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1.  The NLRP3 and NLRP1 inflammasomes are activated in Alzheimer’s disease 
Interleukin-1 beta (IL-1β) and its key regulator, the inflammasome, are suspected to play a role in the neuroinflammation observed in Alzheimer’s disease (AD); no conclusive data are nevertheless available in AD patients.
mRNA for inflammasome components (NLRP1, NLRP3, PYCARD, caspase 1, 5 and 8) and downstream effectors (IL-1β, IL-18) was up-regulated in severe and MILD AD. Monocytes co-expressing NLRP3 with caspase 1 or caspase 8 were significantly increased in severe AD alone, whereas those co-expressing NLRP1 and NLRP3 with PYCARD were augmented in both severe and MILD AD. Activation of the NLRP1 and NLRP3 inflammasomes in AD was confirmed by confocal microscopy proteins co-localization and by the significantly higher amounts of the pro-inflammatory cytokines IL-1β and IL-18 being produced by monocytes. In MCI, the expression of NLRP3, but not the one of PYCARD or caspase 1 was increased, indicating that functional inflammasomes are not assembled in these individuals: this was confirmed by lack of co-localization and of proinflammatory cytokines production.
The activation of at least two different inflammasome complexes explains AD-associated neuroinflammation. Strategies targeting inflammasome activation could be useful in the therapy of AD.
PMCID: PMC4778358  PMID: 26939933
Alzheimer’s disease; Neuroinflammation; Inflammasome; Beta amyloid; Mild cognitive impairment
2.  Theory of Mind and the Whole Brain Functional Connectivity: Behavioral and Neural Evidences with the Amsterdam Resting State Questionnaire 
Frontiers in Psychology  2015;6:1855.
A topic of common interest to psychologists and philosophers is the spontaneous flow of thoughts when the individual is awake but not involved in cognitive demands. This argument, classically referred to as the “stream of consciousness” of James, is now known in the psychological literature as “Mind-Wandering.” Although of great interest, this construct has been scarcely investigated so far. Diaz et al. (2013) created the Amsterdam Resting State Questionnaire (ARSQ), composed of 27 items, distributed in seven factors: discontinuity of mind, theory of mind (ToM), self, planning, sleepiness, comfort, and somatic awareness. The present study aims at: testing psychometric properties of the ARSQ in a sample of 670 Italian subjects; exploring the neural correlates of a subsample of participants (N = 28) divided into two groups on the basis of the scores obtained in the ToM factor. Results show a satisfactory reliability of the original factional structure in the Italian sample. In the subjects with a high mean in the ToM factor compared to low mean subjects, functional MRI revealed: a network (48 nodes) with higher functional connectivity (FC) with a dominance of the left hemisphere; an increased within-lobe FC in frontal and insular lobes. In both neural and behavioral terms, our results support the idea that the mind, which does not rest even when explicitly asked to do so, has various and interesting mentalistic-like contents.
PMCID: PMC4674569  PMID: 26696924
resting state components; theory of mind (ToM); functional connectivity (FC); resting state fMRI (rfMRI); graph analysis
3.  Mind-Reading Ability and Structural Connectivity Changes in Aging 
Frontiers in Psychology  2015;6:1808.
The Mind-Reading ability through the eyes is an important component of the affective Theory of Mind (ToM), which allows people to infer the other’s mental state from the eye gaze. The aim of the present study was to investigate to which extent age-associated structural brain changes impact this ability and to determine if this association is related to executive functions in elderly subjects. For this purpose, Magnetic Resonance Imaging was used to determine both gray matter and white matter (WM) areas associated with aging. The resulting areas have been included in a subsequent correlation analysis to detect the brain regions whose structure was associated with the Mind-Reading ability through the eyes, assessed with the Italian version of the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” (RME) test, in a sample of 36 healthy subjects ranging from 24 to 79 years of age. The analysis resulted in three important findings: (1) the performance to the RME test is relatively stable across the decades 20–70 (despite a slight decrease of this ability with aging) and independent from executive functions; (2) structural brain imaging demonstrated the involvement of a great number of cortical ToM areas for the execution of the RME test: the bilateral precentral gyrus, the bilateral posterior insula, the left superior temporal gyrus and the left inferior frontal gyrus, which also showed a significant volume decrease with age; (3) an age and task-related decline in WM connectivity on left fronto-temporal portion of the brain. Our results confirm the age-related structural modifications of the brain and show that these changes have an influence on the Mind-Reading ability through the eyes.
