Tag Archives: neurology

Human Brain Project: What is it and how it’s a research innovation

Assembly of The Human Brain Project has a goal to unravel what lies within the intricately woven network that still remains a secret. Humans are always interested in discovering the unknown, solving puzzles and riddles and unraveling century-old questions. We have gone deep underwater in search for ancient civilizations and explored time-worn ruins from top to bottom in order to find the answers we so desperately seek. To this day, however, the biggest mystery that we have found is ourselves and what makes us human. The central core of the enigma that we are facing is the brain. The brain is the most puzzling, peculiar and unexplained creation that we have come so far managed to come across. Continue reading to find out more about the human brain project. 

Human Brain Project

What Is The Human Brain Project?

The Human Brain Project is a research initiative that started in 2013 and will continue for ten years. It hopes to uncover the challenge that is understanding the brain and all its functions, pathways and networks. The Human Brain Project will do so by combining and compiling the efforts from the leading scientists from the three major disciplines. By using the three disciplines it will attempt to encompass all that is the brain. It aims for a collaboration and integration between the fields of medicine related to the brain, neuroscience, and computing. This collaboration within the variety of different specialties is set to develop new insights into various neurological disorders and diseases. The initiative plans to come up with new solutions for treatment and to manufacture novel ingenious technologies. The researchers will use these new developments to study the brain.

The Human Brain Project: Neuroscience, Medicine, and Computing

Medicine and biomedical research initiative will look into neurological diseases and research into earlier diagnosis and prevention of the diseases. They will try to create individualized treatment and therapeutic techniques. All of this will allow for a faster and more efficient manufacturing of drugs. This will potentially lead to making drug discovery more cost-efficient.

Various neuroimaging techniques that scientists use in neuroscience are able to come with a vast pool of experimental data. Further research will use this data for future progress with the knowledge of the network. Both, invasive and non-invasive tools that differ in spatial and temporal resolutions attempt to provide a fuller picture of the brain both, anatomically and functionally. These tools include electroencephalography (EEG), intracranial EEG, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) etc.

Researchers will then process and analyze all of the neuroimaging obtained data. They will then be able to draw clear and concise conclusions that are statistically significant and relevant for further research. That’s where computing can come in with the variety of different programming languages. Programming languages will help guide the analysis of the data in a step-by-step way in an approachable fashion.

Computing also works in order to develop new ways of brain imaging and stimulation. It optimizes the ones that are already available on the market. It will also create computational and theoretical models that explain various time and spatial events in the brain. Computer specialists are also looking into possibilities of creating artificial intelligence programs. Intelligent programs could be able to mimic the functions of the brain.

The Human Brain Project – Goals and Objectives

Implementing clear and concise goals will help guarantee success. Collaboration between medicine, neuroscience, and computing will help to accomplish that. The Human Brain Project aims to create advanced information communication technologies that are able to lift the curtain to not only comprehend the human brain but to be able to stimulate it. This stimulation needs to be as painless, easy and side effect free, as possible.

Main Objectives

  1. Create and design a way to arrange, synthesize and analyze experimental brain data and learn to develop models based on this data. Comprehend both human and nonhuman brains at every level. Start from the genetic components and move on to cognitive makeup and resulting in conscious and unconscious behavior.
  2. Analyze the experimental data via the use of created technologies. Understand the mathematical and psychophysical assumptions and criteria that govern the connections amid various levels of brain organization. Try to understand the functions that these connections play in the brain’s ability to gather, express and collect information. Develop a technology that is able to visualize this data. Allow for creation of online models and reciprocate simulation.
  3. Develop information communication technologies that are useful for researchers in the field of biomedicine, computing, and neuroscience. Provide a platform for creating new technologies associated with artificial intelligence that is useful for understanding and stimulating the brain.
  4. Create new example bioinformatics tools. Immediately use them for pharmacological research and diagnostic criteria for various neurological diseases, online simulations of the disease action. Progress with understanding the newly created tools. Learn about protein on protein docking and interactions and subsequent drug effects to different brain disorders.

Models for brain research

Mice models

These objectives also contain mini-objectives for specific goals and guidelines for research projects and future collaborations. Neuroscience will look at projects in regarding with building a multi-layered model of the mouse brain structure. Various up-to-date scientific studies showed that mice models are some of the most useful models to apply to the rest of the mammal population, including humans.

