The art of spinning catchy neurology headlines

The Neurology Lounge is always on the lookout for catchy neurology article titles to adorn its shelves. My previous blog post in this quest was The art of spinning catchy titles.

Since then, there have been quite a few brilliant article titles that have caught my fancy. We must acknowledge the wordsmiths who craftily and meticulously think up these magical headlines; they put in a lot of thought to conjure up the right words to use. The look into their crystal balls to predict the best way to play around with the meanings. With a bit of lexical alchemy, they miraculously come up with the titles that make us do a double-take, but do so with a smile. Below are 9 such catchy titles.

Parkinson’s disease: Oh my gut! 

By The original uploader was Arnavaz at French WikipediaThis image is an old version created by Medium69.Cette image est une ancienne version créée par Medium69.Please credit this : William Crochot –, Public Domain, Link

This title reflects the science suggesting that Parkinson’s disease originates from the gut. This editorial restates the proposition that α-synuclein starts accumulating in the intestines before migrating, up the vagus nerve, ‘in a prion-like fashion’, to the brain.

Patent foramen ovale and migraine: closing the debate

Medical Illustrations by Patrick Lynch, generated for multimedia teaching projects by the Yale University School of Medicine, Center for Advanced Instructional Media, 1987-2000.

Patent foramen ovale (PFO) is a hole in the heart which connects the upper two heart chambers, or atria. It normally closes after birth, but in some people it persists to cause some grief to cardiologists and neurologists. Whether a PFO causes migraine or not is a long standing contentious issue in Neurology. The authors of this study found no link between migraine and (PFO). The title is brilliant, but the tone of finality is probably premature; I guess this debate is far from over.

Migraine and inhibitory system – I can’t hold it!

Human brain on white background. _DJ_ on Flikr.

And still on migraine is this headline grabber. A bit on the basic science spectrum, I quote from the abstract to give you a flavour: ‘This review focuses on recent structural and functional neuroimaging studies that investigated the role of subcortical and cortical structures in modulating nociceptive input in migraine, which outlined the presence of an imbalance between inhibitory and excitatory modulation of pain processing in the disease‘. I would rather stick with the punchy headline myself.

On the nose: olfactory disturbances in patients with transient epileptic amnesia

Big Nose Strikes Again. Bazusa on Flikr.

This research paper establishes a link between transient epileptic amnesia (TEA) and impairment of the sense of smell. TEA continues to surprise, and there is indeed quite a lot to chew in the paper.

Myelitis in neuromyelitis optica spectrum disorder: the long and the short of it

By JasonRobertYoungMDOwn work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

This is a clear play on the defining feature of neuromyelitis optica (NMO), a long segment of inflammation in the spinal cord. This is what neurologists call longitudinally extensive transverse myelitis (LETM). This is an excellent editorial, worthy of the headline. It emphasises the point that NMO really has no defining features, not even the presence of the ‘defining’ antibody, anti-aquaporin 4- just ask anti-MOG NMO about this

AEDs after ICH: preventing the prophylaxis

By BobjgalindoOwn work, GFDL, Link

How do you prevent a harmful preventative practice?. By a paper with a title that is pure genius of course. The authors of this paper highlight the persisting, anti-guideline, practice of using prophylactic antiepileptic drugs (AEDs) in people who have had intracerebral haemorrhage (ICH). The paper rhetorically asks if this has ‘become a habit too difficult to break?’ Not going by this catchy headline!

Paralysis lost: a new cause for a common parasomnia?

Sleepwalking. Gareth on Flikr.

Parasomnias are diseases that occur during or related to sleep. This headline is for an editorial on a new parasomnia called anti IgLON5 antibody disorder. This is the subject of my previous blog post titled IgLON5: a new antibody disorder for neurologists. The headline writer here is clearly a fan of John Milton. I however struggled to make the connection between the excellent headline and the subject of the paper. I however presume it relates to the ‘loss of sleep paralysis‘ that accompanies many sleep disorders, including the quintessential parasomnia- REM sleep behaviour disorder (RBD). Excellent title anyway.

Hereditary spastic paraplegia: the pace quickens

By Rawlings, Leo – is photograph Art.IWM ART LD 6040 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums., Public Domain, Link

With a slightly wicked wit, this headline focuses on the slow walking speed of people with hereditary spastic paraplegia (HSP), contrasting this with the increasing research output on the disease. A bit dated I admit, but the paper refers to work which identified the genetic basis of SPG3, one of the commoner HSPs. A lesson in headline writing from the archives you may say.

