Researchers of the Unit for Systems Biology of the University of Jaén, led by Francisco J. Esteban, are developing a software for clinical use to detect multiple sclerosis even before the typical brain damage of this neurodegenerative disease appear. In order to do so, this scientific multidisciplinary team is calculating the fractal dimension of the brain images registered on magnetic resonance imaging. They are starting to implement this technique also to other neurodegenerative diseases, and therefore it could be a tool for the early diagnose of this type of diseases. Centre for Applied Medical Research of the University of Navarra and Hospital Clínico of Barcelona are collaborating in this research.
Multiple sclerosis is a degenerative disease of the nervous system that cannot be cured and whose exact causes are unknown. When the first symptoms appear, one of the tests that is usually carried out is an MRI to find out if the brain suffers the typical damage of this disease. In the early stages of the disease it may be that no damage has been caused yet or that the damage caused is under the resolution limit of the MRI. In such cases the brain of an ill person is said to be 'apparently normal' as it shows the same features than that of a healthy person. However a group of Jaen scientists has applied an analysis by calculating the fractal dimension of an ill person's brain and they have proven that the result of that -shown with this parameter- is different from a healthy person's brain.
Unlike the Euclidean dimension (a point has a dimension of zero, a line has a dimension of one, a plane has a dimension of 2, and a volume has a dimension of 3), the fractal dimension is a parameter that allows to obtain dimensions ranging between 1 and 2 (2-D fractal dimension) and 2 and 3 (3-D fractal dimension). The fractal dimension is the dimension of irregular digitalized curves, and for some years now it has been applied to different biological structures, but the application to the brain was scarce. For the first time, this group of biologists, computing engineers, mathematicians, neurologists, neurosurgeons, psychologists and statisticians are carrying out this type of calculations on 3D magnetic resonance imaging of brains to try to solve clinical problems.
What the eye cannot see
This team is developing software that allows calculating the 3D fractal dimension of the brain. 'It is a tool for clinical use to try to see if persons suffering the early symptoms of multiple sclerosis, with an apparently normal brain, can suffer this disease. It could be a very useful tool for the early diagnosis of brain-related diseases' Esteban said.
With the currently carried out tests, you can calculate the volume, size or circumvolutions of the brain, but it was difficult to calculate its complexity, which is something that can be done with the fractal dimension. Jaen-based scientists are using different computer algorithms for image processing and are applying the theory of fractal dimension both on nuclear magnetic resonance of healthy people and on persons with certain neurodegenerative diseases such as multiple sclerosis. 'When fractal dimension is applied to the brain, we are able to detect certain alterations in the brain structures that cannot be observed with any other method used so far. By using this new technique, we can detect alterations that the eye cannot see' Professor Esteban Ruiz stressed.
So far this study has been carried out in patients with multiple sclerosis, but the aim is to apply it to other neurodegenerative diseases. 'We are using this method, in collaboration with Hospital Clínico of Barcelona, to detect possible changes in the brain of children that can develop learning difficulties. An early diagnosis can minimise such problems by applying a suitable treatment', the main researcher pointed out.
'The next step in our study consists of seeking the collaboration of Andalusian hospitals to see if there are successful results in different groups of patients' he added. If all the results are positive, 'this could be a good clinical tool, available straight away', the researcher ended.
The research conclusions have been published in prestigious medical journals such as Neuroimage and Journal of the Neurological Sciences, and they are been revolutionary in this field.