PMCID: PMC4659903  PMID: 26635702
magnetic resonance imaging (MRI); diffusion magnetic resonance imaging; aging neuroscience; growth and development; theory of mind (ToM); voxel-based morphometry (VBM); tract-based spatial statistics; mind-reading
4.  High-Dimensional ICA Analysis Detects Within-Network Functional Connectivity Damage of Default-Mode and Sensory-Motor Networks in Alzheimer’s Disease 
High-dimensional independent component analysis (ICA), compared to low-dimensional ICA, allows to conduct a detailed parcellation of the resting-state networks. The purpose of this study was to give further insight into functional connectivity (FC) in Alzheimer’s disease (AD) using high-dimensional ICA. For this reason, we performed both low- and high-dimensional ICA analyses of resting-state fMRI data of 20 healthy controls and 21 patients with AD, focusing on the primarily altered default-mode network (DMN) and exploring the sensory-motor network. As expected, results obtained at low dimensionality were in line with previous literature. Moreover, high-dimensional results allowed us to observe either the presence of within-network disconnections and FC damage confined to some of the resting-state subnetworks. Due to the higher sensitivity of the high-dimensional ICA analysis, our results suggest that high-dimensional decomposition in subnetworks is very promising to better localize FC alterations in AD and that FC damage is not confined to the DMN.
PMCID: PMC4315015  PMID: 25691865
group independent component analysis; functional connectivity; resting-state fMRI; Alzheimer’s disease; default-mode network; sensory-motor network
5.  Effective artifact removal in resting state fMRI data improves detection of DMN functional connectivity alteration in Alzheimer's disease 
Artifact removal from resting state fMRI data is an essential step for a better identification of the resting state networks and the evaluation of their functional connectivity (FC), especially in pathological conditions. There is growing interest in the development of cleaning procedures, especially those not requiring external recordings (data-driven), which are able to remove multiple sources of artifacts. It is important that only inter-subject variability due to the artifacts is removed, preserving the between-subject variability of interest—crucial in clinical applications using clinical scanners to discriminate different pathologies and monitor their staging. In Alzheimer's disease (AD) patients, decreased FC is usually observed in the posterior cingulate cortex within the default mode network (DMN), and this is becoming a possible biomarker for AD. The aim of this study was to compare four different data-driven cleaning procedures (regression of motion parameters; regression of motion parameters, mean white matter and cerebrospinal fluid signal; FMRIB's ICA-based Xnoiseifier—FIX—cleanup with soft and aggressive options) on data acquired at 1.5 T. The approaches were compared using data from 20 elderly healthy subjects and 21 AD patients in a mild stage, in terms of their impact on within-group consistency in FC and ability to detect the typical FC alteration of the DMN in AD patients. Despite an increased within-group consistency across subjects after applying any of the cleaning approaches, only after cleaning with FIX the expected DMN FC alteration in AD was detectable. Our study validates the efficacy of artifact removal even in a relatively small clinical population, and supports the importance of cleaning fMRI data for sensitive detection of FC alterations in a clinical environment.
PMCID: PMC4531245  PMID: 26321937
functional magnetic resonance imaging; resting state; artifacts; functional connectivity; default mode network; Alzheimer's disease
6.  A Novel Approach of Groupwise fMRI-Guided Tractography Allowing to Characterize the Clinical Evolution of Alzheimer's Disease 
PLoS ONE  2014;9(3):e92026.
