How ultrasound testing effects a developing nervous system is the question that scientists of the University of Debrecen try to find answers to in a research project of embryology. Their research findings may even contribute to the therapy of individual neurodegenerative illnesses.
Ultrasound testing has been used routinely in diagnosing pregnancy in Hungary since the 1980s. According to the present knowledge available in medical science, this is the single imaging procedure that can be safely applied during the course of pregnancy, as it is not dangerous for the embryo or for the expecting mother. In their unique research project, experts at the University of Debrecen investigate to what extent ultrasound examination causes durable transformations in the developing brain.
“There has been no similar research conducted anywhere else in the world so far because we examine the potential effect of ultrasound in a totally different way than other research teams have done. During the course of this procedure, we mark nerve cells in the brain of mice in a novel transgenic way and then conduct an ultrasound examination on expecting mice which is similar to the ones carried out in a routine expectancy test on people,” said Zoltán Mészár, Assistant Professor of the Department of Anatomy, Histology and Embryology.
The head of the research team underlined that transgenic technologies had resulted in a revolutionary development of neural science in the past 15-20 years. It was also through the genetic modification of the gene stock of animals that made possible the research conducted at the University of Debrecen, too, during which the changes occurring as a consequence of experimental manipulation of neural cells could be observed right from the beginning of embryonic developmenti.
“We can follow the changes occurring in the axons of the marked neurons digitally, in a high resolution 3D environment. We concentrate on two parts of the brain: the hippocampus and the limbic areas of the frontal lobe, which are responsible for regulating memory, learning processes and basic behavior patterns,” said Assistant Professor Mészár.
Although the experiments of the research project, which has been conducted only for the past six months, are still under way, the preliminary findings suggest that ultrasound stimulates developing nerve cells, which results in lasting morphological changes.
“We have experienced a 10 percent surface growth in the axons of nerve cells, which means that their receptive fields have increased. We know for sure that ultrasonography always causes a transitory change because developing neurons are also sensitive and do react to mechanic stimuli. What is surprising though is that even a relatively short ultrasonic stimulus can result in an effect that lasts for several days, which means a very long time period in the development of neurons,” said Zoltán Mészár.
The research project is carried out with the cooperation of two colleagues from Orvosi Képalkotó Klinika [Department of Medical Imaging]: Tamás Papp and Zsuzsanna Ferenczi. According to the young medical experts, the findings of the basic research may contribute to figuring out how ultrasound used in diagnostics could be utilized for therapy in order to improve the prognoses of individual diseases of the central nervous system.
“There are diseases in which the axons and the dendrites of neurons start to die or the neural network starts to disintegrate. Attempts at treating Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease with stem cells have been launched and we can add data to these about how ultrasonic stimuli may affect the development of the neurons in a favorable fashion,” said Tamás Papp.
Zsuzsanna Ferenczi forevisions a potential next stage of the research when the effect of ultrasound is examined with the help of neurologists and neurosurgeons on neurons that are already developed. Ms. Ferenczi is curious to find out if ultrasound has the same effect on the nerve cells of adults as it does on the developing neurons of embryos.