Two significant news hits on Alzheimer’s recently. One team in Australia is experimenting (on mice) with ultrasound to clear up plaque buildup and the other team (in the US) is using an already approved drug commonly used to treat epilepsy to calm hyperactivity in the brain.
An interesting new way to study diseases of the brain. From MIT Tech Review:
“A new method for growing human brain cells could unlock the mysteries of dementia, mental illness, and other neurological disorders.”
“Wyss-Coray formed a start-up company, Alkahest in Menlo Park, California, and in September 2014 it began a randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind trial at Stanford, testing the safety and efficacy of using young plasma to treat Alzheimer’s disease. Six out of a planned 18 people with Alzheimer’s, all aged 50 or above, have already begun to receive plasma harvested from men aged 30 or younger. In addition to monitoring disease symptoms, the researchers are looking for changes in brain scans and blood biomarkers of the disease.”
And from Stanford Medicine:
“Something — or some things — in the blood of young mice has the ability to restore mental capabilities in old mice, a new study by Stanford University School of Medicine investigators has found.
If the same goes for humans, it could spell a new paradigm for recharging our aging brains, and it might mean new therapeutic approaches for treating dementias such as Alzheimer’s disease.”
The upshot is that “Brain cells called microglia chew up toxic substances and cell debris, calm inflammation and make nerve-cell-nurturing substances. New research shows that keeping them on the job may prevent neurodegeneration.”
From Science Daily:
“In the first, small study of a novel, personalized and comprehensive program to reverse memory loss, nine of 10 participants displayed subjective or objective improvement in their memories beginning within three to six months after the program’s start.”
Brain implants are on their way, say Dr. Gary Marcus of NYU and Dr. Christof Koch of the Allen Institute for Brain Science.
“By the end of this century, and quite possibly much sooner, every input device that has ever been sold will be obsolete. Forget the “heads-up” displays that the high-end car manufactures are about to roll out, allowing drivers to see data without looking away from the road. By the end of the century, many of us will be wired directly into the cloud, from brain to toe.”
Will this new world be challenging? Perhaps, but the authors cite President Ronald Reagan on who will thrive in the future: “The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave.”
Will a person’s own brain cells be used to repair their brain one day? Maybe. Here’s an article that discusses the potential first steps — taking brain cells from a living person and growing more of them.
From the Third Age:
Researchers at the University of Western Ontario have found that cells from brain biopsies can be used to grow large numbers of patient’s own brain cells. These new therapeutic cells, when reintegrated in to the patient’s brain, express a broad array of natural and potent protective agents providing preservation and protection against injury, toxins, and neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s. The study was published in The FASEB Journal.
Here’s the study.
This advance by Austria’s Dr. Knoblich has big implications for studying brain disease. If researchers can study human brain cells in the lab instead of using animal models, the door will open to better, more effective, therapies. From the WSJ:
Researchers have used stem cells to grow pea-sized structures that resemble the developing human brain, an advance that offers a way to model brain maladies that are otherwise hard to study.
The human brain is one of the most elaborate natural structures known to science. These new lab-grown “mini brains” are imperfect, and a long way off from matching the real thing.
The advance is expected to allow researchers to investigate human brain disease in a lab—something that currently is a big challenge. Brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s typically are studied in rats, mice and other animals, but these are inadequate proxies mainly because the human brain is much more complex.
By contrast, the new approach should enable scientists to study neurological disorders by examining brain tissue derived from actual patients.
From Singularity Hub:
When we age, all parts of our body deteriorate over time. But while aging as a whole might be an accumulation of disparate processes, scientists have long wondered if it might be controlled by some central location in the body. Researchers have now uncovered an area in the brain about the size of an almond in humans that wields powerful control over the body’s aging process. By manipulating a single substance secreted by the hypothalamus they were able to extend the lives of mice. The work opens up the possibility that the hypothalamus may be an important target in treating age-related diseases such as heart disease and Alzheimer’s.
This MIT Tech Review article outlines work on a ‘memory prosthesis,’ which could help restore brain function for those with Alzheimer’s, stroke, or other types of brain injury.
From Singularity Hub:
In the world of genomics, Chinese biotech giant BGI is big and getting bigger. The firm agreed to purchase Bay Area juggernaut Complete Genomics for a bargain basement $117 million in 2012. BGI owns 156 DNA sequencers and produces 10% to 20% of the world’s genetic information. Now the firm is putting their DNA sequencing might behind an investigation into the genetics of genius.
Suitably, one of BGI’s homegrown savants, 20-year-old Zhao Bowen, will head up the study. According to his bio, Zhao dropped out of high school to join BGI “after a startlingly productive internship contributing to BGI’s cucumber sequencing project.” His smart gene study promises to be a bit more challenging.
That seems to be what President Obama was implying in his recent SOTU address (for more on the Brain Activity Map Project, see this NYT article). In discussing the effects of one the last huge government-funded research projects, the Human Genome Project, Obama said, “Every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy — every dollar.” He also said that “Today our scientists are mapping the human brain to unlock the answers to Alzheimer’s. They’re developing drugs to regenerate damaged organs, devising new materials to make batteries 10 times more powerful. Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation. Now is the time to reach a level of research and development not seen since the height of the Space Race. We need to make those investments. ”
The government spent 3.8 billion dollars on the Human Genome Project, and studies calculate that the “Genomics-enabled industry generated more than $3.7 billion in federal taxes and $2.3 billion in U.S. state and local taxes in 2010.”
Here is a write-up from the National Genome Research Institute on the economic impact of the human genome project.
Harvard biologist Takao Hensch is examining a drug that “may make it dramatically easier for grown-ups to absorb new skills and information — almost as if they were seven years old or younger.” Here’s the story.
Here’s an interesting article about the Blue Brain project. The author asks what would happen if scientists actually managed to simulate a human brain. Would turning off the computer be considered murder? Hmmm…
In related news, the NIH announced last month that it was launching “the Human Connectome Project to Unravel the Brain’s Connections.” According to the release, “the Human Connectome Project (HCP) will yield insight into how brain connections underlie brain function, and will open up new lines of inquiry for human neuroscience.” Wonder what Paul Allen thinks of this given that it sounds very similar to what his organization is trying to do.
From the BBC:
“US scientists say they have successfully reversed the effects of Alzheimer’s with experimental drugs. The drugs target and boost the function of a newly pinpointed gene involved in the brain’s memory formation.
In mice, the treatment helped restore long-term memory and improve learning for new tasks, Nature reports. “
Here’s the story.
“Up to a fifth of adults, including college students and shift workers, may be using cognitive enhancers, a poll of 1,400 by Nature journal suggests. “
Well, for older people perhaps, according to UCLA researchers. “A simple, everyday task like searching the web appears to enhance brain circuitry in older adults, demonstrating that our brains are sensitive and can continue to learn as we grow older,” said professor Smith.
This is in contrast to an article in Atlantic called “Is Google Making us Stupid?”. Author Nicholas Carr argues that b/c of the ease of search we are getting lazy and don’t use our brains as much as we used to (memory etc). He has a good point. How many of us even know the phone numbers of our friends anymore?
This news story from the NYT is good news for John McCain.