BioQuakes

AP Biology class blog for discussing current research in Biology

Tag: Brain (Page 1 of 5)

Neuralink: Science Fiction or Reality?

Throughout centuries of scientific discoveries, most of the human body has been discovered and fully understood. Now this would be completely true if it wasn’t for one organ in our body: the brain. The brain is a humans most complex organ, but it is something that we only understand about 10% of how it works. There is a common misconception that we only use 10% of our brain, but “it’s not that we use 10 percent of our brains, merely that we only understand about 10 percent of how it functions.” This is both scary and interesting as the organ that runs our body is hardly understood. While we only understand 10% of its function, there have still been many advancements in technology: one more notable one in the future being Elon Musks’ Neura Link          

The name Neura Link might not ring a bell, and that’s okay because it is something that if fairly new and still in somewhat of a developmental stage. For those who do not know, Neura Link is a device that “place electrodes near neurons in order to detect action potentials. Recording from many neurons allows us to decode the information represented by those cells. In the movement-related areas of the brain, for example, neurons represent intended movements. There are neurons in the brain that carry information about everything we see, feel, touch, or think.” In summary, this is a device that interprets your neurons signals, records it, decodes it, and can then represent the intended message.

All this might sound like some fancy new technology with its only purpose being to interpret what the brain is saying, and that is basically what Neura Link does. However, the implications of this can be very helpful in the world of modern treatments. One thing that is very promising about Neura Link is that the procedure is preformed by robot, so the risk of human error is out of the equation, and it can be done for cheaper than it might have been if a human doctor was preforming the surgery. They are actively trying to make it affordable for the average person that needs it. It is hypothesized that Nuera Link can help bring back motor function to paralyzed people by being an intermediary between damaged neurons. In Neura Links own words, their device could “help people who are paralyzed with spinal or brain injuries, by giving them the ability to control computerized devices with their minds. This would provide paraplegics, quadriplegics and stroke victims the liberating experience of doing things by themselves again.

One thing we have learned in this bio class this year is how there are many processes for many parts of the body. These processes (such as cellular respiration) require many resources as well as a lot of moving parts, and have to be executed very well. There are processes like these for the healing process of certain parts of the body as well. One thing, however, is that neurons and certain nerves, when damaged, can not be recovered or reproduced. There is no system in the body to heal these damaged neurons or nerves. With the absence of a system in place to recovery these damaged parts of the body, they are left there damaged. One thing that is very interesting is that many scientists have tried to find ways to repair this tissue, but Neura Link, instead of trying to repair it, is almost trying to replace it.

While the idea of placing technology inside your brain may seem a little creepy, it might just be the solution to many seemingly unsolvable issues in the body. I think that if these ambitions of the Neura Link team are met with reality (through thorough rigorous testing and safety protocols) that there should be no limit to what it can help with. Since the brain plays a pivotal roll all over the body, there is no telling what Neura Link could do decades from now.

How to Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions: The Making and Breaking of Habits

What is a habit? A habit is “a behavior pattern acquired by frequent repetition or physiologic exposure that shows itself in regularity or increased facility of performance“ (Merriam-Webster). With this being the second month of 2022, New Year’s Resolutions are still in many people’s minds. February is statistically the time when individuals give up on their life-changing aspirations that the new-year inspired, “virtually every study tells us that around 80% of New Year’s resolutions will get abandoned around this month” (This Is The Month When New Year’s Resolutions Fail—Here’s How To Save Them). The “new year, new me” mindset is beginning to seem a little too hard to accomplish. If we can create habits that contribute to our new year’s resolutions, maybe they won’t seem so difficult. So, how can we make these resolutions into good habits and break existing bad ones?

New Years Resolutions

Habits are created through associative learning. Essentially, as you repeat a certain behavior in the same context, it becomes an automatic response rather than a thought-out action and that is when it is a habit. When this switch happens, that behavior/action moves from the intentional mind to the habitual mind. So, if we can intentionally make certain changes as a part of a resolution, we will eventually do them without thinking and maybe accomplish a resolution! 

Brain

Now, let’s look at some interesting science involved in the study of habits! Specifically, the dorsolateral striatum. This is a part of the brain that “experiences a short burst of activity” as the brain begins to create a new habit (Revving habits up and down, new insight into how the brain forms habits). As a habit becomes stronger and harder to break, this burst also intensifies. This was proved in an MIT study where rats were taught how to run in a maze and received a sugar pellet reward at the end. As we have learned in biology, neurons are nerve cells that send and receive signals. In fact, we know all about how these signals are transmitted! In this study, using optogenetics, scientists controlled the neurons in the dorsolateral striatum with light. “A flashing blue light excites the brain cells while a flashing yellow light inhibits the cells and shuts them down” (Science Daily). As the rats were running through the maze, if the neurons were excited, they ran faster and habitually, whereas when the flashing yellow light inhibited the cells, the rats slowed down and no longer knew where to go, making wrong turn after wrong turn. Senior author of the study Kyle S. Smith said, “Our findings illustrate how habits can be controlled in a tiny time window when they are first set in motion. The strength of the brain activity in this window determines whether the full behavior becomes a habit or not”. This shows us, it is fairly easy to form habits if you continue it repeatedly as the action first begins! While this can be good or bad, with the other information you will learn in this blog post, I hope that this is encouraging! 

