Information about our research subjects

Research in Alzheimer’s and memory disorders

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common out of all memory disorders, and it is a slow and progressively developing disease that becomes significantly more common with age. The biggest breakthroughs in Alzheimer’s disease research has been achieved in the past 35 years, while the diagnosing of other memory disorders such as frontotemporal dementia (FTD) and dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB) has developed rapidly during the past decade.

In Finland Alzheimer’s disease is researched in universities and university hospitals located in Helsinki, eastern Finland, Oulu and Turku as well as at Finnish institute for health and welfare (THL). The research aims to identify new risk factors and their mechanisms for disease, and to thereby spur the development of biomarkers (via samples collected from humans) with improved capability to predict the disease as well as better the treatments for it. The aim is also to establish an ability to diagnose memory disorders as early and accurately as possible in people of working age. The most recent and prominent achievements of modern research in Alzheimer’s disease is the identification of new risk genes and their mechanisms related to gene mutations, the clarification of common disease mechanisms for Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes type 2, the development of new research methods for diagnosing memory disorders in people of working age and the utilisation of translational medicine for research in risk gene discovery (translational medicine is utilised in clinical trials and vice versa).

The Finnish Brain Foundation supports among other subjects also the research on the brain’s glymphatic system conducted by Vesa Kiviniemi

At Oulu university and university hospital there is an undergoing project led by Vesa Kiviniemi, Professor in neuroradiology, with the theme of proving the relation and significance of the brain’s glymphatic system on Alzheimer’s disease. The Finnish Brain Foundation is financing this research together with the Academy of Finland.

Frontotemporal lobar degeneration (FLD) is in Finland researched at the universities in eastern Finland and Oulu. When developing effective treatment, it is key to understand the reason for the onset of the disease and identification of early stages of the disease. Hence, research is conducted foremost in relation to diagnostics and an understanding of the disease mechanisms. Researchers are also studying what kind of changes the disease causes in the brain and to which biomarkers the changes are connected to. Studies conducted on blood samples from Finnish donors have led to global breakthrough discoveries: scientists have for example been able to find ways how to differentiate between schizophrenia and FLD.

Research in mental retardation

Mental retardation means a difficulty to learning and comprehending new things. In addition to these, a person with mental retardation might face difficulties in developing social, linguistic and motoric skills, taking independent initiative or diminished capacity for showing attention and forming perceptions. The primary goal for medical research in mental retardation is to improve knowledge of the reasons for the disability. The person with a mental retardation can seldom describe his or her own symptoms. Therefore, it is imperative to be aware of the reasons causing the mental retardations so that the correct care and treatment can be planned. When the reasons are known, it becomes easier to alleviate the symptoms and, in that way, improve the life quality for the individual. When aiming to clarify the underlying reasons causing mental retardation, genetic study is key. The genetic research techniques have developed significantly in the past few years.

Finland caters for excellent conditions to conduct studies in mental retardation. This is due to the fact Finland set up a service system specifically designed to support mentally retarded individuals in the 1960’ies, which has helped gather patient records for research. In addition to this, Finland has unique church records stretching as far back as mid 17’th century, which have significantly helped clarify specific genetic heredity in families. In addition to the Netherlands, Finland is the only country to educate medical doctors in mental retardation. In addition to the medical research, neuropsychological research for mental retardation is also of great importance. At the moment researchers in Finland have conducted tracking studies in order to clarify how individuals with mental retardation develop knowledge skills with age.

Research in child and adolescent psychiatry

The majority of mental disorders begin during childhood, which is also when prevention is most effective. The brain of a child does not halt and wait, but undergo continuous and intense development instead. With early access to treatment, good diagnostics and adequate treatment as a result of it, it is possible to significantly improve mental disorders among children, and to significantly reduce the impact later in life.

Child psychiatry focuses on mental disorders in children younger than 13 years old, and how to prevent and treat these disorders. Autism spectrum and neuropsychiatric disorders such as ADHD, are part of child psychiatry. Particular objects of study for it includes development psychiatry related to the development of young children, including disorders related to eating, sleeping, developing attachment, research related to psychological traumas in childhood, e.g. caused by school bullying as well as research on how to utilise digitalisation in preventing, diagnosing and treating childhood mental disorders. Adolescent psychiatry treats mental disorders for those 13-18 years of age. Partially the mental disorder related problems are the same among young people as among children and adults, but in addition the young face challenges related to adolescence, such as tendencies for psychosis and eating disorders.