Guiding diffusion tract-based anatomy by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we aim to investigate the relationship between structural connectivity and functional activity in the human brain. To this purpose, we introduced a novel groupwise fMRI-guided tractographic approach, that was applied on a population ranging between prodromic and moderate stages of Alzheimer's disease (AD). The study comprised of 15 subjects affected by amnestic mild cognitive impairment (aMCI), 14 diagnosed with AD and 14 elderly healthy adults who were used as controls. By creating representative (ensemble) functionally guided tracts within each group of participants, our methodology highlighted the white matter fiber connections involved in verbal fluency functions for a specific population, and hypothesized on brain compensation mechanisms that potentially counteract or reduce cognitive impairment symptoms in prodromic AD. Our hope is that this fMRI-guided tractographic approach could have potential impact in various clinical studies, while investigating white/gray matter connectivity, in both health and disease.
PMCID: PMC3956891  PMID: 24637718
7.  Relationship between herpes simplex virus-1-specific antibody titers and cortical brain damage in Alzheimer’s disease and amnestic mild cognitive impairment 
Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is a multifactorial disease with a still barely understood etiology. Herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1) has long been suspected to play a role in the pathogenesis of AD because of its neurotropism, high rate of infection in the general population, and life-long persistence in neuronal cells, particularly in the same brain regions that are usually altered in AD. The goal of this study was to evaluate HSV-1-specific humoral immune responses in patients with a diagnosis of either AD or amnestic mild cognitive impairment (aMCI), and to verify the possible relation between HSV-1-specific antibody (Ab) titers and cortical damage; results were compared to those obtained in a group of healthy controls (HC). HSV-1 serum IgG titers were measured in 225 subjects (83 AD, 68 aMCI, and 74 HC). HSV-specific Ab avidity and cortical gray matter volumes analyzed by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) were evaluated as well in a subgroup of these individuals (44 AD, 23 aMCI, and 26 HC). Results showed that, whereas HSV-1 seroprevalence and IgG avidity were comparable in the three groups, increased Ab titers (p < 0.001) were detected in AD and aMCI compared to HC. Positive significant correlations were detected in AD patients alone between HSV-1 IgG titers and cortical volumes in orbitofrontal (region of interest, ROI1 RSp0.56; p = 0.0001) and bilateral temporal cortices (ROI2 RSp0.57; p < 0.0001; ROI3 RSp0.48; p = 0.001); no correlations could be detected between IgG avidity and MRI parameters. Results herein suggest that a strong HSV-1-specific humoral response could be protective toward AD-associated cortical damage.
PMCID: PMC4197651  PMID: 25360113
HSV-1; Alzheimer’s disease (AD); amnestic mild cognitive impairment (aMCI); magnetic resonance imaging (MRI); voxel based morphometry (VBM); HSV-1 IgG
8.  Abnormal development of sensory-motor, visual temporal and parahippocampal cortex in children with learning disabilities and borderline intellectual functioning 
Borderline intellectual functioning (BIF) is a condition characterized by an intelligence quotient (IQ) between 70 and 85. BIF children present with cognitive, motor, social, and adaptive limitations that result in learning disabilities and are more likely to develop psychiatric disorders later in life. The aim of this study was to investigate brain morphometry and its relation to IQ level in BIF children. Thirteen children with BIF and 14 age- and sex-matched typically developing (TD) children were enrolled. All children underwent a full IQ assessment (WISC-III scale) and a magnetic resonance (MR) examination including conventional sequences to assess brain structural abnormalities and high resolution 3D images for voxel-based morphometry analysis. To investigate to what extent the group influenced gray matter (GM) volumes, both univariate and multivariate generalized linear model analysis of variance were used, and the varimax factor analysis was used to explore variable correlations and clusters among subjects. Results showed that BIF children, compared to controls have increased regional GM volume in bilateral sensorimotor and right posterior temporal cortices and decreased GM volume in the right parahippocampal gyrus. GM volumes were highly correlated with IQ indices. The present work is a case study of a group of BIF children showing that BIF is associated with abnormal cortical development in brain areas that have a pivotal role in motor, learning, and behavioral processes. Our findings, although allowing for little generalization to the general population, contribute to the very limited knowledge in this field. Future longitudinal MR studies will be useful in verifying whether cortical features can be modified over time even in association with rehabilitative intervention.