Cut your losses: spastin mediates branch-specific axon loss

Synapse. Ben Cadet on Flikr.

The headline is brilliant, but the content goes way over my head. It is an editorial on a basic science paper. For the curious and the nerdy, I quote an extract: ‘during synapse elimination in the developing neuromuscular junction, branch-specific microtubule destabilization results in arrested axonal transport and induces axon branch loss. This process is mediated in part by the neurodegeneration-associated, microtubule-severing protein spastin‘. Enough I hear you say. OK, just stick with the headline.


Do you have any catchy titles-please drop a comment.


What are the drugs promising neuroprotection in PD?

This is a follow up to my previous blog post titled The emerging research boosting Parkinson’s disease treatment. That post reviewed breakthroughs in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease (PD). But what are the advances in preventing the dreaded disease? What is the state of neuroprotection in PD? What are the hopes for attaining this elusive holy grail of neurology, the lodestone of neuroscientists?


Previous claims to neuroprotection have unfortunately fallen flat on their faces. For example, those with long memories will remember the unfulfilled hopes of selegiline. It is therefore not surprising that neurologists entertain all reports of neuroprotection with a heavy dose of scepticism. But this has not deterred the flow of drugs which aim to achieve the seemingly improbable. After scanning the neuroprotection horizon, I came up with this list of 7 potential neuroprotective drugs for PD.


Lab Mouse chekin out the camera. Rick Eh? on Flikr.
Lab Mouse chekin out the camera. Rick Eh? on Flikr.

LB-3627 is a drug which is reported to protect dopamine-producing cells in experimental animals. The wary neurologist will surely ignore the hype in the headlines such as New drug that protects dopamine cells raises treatment hope for Parkinson’s, or Pioneering Neuroprotective Results Achieved in Parkinson’s Disease Preclinical Studies. The neurologists will prefer to forensically interrogate the study directly, and it is published in Journal of Neuroscience as Selective VIP Receptor Agonists Facilitate Immune Transformation for Dopaminergic Neuroprotection in MPTP-Intoxicated Mice. The researchers theorise that the damage to dopamine producing cells in the brain is a result of some sort of inflammation, and this damage can be prevented if vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP) receptors on the cells are ‘tuned’ correctly. LB-3627, by acting as a VIP-like substance, seems to do this tuning quite well. By doing this, it protects up to 80% of the cells in PD mice. The dubious, but curious, neurologists will await the results of human trials.


By Marvin 101 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link
By Marvin 101Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

α-synuclein is the abnormal protein which accumulates in brain cells, thereby causing the damage which results in PD. α-synuclein is removed from the brain by another protein named DJ-1. Researchers have shown that the gene which regulates the production of DJ-1 is abnormal in a hereditary form of PD called PARK-7. This is where phenylbutyrate steps into the picture; studies have shown that phenylbutyrate ‘up-regulates‘ the DJ-1 gene, thereby enhancing its activity, which is to efficiently flush α-synuclein out of the brain. As phenylbutyrate seems to do this trick in mice, human trials are now under way. All is explained in the paper published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry titled Phenylbutyrate upregulates DJ-1 and protects neurons in cell culture and in animal models of Parkinson’s disease.


mTOR-FKBP12-RAPAMYCIN. Enzymlogic on Flikr.
mTOR-FKBP12-RAPAMYCIN. Enzymlogic on Flikr.

What we need is a drug which stops PD from taking its first step. And this is what Rapamycin seems to have done in mice. I first read this in an article in PsyPost brilliantly titled Rapamycin prevents Parkinson’s in mouse model of incurable neurodegenerative disease. I followed the link to the research paper published in Journal of Neuroscience, irritatingly titled Mitochondrial Quality Control via the PGC1α-TFEB Signaling Pathway Is Compromised by Parkin Q311X Mutation But Independently Restored by Rapamycin. I tried to decipher what the abstract was saying but read like a foreign language to me. I therefore recommend the PsyPost article for the sake of sanity. Again, we have to wait and see what rapamycin does in humans.


Microglia. Servier Medical Art on Flikr.
Microglia. Servier Medical Art on Flikr.

PD researchers are also exploring the neuroprotective potential of safinamide. This is a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI) which reduces the breakdown of levodopa, the key drug treatment of PD. Safinamide is already licensed as an add-on drug in the treatment of PD. Its neuroprotective effect has been linked to its ability to suppress the activation of microglia, the brain cells which mediate inflammatory cellular damage. Only time will tell.