In a recent study rewards were also shown to help form habits. This study explored how giving individuals in India a reward for washing their hands before dinner created good hand washing habits. “The study involved 2,943 households in 105 villages in the state of West Bengal between August 2015 and March 2017. All participants had access to soap and water. Nearly 80 percent said they knew soap killed germs, but initially only 14 percent reported using soap before eating” (Small bribes may help people build healthy handwashing habits). These households were divided into groups. Those that received a reward for washing their hands before dinner did 62% of the time, whereas those who did not receive a reward only washed their hands 36% of the time. This is a big difference! “Significantly, good habits lingered even after researchers stopped giving out rewards” (Small bribes may help people build healthy handwashing habits). Rewards helped create the habit, but once the habit was formed, it was automatic and even without the reward, the habit still took place! Now you may be wondering, why is this information relevant? Well, reward yourself! If your goal is to do one pull-up everyday, give yourself a piece of chocolate every time you do it and eventually you will not need any chocolate! 

So, based on this information, how can we break bad habits? First off, go to a new environment. Due to the fact that habits form from repeated behaviors in the same context, by changing our surroundings, it is much easier to not participate in that behavior. Secondly, repeat a new, replacement behavior over and over. For example, if your goal is to eat less pears, make it a habit to reach for an apple every time you walk into the kitchen. As we know, repetition forms habits! Lastly, keep this new environment and action consistent – don’t start reaching for a banana every time you get home if you have been reaching for an apple when you walk into the kitchen. In order to form a habit it is critical to repeat a certain behavior in the same context. 

Now, we can now create good habits and break the old bad ones! With this information, make this the year that you actually follow through on your new year’s resolutions! Don’t let this month stop you. You have the knowledge and resources, get to it! New year, new you! Good luck! If you have any questions, feel free to comment below!

New Years Resolution

Why Our Brain Wants Us to Adopt Routine Exercise in the New Year

In her article titled The Year in Fitness: Shorter Workouts, Greater Clarity, Longer Lives, Gretchen Reynolds outlines the many studies done that prove different ways that physical activity aids in our body’s overall health and well-being, even improving our brain power. 

Fitness news throughout 2021 revolved around the length of our workouts in connection to our health. Research has proven that short workouts are enough to improve strength in both college students and adults. This key evidence proves that in order to maintain your weight and health jAbdominal Exerciseust a few minutes of working out every day should do the trick if you don’t have enough time. On the other hand, we have learned that losing weight may be even harder than we think. Many studies have reinforced the idea that on days that we exercise we are actually burning fewer calories than when we don’t, making it harder to lose weight. Despite these findings, exercise helps us to maintain our weight and is essential in our overall health. 

Furthermore, exercise can also enhance our brain power and lend a hand to our creativity. From multiple experiments done this year scientists have found that “physical activity fortifying immune cells that help protect us against dementia; prompting the release of a hormone that improves neuron health and the ability to think (in mice); shoring up the fabric of our brains’ white matter, the stuff that connects and protects our working brain cells; and likely even adding to our creativity”. There was even a study done that showed that physically active people thought up more creative and inventive ways to use umbrellas and car tires than those who didn’t partake in as much exercise. In connection to what we have learned in AP Biology this year, the immune system protects our body against pathogens. Since physical activity strengthens our immune cells, it will in turn help our overall health and wellness in the long run, protecting us from various diseases. 

In preparation for the new year, Reynolds discusses a study that reported that those who were active had a much stronger sense of purpose in their lives. Reynolds discussed with the leading scientists of the study and found that “exercise amplified people’s purposefulness over time, while simultaneously, a sturdy sense of purpose fortified people’s willingness to exercise” creating almost a perfect symbiotic mutualism relationship towards one’s health and wellness. For me personally, exercise does just this. I find that on the days I workout I feel more productive, more efficient, and am eager to take on the rest of my day. 

Overall, taking in all of this year’s exercise research, we should prioritize exercise in the coming new year if we want to use our brains with continuing clarity and for optimSquatsal creativity in the coming years. I know that I will be continuing to prioritize working out every day, even if it is just a quick walk to start my day. My favorite workouts are strength training and walking outside. Comment below the workouts you’re going to carry into the New Year and if they have had any significant effect on your daily life, health, and brain power. 

 

 

COVID-19 Has the Ability to Attack Your Brain.

COVID-19, the virus that has been encompassing our world for the past two years, has been known to affect us in various ways. It can be deadly or merely cause patients to show cold-like symptoms. Specific symptoms that have been spiking curiosity in scientists lately relate solely to the brain; “headaches, confusion, hallucinations and delirium… depression, anxiety, and sleep problems”, and the non-medical term; brain fog. What Laura Sanders aims to answer in her article from ScienceNews is: what have scientists discovered so far that can possibly link COVID-19 to neurological problems? Can COVID-19 alone be attributed to these problems? Why or why not? 

