As we reported at the end of last year, neuroscience is a field of research blooming with new discoveries. 2018 is no different, and has seen a number of breakthroughs for human health. Here are 5 key neuroscience findings this year.
1. Stem Cells Reprogrammed into New Neurons
For the first time, researchers this year tested the use of the reprogrammed stem cells in the brain of a patient with Parkinson’s Disease. In Parkinson’s disease, cells that act as neurotransmitters can die off, which becomes the cause of tremors and motor-skill problems. To date there is no cure for the disease.
Researchers at Kyoto University transplanted stem cells directly into the patient’s brain. The cells came from an anonymous donor’s skin, and a total of 2.4 million of the cells were implanted into 12 sites in the brain.
The trial is on-going, but the results are promising to date. The hope is that they will restore enough lost neurons to relieve the associated symptoms of the disease. Previous animal trials suggest promise, and another 6 patients are expected to start the treatment soon.
2. Nerve Stimulation Helps Paralyzed People to Walk
Neurosurgeons at Lausanne University Hospital placed an array of wirelessly controlled electrodes into the space around the spines of three patients. The patients had damaged spinal cords that had caused years of lower body paralysis, with no walking capabilities. Electrical stimulation was applied in a pattern designed to activate motor neuron pools at the right time for walking. Within days the patients could walk on a treadmill with a harness.
The success of the technique depends on precisely timed electrical pulses and intensive rehabilitation – a combination of stimulation and activation. After several months some initial walking without aids or electrical stimulation was possible, and all patients are continuing to make slow but steady progress over time.
3. Secret Links Between Exercise and Cognition Discovered
It has long been known that exercise can improve key cognitive skills, including learning and memory functions. In a physiology lab at Hokkaido University in Sapporo, Japan, neuroscientists tested mice on treadmills to see how it changed their brains.
Previous research had shown that mice can double the amount of new neurons they grow by swimming through mazes. But this revealed that exercise on a spinning wheel also improved their memory of the mazes. It’s known that exercise leads to the release of proteins and other molecules from muscle, fat, and liver tissue, that can increase neurogenesis and even the volume of certain brain regions.
This study went further, by discovering that exercise can actually trigger epigenetic changes in the brain, to better regulate synaptic and cognitive plasticity. A rapidly growing field of biology, epigenetics allows us to essentially reconfigure our DNA to adapt to our environment. The findings show that physical conditioning can potentially change who we are, and in ways that are beneficial for cognitive health.
4. Electrical Brain Stimulation Improves Memory
Experimental research led by neuroscientist Joel Voss at Northwestern University found that tACS (Transcranial Alternating Current Stimulation), applied at low currents, moderately improved the episodic memory of healthy adults. Pre and post neuropsychological tests were used along with fMRI scans, which revealed that the cortical-hippocampal network is involved with improved recollection.
The study represents a key step in understanding the various benefits that ‘brain zapping’ can have on cognitive functions. However, this field of research is still in its early stages, as much is still to be understood in terms of the mechanics of how electrical activity is being changed at a neural level. Another challenge is that the effects can vary from one person to another, for reasons yet unknown.
5. Blood Brain Barrier Opened up via Ultrasound
Neuroscientists this year reported in Nature Communications that ultrasound and microbubbles can be used to safely control the blood-brain barrier in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. The research is exciting because it opens the door to delivery of therapies that cannot otherwise access the brain.
The method involves directing ultrasound waves across focal points that generate microbubbles in the blood brain barrier, effectively opening up tiny gaps with very high precision. The treatment is seen to be safe because the gaps are naturally sealed within 24 hours, with no signs of side effects.
Experts believe that with further research this could been done in a very focused way, targeting drugs to very specific brain regions for the needs of different cognitive health problems.
If you’d like to compare this year’s breakthroughs to those in 2017, then check out our previous blog.
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