The last three potentially  neuroprotective PD drugs are:






Portents of great things to come, I’m sure. Want to explore more on PD? Have a look at these older posts, and do leave a comment



What’s happening at the cutting edge of MSA?

Multiple system atrophy (MSA) is a mimic of Parkinson’s disease (PD). Neurologists suspect MSA in people with apparent PD who, in addition, have other defining features. In many people with MSA their prominent symptoms are cerebellar dysfunction (MSA-C), and these have unsteadiness and incoordination of movements. In other people with MSA the predominant symptoms are of Parkinsonism, and this type is called MSA-P.

By Images are generated by Life Science Databases(LSDB). - from Anatomography[1] website maintained by Life Science Databases(LSDB).You can get this image through URL below. 次のアドレスからこのファイルで使用している画像を取得できますURL., CC BY-SA 2.1 jp,
By Images are generated by Life Science Databases(LSDB). – from Anatomography[1] website maintained by Life Science Databases(LSDB).You can get this image through URL below. 次のアドレスからこのファイルで使用している画像を取得できますURL., CC BY-SA 2.1 jp,

Making a diagnosis of MSA is gratifying, but treating it is frustrating. Only about a third of people with MSA respond to the standard PD medication, Levodopa. Furthermore, MSA confers a shortened life expectancy. It is therefore important that neurologists resolve the mystery of MSA, and they are indeed hacking away at its cutting-edge.


The general assumption is that MSA is acquired rather than inherited. This assumption did not dissuade neurologists from looking for MSA genetic risk factors, and their quest has led to the discovery of a candidate MSA gene. This is called coenzyme Q2 4-hydroxybenzoate polyprenyltransferase, or simply the COQ2 gene. This gene was first touted in a 2013 paper in the New England Journal of Medicine titled Mutations in COQ2 in Familial and Sporadic Multiple-System Atrophy. Using whole genome sequencing, the authors identified COQ2 gene mutations in both sporadic and familial cases of MSA. Another paper in Neurology in 2016, titled New susceptible variant of COQ2 gene in Japanese patients with sporadic multiple system atrophy, reported that the COQ2 gene mutation is more likely in MSA-C than in other types of MSA.

You may explore the genetics of MSA further in this paper in Neurobiology of Aging titled Genetic players in multiple system atrophy: unfolding the nature of the beast.

Differential diagnoses

When neurologists are considering the diagnosis of MSA, they come up against many disorders jostling to confuse them. There are of course PD and related conditions such as progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP). There is also the endless list of conditions which cause either cerebellar or autonomic dysfunction. The neurologist is usually cautious to exclude these known differential diagnoses of MSA. But what happens when they come across a mimic that isn’t in the textbooks? Such is the situation with this case report published in Movement Disorders of Concomitant Facioscapulohumeral Muscular Dystrophy and Parkinsonism Mimicking Multiple System Atrophy.

This case defies the law of parsimony, Occam’s razor. To paraphrase, this law states that a single diagnosis is the most likely cause for a patient’s clinical features. Clearly in some cases such as this, the neurologist must disregard William of Occam, and make multiple diagnoses.

Hot cross bun. Liliana Fuchs on Flikr.
Hot cross bun. Liliana Fuchs on Flikr.

Neurologists often request some tests to confirm their suspicion of MSA. The usual investigation is the painless but claustrophobic magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). In MSA, this shows shrinking or atrophy of the cerebellum. It may also show the hot cross bun sign, a characteristic pattern of shrinking of the chunky middle section of the brainstem, the pons.

Big MRI. liz west on Flikr.
Big MRI. liz west on Flikr.

Some neurologists are not satisfied with this culinary sign and have explored other radiological indicators of MSA. They studied an MRI technique called diffusion tensor imaging tractography (DTI tractography) and reported their findings in the Journal of Neurology. Their paper titled Characteristic diffusion tensor tractography in multiple system atrophy reports that DTI tractography appears to distinguish MSA-C from other causes of cerebellar dysfunction.


