Hello everyone! Team MTN hopes 2016 has been going well for your brain and you. As the first post of the year, we’d like to give out our much deliberated list of the top three neuroscience articles from 2015. Our criteria: Bold, unique and beautiful. Nah, just kidding on the last one. We sought research that have dared to walk into the unknown, those that have made truly unique discoveries, and whose discovery holds the most potential for neuroscience research in 2016.
- The Brain’s Drain:
Lymphatic system is the body’s janitor and sentinel- responsible for clearing away wastes and movement of immune cells. Scientists, unable to find the lymphatic system in the brain, had long wondered how metabolic waste and immune cells were cleared from this region. By skilfully dissecting the fine membranes enveloping the brain (meninges), Louveau et al overturned the dogma. They showed that cerebrospinal fluid drains into these lymphatic vessels, providing a route for clearance of metabolites and immune cells from the brain. The study shattered the “immune-privileged” identity of the brain, overturned decades of textbook teaching and has opened up new directions for understanding neurological disorders.
2) Brain’s building blocks decoded:
Hawrylycz et al. harnessed the genetic and anatomical information documented in the Allen Human Brain Atlas and the information of brain wiring from the Human Connectome Project, and asked which genes and pathways are common across individuals, and therefore are responsible for shaping brain architecture. Turns out, we all share a surprisingly compact core of 32-gene expression signatures. That is, most of the patterns of gene usage across the 20,000 genes can be characterised by just 32 expression patterns. When compared with mice, some of these patterns appear unique to humans. Even more interestingly, genes regulating neuronal expression are more conserved between mice and humans, than genes associated with the cells that protect and provide support to the neurons – glia. The highly stable genes (consistent expression across different human brains) were also the ones associated with diseases (Alzheimer’s) and disorders (autism). Using the neuroimaging data from the Human Connectome Atlas, they show that the gene expression pattern in the cerebral cortex is highly correlated with “functional connectivity”. The study is not just a first step into unravelling the shaping of the brain, but it also provides a flavour of the power of high-throughput, data-driven, collaborative projects in shaping and aiding neuroscience research.
3) Animal mind-meld:
Back in 2013, the neuroscientist-cum-engineer Miguel Nicolelis, director of Centre of Neuroengineering at Duke University, had gotten a rat in Brazil sending telepathic tweets in real-time to a rat in the United States. Miguel was getting the US rat’s brain to follow its brazilian counterpart’s choices in an experimental task, simply by recording the brain activity of the Brazilian rat when it made the choice in the task and transmitting those signals to an implant in the brain of the caucasian rat. Miguel had achieved something phenomenal. He had created a central nervous system version 2.0 comprising two brains.
There had been sceptics and his work had been likened to a “poor Hollywood science-fiction script”. But Miguel saw in this the possibility of creating an organic computing device composed of the most marvellous of computational engines – our brains. He believed such an interconnected CNS extraordinaire – dubbed Brainet – would be superior in computational performance to any of the constituent individual brains. He persevered and created elaborate Brainet architectures that are capable of simultaneously extracting and delivering information from/to upto four brains. In a paper that would humble the Borg brain, Miguel and team offer proof of concept for this theory, demonstrating that several Brainet architectures can be employed to solve basic computational problems and that the Brainet performance is equal to or superior to that of an individual brain. The team shows that a brainet comprising four rats with interconnected brains can solve complex computational problems that required that the multiple animal brains working towards a common goal. The goals included image processing, storing and recalling information and even predicting weather. The scope of Brainet is magnanimous. It could unveil new dimensions of collective thinking that our individual brains’ would find difficult to fathom today. Imagine a future in which a stroke patient can tap into a healthy brain to relearn how to move a paralyzed leg, a bunch of gamers create a ‘hive’ brain as a they play come together to play Borg in a Star Trek game or multiple scientists and innovators meld their brains together to create the mind-boggling innovation.
Artwork: Utkarsha Singh and Sumiti Saharan