Of the mice that received the treatment, 75 percent got their memory functions back.
Australian researchers have come up with a non-invasive ultrasound technology that clears the brain of neurotoxic amyloid plaques – structures that are responsible for memory loss and a decline in cognitive function in Alzheimer’s patients.
If a person has Alzheimer’s disease, it’s usually the result of a build-up of two types of lesions – amyloid plaques, and neurofibrillary tangles. Amyloid plaques sit between the neurons and end up as dense clusters of beta-amyloid molecules, a sticky type of protein that clumps together and forms plaques.
Neurofibrillary tangles are found inside the neurons of the brain, and they’re caused by defective tau proteins that clump up into a thick, insoluble mass. This causes tiny filaments called microtubules to get all twisted, which disrupts the transportation of essential materials such as nutrients and organelles along them, just like when you twist up the vacuum cleaner tube.
As we don’t have any kind of vaccine or preventative measure for Alzheimer’s – a disease that affects 343,000 people in Australia, and 50 million worldwide – it’s been a race to figure out how best to treat it, starting with how to clear the build-up of defective beta-amyloid and tau proteins from a patient’s brain. Now a team from the Queensland Brain Institute (QBI) at the University of Queensland have come up with a pretty promising solution for removing the former.
Publishing in Science Translational Medicine, the team describes the technique as using a particular type of ultrasound called a focused therapeutic ultrasound, which non-invasively beams sound waves into the brain tissue. By oscillating super-fast, these sound waves are able to gently open up the blood-brain barrier, which is a layer that protects the brain against bacteria, and stimulate the brain’s microglial cells to activate. Microglila cells are basically waste-removal cells, so they’re able to clear out the toxic beta-amyloid clumps that are responsible for the worst symptoms of Alzheimer’s.
The team reports fully restoring the memory function of 75 percent of the mice they tested it on, with zero damage to the surrounding brain tissue. They found that the treated mice displayed improved performance in three memory tasks – a maze, a test to get them to recognise new objects, and one to get them to remember the places they should avoid.
“We’re extremely excited by this innovation of treating Alzheimer’s without using drug therapeutics,” one of the team, Jürgen Götz, said in a press release. “The word ‘breakthrough’ is often misused, but in this case I think this really does fundamentally change our understanding of how to treat this disease, and I foresee a great future for this approach.”
The team says they’re planning on starting trials with higher animal models, such as sheep, and hope to get their human trials underway in 2017.
You can hear an ABC radio interview with the team here.
At some point in your life, you’ve probably been labeled a “right-brain thinker” (you’re so creative!) or a “left-brain thinker” (you’re so logical). Maybe this has shaped the way you see yourself or view the world.
“This is an idea that makes no physiological sense,” she says.
Blakemore believes that the concept of “logical, analytical, and accurate” thinkers favoring their left hemisphere and “creative, intuitive, and emotional” thinkers favoring their right hemisphere is the misinterpretation of valuable science. She thinks it entered pop culture because it makes for snappy self-help books. And of course people love categorizing themselves.
In the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, the renowned cognitive neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga led breakthrough studies on how the brain works. He studied patients who — and here’s the key — lacked a corpus callosum, the tract that connect the brain’s hemispheres. During this time doctors had experimented on patients suffering from constant seizures due to intractable epilepsy by disconnecting the hemispheres.
Gazzaniga could thus determine the origins in the brain of certain cognitive and motor functions by monitoring the brains of these patients.
He found, for example, that a part of the left brain he dubbed “The Interpreter” handled the process of explaining actions that may have begun in the right brain.
He discovered “that each hemisphere played a role in different tasks and different cognitive functions, and that normally one hemisphere dominated over the other,” Blakemore explains.
This was breakthrough research on how parts of the brain worked. But in a normal human being, the corpus callosum is constantly transmitting information between both halves. It’s physically impossible to favor one side.