The first step in understanding if COVID-19 really has an effect on the brain is gathering data. Scientists completed a study that reported a very alarming answer; “in the six months after an infection, one in three people had experienced a psychiatric or neurological diagnosis”. This study was published last spring and included those who had experienced mental illnesses, strokes, brain bleeds and other neurological events after six months of COVID-19 infection. The issue with this study is that the connection between COVID-19 and these events is not 100% solidified so it is still unclear whether COVID-19 itself is the cause of these problems. However, Avindra Nath, a neurologist who studies central nervous system infections at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, has been trying to find traces of the virus inside of the brain to prove this theory. Nath and his team, after failing several times to find virus in the brain, hypothesized that the virus may not be targeting the brain itself but the blood vessels inside it. They examined blood vessels of post-mortem brains of those who suffered from COVID-19 with an MRI machine so powerful it couldn’t be used on living COVID-19 patients. The MRI machine that they used allowed them to see the blood vessels in a way that they were never able to see before, due to its strength. With the machine, they were able to see that there were clots in the blood vessels, that the walls were alarmingly thick and inflamed and that some blood was leaking out of the actual blood vessels and into the post-mortem COVID-19 victims’ brains. According to Nath, “These results suggest that clots, inflamed linings, and leaks in the barriers that normally keep blood and other harmful substances out of the brain may all contribute to COVID-related brain damage”. But, like before, no solidified conclusions can be made from Nash’s study alone due to several unknowns. 

Inflammation and its effects on the human body is another concern related to COVID-19. Any inflammation in the body can cause the brain to make and use chemical signaling molecules differently. Neurotransmitters are key signaling molecules in helping nerve cells communicate and can be disrupted by inflammation. Other key communication molecules like serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine can get scrambled up when there is a lot of inflammation, causing further problems. As we learned in AP Biology this year, innate cellular defenses within the body usually lead to an inflammatory response. This happens when the pathogen is able to get past the barrier defenses: our skin and mucous membranes. In the area where the pathogen enters, mast cells will release histamine and macrophages will secrete cytokines. The histamines boost blood flow in the area causing inflammation and allowing the inflammatory process to progress. The cytokines attract neutrophils which digest pathogens and dead cell debris contributing to inflammation and the completion of the innate response. Microglia are cells found in the brain that release inflammatory cytokines to amplify the inflammatory response by activating and recruiting more cells to the specific area in the brain. The microglia are the brain’s version of the body’s immune system. Now you may ask what do microglia and inflammation have to do with COVID-19? Well, in 43% of 184 COVID patients and 34 of 41 post-mortem COVID patients, active microglia was found. This means that microglia had initiated an inflammatory response within the brain as a result of SARS-COV-2 entering the body, proving that COVID causes inflammation in the brain and that it can possibly be the cause of the neurological events mentioned earlier. 

Nevertheless, there are still many unanswered questions about the virus’s effects on the brain and if we will ever know who is most susceptible to this concerning response. One important factor contributing to brain functioning that we can not forget is lockdowns. COVID-19 lockdowns have been connected to mental health disorders and according to psychiatrictimes, mentCovid-19 mental health impact in the United States July 2020al illnesses can activate inflammation in the body. This tells us that COVID-19 may create inflammation indirectly through mandated lockdowns. Another thing to note is the term ‘brain fog’ that so many patients have used, including me when I had COVID-19 last spring, is nonmedical. Though it is listed as a symptom, it can not be attributed to SARS-CoV-2 affecting our brain’s functioning until we research more thoroughly. So, for now, we can not 100% attribute COVID-19 to attacking the brain alone but we know that it has the potential to have a very alarming effect on our brains and our body as a whole.

Is Your Cellphone Trying to Kill You?

The cellphone that you use everyday, whether it is for work or your enjoyment, can harm you without you even knowing. Cellphones give off a certain type of energy called radio-frequency waves that can increase your risk of brain tumors or other tumors in the head or neck area. Cell phones are given the ability to function because of cell towers. Cell phones send and receive signals from surrounding cell towers by using radio-frequency waves. Radio-frequency waves, however, are a form of non-ionizing radiation, which means they do not have enough energy to cause cancer directly damaging the DNA inside a cell. This relates to our biology class, as we are talking about how cells work inside the body. Although radio-frequency waves do not have enough energy to break through a cell to cause damage, if they did, they would have to pass through the plasma membrane, and then reach the nucleus in order to damage DNA.

The radio-frequency waves come from the cell phone’s antenna, located in the body of a hand-held phone. The waves are strongest at the antenna and lose energy quickly as they travel away from the phone. The phone is often held against the head when a person is on a call. The closer the antenna is to someone, the greater their expected exposure to radio-frequency waves. The body tissues closest to the phone absorb more energy from the waves than tissues farther away, giving you a higher risk of a form of brain cancer than something else. The amount of energy absorbed by someone from the radio-frequency waves can be influenced by a number of things, such as the model of phone you use, or the amount of time you use your phone. However, in studies shown in the first embedded link, there has been no clear answer of the correlation between cellphones and cancer. Overall, I feel that if there was a significant finding in these studies, there would be a huge spike of cases of brain tumors or brain cancers. I believe this is not something we should be worried about, and if it were to be a problem, I feel that there would have been a solution created already.

