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From Mind Control to Curing Brain Diseases, a Neuroscience Revolution Is Coming

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If the idea of physicalism is correct — that all of our mental states can be described in purely physical terms — then neuroscience is not only the study of our brains, but the study of our entire existence. Neuroengineering, defined as the application of engineering principles to neurological problems, then becomes how we engineer our relationship with existence itself.

Fifty years ago, nobody but computer programmers knew the personal computer was being developed, and the primary market for the device was thought to be scientists. Today, computers are a ubiquitous.

Digital technology has revolutionized nearly every facet of our lives. Today, neuroengineering is in a similar infancy. While most people would understand the basic idea of using engineering techniques to alter, improve, repair, and study neural systems, most people would lack for ideas on the application.

This article is part of a series sponsored by The Hertz Foundation. Discover more of what remarkable students can do in the sciences: — From Space Elevators to Drone Delivery, Looking for Failure Inspires Innovation

Dr. Ed Boyden is somebody who does not lack for those ideas.

Brain Science: Optogenetics and Expansion Microscopy Edward Boyden

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Brain Science: Optogenetics and Expansion Microscopy

Ed-boyden-hs

Edward Boyden

MIT Professor, Media Lab Synthetic Neurobiology Group Leader

04:16

As professor of Biological Engineering and Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the MIT Media Lab, Boyden has launched an award-winning series of classes at MIT which teach principles of neural engineering, starting with the basic principles of how to control and observe neural functions. While studying neuroscience at Stanford University as a Hertz Foundation Fellow, Boyden discovered that human memories are stored by a specific molecular mechanism, and that the content of a memory determines the mechanism used by the brain.

His work focuses on dramatically improving how the brain is imaged, opening a world of opportunities for people who wish to study the neural pathways that make our brains work. Dr. Boyden’s high resolution 3-D maps of the brain, unlike prior 2-D maps, allow researchers to pinpoint exactly what part of the brain they wish to…

Bacteria genes offer new strategy for sterilizing mosquitoes

wolbachia bacteria
STERILITY CULPRITS Wolbachia bacteria (red) effectively sterilize a male mosquito by infecting the insect’s testes (blue), shown at 100 times magnification. Now, researchers have identified genes that may be responsible for the sterility.

A pair of bacterial genes may enable genetic engineering strategies for curbing populations of virus-transmitting mosquitoes.

Bacteria that make the insects effectively sterile have been used to reduce mosquito populations. Now, two research teams have identified genes in those bacteria that may be responsible for the sterility, the groups report online February 27 in Nature and Nature Microbiology.

“I think it’s a great advance,” says Scott O’Neill, a biologist with the Institute of Vector-Borne Disease at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. People have been trying for years to understand how the bacteria manipulate insects, he says.

Wolbachia bacteria “sterilize” male mosquitoes through a mechanism called cytoplasmic incompatibility, which affects sperm and eggs. When an infected male breeds with an uninfected female, his modified sperm kill the eggs after fertilization. When he mates with a likewise infected female, however, her eggs remove the sperm modification and develop normally.

Researchers from Vanderbilt University in Nashville pinpointed a pair of genes, called cifA and cifB, connected to the sterility mechanism of Wolbachia. The genes are located not in the DNA of the bacterium itself, but in a virus embedded in its chromosome.

When the researchers took two genes from the Wolbachia

An Epilepsy Drug May Have Treatment Potential for Migraines

The migraine—a common but debilitating brain disorder characterized by severe headaches, often with accompanying nausea and visual auras—has perplexed neurologists for decades. There are so many types of migraine, and each person’s physiology responds differently to the few drugs and treatments available.

In the hunt for an umbrella drug to treat all migraines, researchers at the University of British Colombia have investigated a potential new treatment for migraine with aura, which affects about one-third of migraine sufferers: pregabalin (brand name Lyrica). In a class of drugs called gabapentinoids, pregabalin is an anticonvulsant used to treat epilepsy, neuropathic pain, and fibromyalgia. The researchers published their results today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Migraines begin in the brain before they’re ever visualized as an aura or felt as an intense headache. Researchers believe migraines are triggered by a brain pattern known as cortical spreading depression, or SD. Though triggers can be numerous, the SD starts in the brain as a “depolarization of neurons in a particular area of the brain,” Stuart Cain, lead author and a neurophysiologist at University of British Columbia, Vancouver tells mental_floss. “This causes a wave of excitation that travels across the brain.”