Due to this, it is important to look at the structure and functional capabilities of mice in order to see how certain neurological diseases are able to develop and progress in their brain. This can help with knowing how certain drugs and protein interactions will work in combination with the disease. Drug interactions will then help to speculate and make an accurate prediction of how the disease will work in the human brain.

Creating a mice model will allow a prototype for the future study of the human brain and a guideline for further research. Using various tools can help with progress, including non-invasive and invasive neuroimaging techniques and in vitro and in vivo studies with neuronal mice cells.

Human models

Scientists also have to create a similar multi-layered model of the human brain. They will have to pool the information from the experimental data that they had gathered. Apart from that scientists will need to use the data they are working with at the moment. In the end, the researchers will be able to create a holistic model of the whole human brain. Again, they can do so by using various methods for this particular goal.

Apart from creating the model of the human brain, researchers have to look into understanding the link between the anatomical structures and the various functions that the brain displays. They need to start measuring spiking activities (action potentials) and relationships between different neurons. This will help with searching for some specific neurons with very specific functions (e.g. the grandmother cells) or networks of neurons responsible for similar functions.

Theoretical and computational tools

Researchers can then use various theoretical and computational models in order to hypothesize and speculate about the actions of these neurons. We need to be able to know exactly what happens on the neuronal level. That will allow us to understand the internal cognition and the external behavior that can happen as a result of this spiking activity.

In order to gain this insight into the brain scientists will implement these objectives. They will include the collaborative and ongoing use of all of the techniques available on-hand and feedback and forward communication between the various disciplines. Surprisingly enough, this mirrors the feedback and the feedforward way the brain sends and receives inputs and signals.

Human Brain Project Obstacles

Various different organizations have voiced questions regarding the ambitious initiative that is the Human Brain Project. These questions are valid on a scientific level, as well as a more cultural and an ethical level. Considering them is important before continuing along with the project.

Questions that were raised include ethical considerations.

  • Why do we need to know more about the brain?
  • If we do find out, what will we do with the knowledge that we have will gain?
  • Would there be any repercussions for the knowledge in regards to how we live on a daily basis?
  • Is intervening and stimulating such an important organ ethically reasonable and how would that affect our consciousness and cognition?

Obstacles like this need to be considered in every experiment and study that becomes a part of the whole Human Brain Project.

Human Brain Project Criticisms

There have been many concerns regarding the Human Brain Project. The attempt to model and build a simulation of the entire brain is quite ambitious. Sometimes, however, it is not as doable as one might hope. The amount of money spent on the project is very large and there is still no real advancement with building that holistic brain picture. A thorough experiment needs to be well thought out and planned out and the Human Brain Project seems to pursue a grand idea but with no clear steps to success.

In order for it to work, the brain simulation needs to working as soon as possible so that scientists can test it and make sure that it works, however, there is no such thing on the horizon just yet. If the researchers spend all the money now and then find out the errors, it can become quite catastrophic. Apart from that, how do you describe a brain? There are many different parts of the brain. It seems a bit too ambitious to encompass all that is the brain in one single model including the neurons and protein, DNA makes up etc. It’s impossible to know where the researchers should start.

We have a huge pool of data but it’s all so vast and different from one another, it can be virtually impossible to put it all together into one single brain simulation. Before we do that we need to formulate a theory and a hypothesis about how we think it works and builds from there, and not just throw all the data available to us in a computer and hope for the best. The thought of that, however, is mind-boggling and exciting.

The Impact of The Human Brain Project

Breakthroughs in neuroscience and medicine come as a result of the ongoing research. Different research groups look into different problems regarding the brain. Even with all of the ongoing research, there is still so much to learn and so little that we do know.

The questions are grand and they branch out in many different ways. Some scientists look at how babies are able to learn and speak their native language. Others connect language learning to bilingualism and its possible role in neurological diseases like dementia. Researchers look into reward systems and decision making. They try fully understanding object recognition, feature integration and biased competition of the visual neurons. The scope of the information that they need to study is endless and all of that encompasses The Human Brain Project.

The Human Brain Project Collaborative Initiative

With the advancements in all three of the fields, including research and advanced technology development, it will become possible to understand cognitive processes, advanced behavior, critical thinking, and reasoning. It will be easier to understand the genetic and environmental factors playing into the development and progression of various neurological diseases. Knowing about the diseases will help learn more about the cognitive consequences that show up as symptoms. After that, it will become possible to develop new treatment strategies in the form of drugs and therapy.

