News Briefs: Electrical Brain Stimulation; Gut Bacteria & Cancer Treatment; Double Vision

Electrical Brain Stimulation Improves Memory

In a small study, neuroscientists at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA have discovered precisely where and how to electrically stimulate the human brain to enhance people’s recollection of distinct memories. Study participants with epilepsy who received low-current electrical pulses showed a significant improvement in their ability to recognize specific faces and ignore similar ones. Eight of nine patients’ ability to recognize the faces of specific people improved after receiving electrical pulses to the right side of the brain’s entorhinal area, which is critical to learning and memory. However, electrical stimulation delivered to the left side of the region resulted in no improvement in the patient’s recall. Supported by funds from the National Institutes of Health, this study builds on 2012 UCLA research that demonstrated that human memory can be strengthened by electrically stimulating the brain’s entorhinal cortex. The study suggests that even low currents of electricity can affect the brain circuits that control memory and human learning. It also illustrates the importance of precisely targeting the stimulation to the right entorhinal region. Other studies that applied stimulation over a wide swath of brain tissue have produced conflicting results. Electrical stimulation could offer promise for treating memory disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.

Gut Bacteria May Play a Role in Cancer Treatment

According to a recent report in the journal Science, bacteria that live in the human digestive tract (also known as the microbiome) can influence how cancer responds to immunotherapy, opening a new avenue for research to improve treatment. Research in humans and mice showed that gut bacteria play an important role in how the immune system works. Researchers compared patient responses to newer cancer drugs called PD-1 inhibitors and patients’ gut bacteria. They found that patients with metastatic melanoma treated with PD-1 drugs have their disease controlled longer if they have a more diverse population of bacteria in the gut or an abundance of certain types of bacteria. “You can change your microbiome, it’s really not that difficult, so we think these findings open up huge new opportunities,” says study leader Jennifer Wargo, MD, associate professor of Surgical Oncology and Genomic Medicine, at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Dr. Wargo and colleagues are working to develop a clinical trial that combines checkpoint blockade drugs (such as PD-1 therapy) with microbiome modulation. Meanwhile, the researchers note that there is still much to learn about the relationship between the microbiome and cancer treatment. Because the wrong supplements can do more harm than good, they urge cancer patients not to attempt self-medication with probiotics or other methods.

Double Vision Can Be Common in Seniors

A study from the University of Michigan Kellogg Eye Centers reveals just how common double vision, called diplopia, is in the United States. An estimated 850,000 visits to doctor’s offices and emergency departments occur each year for double vision, though life-threatening diagnoses are rare, according to a study published in JAMA Ophthalmology. Researchers analyzed data from a 10-year period and found that most visits for diplopia were by patients age 50 and older. Most, 95 percent, were outpatient visits, and diagnoses were rarely serious in this setting. But diplopia-related emergency department visits were potentially life threatening in 16 percent of cases. Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes can be a sign of stroke, and an imaging test can tell doctors if seeing double is caused by a lack of blood flow to the brain, or another abnormality, such as a tumor. But there are other stroke signs and symptoms, like numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, loss of balance, confusion or trouble speaking. If stroke is suspected, emergency medical care is a must. But if double vision is the only issue, patients should see an eye doctor who is skilled at evaluating the problem rather than ordering imaging, according to the researchers. The same may not be true in the emergency department. Patients brought to the emergency department primarily for double vision were more likely to have a serious neurological condition, so the threshold for neuroimaging should be lower.

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