Neurological Implications of a Dog’s Brain

In this article, the brains of dogs and their neurological capacity is explored.

Biology Letters published their results on the mechanisms of a dog’s brain.

Gregory Berns, a senior on this study stated, “Our work not only shows that dogs use a similar part of their brain to process numbers of objects as humans do — it shows that they don’t need to be trained to do it.”

In the study, an fMRI was used to scan the dogs’ brains. On these images, it was shown that the parietotemporal cortex produced a lot of contrast and response.

This system supports the ability to rapidly estimate of objects in a scene, such as the number of threats approaching or the amount of food available.

However, much of the research conducted included an intensive training of the dogs.

Berns is founder of the Dog Project which is an organization that studies the evolution of dogs. The project was to first to train dogs to voluntarily enter an fMRI scanner.

Berns states his findings, “Our results provide some of the strongest evidence yet that numerosity is a shared neural mechanism that goes back at least that far.”

Overall this study found that “new canine numerosity study suggests that a common neural mechanism has been deeply conserved across mammalian evolution.”‘

Does The Time of Day Control Memory Ability?

Researchers University of Tokyo Department of Applied Biological Chemistry have found evidence that the time of day may influence one’s forgetfulness. They were able to study this by identifying and studying a gene in mice that controls memory. 

The key to their research was making a test that differentiates between never learning information versus not remembering information. To ensure that the mice learned new information, the mice were given a new object and then given the same object later in the day. The mice were considered to have “learned” new information if they spent less time exploring the new object. 

Researchers repeated this experiment with mice that had BMAL1 and with mice that did not have BMAL1. BMAL1 is a protein that controls different genes and normally fluctuates between high and low levels. Through tests, researchers discovered that the mice without the BMAL1 (normal mice), were more forgetful when they first woke up. 

Though the researcher’s findings may indicate that humans are also more forgetful early in the morning, more research meeds to be done. Scientists are currently trying to find ways to strengthen memory through the BMAL1 pathway, that can possibly help cure diseases such as Alzheimer’s and dementia. They are also curious to determine the evolutionary benefit of having less memory ability later in the day. This study can be seen as the first step towards a major scientific discovery. 

Who’s Smarter: Girls vs. Boys?

According to the legendary myth, boys are smarter in science, technology, engineering and mathematic fields due to biological deficiencies in math aptitude. Recent studies show that this is not true. A study, by Jessica Cantlon at Carnegie Mellon University, evaluates 104 young children by scanning their brain activity while watching an educational video. When the scans were compared, it showed that both groups were equally engaged while watching the videos and there was no difference in how boys and girls processed math skills. To further this study, researchers compared brain maturity in connection to skill, by using brain scans of adults who watched the same educational video. Which concluded that the brains scans in adults and children -of both genders-  were statistically equivalent. This study confirmed the idea that math activities, in both genders, take place in the intraparietal suclus, which is the area of the brain involved in processing numbers, addition and subtraction, and estimating.

So, why are mathematic and computer science fields predominantly males? Well, it could be for the held stereotype that women and girls are biologically inferior at mathematics. This conventional image could also be linked to the fact that females were prevented from pursuing higher education until the 19th century. To show this unconscious bias, an Implicit Association Test was taken by employers. This test reveals an unconscious bias by forcing you to quickly group various words together. If the word man was immediately linked to math, then an implicit bias is shown. This study unveiled the prejudice that men were twice as likely to be hired for a simple math job since, men and women employers displayed a prejudice against women for a perceived lack of mathematical skill.

Migrating Cancer Invading the Brain

Glioblastoma tumor Credit: The Armed Forces Institute of Pathology [Public domain]

Recent research has unveiled the ability of cancer cells to invade and take over our brain’s neural network. Three independent studies, Monje, Winkler, and Hanahan have indicated that not only can cancer cells metastasize to parts of the body, including the brain, but once present, they have the uncanny ability to “hijack” our brain and incorporate into our neurons.  The research published in Nature discovered this unusual ability in a certain type of brain cancer called gliomas and in specific aggressive breast cancers that are known to spread to the brain, called Triple Negative Breast Cancer. This accidental discovery was “crazy stuff” according to Winkler, and researchers were not only amazed by their findings, but found it difficult to believe.  The implications of the research hold great promise for treating aggressive forms of cancer in the future.

The  first discovery was made by Winkler’s team and supported by Monje, found that synapses in the tumors themselves, specifically in glioma samples, are a type of cancer that is known to be difficult to treat.   Synapses are usually used for neural cell communication, but the discovery of them in tumor cells was novel.  The synapses seem to play a role in allowing the cancer cells to grow and thrive.  This discovery indicates that cancer’s ability to “weave into the brain’s neural network” explains why these cancers have been so difficult to detect early on and treat successfully.  Rather than disrupting the brain’s functions, the tumor incorporates itself into the brain’s normal functions, becoming a stealthy “hijacker”.