Among other research projects the Finnish Brain Foundation finances Rhythms in Infant Brain

When dealing with brain research among children, Finland is in many ways a pioneer, but global research still knows surprisingly little about the development of the brain. An early diagnosis of an illness, mental retardation or a developmental disability is still imperative in order to arrange appropriate rehabilitation for the patient. The BABA Center dedicated to clinical research at the New Children’s Hospital HUS runs a research project named Rhythm in Infant Brain which focus on measuring brain waves and developing smart clothes that promote early diagnosing. The Finnish Brain Foundation is one of the sponsors for this internationally unique interdisciplinary research conducted by Sampsa Vanhatalo, professor in neurophysiology.

Muscular dystrophy research

Muscular dystrophies are rare and often hereditary neurological disabilities that are characterised by a progressive weakening, breakdown or other disorder affecting the skeletal muscles. A muscular dystrophy can be detected as early as during infancy or later in childhood, during adolescence or in adulthood. The exact same diagnosis can however vary in severity and look different for each individual, even among those belonging to the same family, and the degree of disability may range from mild physical disability to severe impairment. ALS, SMA and Duchenne are all examples of muscular dystrophy.

The onset for muscular dystrophy remains still unknown. Hence, research often focuses on clarifying the underlying reasons for the disease. The reason for why the disease breaks out is a requirement for further diagnostics and development of any treatment. In the 1980’ies a significant breakthrough occurred in muscular dystrophy research when scientists managed to successfully develop new tools for studying genes in greater detail. After this, it has been possible to define the causal genes and their mutations for hundreds of different muscular dystrophies. In order for the therapies to target the right cause and develop treatment it is important to have a gene based diagnosis. In this way the entire family will receive information about the heredity of the disease and its prognosis.

At its best muscular dystrophy research is interdisciplinary which requires international co-operation and advanced research teams. This kind of research is expensive and time consuming. However, such research in Finland has for long been remarkable even internationally. Researchers in Finland have been able to make significant observations about the mechanisms causing the disease while entirely new muscular dystrophies and genetic errors causing these, have been discovered.

Research in neurosurgery

Research in neurosurgery promotes the development of methods used in surgery on the CNS, brain and spinal cord.

Neurology: Research related to traumatic brain injury, cerebral circulation disorder, epilepsy, MS and Parkinson’s disease

Traumatic brain injury research

A traumatic brain injury is an injury of the brain tissue, often caused by falling, crashing, a traffic or leisure time accident or as a result of an assault. The prognosis for the injury is much affected by the severity of the injury. Although a mild brain injury might at first cause significant symptoms, the injury normally heals to such an extent that the patient becomes symptom free. Also, moderate brain injuries often come with a good prognosis although the difficulties associated with it might be long term. However, the mortality rate is sadly significant during the initial acute phase among those that are initially diagnosed with a severe brain injury.

During the most recent years and decades the prognosis for those surviving the initial stage has improved significantly due to development of advanced first aid as well as the accessibility and development of methods for neurosurgery and neuroanesthesiology. Thanks to modern neuroscience brain rehabilitation is developing constantly. Researchers actively study for example how stem cells can be transferred via the bloodstream, and may then specialise into becoming nerve cells that participate in reorganising the damaged area. These kinds of studies are connected to extensive brain damages. However, the new cells that are transferred to the nervous system do not contain any information, and therefore they do not in themselves restore lost skills, and do not replace traditional rehabilitation, but rather improve the nervous system’s ability to learn lost skills again.

Research in Cerebral Circulation

A cerebral circulation disorder can be a stroke, cerebral haemorrhage or a so called temporary mini stroke (A transient ischemic attack or TIA). All of these conditions cause the cerebral circulation to be disrupted in some part of the brain as a result of a blood clot blocking an artery and as a result the brain tissue suffers from lack of oxygen. In case the condition lasts for more than a few hours the result is permanent brain damage. This is why it is very important to seek hospital care as soon as possible.

Finland has the most advanced acute care for cerebral circulation disorders, and Finnish researchers have been part of developing the care since the very start. Atrial fibrillation is still the explanation for the majority of strokes and the most difficult ones. Pharmaceuticals designed for blood thinning are developing continuously and becoming safer; an area of interest in which Finnish research has actively been involved in. Studies are conducted with the help of researchers’ and study groups’ national and international networks. The most prominent studies in how to treat acute cerebral circulation disorders consist of both global randomised phase I-III studies in medicine and apparatus as well as researchers’ academic studies, including research in acute care and prevention.

