On April 2, 2013, President Obama unveiled plans for the federal government to invest $100 million in human brain mapping. The goal is that the research will unlock the secret of mental conditions from dementia to epilepsy. This project will be known as the BRAIN initiative – Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies. The funding for BRAIN is expected to be delivered in 2014. Private institutions will be encouraged to work alongside government agencies in the research. Several have already come forward in time for the launch, including the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and The Allen Institute for Brain Science. The European Union already has a Human Brain Project looking into developing this technology and building a computer simulation of the complete human brain.
Many neuroscientists believe that understanding the great mysteries of brain circuitry will lead to answers to many mental conditions, from Alzheimer’s Disease to epilepsy to autism and schizophrenia. President Obama compared the economic and scientific potential of BRAIN to that of the Human Genome Project that mapped DNA. The president stated that every $1 the government invested to map the human genome return $140 to the economy. Obama further stated the “now is the time to reach a level of research and development not seen since the height of the Space Race.” Dr. Newsome of Stanford University said “[t]he goal here is a whole new playing field, whole new ways of thinking.”
New ALS Discovery Holds Promise
Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (“ALS”), also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary muscle movement. In my opinion, it is the cruelest of all diseases. The nerve cells waste away or die, and can no longer communicate with the muscles. This eventually leads to a complete inability to move and then death. Onset is typically around age 50 and death often occurs within three to five years of diagnosis. Approximately ten percent of cases are hereditary.
In a study described in Nature Neuroscience, John Hopkins scientists said they have evidence from animal studies of mice bred with a gene mutation that causes human ALS, that oligodendrocytes – cells that create insulation for the nerves of the central nervous system and govern movement in motor neurons – died off at very high rates and the new ones that regenerated in their place were inferior and unhealthy. The scientists found, to their surprise, that suppressing an ALS-causing gene in oligodendrocytes of mice bred with the disease – while still allowing the gene to remain in the motor neurons – profoundly delayed the onset of ALS. It also prolonged survival of these mice by more than three months, a long time in the life span of a mouse. This suggests that oligodendrocytes play a very significant role in the early stages of ALS.
Dwight Bergles, professor of neuroscience at the John Hopkins University School of Medicine stated “[t]he motor neurons seem to be dependent on healthy oligodendrocytes for survival, something we didn’t appreciate before.” Jeffrey Rothstein, Director of the John Hopkins Medicine Brain Science Institute, said “[t]hese findings teach us that cells we never thought had a role in ALS not only are involved but also clearly contribute to the onset of the disease. In separate experiments the scientists found similar changes in samples of tissues from the brains of thirty-five people who of ALS.
There is no cure for ALS and there is only one FDA-approved drug treatment, which has just a small effect in slowing progression of ALS and increasing survival. Myelin loss was not previously thought to occur in the gray matter of the brain, where neurons process information. John Hopkins researchers found a significant loss of myelin in one in three samples of tissue taken from the brain’s gray matter, suggesting that the oligodendrocytes were abnormal. It isn’t clear if the oligodendrocytes that form this matter in the brain gray matter play a different role than these same cells in the brain white matter – the region in the brain where signals are relayed. These findings suggest that clues to the treatment of other diseases long believed to connected to the brain gray matter – such as Alzheimer’s Disease, Huntington’s Disease, and Parkinson’s Disease – may be assisted by the studies of the disease of brain’s white matter, such as multiple sclerosis. Dr. Bergles said ALS and MS researchers never really thought their diseases had much in common before. MS researchers are working to identify new ways in induce the creation of new oligodendrocytes and improve their survival. Dr. Bergles said “[i]t’s possible that we may be able to dovetail with some of these same therapeutics to slow the progression of ALS.