Biomarkers again, so soon after my previous blog post, What is the state of parkinson’s disease biomarkers. The whole idea behind biomarkers is their potential to make for an easier and earlier diagnosis. They are all the rage in neurodegenerative diseases, and MSA can’t be an exception. The first potential MSA biomarker is α-synuclein, the abnormal protein that is found in the brains of people with PD, MSA and Lewy body disease (LBD), the so-called synucleopathies. Researchers have now discovered that α-synuclein also resides in the skin. They carried out skin biopsies in people with PD and MSA and found skin deposits of α-synuclein in both. Writing in the journal Movement Disorders, they showed that in PD, the deposits were mainly in autonomic nerve fibers, whilst in MSA they were in the larger somatic nerves. Time to brush up those skin biopsy skills!

The second potential biomarker is optical coherence tomography (OCT). This is reported in Movement Disorders in a paper titled Progressive retinal structure abnormalities in multiple system atrophy. The authors used OCT to measure the thickness of the retina of the eye. They demonstrated that the retina is thin in both PD and MSA, but the thinning advances more rapidly in MSA than in PD. If confirmed, this would be a handy, and painless, biomarker.

Potential treatments
Syringe and vaccine. Niaid on Flikr.
Syringe and vaccine. Niaid on Flikr.

The objective of all research is to arrive at effective treatments. There is unfortunately no bright treatment looming in the MSA horizon because the research so far have produced disappointing results. Such failures include Rifampicin, Fluoxetine and Lithium. There is however no scarcity of potential therapeutic candidates. The most exciting is a vaccine against MSA. For this and other research efforts read this excellent review in Advances in Clinical Neurology and Rehabilitation (ACNR) titled Updates on potential therapeutic targets in MSA.



What is the state of Parkinson’s disease biomarkers?

Neurologists are always cautious when making a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease (PD). This shouldn’t be the case because PD is not difficult to recognise-at least not most of the time. For one, PD has classical clinical signs- the trio of resting tremor, slow movements (bradykinesia), and stiffness (rigidity). For another, it is asymmetrical, starting and remaining worse on one side of the body.

All these features are however vague in the early stages of PD. To make matters worse, there are many other diseases that mimic PD. These include multiple system atrophy (MSA), progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP), Lewy body disease (LBD), corticobasal degeneration (CBD), and even SWEDDS (if it exists at all!). And always lurking in the shadows, waiting to catch the neurologist out, are dystonic tremor and essential tremor.

Marking Parkinson's. EMSL on Flikr.
Marking Parkinson’s. EMSL on Flikr.


These PD mimics challenge and intrigue neurologists in equal measure. They contribute to the delayed and missed diagnosis of PD in 20% of cases. Are there shortcuts out there to improve our diagnostic accuracy? A simple test perhaps? Maybe some biomarker? Here are 6 budding contestants.

1. Dopamine transporter (DAT) scans

Dopamine. John Lester on Flikr.
Dopamine. John Lester on Flikr.

DAT scans are now in general, even if not universal, use. They help to distinguish PD from conditions such as essential tremor or drug-induced Parkinsonism. DAT scans are however expensive, and they do not distinguish PD from many of its other mimics such as MSA, PSP, (you know the roll call). There are indications that DAT scans may be normal in cases of PD. We therefore clearly need better, cheaper (and newer!) PD biomarkers than DAT scans.

2. Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) biomarkers

© Nevit Dilmen [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons
© Nevit Dilmen [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons
Perhaps the answer is in a spinal tap or lumbar puncture (LP). A lumbar puncture is a simple but dreaded test. It is however useful for giving us access to the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) that bathes the brain and spinal cord. Analysis of the CSF often gives the game away in many neurological disorders. It is not surprising therefore that researchers looked at a panel of nine CSF biomarkers that may identify PD. The paper, published in the JNNP, suggests that there may be biomarker roles for neurofilament light chain (NFL), soluble amyloid precursor protein (sAPP), and α-synuclein (of course). CSF α-synuclein is the focus of another paper in BioMedCentral which reports that one form, oligomeric α-synuclein, is the one to watch out for.

Another set of CSF biomarkers is related to blood vessel formation (angiogenesis). I came across this in a paper in Neurology titled Increased CSF biomarkers of angiogenesis in Parkinson disease. The authors are referring to vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) and its receptors VEGFR-1 and VEGFR-2. Others are placental growth factor (PlGF), angiopoietin 2 (Ang2), and interleukin-8. Enough to keep researchers busy for a while.