The Human Brain Project is, therefore, very ambitious. If it manages to succeed, it can become one of the greatest collaborative initiative in the world that can help us fully understand our species.

References

Markram, H. (2011). Introducing the Human Brain Project. SciVerse ScienceDirect (pp. 39-42). Lausanne: Procedia Computer Science.

Markram, H. (2012). The Human Brain Project – Preparatory Study. Lausanne: The HpB-PS Consortium.

Zika Virus and Microcephaly: What to Know

The weather’s getting warmer and school is coming to a close. This can only mean one thing- summer is here! But with summer fun also comes those darn mosquitos. No doubt that by now you’ve heard of the Zika virus and its dangers, especially for pregnant women. Infection of the virus during pregnancy can cause serious birth defects for your child. Learn more about how the Zika virus and microcephaly, and how you can prevent getting infected. 

Zika Virus and Microcephaly

Zika virus: knowing the basics

The Zika virus gives rise to what is known as Zika fever. Symptoms are usually mild, including joint pain, fever, rash, or conjunctivitis. The symptoms last about a week at most, and are are usually not serious enough to require hospitalization. In fact, many people don’t show symptoms of the virus, and may not even realize that they have it. And once you’ve been infected with the virus, you’re safe from future infections.

So where did it come from? The Zika virus is named after the Zika forest in Uganda, where it was originally discovered in 1947. For years, the virus infected those in Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands. The virus was actually considered to be somewhat harmless, considering that most people didn’t show symptoms, or the symptoms weren’t severe enough to cause hospitalization. But the real problem began when people started noticing the dramatic increase in birth defects, especially in places like Brazil. Since then, its rapid and unpredictable spread has send public health officials in a frenzy.

The Zika virus and microcephaly

Microcephaly is a serious birth defect where the baby’s head is much smaller than usual. The small size indicates the lack of full brain development, which predicts developmental delays, intellectual disabilities, seizure, hearing and vision loss, and more. The severity of microcephaly can vary, but the more serious cases can be life-threatening.

How does this happen?

Like all other viruses, the Zika virus is able to survive in the body by inserting its genetic material into a host cell in our body. Once inside, the virus can use the cell’s machinery to make copies of its genes, so that new viruses can be made. In some cases, when the virus is replicated the host cell is destroyed.

When a fetus’ brain is developing, it expands enough to create pressure on the skull to cause it to expand. However, a virus can stop brain growth and cause the pressure to drop and the skull to collapse. Everything else continues to develop, but the baby’s head is much smaller than what it needs to be.

Mild cases of microcephaly typically won’t need any treatment or services, just careful monitoring of development. The more severe cases require treatment of lifelong conditions. Services provided early on can help reduce developmental and intellectual delays. Therapy can also be used to improve speech and physical impairments. In some cases, medications may be used to control seizures and other conditions.

How to prevent transmission of the Zika virus

Prevent getting mosquito bites

This seems like common sense, but it may be harder than you think. Mosquitos are everywhere, but you can take preventative steps to avoid the dreaded bites. Try to limit skin exposure by wearing long sleeve shirts and long pants. If you do have any skin exposed, use an Environmental Protection Agency approved insect repellant. These repellants are tested to make sure that they are safe for pregnant and breastfeeding women. You can also try to stay in places with air conditioners and window screens to keep the mosquitos out. Be sure to avoid areas where mosquitos like to stay and breed, such as containers of still water.

Avoid traveling to areas where the Zika virus is prevalent

If you’re planning a vacation before the baby comes, this is something to pay attention to. According to the CDC, Zika virus outbreaks occurred in Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Pacific Islands before 2015. Since then, the outbreak has spread through many countries and territories. But fear not, you don’t have to completely cancel your vacation plans. Just be sure to check the CDC’s website for information about Zika virus in the area you’re visiting.

Practice safe sex

Aside from mosquito bites, the virus can be spread through sexual contact. If your partner has been in an area infected with Zika virus, be sure to use protection when having sex. The virus can spread before, during or after the infected person displays symptoms. If you’re not sure if your partner is infected, check with your doctor just to be safe.

