Repairing and Augmenting the Brain

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Repairing and Augmenting the Brain

Brain science represents the next truly new frontier of technology. It can be argued that the brain is the most important organ in the human body. It's the physical embodiment of who we are.

Every day, people like Professor Stephen Hawking demonstrate that a superb brain in a totally incapacitated body can do amazing things. On the other hand, we see victims of brain injury, dementia, and stroke unable to function despite having otherwise healthy and vibrant bodies.

Stroke is a leading cause of long-term disability and death in the United States. Parkinson's disease is an increasingly common ailment. Furthermore, dementia is one of the biggest health threats facing our aging population.

Historically, we've been able to do very little to repair brain damage once it has occurred. But, several new discoveries about the brain have already enabled scientists to take the first steps toward brain repair and augmentation in laboratory animals. These successes indicate that these, and even more effective treatments, could soon be viable for human patients.

These breakthroughs fall into two categories:

  • The first is purely physiological and involves applying the tools of bioinformatics and personalized medicine to enable the brain to repair itself.
  • The second involves the creation of artificial brain prostheses to bridge gaps in the brain created by injury, stroke, or disease.

Let's consider each of these two types of treatments.

Several research teams have recently reported breakthroughs that fall into the first category.

For example, the journal Nature Biotechnology recently reported that, for the first time, scientists demonstrated that human stem cells can successfully implant themselves in the brain and then heal neurological deficits. The researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison used a special strain of mice that does not reject transplants from other species.1

Once inside the mouse brain, the implanted stem cells formed two common, vital types of neurons. These two cell types are both critical to brain function:

  1. Acetylcholine neurons are involved in Alzheimer's and Down syndrome.
  2. GABA neurons are involved in many additional disorders, including schizophrenia, epilepsy, depression, and addiction.

For this study, the researchers cultured human embryonic stem cells in the lab, using chemicals known to promote development into nerve cells. After the transplant, the mice scored significantly better on common tests of learning and memory in mice.

Ensuring that nearly all of the transplanted cells became neural cells was critical...

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