3. Peripheral blood biomarkers

Even the most compliant patient would prefer to have a blood test rather than a spinal tap. Thankfully there are some blood-based biomarkers in the offing. One set are called α-synuclein blood transcripts (SNCA transcripts). The authors of an article published in the journal Brain report that SNCA transcripts are consistently reduced in the blood of people with early PD. The accompanying editorial however cautions on the utility of these SNCA transcripts because low levels are also seen in some people who do not have PD. The true value of SNCA transcripts may lie in their ability to predict cognitive decline, but how many people really want to know that?

Other potential blood based biomarkers mentioned are uric acid and epidermal growth factor (EGF).

4. Retinal optical coherence tomography (OCT)

CC BY 2.0,
CC BY 2.0,

Even better than blood and spinal fluid biomarkers would be something totally painless. And to the rescue comes retinal optical coherence tomography (OCT). OCT uses light waves to take pictures of the retina. This allows measurement of the size of different parts of the retina; the area of interest in PD is called the foveal pit. A paper in Movement Disorders reports that OCT is a sensitive marker of PD. The authors show that the foveal pit in PD has a unique form; it is shallow in the superior-inferior and the nasal-temporal slopes. Perhaps neurologists will soon be running to ophthalmologists, cap-in-hand, to save their blushes.

5. Salivary gland α-synuclein

Public Domain,
Public Domain,


Back to painful biomarkers I’m afraid, all in aid of clinching an early diagnosis you must understand. This time it’s salivary gland biopsy. Some eager researchers took biopsy samples of the submandibular salivary glands of people with early PD. They then looked for, and found, α-synuclein in about 75% of them. Their paper is published in Movement Disorders titled Peripheral Synucleinopathy in Early Parkinson’s Disease: Submandibular Gland Needle Biopsy Findings. Unfortunately  20% of control subjects without PD also had α-synuclein in their salivary glands. Could these people have pre-manifest PD? We must await larger and longer studies before we start needling away at the salivary glands of the worried-well.

6. Intestinal tract α-synuclein

What if the answer is not in the salivary glands? Then we should be really afraid because α-synuclein has popped up in …the intestines. A review paper in Movement Disorders describes this in the brilliantly titled Gut Feelings About α-Synuclein in Gastrointestinal Biopsies: Biomarker in the Making? Another paper published in PLOS One takes things further, reporting an association between intestinal α-synuclein with increased gut permeability. I’ll make no further comments on the gut; not with the threat of cameras and scopes going up all sorts of body openings.

α-synuclein staining of a Lewy body. By Marvin 101 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
α-synuclein staining of a Lewy body. By Marvin 101Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Below is a link to an open access article in Movement Disorders with more potential PD biomarkers

Are there any other biomarkers out there? Please leave a comment.



What are the links between Prion diseases and Parkinsonian disorders?

Neurologists are familiar with prion diseases. And so is the general public, not least because of the mad cow disease scare. The quintessential prion disease is Creutzfeldt Jakob disease (CJD), and this is readily identified by its rapidly progressive course, and by typical blood, brain imaging, cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), and brain pathology features.

Public Domain, Link
Public Domain, Link

There has however been a lot of whispering speculation that some other neurological disorders are really prion diseases camouflaging as neurodegenerative conditions. Most of the speculation is around Parkinson’s disease (PD), with headlines such as, Is Parkinson’s Disease a Prion Disorder? and The prion hypothesis of Parkinson’s disease.

By Cornu (talk) 19:04, 5 June 2009 (UTC) - Own work, CC BY 2.5, Link
By Cornu (talk) 19:04, 5 June 2009 (UTC) – Own work, CC BY 2.5, Link

Pushing the ‘prion-like’ hypothesis comes a paper straight off the press asserting that multiple system atrophy (MSA) is likely to be a prion disease.Published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study demonstrates that human brain homogenates from MSA patients transmit α-synuclein, and produce neurological disease in susceptible mice. More importantly, specimens from Parkinson’s disease (PD) patients and normal controls did not transmit this activity.

By Marvin 101 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link
By Marvin 101Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

MSA, along with other disorders such as progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP) and Lewy body disease (LBD) are really cousins of Parkinson’s disease (PD). It is interesting therefore that this transmissibility is only seen with MSA, and not even in PD. The findings however seem authentic enough, even if slightly still speculative. The paper however comes from one of the gurus of prion diseases, Stanley Prusiner. There must therefore be something about this prion hypothesis, and the next few papers will surely convert this into established theory. Or perhaps not, I hear you whisper.

Read more about prion diseases from the MRC Prion Unit and the CDC prion disease webpage