PMCID: PMC4197777  PMID: 25360097
borderline intellectual functioning (BIF); motor development; learning disabilities; brain maturation; voxel-based morphometry (VBM)
9.  A novel data mining system points out hidden relationships between immunological markers in multiple sclerosis 
Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is a multi-factorial disease, where a single biomarker unlikely can provide comprehensive information. Moreover, due to the non-linearity of biomarkers, traditional statistic is both unsuitable and underpowered to dissect their relationship. Patients affected with primary (PP=14), secondary (SP=33), benign (BB=26), relapsing-remitting (RR=30) MS, and 42 sex and age matched healthy controls were studied. We performed a depth immune-phenotypic and functional analysis of peripheral blood mononuclear cell (PBMCs) by flow-cytometry. Semantic connectivity maps (AutoCM) were applied to find the natural associations among immunological markers. AutoCM is a special kind of Artificial Neural Network able to find consistent trends and associations among variables. The matrix of connections, visualized through minimum spanning tree, keeps non linear associations among variables and captures connection schemes among clusters.
Complex immunological relationships were shown to be related to different disease courses. Low CD4IL25+ cells level was strongly related (link strength, ls=0.81) to SP MS. This phenotype was also associated to high CD4ROR+ cells levels (ls=0.56). BB MS was related to high CD4+IL13 cell levels (ls=0.90), as well as to high CD14+IL6 cells percentage (ls=0.80). RR MS was strongly (ls=0.87) related to CD4+IL25 high cell levels, as well indirectly to high percentages of CD4+IL13 cells. In this latter strong (ls=0.92) association could be confirmed the induction activity of the former cells (CD4+IL25) on the latter (CD4+IL13). Another interesting topographic data was the isolation of Th9 cells (CD4IL9) from the main part of the immunological network related to MS, suggesting a possible secondary role of this new described cell phenotype in MS disease.
This novel application of non-linear mathematical techniques suggests peculiar immunological signatures for different MS phenotypes. Notably, the immune-network displayed by this new method, rather than a single marker, might be viewed as the right target of immunotherapy. Furthermore, this new statistical technique could be also employed to increase the knowledge of other age-related multifactorial disease in which complex immunological networks play a substantial role.
PMCID: PMC3575395  PMID: 23305498
Multiple Sclerosis; Immunological network; AutoCM method; Biomarkers of inflammation and neurodegeneration
10.  Neuroinflammation and Brain Functional Disconnection in Alzheimer’s Disease 
Neuroinflammation and brain functional disconnection result from β-amyloid (Aβ) accumulation and play fundamental roles in the pathogenesis of Alzheimer’s disease (AD). We investigated possible correlations between these two AD-associated phenomena using DTI-based tractography and immunologic analyses in people with amnestic mild cognitive impairment (aMCI) and AD. DTI-Analyses focused on corpus callosum (CC). We found that frontal CC regions were preserved with respect to the posterior ones in aMCI; in these individuals significant correlations were seen between DTI-derived metrics in frontal-parietal CC areas and Aβ42-stimulated BDNF-producing CD4+ T lymphocytes and PDL-1-expressing CD14+ cells. These associations were lost in AD where DTI data involving the same CC areas correlated instead with Aβ42-stimulated interleukin (IL)-21 producing CD4+ T lymphocytes. Higher susceptibility to PDL-1-mediated apoptosis of Aβ42-specific lymphocytes and BDNF-associated survival of existing neurons could contribute to the relative CC structure preservation seen in aMCI. These potentially protective mechanisms are lost in frank AD, when severe alterations in the CC are mirrored in peripheral blood by proinflammatory cytokines-producing T cells. Monitoring of immune cells in peripheral blood could have a prognostic value in AD.
