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Media Release: Dalhousie researchers discover that brain fog, memory loss in lupus patients may be linked to leaky blood vessels
For the millions of people who suffer from lupus, a devastating complication of the disease can be the loss of certain cognitive functions, such as memory and the ability to concentrate.
It has long been known that lupus is a disease in which the body's immune system attacks its own organs. But, scientists studying lupus have struggled to understand why roughly 40 per cent of patients experience confusion, fatigue and difficulty expressing their thoughts -- a collection of symptoms known as cognitive dysfunction or “lupus fog.”
Now, researchers at Dalhousie University have used a new brain imaging technique to uncover a possible explanation which involves the blood-brain barrier -- the lining of the brain’s blood vessels that blocks harmful substances from entering the brain. When that barrier leaks, foreign molecules can seep from the blood vessels into the brain and trigger inflammation that can undermine brain function.
The researchers have found that lupus patients with leaky blood vessels in the brain were twice as likely to have impaired cognitive function, compared to patients with non-leaky blood vessels.
“These findings are an important step forward,” says study lead author Lyna Kamintsky, a PhD student in the Department of Medical Neuroscience at Dal. “Usually when people think of cognitive difficulties, they imagine an issue with the brain’s most famous cells – the neurons.
“Our research shows that the brain’s blood vessels may be the key to understanding what causes neurons to dysfunction. Hopefully soon, this will lead to a new generation of treatments.”
This research opens up a whole new field for neuroscience. Until recently, the tiny blood vessels of the brain could only be examined after a patient died.
“Now that we can look at the blood vessels of living patients using MRI, we’re realizing that the source of many problems is a failure to keep the things in our blood from entering our brain,” she says.
Kamintsky believes this MRI technique has major potential as a diagnostic tool for the neurological complications of other diseases linked to leaky blood vessels in the brain, including diabetes, epilepsy, traumatic brain injury, bipolar disorder and COVID-19.
The study is described in a new paper being published in the Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases .
Kamintsky is available to explain how this discovery marks an important step towards understanding why lupus patients have cognitive difficulties, while also advancing research into prevention and treatment.
Senior Research Reporter
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