers have found a connection between the density of white matter fiber bundles in the brain and cognitive skills. The discovery could help to match therapies with the affected areas of the brain.
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White matter, which connects the various areas of the brain, is made up of components that transmit electrical signals between nerve cells. The researchers, from Tel Aviv University, proved that a connection exists between various kinds of cognitive skills and the degree of fiber density in the white matter.
Subjects who did well in mathematical exercises were found to have higher fiber density in the white matter known as cingulum. Those with a high level of skill in language were found to have higher fiber density in the area of the brain known as the arcuate fasciculus. Those with good memory abilities were found to have higher fiber density in the area known as the fornix.
The subjects were 52 right-handed adults (20 males and 32 females) aged 25 to 82. They were given various tests of cognitive skills while their brains were scanned using sophisticated imaging technology known as diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) that allowed the researchers to view the white matter in their brains.
“Unlike functional MRI, which scans the brain while the subject is asked to perform a task, the new method enables us to map the brain’s white matter and see its various characteristics according to the subject’s cognitive skills,” says Dr. Efrat Sasson, who headed the study under the guidance of Professor Yaniv Assaf of the Sagol School of Neuroscience at Tel Aviv University, in cooperation with the BioImage MRI research and consulting company. The study will be presented with other work in the field at the annual International Biotechnology Conference (Biomed), which will take place next week in Tel Aviv.
The study’s findings, which were published last March in the journal Frontiers in Brain Imaging Methods, show that brain scans can be used to match treatments for diseases that affect various cognitive skills to the affected area of the brain. For example, it may be possible to diagnose various kinds of dementia in earlier stages by scanning the brain for signs of damage and offering treatment that focuses on the specific cognitive abilities that have been affected.
“This kind of scan would enable people with diseases that affect white matter, such as multiple sclerosis and various psychiatric disorders, to receive treatment matched specifically with the affected areas of their brains,” says Dr. Sasson.
The study’s implications go beyond vision. Another study being conducted at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev by a team led by Dr. Simona Bar Haim is examining adults who suffer from cerebral palsy. The patients’ brains are scanned using DTI, and the patients are given physical therapy based on the results. “For example, if the brain scan shows that a specific area of white matter has been affected so badly that the patient can’t relearn a certain skill, it’s better to focus the physical therapy on other skills where there’s a chance of improvement,” says Sasson.
The study also showed that tendencies toward mathematical thinking or language were not permanently set, but could change over the years. “We saw that our brains were flexible, and even if people thought that their brains weren’t mathematically inclined and there was nothing to be done about it, we showed that the situation could change.”
A parallel study on rats headed by Dr. Tamar Blumenfeld-Katzir of Tel Aviv University and published in the June 2011 edition of PLoS ONE (“Diffusion MRI of Structural Brain Plasticity Induced by a Learning and Memory Task”) found that by training the brain, it was possible to change the structure of white matter fibers at various ages and improve specific mental functions.