In a third study, Hanahan expanded the results from not only brain cancers but also certain types of aggressive breast cancers that are known to spread to the brain.  They found that certain breast cancer cells actually invade the brain and take on a role similar to neurons.  These triple-negative tumors had the uncanny ability to turn on genes that play a role in signaling between neurons.  They specifically found the cancer cells to have the ability in the brain to create a specialized type of synapse that can take in a large amount of Glutamate, one of our brain’s main neurotransmitters.  Glutamate not only functions as a neurotransmitter, relaying signals between neurons, but also seems to play a role in tumor growth.

Lisa Sevenich, a scientist studying brain cancer, emphasized how hostile the brain’s environment is for cancer cells, and the ability of these glioma cells to survive and even thrive in the brain highlights their adaptability and resilience.  Researchers looking forward hoping that these unusual cancer cells may hold promise for new innovative treatments for cancer in the future.

 

 

 

 

 

Dead Pig Brains Were Brought Back to Life…Kind Of

A recent article published by Christof Koch raises the question of if death is really as final as it seems.

Koch highlights a study undergone by a sizable team of physicians and scientists at Yale School of Medicine, led by Nenad Sestan. This group used hundreds of slaughtered pigs from the Department of Agriculture to carry out a rather extraordinary experiment. 

The experiment began with the removal of the pig brains from the pigs’ skulls. The veins and carotid arteries were then connected to a perfusion device that created the effect of a heart beating. This perfusion device circulated a synthetic concoction, or a type of artificial blood, containing drugs and oxygen with a specific molecular constitution that would protect the cells from damage. Sestan’s team studied these pig brains’ capability to survive four hours after the pigs had been electrically stunned, bled out, and decapitated. His team also compared these pig brains with others that were not connected to a perfusion device. 

A closer look on a pig brain (not from the actual experiment)

The tissue integrity of the pig brains that were connected to the perfusion device was preserved and there was also a decrease of the swelling that causes cells to die. In addition, synapses, neurons, and output wires (axons) looked normal. The glial cells, which support neurons, had some function, and the brain consumed glucose and oxygen. This means that there was some metabolic functioning. The researchers seemed very satisfied with their findings and titled their paper “Restoration of Brain Circulation and Cellular Functions Hours Post-mortem.”

However, brain waves, like those from EEG recordings, were not found in the pigs’ brains that were connected to the perfusion device. There were electrodes put on the surface of the brains but no great global electrical activity was recorded. This, although, was intended. In theory, bringing a pig that had just gone through such trauma back to life could’ve led to a number of horrible side effects. Some include massive epileptic seizures, delirium, deep-seated pain, distress, and psychosis. It was because of this fact that Sestan’s team ensured the artificial blood contained drugs that suppress neuronal function. 

According to Koch, this experiment causes a new question to surface: “What would happen if the team were to remove the neural-activity blockers from the solution suffusing the brain?”. In reality, it is probable that nothing would happen. Even though some neurons responded to the stimulation doesn’t mean that millions would be able to. However, it can’t be completely disregarded that maybe with some external support the seemingly dead brains can be brought back to life.

Keeping this in mind, one may wonder if this can be applied to human brains. The pig brain is the most popular laboratory animal as it has a fairly large brain that has a folded cortex similar to that of a human brain. Because of this, in theory, the human brain could undergo the same experiment. Even so, the question of if this would really be ethical or not is a factor that should definitely be taken into consideration.

If possible, do we have the right to bring dead brains back to life?

Stem Cells and CRISPR

Many cells can reproduce but there are a few types of cells that are not able to reproduce. One of these types are nerve cells, the cells that cary messages from your brain to your body.  There are many ways nerve cells can be destroyed or damaged, by trauma or drug use.  Millions of people are effected by losing nerve cells and for so long no one could think of a way to recreate them; until the discovery of stem cells.

After fertilization, and when the newly formed zygote is growing, it is made up of a sack of cells.  Some of these cells are stem cells which develop according to their environment. Because of the behavior of stem cells, scientists theorized that if they placed stem cells in the brain or spinal chord, two areas that have an abundance of neurons, the stem cells would turn into a neuron because of the environment it was in.  But, when they tried introducing stem cells into the body, the immune system treated them as an foreign body, as it should. Our immune system has to treat anything that does not come from our body as an enemy or we could get extremely sick.  However, the downside is organ transplants, blood transfusions, etc. are dangerous because they could cause a serious immune rejection.

Someone experiencing a spleen transplant rejection

Cells have a surface protein that displays molecular signals to identify if it is self or foreign.  Removing the protein causes NK (natural killer) cells to target the cell as foreign. Scientist haven’t been able to figure out how to make a foreign cell not seem foreign until Lewis Lanier, chair of UCSF’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology, and his team found a surface protein that, when added to the cell, did not cause any immune response.  The idea would be to use CRISPR/cas9 to edit the DNA of the stem cells, and in doing so would remove the code for the current surface protein and add the code for the new surface protein.

