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Computerized atlas highlights 'plethora' of changes in brain disorder

May 19, 2006 -- A computerized atlas has brought unprecedented sensitivity to the search for brain structure changes in a genetic condition known as Williams syndrome, revealing 33 abnormalities in the folding of the brain's surface. The disorder, which occurs in 1 in every 20,000 births, impairs visual and spatial skills but preserves musical ability and sociability.

The findings, published in The Journal of Neuroscience this week, suggest the same technique may produce insights into more common brain development disorders such as autism, according to the researcher who developed the brain atlas at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

"We already have a study of autism well along in the pipeline with colleagues at the University of California-Davis," says lead author David Van Essen, Ph.D., the Edison Professor of Neurobiology and head of the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology. "We think that study will also highlight several previously unrecognized abnormalities in the folding of the cerebral cortex."

A more detailed inventory of changes in brain folding and its connections to changes in cognitive function should enable researchers to better understand the origins of developmental brain disorders and begin devising new approaches to treat them.

Van Essen announced the creation of the brain atlas, known as the Population-Average, Landmark and Surface-based (PALS) Atlas, in summer 2005, when it was made available online. PALS is the first atlas that accurately portrays the complex folds of the cerebral cortex not just from a single individual but from a group of individuals. This is important because the folding of cerebral cortex varies dramatically from one person to the next, similar to the variability of human fingerprints.

Van Essen and colleagues from Washington University, Stanford University and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles used data from brain scans of 16 individuals with Willi
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Contact: Michael C. Purdy
purdym@wustl.edu
314-286-0122
Washington University School of Medicine
19-May-2006


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