3 Neuroscience Advances That Could Change Your Life
The promise of brain prosthetics, stem cells and gene therapies
Posted Feb 08, 2016
Juliano Pinto, dressed in the bright green and yellow of his native Brazil, stood on the soccer field of the cavernous stadium, aware that 63,000 fans in the stands, and hundreds of millions of television viewers around the world, were watching him. It was June, 2014, and the World Cup was about to begin with his kick. Concentrating hard, Juliano booted the ball.
No big deal, really.
Athletes in brightly colored uniforms kicked many soccer balls in 64 matches of the World Cup over the next four weeks. What was special about one kick? What was so special was that 29 year old Juliano Pinto was a paraplegic. He’d been confined to a wheelchair since a 2006 car accident robbed him of any movement or sensation below his waist.
Yet, as you can see for yourself on this link, Juliano did stand and did kick the ball. You’ll also note that Juliano wore a robotic exoskeleton and special skull cap that picked up electrical signals from his brain, that controlled a motorized exoskeleton.
Just by thinking about it, Juliano was able to generate reliable brain electrical signals that were picked up outside his skull to control the robotic prosthesis. He was not alone. Eight other paraplegic volunteers working with Dr. Miguel Nicolelis of Duke University and colleagues, accomplished similar feats as part of the Walk Again project.
Even more astonishing, Juliano and the other volunteers –who each had zero sensory or motor function—all recovered some sensation and movement in their legs while learning to control their exoskeletons with their minds.
Dr Nicolelis isn’t certain how this miracle occurred, but speculates that the spinal cords of each of the volunteers retained a few working nerve fibers that came back to life with the strenuous exercise of the brain training sessions. The fact that every one of the volunteers was selected specifically because they had absolutely no sensorimotor function below the waist, suggests that other “100% paraplegics” might also retain latent abilities.
Advance #1. Neural prostheses
Dr. Nicolelis's technological tour de force isn’t the only example of science fiction turning into science fact. Other types of “ digital brain prosthetics” have found their way into mainstream neurology. Implanted deep brain stimulators (essentially brain pacemakers) now ease symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, OCD, Tourette’s syndrome, major depression, dementia and a growing list of other neurological disorders. The implants work by electrically exciting or “turbocharging” remaining neurons to take over functions of brain cells that have died.
Even closer to science fiction, researchers at Wake Forrest University have developed a computer chip that could restore memory when implanted into a damaged hippocampus (a temporal lobe structure responsible for new memory formation). Studies using these microchips in rat brains have shown early promise.
The importance of compensating for the loss of neurons in our brains and spinal cords extends far beyond paraplegics and people with damaged hippocampi. Taken together, neurological disorders such as stroke, epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, traumatic brain injury (TBI) and Alzheimers cause more disabilities worldwide than cancer or coronary artery disease. And psychiatric disorders, which also feature abnormal brain cell function or brain cell loss account for 5 of the top 10 causes of all disability.
For this reason, the quest to restore lost central nervous system (CNS) function through electronic implants has engaged the minds of some of the world’s brightest brain researchers.
Advance #2 Stem cell therapy
But a few neuroscientists are not content with simply compensating for neuron death: some researchers want to grow new brain and spinal cord cells to replace those that have been lost.
Until recently, replacing neurons inside the adult CNS was thought to be impossible, but the discovery that we all grow new brain cells throughout our lives- albeit in a very limited way-has given cause for optimism.
New cells grow in adult brains in the same way as embryonic brains: from stem cells. Stem cells are undifferentiated cells, which, upon receiving appropriate molecular signals, transform into differentiated nerve cells that then begin to function as full-fledged neurons. You can think of stem cells as a kind of reserve force that parts of your brain, such as the hippocampus, maintain to replace neurons lost to aging or injury.
Borrowing a page from the brain’s own playbook, researchers are making progress implanting embryonic stem cells into damaged adult brains, and getting these cells to restore lost function. For example Dr. Toshiya Osanai and colleagues at Hokkaido University Graduate School of Medicine have shown that injecting stem cells into animal brains helped restore motor function lost to TBI.
Neuroscientists at Harvard and Stanford have also gotten promising results from stem cell treatments in animals and clinical trials of stem cell implants in human Parkinson sufferers have already begun.
Advance #3 Kick starting neural regeneration
If neural prosthesis are a good thing, stem cell implants are an even better thing because they require no electronics or batteries, and stem cells replace neurons, rather than over-working remaining neurons. But the best solution of all would be to get the brain to repair itself by turning on its latent regeneration capabilities.
And some audacious researchers are doing this.
The discovery that stem cells placed in the right environment can grow into fully functional neurons in adult brains, shows that nerve cells can regenerate if precursor cells receive the right molecular signals that turn on genes for cell growth and neuron differentiation.
Dr. Vijay Tiwari and colleagues at at Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany have discovered a gene, NeuroD1, that, when “switched on,” triggers neurogenesis (proliferation of new brain cells) in adult brains. Other scientists have found that “up regulation” of the gene, GADD45b also turns on new cell growth in the brain.
While the search for therapeutic ways to activate NeuroD1 and GADD45b is underway, evidence is accumulating that we may already know how to activate a nerve cell growth promoter called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). Regular vigorous exercise, caloric restriction (maintaining low body weight), Omega 3 fatty acids and curcumin (an ingredient in curry) have all been shown to increase BDNF.
Yes, it appears that diet and exercise not only keep you trim, but also keep your brain young.
Speaking of young brains, the holy grail for treating neurological disorders is not to slow aging of the brain, but to actually reverse it!
Biologist Aubrey De Grey of Cambridge University has created the SENS foundation with the ultimate goal of rejuvenating our bodies and brains. Firmly convinced that we can live for hundreds of years with the right treatments, De Grey and SENS have identified seven promising techniques, such as gene therapies that correct age-related mutations, with the potential to reset the aging clock in our brains. Gene therapies (using viruses to inject new DNA into aging brain cells) have already shown promise for “cleaning out” amyloid plaques that play a role in Alzheimer’s disease.
Although radical life extension and brain rejuvenation are unlikely to arrive anytime soon, evidence is growing that these miracles are theoretically possible. We know this not only from a growing body of gene research, but also from nature itself. Tortoises age extremely slowly while lobsters, cold water clams and jellyfish show no evidence of aging at all. While we may not look much like tortoises, lobsters or clams, we share an astonishing amount of DNA with such primitive organisms. For instance, our DNA is 60% the same as that of fruit flies and—according to geneticist Steven Jones, 50% of our genes are also found in bananas!
And DNA is the key. Turning off DNA (gene) expression can promote brain aging and judicially turning it on (e.g. NeuroD1) can slow it down.
So what we all have to do is clear: exercise regularly and consume lots of Salmon curry (rich in both both Omega 3’s and curcumin).
But only in small portions so we can keep our weight down. Then we’ll live long enough for geneticists to repair our aging brains, and even make them young again.
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