After the scientists had edited the stem cells, to have the correct signal protein, they released them into a mouse and observed that there was no immune rejection. Truly amazing. Maybe brain damage could be helped by this science one day. Tell me your thoughts on Stem Cells in the comments!

For more information, please go check out the primary source of this article.

 

 

Going into the Brain with CRISPR

CRISPR is a relatively new tool that allows the editing of genomes via cutting and editing through the Cas-9 protein. There are unlimited opportunities and potential with this tool, and scientists are seeing the capability of CRISPR on rat brains.

Despite the advances of CRISPR, it is still difficult to work on central nervous system. Yet, scientists are working on the expression of the genes of rats involved in learning and memory, plasticity, and neuronal development. This technique paves the way for researchers to probe genetic influences on brain health and disease in model organisms that more closely resemble human conditions.

CRISPR is important in the field of neuroscience because it helps scientists understand brain development and neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s.   According to Harvard, CRISPR is the perfect technology to figure out if disrupting certain genes causes neurological disorders like OCD and autism.

In my opinion, the first step of understanding CRISPR’s effects on the mind is to test it out on similar, but less developed brains like rat brains. I do believe that CRISPR is the future of medicine and understanding the brain further and I can’t wait to work with this incredible piece of technology.

 

 

 

Using CRISPR to target neurons

A rat brain stained with protein and DNA.

Researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham have successfully used CRISPR to target neurons. With their novel approach, the team led by Jeremy Day was able to manipulate the function of neurons in vivo.

CRISPR, a self-defense system for bacteria against viral invaders, has become a very popular gene editing tool, as it allows researchers to make very targeted changes to an organism’s DNA. Normally using CRISPR-Cas9, the process involves a piece of guide RNA guiding Cas9 to the desired gene where it cuts it, rendering the gene inexpressible.

However, Day’s team used a different CRISPR mechanism, CRISPRa, which increases the expression of the desired gene. For their CRISPRa, they used CRISPR-dCas9, a CRISPR system with a deactivated Cas9, to which they attached transcriptional effectors. This allowed the guide RNA to guide the transcriptional effectors to a particular gene so it could be up-regulated, increasing its expression. In focusing on neurons, Day’s team targeted the promoter sequence for SYN genes, a common group of genes in the brain that code for proteins that regulate neurotransmitters, and designed their guide RNA accordingly.

After injecting their effector-coupled dCas9 system into live rats using viral hosts, the desired genes were successfully up-regulated, with the researchers viewing their new protein products after the fact through fluorescent markers in cell samples. Following this achievement, Day and his team expanded their CRISPR-dCas9 system, incorporating multiple guide RNAs into a single system to target multiple sections of DNA at the same time and using it analyze the complex Bdnf gene that has multiple promoters and plays a core role in brain function and development.

This innovative approach to targeting genes in the brain has far-reaching applications, allowing for versatile gene editing in live animals, which, in the words of Vanderbilt Brain Institute researcher Erin Calipari, “is going to give us an unprecedented view of the role of gene expression in behavior”.

From psychology to physiology and beyond, there is no doubt that this discovery’s molecular insight will give us a far greater understanding of the brain.

Loneliness Is Bad For The Brain

This new study from the Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia suggests that loneliness can have quite an impact on the brain. The study is based on the effects of social isolation on mice. The mice were raised together where they could play with each other and form social ties. Then they were separated from each other for months on end. The results were quite interesting.

File:Coronal section of a mouse brain stained with Hematoxylin & LFB.jpg

Cross Section of Mouse Brain

After about a month of isolation, the mice developed more “spines” on their dendrites. This is peculiar because this development would usually happen as a response to a positive stimulus. The researchers theorize that the brain is trying to save itself from the loneliness. But this effort is not long lived. After three months of isolation, the brain returns to baseline levels of neural activity. The brain also has reduced amounts of a protein called BDNF, responsible for neural growth. They also found increased amounts of the stress hormone cortisol. Lonely mice also had more broken DNA than their socialite counterparts.

Although it is not known how the results of this study can relate to the brains of humans it may shed some light into the lesser known effects of loneliness on the brain. It also brings into question the effect incarceration could have on a person long term and whether or not it could be more harmful than rehabilitating. What do you think about this study? What could the results of a similar test on humans yield?

Can a Fox Be Your New Pet?

The big difference between your dog and a wild animal is the relationship that it has with humans. For example, both dogs and foxes come from the canidae family, however foxes are generally scared of humans  while dogs are “ a man’s best friend”. So why is the fox’s response drastically different than a dogs?

 Scientists may have figured it out. The study was originally started in Russia where a scientist wanted to see if he could domesticate foxes like people had domesticated dogs. He started to breed silver foxes with domestic traits: ones that were more tamed and friendlier towards humans.  But at the same time he also bred foxes that were aggressive to humans in order to make an aggressive breed of foxes. He then started to compare the two breeds as the generations went on. He studied only 10 generations but 50 generations of silver foxes later Cornell did a study on the same foxes.

