The final frontier: understanding the brain

Deciphering the language of the brain has long occupied the minds of scientists. Their aspiration of attaining a deeper understanding of the most complex organ in the known universe could have profound implications for tens of millions who would benefit from treatments for Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, autism, and depression among others.

Despite advancements in the field of brain research based on electroencephalogram (EEG) technology, cognitive neuroscientists still rely mainly on recording event-related potential (ERP) in order to examine brain functions, diseases and disorders. This is typically obtained by averaging 10 to 100 EEG trials related to a specific event to which the brain responds. In reality, there is usually considerable trial-by-trial response variability, thus readings of neural activities related to cognitive sub-processes by the conventional stimulus-locked average ERP method may be blurred and mixed. Although long recognised as a problem, the temporal variability of EEG responses has rarely been systematically addressed.

Residue Iteration Decomposition (RIDE) developed by Dr Changsong Zhou, Associate Professor of the Department of Physics, his team member Dr Guang Ouyang and cognitive science collaborator Professor Werner Sommer at the Humboldt University at Berlin, on the other hand is able to extract specific components of neural signal associated with different sub-processes, explicitly using the trial-by-trial latency variability. By separating overlapping components without serious distortion, RIDE provides information at single-trial level on waveforms, latencies, amplitudes and their correlations with the timing of external events (stimuli and responses) which allows for deeper examination of EEG data to better understand brain-behaviour relationships.

The unique algorithm of RIDE which has a patent filed in the US was awarded the Best Young Presentation Award at the World Congress of Psychophysiology 2014 in Hiroshima, Japan. Dr Zhou’s team has also developed a toolbox with user-friendly interface and website to encourage wider application of RIDE to contribute to studies into abnormal or degenerating cognitive functions, such as aging, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease, autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), etc.

In search of treatments for neurodegenerative diseases

Apart from making strides in the detection of cognitive functions and abnormalities, the research done at the University can be used to treat neurological disorders. Professor Li Min of the School of Chinese Medicine (SCM) and her team have made improvements to Huanglian-Jie-Du-Tang, an age-old Chinese medicine formula which was first recorded during the Tang Dynasty. HLJDT is widely used to treat excess heat and toxins and has also been adopted by Japanese medical professionals. Its beneficial effects have long been recognised and recent literature has shown that HLJDT has anti-inflammatory, antitumor and anti-ischemic properties and is effective in reducing blood lipids, mitigating liver damage, and more.

By removing a herb, Professor Li and her team have improved the HLJDT formula. Their research shows that their modified prescription produces far fewer side effects and significantly decreases the generation of beta amyloid and clears the accumulation of certain proteins, which is thought to be the root cause of Alzheimer’s disease. Their next goal is to extract the major active compounds from the modified HLJDT formula to develop a new drug for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

Professor Li and her team have also identified an autophagy inducer Corynoxine B from the Chinese herbal medicine Uncaria rhynchophylla. It has been shown to efficiently promote the degradation of the pathogenic protein in Parkinson’s disease termed alpha-synuclein, and enhance neuronal survival. This finding for which several patents have been filed provides potential treatment for a range of neurodegenerative diseases, including Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis and Huntington’s disease. The Mr. and Mrs. Ko Chi Ming Centre for Parkinson's Disease Research is the latest example of financial support provided to this meaningful and high-impact research in neurodegenerative diseases.

The human brain with 100 billion nerve cells is indeed a complex organ. Trying to understand how it works has led many researchers on a fascinating journey of discovery. Professor Ricky Wong of the Department of Chemistry is one such scholar who has devoted his life’s work to the subject. Professor Wong is leading an interdisciplinary and inter-institutional research project “Alzheimer’s Disease: From Detection, Diagnostics to Therapeutics” in collaboration with the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The project pulls together expertise in organic, analytical, biophysical chemistry, biomedical and neuroscience to tackle the unmet early detection, diagnostic and therapeutic challenges in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.