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Can osteoarthritis and other joint diseases cause functional changes in the brain that result in various mental illnesses over the years? Can musculoskeletal disorders cause dementia, for example?

Jānis Mednieks (pictured) is a neurologist at Stradins Clinical University Hospital and a lecturer at the RSU Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery. He and his colleagues are conducting research using funding from the Latvian Council of Science in order to be able to answer these and other questions.


What are the risks?

Mednieks explains that joint diseases are caused by inflammatory molecules that move in the bloodstream and enter organs, including the brain, where they can gradually provoke changes. With the use of traditional tools such changes are often not immediately detected, but in a study that used special techniques, such as magnetic resonance imaging, dysfunctions and changes in the brain could be detected earlier making it possible to start using aggressive treatment, if necessary. With dementia, for example, where serious cell damage, or even death, can occur functional changes have already started showing about 10 to 15 years earlier. If treatment had been started when the first changes appeared, the disease would not have spread. Cognitive disorders don't only happen in old age, but also in young people, and research could help to determine the causes.

How is the study being conducted?

Magnetic resonance imaging of the brain is being performed on two participant groups. One group consists of osteoarthritis patients at the Riga East University Hospital who have undergone surgery, and the other is a control group of patients who do not have any diseases that could affect brain function. Mednieks says that the researchers have recently received approvals, including from the ethics committee, allowing patients from the Riga East University Hospital to become involved in the study. This means that magnetic resonance imaging of those patients' brains will begin soon. Members from the control group are already being examined. The researcher says that the Pauls Stradiņš Clinical University Hospital has received a second magnetic resonance device, which will speed up the study. As part of the study, the results of both groups will be compared to reveal the possible effects of joint disease on the brain.



What would the study contribute?

The results of the study could help avoid brain disease early. Long-term intervention would be possible in order to prevent functional changes in the brain before they get a chance to develop. If there are any first signs of changes, cognitive training or other therapies could be carried out immediately, thus implementing treatments that could prevent the disease in its early stages.

When will the first results be available?

Mednieks plans to be able to draw the first conclusions very soon, in April 2020. The researcher says that many people ask why he is researching a topic like this that has such an unpredictable outcome. Osteoarthritis might also turn out not to have any effect on brain function, after all. To which he rhetorically answers: 'But why should we study something where the outcome is already predictable?' The neurologist believes that if there is even the slightest probability that a change is possible, the study should go ahead, because this researchers job.


Jānis Mednieks and his colleague, radiation technologist Mārtiņš Barons.