Cornell studied the tamed foxes’ brains in comparison to the fox’s brain that were aggressive towards humans.  The scientist obtained brain tissue samples from 12 tamed foxes and 12 aggressive foxes looking for differences between the two brains. The particular part of the brain they studied was the prefrontal cortex and basal forebrain which are known for processing more complex information. The prefrontal cortex processes social behavior and personality expression, while the basal forebrain is a critical component to processing memories. The neurotransmitters from those regions were what the researchers mostly focused on. In particular, they focused specifically on the neurotransmitters that release dopamine and serotonin in the foxes brains  which are responsible for feelings of happiness because they trigger the pleasure center of the brain.

Through the study of the neurotransmitters, the researchers found that genes from these sections of the brain from the tamed foxes were altered through the breeding of the foxes but not the ones that they expected.  The variant genes in fact coded for alterations in the  function of the serotonergic neurons and the glutaminergic neurons. Those neurons coincide with learning and memory. This shows that tamed animals learn and memorize differently than their aggressive equals.  Now that we know this do you scientists through genetic modifications will be able to tame or domesticate any animal by simply changing a gene in their brain?

The More You Sit, The More You Forget!

Researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles recently discovered a linkage between the memory of middle to older aged adults and their sedentary behaviors, actions that require little energy like sitting or lying down.

They concluded that long periods of sitting, like at a desk chair, affects the specific region of the brain that is involved in creating new memories, the medial temporal lobe. The UCLA researchers closely studied 35 people ages 45 to 75 years old, documenting their physical activity for two weeks prior to and during the study.  After the three months of research, they used a high resolution MRI scan and quickly noticed similarities between the thickness of each adult’s medial temporal lobe who spent on average the same amount of hours sitting everyday. The more hours spent sitting, regardless of any physical activity, the more thin the medial temporal lobe. “The participants reported that they spent from 3 to 7 hours, on average, sitting per day. With every hour of sitting each day, there was an observed decrease in brain thickness, according to the study. ”

Even though the findings of this study are preliminary, it suggests that “reducing sedentary behavior may be a possible target for interventions designed to improve brain health in people at risk for Alzheimer’s disease.” Becoming more active is always a great thing, but becoming conscious of how much time you spend being inactive and working to decrease that, could help you out more than you think. There is still more research to be done on this matter but this is a step in the right direction for improving life for those with memory related diseases and improving overall brain health.

To read more check out the full article here!

The Science Behind Decision Making!

I consider myself, like most people, to be extremely indecisive. I also do not do very well when I find myself in stressful last minute decision making scenarios. A study done proves that it has to do with science!! According to a study done at Johns Hopkins University, it has been concluded that last-minute decision making and changing your mind is a complicated neural process involving complex neural coordination and communication among multiple brain areas.

Photo Credit: Affen Ajlfe (www.modup.net/)

 

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, (a technique that monitors brain activity in real time), the research group found that changing your mind about a decision requires ultrafast communication between specific zones of the prefrontal cortex and a region of your brain called the frontal eye field. The frontal eye field is involved in controlling eye movements and visual awareness. The study found that the longer a decision takes to make, the longer it is held in the brain, and therefore the harder it is to reverse. This means that we are less likely to change our minds about a decision we have thought long and hard about.

Kitty Xu, the leader of experiment says  “If we change our mind about pressing the gas pedal even a few milliseconds after the original “go” message has been sent to our muscles, we simply can’t stop.  If we change our minds within roughly 100 milliseconds of making a decision, we can successfully revise our plans. If we wait more than 200 milliseconds, however, we may be unable to make the desired change—”. This finding is used to explain why sometimes, with age, adults are more likely to fall. As we age, our neural communicators slow which contributes to a message not reaching our muscles, or elsewhere fast enough to change our behavior.

The study’s next goal was to identify the brain regions involved in canceling a decision entirely. Participants took part in a fMRI and were instructed to watch a screen and stare at a black dot when it appeared. After focusing on the black dot, a colored dot would appear. The addition of a new stimulus caused the participants to abandon the original directed plan. The researchers watched on the fMRI which parts of the brain lit up during the decision making step to disregard the directions and look at the new dot. They found the prefrontal cortex and the frontal eye fields were the most active brain regions.

Xu hopes that these insights on how difficult it is for the brain to quickly change original plans can eventually lead researchers to find a way to lead us, specifically seniors, to safer decision making!

The Human Brain vs. Chimpanzee Brains – The TH Gene

Well let’s start off with, what is the TH gene? The TH gene is a “protein encoded by this gene is involved in the conversion of tyrosine to dopamine. It is the rate-limiting enzyme in the synthesis of catecholamines, hence plays a key role in the physiology of adrenergic neurons.” How does this even relate to human and chimpanzee brains?

However, here’s a little background to the dimensions of the human brain compared to the chimpanzee brain. Modern humans share about 95% of their genetic code with chimpanzees.  Yet, human brains are three times larger, have many more cells, and would therefore have more processing power than a chimpanzee. Does this mean chimpanzees do not function as efficiently as the human brain or are there just some areas a human brain can be efficient on better as for the chimpanzee brain as well ?