After the excitation period, there’s a long period of inactivity in which the neurons become stuck in this inactive state. “It’s this wave of inactivity that is actually causing spreading depression, and that causes the migraine aura,” he explains. Though the mechanisms are still not fully understood, they also believe this SD triggers the trigeminal nerve, one of the most widely distributed nerves in the head. That is what causes the headache pain.

As the SD travels slowly through the brain, it may go into the visual cortex and stimulate visual hallucinations, or even the auditory cortex, causing auditory hallucinations….

Human gene editing therapies are OK in certain cases, panel advises

bubble boy
EDITING OUT DISEASE Gene therapy can cure a genetic disease called severe combined immunodeficiency, or “bubble boy,” disease. Using new gene editing techniques like CRISPR/Cas9 to treat genetic diseases is fine under certain conditions, but it should not be used to enhance people, a panel of experts says.

Human gene editing to prevent genetic diseases from being passed to future generations may be permissible under certain conditions, a panel of experts says.

Altering DNA in germline cells — embryos, eggs, and sperm, or cells that give rise to them — may be used to cure genetic diseases for future generations, provided it is done only to correct disease or disability, not to enhance people’s health or abilities, a report issued February 14 by the National Academies of Sciences and Medicine recommends. The decision contradicts earlier recommendations by organizers of a global summit on human gene editing, who concluded that gene editing with molecular scissors such as CRISPR/Cas9 should not be used to produce babies (SN: 12/26/15, p. 12).

Heritable gene editing is not yet ready to be done in people, says Alta Charo, a bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin‒Madison Law School who cochaired the panel. “We are not trying to greenlight heritable germline editing. We’re trying to find that limited set of circumstances where its use is justified by a compelling need and its application is limited to that compelling need,” says Charo. “We’re giving it a yellow light.”

National Academies reports carry no legislative weight, but do often influence policy decisions in the United States and abroad. It will be up to Congress, regulatory agencies such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and state and local governments to implement the recommendations.

Supporters of new genetic engineering technologies hailed the decision.

“It looks like the possibility of eliminating some genetic diseases is now more than a theoretical option,” says Sean Tipton, a spokesman for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine in Washington, D.C. “That’s what this sets up.” Diseases such as cystic fibrosis and Huntington’s, which are caused by mutations in single genes, could someday be corrected by gene editing. More complex diseases or disorders caused by changes in multiple genes, such as autism or schizophrenia, probably would not be the focus of genome editing.

Others worry that…

Do Certain Sounds Enrage You? Neurologists May Know Why

If the sound of a co-worker repeatedly clicking his pen can send you into a flaming furor, take heart: You’re not being hypersensitive, and you’re not alone. Neurologists in the UK have spotted physical differences in the brains of people with this sound-related rage, although whether these differences are the cause or the result of the disorder remains to be seen. The scientists published their findings in the journal Current Biology.

The technical term for that noise-triggered irritation and rage is misophonia (“hatred of sound”). People who have it experience uncontrollable and intense negative emotions after hearing certain repetitive noises like chewing, lip-smacking, pen-clicking, and foot-tapping.

It’s a relatively new concept within the medical community, although people have been complaining of symptoms for a long time. To those who’ve never experienced misophonia, it may sound silly or made-up—which is what many doctors have concluded. Others have categorized it as a form of anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

The authors of the current paper wondered if the problem might not be psychological but neurological. They recruited 20 British adults with misophonia and 22…

Microbe Transmission Tracked from Mother to Infant

There’s strong evidence that babies inherit their gut microbiomes from their mothers, but it’s been unclear if the microbiome transmission takes place in the womb, at birth, or after birth; there are likely multiple paths of transmission unfolding over time. Microbial diversity is crucial to building up many functions, including the immune system, digestion, and even combating complex diseases. Recent research has found a connection between our gut microbiomes and our mental health as well.

