Researchers Track Basis of Cognitive Deficits in Lupus

By Lois Baker

Release Date: May 9, 2006

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Neuroscientists in the Department of Neurology/Jacobs Neurological Institute at the University at Buffalo have received $1.2 million from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke to link the cognitive deficits in working memory frequently observed in persons with lupus to specific electrical activity and anatomical changes in the brain.

The researchers will take a multifaceted approach that never has been used to study this disease: magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of the brain, neuropsychological tests and a process called event-related brain potentials, which measures processing speed and the efficiency of neurons.

The study will involve persons with lupus, referred to in medical circles as systemic lupus erythematosus, or SLE, who do not have overt central nervous system manifestations of the disease, such as stroke, seizure or psychosis. Researchers will compare this "non-CNS SLE" group with a healthy control group.

"Since the late 1980s, there has been considerable interest in the cognitive deficits associated with systemic lupus erythematosus," said Janet L. Shucard, Ph.D., UB assistant professor of neurology and lead researcher on the study.

"As many as 66 to 80 percent of all individuals with SLE have been reported to exhibit cognitive deficits. Recent studies suggest that the most frequently observed cognitive deficits are in the areas of attention, speed of information processing, learning (encoding) and working memory," said Shucard.

Working memory is a system for temporarily storing and managing the information required to carry out complex cognitive tasks such as learning, reasoning and comprehension.

"These impairments in working memory and processing speed, which are often subtle, can significantly disrupt an individual's ability to carry out activities of daily living," Shucard said.

Lupus is an autoimmune disease that currently affects 1 out of 2,000 Americans, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. It occurs much more frequently in women than men. Young African-American women are especially at risk, with an estimated prevalence of the disease in this group of 1 in 250.

The researchers will use MRI scans to determine brain-tissue injury, and employ event-related brain potentials to measure processing speed and the efficiency of neurons during working-memory tasks in lupus patients and controls. Neuropsychological tests will determine the pattern of cognitive deficits in persons with lupus.

"By studying a non-CNS SLE group and a healthy control group with these methods, we will be able to address theoretical questions pertaining to the neurobiological basis of deficits in attention and working memory that characterize many SLE patients," Shucard noted.

David Shucard, Ph.D., professor of neurology, is the co-principal investigator on the project. Robert Zivadinov, M.D., Ph.D., and Ralph Benedict, Ph.D., from the UB Department of Neurology, and Julian Ambrose, M.D., from the UB Department of Medicine, both in the UB School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, along with James Donnelly, Ph.D., from the Department of Counseling, School and Educational Psychology, UB Graduate School of Education, are co-investigators.

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, the largest and most comprehensive campus in the State University of New York.