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‘Singing brains’ offers epilepsy and schizophrenia clues

19 May 2009

Studying the way a person’s brain ‘sings’ could improve our understanding of conditions such as epilepsy and schizophrenia and help develop better treatments, scientists at Cardiff University have discovered.

Research by a team working in Cardiff University’s Brain Research Imaging Centre (CUBRIC) has discovered that a person’s brain produces a unique electrical oscillation at a particular frequency when a person looks at a visual pattern.

Importantly, the team found that the frequency of this oscillation appears to be determined by the concentration of a neurotransmitter chemical, GABA, in the visual cortex of each person’s brain. The more GABA was present, the higher the frequency or "note" of the oscillation. GABA is a key inhibitory neurotransmitter and is essential for the normal operation of the brain.

The research was primarily carried out by Dr Suresh Muthukumaraswamy and Dr Richard Edden and has just been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA.

Professor Krish Singh of Cardiff University’s School of Psychology, who led the research, said: "Using sophisticated MEG and MRI brain imaging equipment, we’ve found that when a person looks at a visual pattern their brain produces an electrical signal, known as a gamma oscillation, at a set frequency.

"In effect, each person’s brain ‘sings’ at a different note in the range 40-70 Hz. This is similar to the notes in the lowest octaves of a standard piano keyboard or the lower notes on a bass guitar. Importantly, we also found that this frequency appears to be controlled by how much of an essential neurotransmitter, GABA, is present in a person’s visual cortex."

The researchers believe that their findings will have important implications for future clinical studies, especially in terms of increasing our understanding of conditions such as epilepsy and schizophrenia, where it is known that there may be a problem with GABA.

Professor Singh added: "As a result of our research, we are already looking to share this work with our medical colleagues. In particular, we hope that the study of gamma oscillation frequency will provide a new window into the action of neurotransmitters such as GABA and how their function is compromised in diseases such as epilepsy and schizophrenia."

"We also believe that our findings could have important implications for the development, production and effectiveness of drugs to treat these and other neurological conditions."

1. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States (PNAS)

Suresh D Muthukumaraswamy, Richard A E Edden, Derek K Jones, Jennifer B Swettenham, Krish D Singh - Resting GABA concentration predicts peak gamma frequency and fMRI amplitude in response to visual stimulation in humans was published in the Early Edition Section of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States (PNAS). A full copy of the paper is available on request.

2. Cardiff University’s Brain Research Imaging Centre - CUBRIC

The Cardiff University Brain Research Imaging Centre (CUBRIC) is a University facility operated and supported by the School of Psychology and features the latest brain scanning technologies, providing a world-class facility for complementary applications in human brain imaging. Funding of around £10M was secured to realise the project, the majority of which (£8M) was awarded by the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI).

CUBRIC is one of the first facilities in the UK to combine Structural and Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI/fMRI) and Magnetoencephalography (MEG), enabling the detailed mapping of the structure and function of the healthy and impaired brain.

These techniques provide an exciting opportunity to make substantial contributions to modern biological, cognitive and clinical medicine and places Cardiff and Wales at the international forefront of developments in brain imaging for the cognitive, social and clinical neurosciences. www.cardiff.ac.uk/psych/cubric/

3. The School of Psychology

The School of Psychology at Cardiff is one of the largest departments of psychology in the United Kingdom. There are currently over 50 academic staff, 100+ research staff and a further 20+ Research Fellows (including Royal Society, BBSRC, ESRC, Leverhulme Trust and British Academy Research Fellows).

The School also has over 120 full-time students studying for Doctorates, both in research and on our professional Doctorate programmes. Each year it admits around 200 students to the Undergraduate degree programmes in Psychology and Psychology with Professional Placement.

In the recent Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), The School was rated as the top Psychology department in the UK by research power. www.cardiff.ac.uk/psych/index.html

4. Cardiff University

Cardiff University is recognised in independent government assessments as one of Britain’s leading teaching and research universities and is a member of the Russell Group of the UK’s most research intensive universities. Among its academic staff are two Nobel Laureates, including the winner of the 2007 Nobel Prize for Medicine, Professor Sir Martin Evans.

Founded by Royal Charter in 1883, today the University combines impressive modern facilities and a dynamic approach to teaching and research. The University’s breadth of expertise in research and research-led teaching encompasses: the humanities; the natural, physical, health, life and social sciences; engineering and technology; preparation for a wide range of professions; and a longstanding commitment to lifelong learning.

Visit the University website at: www.cardiff.ac.uk.

Professor Krish Singh

Cardiff University Brain Research Imaging Centre - CUBRIC

School of Psychology

Cardiff University

Tel: 02920 874690 / 870365

Email: singhkd@cardiff.ac.uk

Chris Jones

Communications and International Relations Division

Cardiff University

Tel: 029 20 874 731

E-mail: jonesc83@cardiff.ac.uk