Check with your doctor regularly

If you’ve traveled to an area infected with the Zika virus, or if you live in an area where its common, this is crucial. If you start to show signs of a rash, fever, joint pain and red eyes, consult with your doctor as soon as possible. The only way to know if your child will have any birth defects is to track its growth during the pregnancy. So even if you don’t feel sick, check in with your doctor every so often to make sure everything’s okay.

What is Neurogenesis: Regrowing Your Brain

“…I have experience recovering from a stroke. At the age of seven I underwent a stroke that almost took my life and paralyzed me on the left side of my body as well as from the waist down, leaving me in a wheelchair. But through years of therapy, working alongside neurologists, and my brain’s neurogenesis ability, my body and brain have recovered and I am in full health”

What is Neurogenesis?

“Can you grow new brain cells?”

You may have heard at some point in your life that you cannot grow new brain cells. You may have been taught that from the moment you are born to when you die you can only lose brain cells. It is believed that this is due to hits to the head, consuming alcohol and narcotics, and from lack of cognitive stimulation. Well do not despair because your brain is not in danger, you can in fact “grow” new brain cells in a process called neurogenesis.

Before I explain this process, I would like to get you up to speed to clear any confusion. As you may know or have learned, what people typically refer to as a “brain cell” is the more colloquial term for the neuron. These are the cells that make up the nervous system including the brain and through the communication of neurons, we achieve thought, actions, and everything that makes a brain a functioning organ.

It is typically believed that we develop billions of neurons during fetal development and that is it! After our brains develop, it is believed that the only changes that occur in our brains are the pruning and changing of synapses (the junction between neurons used for communication). So through this belief, it is believed that concussions, alcohol consumption, and stroke cause us to lose neurons and they can never be replaced. Unlike the rest of our body, our brains cannot heal. If you receive a cut on your hand, your blood will clot and form a scab until new skin cells repair the damage. As you grow, your bone cells develop and your bones elongate, being replaced by new cells. Our organs themselves have the ability to grow, change, and be replaced, however, it is believed that the brain is just a stagnant organ that can only lose its cells and never undergo repairs and growth.

Luckily for us, this is a FALSE belief!

Neurogenesis

The ability the brain has to develop new neurons is coined “neurogenesis” (“neuro” = relating to the nervous system; “genesis” = the formation of something new). The root of the word properly defines the term, but why is it that we have been taught otherwise about our brain’s ability to develop new cells?

A quick neuroscience history, Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the forefather of neurobiology incorrectly proposed the “harsh decree” of neuroscience.  Ramon y Cajal believed that no new neurons were generated in the adult mammalian central nervous system. You cannot blame him though, because before Ramon y Cajal, people thought the brain was just a reticulum. It was Ramon y Cajal who discovered that the brain is comprised of small units working together to form the neural net that is the brain. Ramon y Cajal was the first to work with advanced microscopy techniques during his time, in the year 1913. Ramon y Cajal discovered a lot for modern neuroscience so we will let this one error slide.

However, his “decree” was taken as a fact of neuroscience for years extending into the 1960’s when Joseph Altman and Gopal Das at MIT were finding evidence in rats, cats, and guinea pigs that these animals were able to develop new neurons. In their studies, the researchers found that these animals underwent neurogenesis in the hippocampus (a region of the brain responsible for developing new memories) and in the olfactory bulbs (a region of the brain involved in the sense of smell). Although Altman and Das had their research published in highly accredited academic journals, the dogma of Ramon y Cajal’s “harsh decree” was still taken as truth by neuroscientists at the time and their findings were silenced.

Fortunately, since the 60’s the neuroscience community has reduced their ignorance and it is now the topic of many researchers to discover new areas undergoing neurogenesis. It has been found that New York City taxi drivers have large hippocampi due to their spatial memories. Taxi drivers have an incredible ability to retain the vast network of streets and buildings which results in larger hippocampi due to the neurogenesis in this part of the brain.

High neurogenesis rates in hippocampus of taxi drivers

It is reassuring to learn that we are not constantly losing brain cells and losing cognitive ability. This is the whole premise behind CogniFit. Through brain training games and exercises we can learn how to improve your IQ, become sharper and faster in decision making, and overall improve our cognitive abilities thanks to neurogenesis and neuroplasticity. It has been found that we develop about 700-1000 new neurons in the hippocampus a day as adults (Spalding 2013). Although this number seems minuscule on the grand scheme of the billions of neurons that comprise the brain, over the years these 700 neurons add up to over 12 million neurons by the age of 50. These 12 million neurons are enough to completely replace the hippocampus alone.

