Low pH in the Brain Linked to Depression and Panic Disorder

Studies performed by John Wemmie, M.D., Ph.D., a neuroscientist at the Univeristy of Iowa, have uncovered interesting information about how acidity in the brain (pH) may impact healthy and unhealthy brain function. Dr. Wemmie’s studies, conducted on mice and human subjects, used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) tests to detect and track pH changes that occur in living brains. Dr. Wemmie is an associate professor of psychiatry and his study sprang from a keen interest in learning how pH levels may be associated with mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety disorder and panic disorder.

Looking For New Brain Information Required Creating a New Test Methodology

Going into the study, Wemmie and research partner Dr. Vincent Magnotta theorized that what happened in the brain was, in part, a result of pH-sensitive signals. At the moment, functional MRI (fMRI) tests are used to calculate brain activity. These fMRIs work by measuring blood oxygenation in the brain. Areas which are active receive greater blood flow and thus are more highly oxygenated. Wemmie and Magnotta (an associate professor of radiology and biomedical engineering) devised a new MRI-based methodology for detecting pH brain changes rather than oxygen changes.

Mice Tests Showed Global Changes in Brain Acidity

Using mice, the pair checked pH signals first as carbon dioxide was breathed in (thus reducing brain pH and raising the acidity in the brain) and then as bicarbonate was injected into the mice (thereby increasing brain pH which lowered acidity). Their results show that when brain activity rises there is a corresponding rise in brain acidity. The two seem to go hand in hand. The experiments using mice exposed global variations in brain acidity but the doctors also wanted to explore the possibility of detecting more localized acid responses.

Human Tests Revealed Localized Acid Changes

So, using human volunteers, Wemmie and Magnotta employed a blinking checkerboard experiment known to stimulate the vision area of the brain. As subjects viewed the flashes, the MRI test recorded changes in pH in the vision region of the brain. The scientists were able to determine a decrease in pH (signaling a rise in acidity) in that region as it became more active. Their tests further revealed that higher brain acidity is related to mental health conditions connected to stress or fear responses.

New Tests Open Possibilities For New Mental Health Treatments

These studies provide a new MRI-based method for detecting acidity; information current fMRI tests cannot provide. Armed with tests which can detect brain acidity and the knowledge that brain acidity is related to things like panic and anxiety disorder, it is hoped that further research can reveal how controlling acidity may provide a means of treatment for certain mental health conditions.

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