Blakemore thinks that this misinterpretation of the research is actually harmful, because the dichotomous labels convince people that their way of thinking is genetically fixed on a large scale.
“I mean, there are huge individual differences in cognitive strengths,” Blakemore says. “Some people are more creative; others are more analytical than others. But the idea that this has something to do with being left-brained or right-brained is completely untrue and needs to be retired.”
You can listen to Blakemore and many other experts taking down their least favorite ideas in the Freakonomics Radio episode “This Idea Must Die,” hosted by “Freakonomics” co-author Stephen J. Dubner.
Grad student Chi Lu and colleagues demonstrate a highly flexible polymer probe for triggering spinal-cord neurons with light and simultaneously recording their activity.
MIT researchers have demonstrated a highly flexible neural probe made entirely of polymers that can both optically stimulate and record neural activity in a mouse spinal cord — a step toward developing prosthetic devices that can restore functionality to damaged nerves.
“Our goal was to create a tool that would enable neuroscientists and physicians to investigate spinal-cord function on both cellular and systems levels with minimal impact on the tissue integrity,” notes Polina Anikeeva, the AMAX Assistant Professor in Materials Science and Engineering and a senior author of the paper published Nov. 7 in Advanced Functional Materials.
Department of Materials Science and Engineering graduate student Chi (Alice) Lu, who designed and implanted the probe, is the lead author of the study. Co-authors include Ulrich Froriep of the Simons Center for the Social Brain; Ryan Koppes of the Research Laboratory of Electronics; Andres Canales and Jennifer Selvidge of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering; and Vittorio Caggiano and Emilio Bizzi of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research. Professor Yoel Fink provided access to the fiber-drawing tower.
Although optogenetics, a method that makes mammalian nerve cells sensitive to light via genetic modification, has been applied extensively in investigation of brain function over the past decade, spinal-cord research has lagged. Earlier this year Caggiano and Bizzi have demonstrated inhibition of motor functions using optogenetics, and now the collaboration between the two groups yielded a device suitable for spinal optical excitation of muscle activity, while giving the researchers an electrical readout.
“Working in a spinal cord is significantly more difficult than in the brain because it experiences more movements. The radius of the mouse spinal cord is about 1 millimeter, and it is very soft, so it took some time to figure out how to design a device that would perform the stimulation and recording without damaging that tissue,” Lu explains.
The fiber was drawn from a template nearly 1.5 inches thick to its final diameter comparable to that of a human hair. It is flexible enough to be tied in a knot. The probe consists of a transparent polycarbonate optical core; parallel conductive polyethylene electrodes for recording neuronal electrical activity; and cyclic olefin copolymer acting both as electrical insulation and optical cladding. The flexible probe maintains its optical and electrical functions when bent by up to 270 degrees at very small radii of curvature (e.g. 500 µm), albeit with somewhat diminished light-carrying capacity at those conditions. The device still performed well after repeated bending and straightening, holding up under stresses expected from normal body movements, the report shows. MIT has filed a patent on the device platform.
The researchers conducted experiments with their neural probe in genetically-altered mice that express the light-sensitive protein channelrhodopsin 2 (ChR2) labeled with yellow fluorescent protein. The ChR2 makes neurons in the mice respond to blue light. These mice, developed by Professor Guoping Feng and colleagues at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, provide a convenient model system for optoelectronic neural prosthetics. “When pulses of blue light are delivered to the spinal cord, we can directly observe neuronal response by getting an electrical recording,” explains Lu, who entered the third year of her doctoral program this fall.
“Laser pulses … delivered through the [polycarbonate] core of the fiber probe robustly evoked neural activity in the spinal cord, as recorded with the … electrodes integrated within the same device,” the researchers report.
The fiber was inserted into the proximal lumbar section of the spinal cord in mice, and light delivered through it triggered activity in one of the calf muscles, the gastrocnemius muscle. The results in the optically-sensitive mice were validated by comparison with results in wild type mice, which showed no response to the optical trigger. A toe pinch showed the device could still record mechanically stimulated neuronal activity in the wild-type mice. The researchers monitored muscle activity through electromyographical (EMG) recording, while the conductive polyethylene electrodes in the new device recorded neuronal activity in the spinal cord.