According to two researchers from Yale University, Ying Zhu and André Sousa, TH was found highly expressed in human neocortex, but absent from chimpanzee neocortex. Sousa states, “The neocortical expression of this gene was most likely lost in a common ancestor and reappeared in the human lineage.” Since the gene is absent from the chimpanzee cortex, does this mean that they do not produce any dopamine? Do chimpanzees produce dopamine in a different way?

At the end of the day, we can conclude that human and chimpanzee brains do have a vast majority of similarities. Alternatively, there are certain aspects to the chimpanzee and human brain that allow us to differentiate the two and continue to allow for extensive research in such fields. I challenge you to discover something specific about the human brain and chimpanzee brain that are both extremely similar and different. What will you discover next?

Is Sleep Important?

Photoshop by Bryce Martin from google images.

The next time you decide to stay up at night to play video games or to watch Netflix, you might want to think twice!

Having enough sleep is essential to living a productive and healthy life. Without it, you will suffer in many ways. Sleep does not only make your body tired, but it also makes your brain cells tired. Sleep deprivation slows down brain function, which can result in mental lapses and loss of memory. Lack of sleep will cause the body’s neurons to slow down and not function as they should.

A study done by Dr. Itzhak Fried, professor of neurosurgery at UCLA, showed just how harmful sleep deprivation is.

To study the effects of deprivation, Fried recruited 12 patients with epilepsy, who already had electrodes implanted in their brains from a surgery unrelated to this study. These electrodes gave researchers access to their individual brain cells.

The people in the study stayed up for an entire night. During this time, the researchers measured the participants’ brain activity as they performed different tasks. For example, the patients were asked to categorize various images of faces, places and animals as fast as possible. Each image created a unique pattern of electrical activity in the brain.  Specifically, the researchers focused on cell activity in the temporal lobe, which regulates visual perception and memory.

The researchers found that as the patients stayed up longer, they became more tired, and it became more challenging for them to categorize the images. Their brain cells were clearly beginning to slow down.

The results also showed that the people staying up all night were going through mental lapses because sleep deprivation affected different parts of the brain. For all of these people, parts of their brains were turned off even though the other parts were fully functional.

Fried’s research, in addition to other studies, proves that sleep deprivation is similar to being drunk. Insufficient sleep exerts a similar influence on our brains as drinking too much. Lack of sleep can prohibit people from doing many things such as driving safely. People who are tired are not as alert and cannot react and adapt to their surrounding environment. Kids cannot focus in school and participate in extracurricular activities without enough sleep. Kids will be putting their education at risk if they do not sleep.

Is the extra hour of Netflix really worth it? Absolutely…NOT.

Sleep is one thing that should never be sacrificed.

Clock Change is Actually Great For Your Brain!

November this year, our clocks went back an hour, which accelerated the arrival or darker evenings and seemingly “shorter days”. It doesn’t actually make the days any shorter, in merely just shifted an hour of available daylight from the evening to the morning. Most people take lighter evenings as a priority over lighter mornings, arguments are always made over the benefits for easier travel in lighter evenings from clock changes. However, research suggests that holding onto lighter mornings could give more advantages. Having light in the morning, instead of any other time of the day, leads significant brain-boosting results. In fact, it helps us to function much better.

Early Morning

Credit: Attribution license: Porsche Brosseau

Source

All living animals and plants on Earth revolve their lives around the 24-hour cycle of light and dark. For humans, we desire to sleep during the dark night, and our bodies are honed to environmental light via a biological chain reaction. 

We, humans, detect light intensity by special cells in the retina, then the information is relayed to the internal body clock in the brain, called the suprachiasmatic nucleus. It is in the hypothalamus (which uses the endocrine system to regulate internal body processes), which is linked to hormone secretion, through the pituitary gland. These light messages’ job is to internalize information about light intensity in the surrounding environment.

The chain reaction continues with the brain driving the secretion of the hormone cortisol for a specific time of the day, it is in low levels in the dark and high levels in the light. Cortisol is a very important hormone that has very dramatic effects on the human brain and body. The cortisol is also known as the “Stress hormone” that keeps us healthy through its 24-hour pattern.

The cortisol awakening response(CAR) occurs the first 30 minutes of waking up, it is a strong burst in cortisol secretion. The lighter the mornings, the bigger the CAR. Which directly results in a better functioning brain throughout the day. In an experiment, people who have greater seasonal depression, stress, anxiety and lower arousal exhibited the lowest winter CARs. But when they are exposed to artificial light during their awakenings, their CAR was restored. Thus proving that morning light is the most effective treatment for the winter blues.

Other research has also shown that CAR in the morning is directly linked to better brain plasticity, better goal-setting, decision-making and executive function.

The burst of cortisol secretion in the morning sweeps throughout the entire body where it is recognized by receptors on all body cells. The receptors then generate the biological chain reaction to allow us to function better for the day ahead. A lack of light in the morning can make us feel not functioning fully, and an exposure to light in the morning is extremely beneficial.

Source:

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-the-clocks-changing-are-great-for-your-brain/

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