Brain Research – The Next Frontier?

We often find exciting stories in the headlines about advances that might benefit those of us living with MS – one such example is Lisa Emrich’s recent blog on a new approach to stem cell therapy that approached the problem from a different angle than previous studies.  That research is exciting because it is now approved for a Clinical trial.

There are also those stories that remain just under the radar, that don’t get the headline grabbing attention, but may still be important for us in the years ahead.  These are the new discoveries in laboratories that aren’t yet ready for a clinical trial and need more research, but are nonetheless exciting.

This week has been a great example of the stories that pass quietly without much fanfare and I want to share the three that caught my attention.  I often joke about needing a brain or more brain power, and that may be closer than I thought, with the assistance of some brilliant researchers.

The holy grail of MS research would be to find the cause and prevention/cure for this miserable disease, but second place would go to finding a way to mend those of us who are already in its throes.  We know that to get better there needs to be repair for our damaged myelin, but the adult human’s body does a pretty poor job of producing more glial cells that can convert to myelin to coat our neurons. Glial and Neurons are the two main types of cells in our brain.   Researchers at the University of California Davis announced they have found a way to stimulate stem cells to produce myelin1.  The team at UC Davis was able to bioengineer myelin-producing cells and tested them in mice. Mice do not have naturally occurring myelin, so all the myelin they found in them is known to have come for the stem cell injections they were given. It is really early in this research, but to me this is very exciting.

How often have you wished like the scarecrow in Oz  – if I only had a brain?  I know at times that is my wish, to have a fully engaged and complete brain to power me through the day.  Scientists at the Institute of Molecular biotechnology  (IMBA) of the Austrian Academy of Sciences announced that they have  created 3-dimensional  (3-D) brain cells in their lab.  It’s pretty incredible how these scientists construct a type of scaffolding using 3D printing technology and then add to it fragments of tissue made from human stem cells to create brain tissue.  I understand that for some time there have been 2-Dimnsional (2D) cells available for researchers, but this is the first reported creation of 3D cells.  In utero the human brain starts as a small speck and evolves into a functioning marvel that still has scientists boggled as to how it really works.  This research is able to create this same brain in its infancy, and after 20-30 days of time in a spinning bioreactor and being nurtured, the scientists are able to see distinct areas of the brain developing, with a central core around a cavity that contained fluid.

Please don’t get alarmed at the idea of a brain being grown in a lab- this is nothing quite like creating Frankenstein.  Instead, these mini-brains as they are being called, are being used understand the brain disorder of microcephally, a disorder that causes the brain to be smaller than normal. The mini-brain is not able to grow larger, because it doesn’t get blood or oxygen from a circulatory system as in our body.  These laboratory grown mini-brains1will be also used to study other brain disorders, including diseases of the neuronal system.   The mini brain will give researchers one more tool to study MS and other neurological disorders.

The final headline to share is more amazing than when Alexander Graham Bell said ‘Watson, come here – I want you,’  through the first use of a  telephone. We’ve all heard the adage – two heads are better than one.  Would the same be true for two brains?  How would you like to influence someone else’s brain to control their movements?  What would you think if someone else could connect with your brain and the two of you achieve a brain driven activity that perhaps you couldn’t do on your own?

Researchers/professors at the University of Washington1 demonstrated their ability to think their way into the other’s brain to control their movement on a video game.  The experiment was very basic, only had communications going one way, and they are the first to admit the equipment we would have to wear would not be realistic in the real world. But who knows?  Look at Google Glass and what they have engineered and how portable that technology is now.

In this experiment, one researcher in a location across their campus from the other one, was given instructions to give to the partner.  When he thought of a movement to make with the video game controller, the second researcher’s brain heard the signal and made the move.  We may not see any value in getting help to play a game, but imagine that you can’t  speak but could tell a partner your thoughts  through this method, I think we could agree it could be invaluable.

These are the three stories that grabbed my attention and imagination this week,  and they all leave me hoping that the brain power of these researchers will result in better brain health for the rest of us.

Wishing you well,

Laura

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