The MIT researchers’ combination in a single system of both recording activity from neurons and stimulating neurons with light is new, says Ravi V. Bellamkonda, the Wallace H. Coulter Professor and Department Chair of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology and the Emory School of Medicine. “In principle, one would like to use ‘closed-loop’ systems, i.e., you detect a neurological event — like the brain wanting to move a limb — and then stimulate to affect that function when the natural link between them is severed due to an injury like spinal cord damage,” he explains.
“This is excellent engineering combining electrical and optical engineering for an important biological application — modulation of neural function in a closed-loop way. I am eager to see this technology being used in a biologically significant ways in the future,” Bellamkonda says.
The work was funded in part by grants from the National Science Foundation through the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering and Center for Materials Science and Engineering; the McGovern Institute for Brain Research Neurotechnology Program; and the Simons Foundation.
Source: MIT press release
Image Source: The image is credited to the Chi (Alice) Lu and Polina Anikeeva and is adapted from the MIT press release
Original Research: Abstract for “Polymer Fiber Probes Enable Optical Control of Spinal Cord and Muscle Function In Vivo” by Chi Lu, Ulrich P. Froriep, Ryan A. Koppes, Andres Canales, Vittorio Caggiano, Jennifer Selvidge, Emilio Bizzi and Polina Anikeeva in Advanced Functional Materials. Published online August 26 2014 doi:10.1002/adfm.201401266
A new method facilitates the mapping of connections between neurons.
The human brain accomplishes its remarkable feats through the interplay of an unimaginable number of neurons that are interconnected in complex networks. A team of scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization, the University of Göttingen and the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience Göttingen has now developed a method for decoding neural circuit diagrams. Using measurements of total neuronal activity, they can determine the probability that two neurons are connected with each other.
The human brain consists of around 80 billion neurons, none of which lives or functions in isolation. The neurons form a tight-knit network that they use to exchange signals with each other. The arrangement of the connections between the neurons is far from arbitrary, and understanding which neurons connect with each other promises to provide valuable information about how the brain works. At this point, identifying the connection network directly from the tissue structure is practically impossible, even in cell cultures with only a few thousand neurons. In contrast, there are currently well-developed methods for recording dynamic neuronal activity patterns. Such patterns indicate which neuron transmitted a signal at what time, making them a kind of neuronal conversation log. The Göttingen-based team headed by Theo Geisel, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization, has now made use of these activity patterns. Read more…
The Monkey Business Illusion
“Imagine you are asked to watch a short video (above) in which six people-three in white shirts and three in black shirts-pass basketballs around. While you watch, you must keep a silent count of the number of passes made by the people in white shirts. At some point, a gorilla strolls into the middle of the action, faces the camera and thumps its chest, and then leaves, spending nine seconds on screen. Would you see the gorilla?
Almost everyone has the intuition that the answer is “yes, of course I would.” How could something so obvious go completely unnoticed? But when we did this experiment at Harvard University several years ago, we found that half of the people who watched the video and counted the passes missed the gorilla. It was as though the gorilla was invisible.
This experiment reveals two things: that we are missing a lot of what goes on around us, and that we have no idea that we are missing so much. To our surprise, it has become one of the best-known experiments in psychology. It is described in most introductory textbooks and is featured in more than a dozen science museums. It has been used by everyone from preachers and teachers to corporate trainers and terrorist hunters, not to mention characters on the TV show C.S.I., to help explain what we see and what we don’t see. And it got us thinking that many other intuitive beliefs that we have about our own minds might be just as wrong. We wrote The Invisible Gorilla to explore the limits of human intuition and what they mean for ourselves and our world. We hope you read it, and if you do, we would love to hear what you think.”