Blocking single tiny blood vessel in the brain can harm neural tissue and even alter behavior

Published on December 17, 2012 at 12:54 AM · No Comments

Blocking a single tiny blood vessel in the brain can harm neural tissue and even alter behavior, a new study from the University of California, San Diego has shown. But these consequences can be mitigated by a drug already in use, suggesting treatment that could slow the progress of dementia associated with cumulative damage to miniscule blood vessels that feed brain cells. The team reports their results in the December 16 advance online edition of Nature Neuroscience.

"The brain is incredibly dense with vasculature. It was surprising that blocking one small vessel could have a discernable impact on the behavior of a rat," said Andy Y. Shih, lead author of the paper who completed this work as a postdoctoral fellow in physics at UC San Diego. Shih is now an assistant professor at the Medical University of South Carolina.

Working with rats, Shih and colleagues used laser light to clot blood at precise points within small blood vessels that dive from the surface of the brain to penetrate neural tissue. When they looked at the brains up to a week later, they saw tiny holes reminiscent of the widespread damage often seen when the brains of patients with dementia are examined as a part of an autopsy.

These micro-lesions are too small to be detected with conventional MRI scans, which have a resolution of about a millimeter. Nearly two dozen of these small vessels enter the brain from a square millimeter area of the surface of the brain.

"It's controversial whether that sort of damage has consequences, although the tide of evidence has been growing as human diagnostics improve," said David Kleinfeld, professor of physics and neurobiology, who leads the research group.

To see whether such minute damage could change behavior, the scientists trained thirsty rats to leap from one platform to another in the dark to get water.

The rats readily jump if they can reach the second platform with a paw or their snout, or stretch farther to touch it with their whiskers. Many rats can be trained to rely on a single whisker if the others are clipped, but if they can't feel the far platform, they won't budge.

"The whiskers line up in rows and each one is linked to a specific spot in the brain," Shih said. "By training them to use just one whisker, we were able to distill a behavior down to a very small part of the brain."

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