PMCID: PMC3838994  PMID: 24324435
Alzheimer’s disease; mild cognitive impairment; magnetic resonance imaging; diffusion tensor imaging; immunology; neuroinflammation
11.  Exploring the predictive value of the evoked potentials score in MS within an appropriate patient population: a hint for an early identification of benign MS? 
BMC Neurology  2012;12:80.
The prognostic value of evoked potentials (EPs) in multiple sclerosis (MS) has not been fully established. The correlations between the Expanded Disability Status Scale (EDSS) at First Neurological Evaluation (FNE) and the duration of the disease, as well as between EDSS and EPs, have influenced the outcome of most previous studies. To overcome this confounding relations, we propose to test the prognostic value of EPs within an appropriate patient population which should be based on patients with low EDSS at FNE and short disease duration.
We retrospectively selected a sample of 143 early relapsing remitting MS (RRMS) patients with an EDSS < 3.5 from a larger database spanning 20 years. By means of bivariate logistic regressions, the best predictors of worsening were selected among several demographic and clinical variables. The best multivariate logistic model was statistically validated and prospectively applied to 50 patients examined during 2009–2011.
The Evoked Potentials score (EP score) and the Time to EDSS 2.0 (TT2) were the best predictors of worsening in our sample (Odds Ratio 1.10 and 0.82 respectively, p=0.001). Low EP score (below 15–20 points), short TT2 (lower than 3–5 years) and their interaction resulted to be the most useful for the identification of worsening patterns. Moreover, in patients with an EP score at FNE below 6 points and a TT2 greater than 3 years the probability of worsening was 10% after 4–5 years and rapidly decreased thereafter.
In an appropriate population of early RRMS patients, the EP score at FNE is a good predictor of disability at low values as well as in combination with a rapid buildup of disability. Interestingly, an EP score at FNE under the median together with a clinical stability lasting more than 3 years turned out to be a protective pattern. This finding may contribute to an early identification of benign patients, well before the term required to diagnose Benign MS (BMS).
PMCID: PMC3488473  PMID: 22913733
Multiple Sclerosis; EP score; Disability prediction; Multivariate analysis; ROC analysis; Benign MS; Evoked potentials
12.  Assessing Corpus Callosum Changes in Alzheimer's Disease: Comparison between Tract-Based Spatial Statistics and Atlas-Based Tractography 
PLoS ONE  2012;7(4):e35856.
Tractography based on Diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI) represents a valuable tool for investigating brain white matter (WM) microstructure, allowing the computation of damage-related diffusion parameters such as Fractional Anisotropy (FA) in specific WM tracts. This technique appears relevant in the study of pathologies in which brain disconnection plays a major role, such as, for instance, Alzheimer's Disease (AD). Previous DTI studies have reported inconsistent results in defining WM abnormalities in AD and in its prodromal stage (i.e., amnestic Mild Cognitive Impairment; aMCI), especially when investigating the corpus callosum (CC). A reason for these inconsistencies is the use of different processing techniques, which may strongly influence the results. The aim of the current study was to compare a novel atlas-based tractography approach, that sub-divides the CC in eight portions, with Tract-Based Spatial Statistics (TBSS) when used to detect specific patterns of CC FA in AD at different clinical stages. FA data were obtained from 76 subjects (37 with mild AD, 19 with aMCI and 20 elderly healthy controls, HC) and analyzed using both methods. Consistent results were obtained for the two methods, concerning the comparisons AD vs. HC (significantly reduced FA in the whole CC of AD patients) and AD vs. aMCI (significantly reduced FA in the frontal portions of the CC in AD patients), thus identifying a relative preservation of the frontal CC regions in aMCI patients compared to AD. Conversely, the atlas-based method but not the TBSS showed the ability to detect a selective FA change in the CC parietal, left temporal and occipital regions of aMCI patients compared to HC. This finding indicates that an analysis including a higher number of voxels (with no restriction to tract skeletons) may detect characteristic pattern of FA in the CC of patients with preclinical AD, when brain atrophy is still modest.
PMCID: PMC3335803  PMID: 22545143

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