However, studying the direct transmission of these microbes and identifying the strains of bacteria has been difficult until recently. Now researchers at the Centre for Integrative Biology at the University of Trento (UoT), Italy, have developed methods to track this microbial “vertical transmission,” as it’s called, and made some new discoveries in their methodological study, published in mSystems, an open access journal from the American Society for Microbiology.

“We know the infant increases [its] microbial diversity after birth and will continue doing so until being an adult,” senior study author Nicola Segata, an assistant professor at UoT, tells mental_floss. “We needed to understand from where microbes are coming in the first place.”

Many microbes are likely transmitted from mother to infant at birth and just after birth through direct contact with the birth…

Do You Think Mental Disorders Predict Physical Illnesses?

The phrase “mind-body connection” is so overused it sounds like a cliché, yet there’s a significant body of research that shows mental and physical health are in fact deeply intertwined. Despite that, healthcare systems are still slow to integrate mental and physical healthcare in order to provide better patient care. To address this, Swiss psychologists set out to study instances in which specific mental health disorders are followed or accompanied by physical disorders in adolescents. The goal was to determine a causal relationship between them, and if possible, to predict certain physical illnesses by the presence of a mental disorder.

What they found were small—but definite—associations between certain mental and physical disorders. In their paper, published in PLOS One, the authors write, “The most substantial associations with physical diseases preceding mental disorders included those between heart diseases and anxiety disorders, epilepsy and eating disorders, and heart diseases and any mental disorder.”

“To have proof of causality, you have to experimentally manipulate people being physically or mentally sick, which isn’t ethical,” Gunther Meinlschmidt, co-lead author of…

Check Out These Animal Retirement Homes

Shelters have a hard time finding adoptive families for elderly pets, animals with disabilities or chronic medical conditions, large animals that need special facilities, and working animals who have outlived their usefulness. Some people have stepped up to provide permanent care for these animals, so that they can live out their lives in comfort and security.

1. OLD FRIENDS FARM

Many thoroughbreds are born each year, but only a few can be champion racehorses. Of the rest, some become pets and a few will be used for breeding stock, but even they become old eventually. In 2002, the public was shocked to hear that 1986 Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand was sent to a slaughterhouse. The Boston Globe film critic Michael Blowen was already trying to raise money to start a thoroughbred retirement farm, and the response to Ferdinand’s fate brought in enough donations to open Old Friends in Georgetown, Kentucky. That’s where former champion racehorses live out their retirement years alongside thoroughbreds that never raced—160 horses in all. The farm in Georgetown and its other locations in Franklin, Kentucky, and Greenfield Center, New York, are open to the public daily. Pictured above is 1997 Kentucky Derby winner Silver Charm, who is now a resident of Old Friends.

For decades, the U.S. produced medical breakthroughs with the help of experimental lab animals, including hundreds of chimpanzees. When animal testing began declining, research centers found themselves with a surplus of elderly chimps. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) founded chimpanzee retirement farms, funded through the Chimpanzee Health Improvement, Maintenance, and Protection (CHIMP) Act.

Chimp Haven in Keithville, Louisiana, is the National Chimpanzee Sanctuary, home to more than 200 retired research chimpanzees on 200 acres of forest land. The chimps are free to roam, build their own nests, and associate with each other as they please. The staff at Chimp Haven interacts with the chimps to ensure they have veterinary care, complete nutrition, and enrichment.

3. HEARTS THAT PURR

Elderly people worry about what will happen to their cats if something happens to them. In Tucson, Arizona, they know that their pets can be taken in by Hearts that Purr Feline Guardians. The cats that come into their care live in a family environment, but the demand is more than the home can provide. Founder Jeanmarie Schiller-McGinnis began a foster care program to help alleviate overcrowding by placing cats with other elderly people who could use a companion pet. The foster cats remain under the guardianship of…