Neurogenesis is such a new field of neuroscience that even experts in the field are still very uninformed on the subject. However, Dr. Sandrine Thuret is making efforts to introduce this new study of neurogenesis into the community and has sufficiently summed up the topic in her TEDTalk.

Do neurons die?

It is reassuring for those who experience head trauma, alcohol consumption, or stroke to hear that their brain cells are not lost forever. Although these can be difficult events to overcome (trust me, that hangover will eventually go away), head trauma and stroke are injuries that one can heal from.

Neurogenesis and Hangovers

Not only do I have experience with a hangover, I have experience recovering from a stroke. At the age of seven I underwent a stroke that almost took my life and paralyzed me on the left side of my body as well as from the waist down, leaving me in a wheelchair. But through years of therapy, working alongside neurologists, and my brain’s neurogenesis ability, my body and brain have recovered and I am in full health! I am not saying that I physically felt the neurons developing in my brain, but what I am saying is that there is hope.

In terms of head trauma such as concussion and alcohol consumption, your neurons are not literally dying. These types of brain damages are temporary, and they do not affect the cells directly, but more so effect the communication between cells, those synapses I was talking about earlier. Although you may not have to go through vigorous physical therapy to overcome a bump to the head or a night out with friends, there are other methods you can use to boost your brain’s neurogenesis. There are superfoods for your brain that you can consume that can truly boost your brain’s development and neurogenesis such as the intake of flavonoids, blueberries, or chocolate. Or you can try to pair these nutrition tips with specific exercise techniques such as intermittent fasting and calorie restriction to really increase your brain’s development. Using these techniques you can guarantee yourself a healthy brain that will continue growing through neurogenesis! 

 Test your knowledge-See how well you know your brain!

 

Altman, J., & Das, G. D. (1965). Autoradiographic and histological evidence of postnatal hippocampal neurogenesis in rats. Journal of Comparative Neurology, 124(3), 319-335. 

Ramón y Cajal, S. R. (1913). Estudios sobre la degeneracion del Sistema nervioso. Moya.

Spalding, K. L., Bergmann, O., Alkass, K., Bernard, S., Salehpour, M., Huttner, H. B., . . . Frisén, J. (2013). Dynamics of hippocampal neurogenesis in adult humans. Cell, 153, 1219-1227.

Neurologist undergoes brain surgery for research

Neurologist undergoes brain surgery for research

Neurologist takes self-experimentation to the extreme by installing implants in his own brain for data collection – MIT Technology Review

Phil Kennedy, a neurologist dedicated to finding a “speech decoder”, electrodes placed on the brain that connect to a computer making it possible for paralyzed patients to communicate without talking, took a step that few people would take. When he lost funding from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to continue his research, he had to look to alternative solutions in order to continue studying what he believed could give a “voice” back to those who are unable to talk.

Without funding from the FDA, Kennedy had few options left. He was making progress, but was not able to provide the proper safety data which left him without funding or credit. However, Kennedy refused to give up. After contemplating the risks and spending years mulling over the decision, he decided to “walk the walk”. Kennedy, the now 67 year-old neurologist decided to go to Belize, Central America to undergo the treatment himself.

After suffering mild complications, the surgery went well. Kennedy was able to take data and continue his research for almost one month, until he was forced to have the electrodes taken out. Having used a different electrode than he had used in the past (in order to make the procedure more simple), the brain was not able to heal fully.

In the MIT Technology Review article, Kennedy says “I had a few bumps and bruises after the surgery, but I did get four weeks of good data. I will be working on these data for a long time”.

Can going hungry as a child slow down cognitive decline in later years?

Can going hungry as a child slow down cognitive decline in later years?

People who sometimes went hungry as children had slower cognitive decline once they were elderly than people who always had enough food to eat, according to a new study published in the December 11, 2012, print issue of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology. “These results were unexpected because other studies have shown that people who experience adversity as children are more likely to have problems such as heart disease, cognitive development, mental illness and even lower cognitive functioning than people whose childhoods are free of adversity,” said study author Lisa L. Barnes, PhD, of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.