Research in anticoagulants and blood thinners have often resulted in new care praxis globally. Finland is a pioneer in global research on cerebral circulation disorders (stroke, carotid dissection, cryptogenic stroke or stroke of “unknown cause and cerebral haemorrhage), cerebral artery (including epidemiologic research, meaning research in occurrence among the population) as well as research in brain scanning. In addition, music therapy for stroke patients is a result of Finnish research. Genetic research and the appliance of AI are promising subjects for the future.

Epilepsy research

Epilepsy is a brain disease that causes the patient to suffer from a tendency to have epileptic seizures and possibly additional neurological, cognitive and social capability related problems. An epileptic seizure happens when there is a burst of abnormal electrical activity in the brain’s outer membrane.

In Finland epilepsy is researched in university hospitals and their related universities. On a national level the diagnostics and treatment for severe epilepsy is coordinated by Kuopio university hospital (KYS), that directs a coordination team with representatives from all university hospitals, which also organise clinical studies. The studies aim to develop methods for early detection of risk of severe epilepsy. The earlier and more accurate – the better the diagnosis will help treat patients. Even in more moderate cases, a successful medical treatment often require the testing and swapping of medication several times. This is causing the patient much suffering. With research it is possible to determine more accurately which medication is suitable for which patient.

Multiple Sclerosis research

MS disease targets young adults in particular. It affects the person’s mobility and performance due to inflammation growth in the body, and destroys the white matter in the brain and CNS. MS research focuses in particular on the development of diagnosis and thereby also the care. The biggest breakthroughs during the past 20-30 years have been made in relation to medical care: research has found nine pharmaceuticals with which it is possible to treat MS disease. In addition, the ability to diagnose the disease has developed tremendously.

MS disease is basically a disease that affects the white blood cells by altering their performance. At Helsinki university research has focused on studying white blood cells and finding so-called terror clones with abnormal activity. The aim is to identify cells that are worth targeting with advanced treatments, and in this way, it would be possible to target and treat thousands or tens of thousands of cells instead of billions.

At the Turku university PET Center a PET brain scan is used to detect things that a standard magnetic film can’t. These PET scans have shown that there might be MS related brain activity even during periods when all other indicators signal a more stable phase. MS disease is also researched with joint research projects in which all Finnish universities take part. There are some regional differences in incidence, which is studied with epidemiologic research. At Tampere university scientists are studying stem cells and the aim is to model cells in the CNS, that are affected by MS and lack interaction ability. In Kuopio research has been conducted on how nerve damage releases neurofilaments and how these can be used as biomarkers when studying how active the MS disease is in a specific case. Effects of pharmaceuticals are compared in cooperation with pharmaceutical companies.

Research in Parkinson’s disease

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive nervous system disorder that affects movement. This is caused by the gradual degeneration of nerve cells (neurons) in a specific area called substantia nigra in the midbrain. The reason for the breakdown of these nerve cells is unknown but it causes a lack of the chemical messenger dopamine and the damage of neural pathways that regulate volitional movement. Research in Parkinson’s disease is conducted in all university hospitals. The studies are related to e.g. infusion and DBS-treatments,  bowel problems related to Parkinson’s, genetics and the spread of the disease among the population. In addition, Parkinson’s disease is studied intensely with various methods for scanning.

Research in musicians’ health

A genuine understanding of the characteristics and challenges for musicians’ profession forms a foundation pillar for musicians’ healthcare. To succeed it requires healthcare professionals that truly understand the conditions that particularly affect musicians, and the number of these grow by educating more professionals. This is the primary task for music medicine.

An additional foundation pillar for music medicine is the continuous study of musicians’ profession and the challenges it poses for musicians. Research in musicians’ health promote a better understanding of the problems and to direct resources to the right subjects in music medicine. Finnish research in music medicine is internationally renowned and has always been characterised by multi-professional cooperation crossing over and extending to other professions outside the healthcare sector. In addition, all cooperation with musicians is imperative.

The third foundation pillar for musicians’ healthcare has been the additional primary task to participate in the basic and continuous training of musicians by enforcing the understanding of musicians’ own health matters and promoting knowledge about how to avoid the inconveniences the profession can cause for musicians.