The brain is a mystery and that is why neurologists find it fascinating. The more we know, the more it tantalises us with its hidden gems. Great neurologists have waxed lyrical about the ability of the brain to elude all efforts to fully understand it. Santiago Ramon y Cajal for instance says:
“The brain is a world
consisting of a number of unexplored continents
and great stretches of unknown territory”
Non-neurologists are similarly awed by the brain. Emerson M. Pugh for example says:
“If the human brain were so simple that we could understand it,
we would be so simple that we couldn’t”
Neuroscience and neuroanatomy are at the forefront of exploring this great unknown; the research output from these fields is mind-boggling (pardon the intended pun). But which recent findings are most likely to change neurological practice in the near future? Here are my top 6.
1. Newly discovered brain lymphatic system
A recent report that researchers have discovered a previously unknown lymphatic system in the brain is to say the least shocking. That these lymphatic channels have eluded the sharpest eyes and most focussed microscopes for centuries goes to show how mysterious the brain indeed is. Why has it stayed undiscovered for so long? Apparently because it is tucked behind a major blood vessel! Hiding in plain sight says one review article. The discovery is so important that one article says it will have the scientists rewriting textbooks.
The finding however raises hope of better treatments for some neurological diseases. Because the lymphatic system is closely linked to the immune system, multiple sclerosis (MS) is one potential beneficiary of this discovery. Because lymphatics also act as drainage systems, there are implications for conditions such as Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). Hopefully this brain lymphatic system could be manipulated to clear the accumulated abnormal proteins that cause AD and other neurodegenerative diseases.
2. Newly discovered brain networks
The brain’s extensive connections is one of its enduring and fascinating mysteries. The winding fibers and tracts, meandering and looping around each other, demonstrate the brain’s complexity. As soon as we think we have grasped it all, along comes a discovery that causes a paradigm shift. This is illustrated by the report of the discovery of a new brain network involved in memory processing. This Parietal Memory Network (PMN), in the brain’s left hemisphere, responds differentially to new and to old information. This may have relevance for cognitive disorders such as Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). For the more technical details of the network, the paper is published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Neuroscience.
3. Newly discovered brain connection
In a similar vein is the discovery of previously unknown brain fiber tracts called the vertical occipital fasciculus (VOF). This new ‘brain corridor‘ is involved in visual processing. The research paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS), says the VOF is important in the perception of words and faces, amongst other things, and is ‘involved in the control of eye movements, attention, and motion perception‘. The main benefit of this finding is the improvement of our understanding of how the brain learns to read.
4. Newly discovered brain activity in deep coma
The common assumption that the electrical activity of the comatose brain flatlines on the electroencephalogram (EEG) now appears to be a misconception. This is according to a report of the discovery of a previously unknown electrical brain activity in deep coma suggests. One journal reported this as the discovery of life after brain death!
These electrical waves, seen in deep coma, are called Nu complexes. They are well-described in the original paper in PLoS One. This finding will alter our definition of brain death which relies very much on the absence of organised brain electrical activity. Another implication is for patients whose medical conditions require that they are put into a coma; this finding will potentially guide the anaesthetist to apply the best form of induced coma.
5. Newly discovered brain cell type
I thought I learnt all the different types brain cells or neurones that exist when I was in medical school. The mysterious brain however has a joker at every corner. The report of the discovery of a new type of neurone should come as a surprise, but by now we have learnt not to be shocked by new brain discoveries. The strange thing about these cells, found in the hippocampus of the the brains of mice, is that they have direct connections between their axons (the single long tail) and their dendrites (the smaller hair like projections). This connection by-passes the nerve body; this direct connection enhances the strength of the signals the cell generates. The reason for this peculiarity is not clear but, because the hippocampus is the seat of memory, I guess there are implications for cognitive disorders.
6. Newly discovered brain repair enhancers
We know that the brain repairs itself (neuroplasticity), and that brain fibers make new connections even if this occurs very slowly. What is new is that these processes can be enhanced or accelerated by external agents. Two interesting substances recently reported are psilocybin and curry. Yes, healing mushrooms and spices!
It appears that Psilocybin (psychedelic mushrooms) can establish stable connections between parts of the brain which do not normally communicate well. The research on this is published under the title ‘Homological Scaffolds of Brain Functional Networks‘. The paper describes how psilocybin helps in nerve re-wiring with the potential implications for the treatment of depression and addiction. A bit paradoxical, using an addictive substance to treat addiction; but hey, this is the brain we are talking about!
Curry on the other hand contains tumeric which contains tumerone. Tumerone has now been shown to help with nerve growth repair, and it does this by causing proliferation of brain nerve cells. The research itself is titled ‘Aromatic-tumerone induces neural stem cell proliferation in vitro and in vivo‘. It is a study in rats, but are human brains very different? Potential beneficiaries are all the neurodegenerative diseases which neurologists have singularly failed to reverse.
Enough food for thought, but if you want to keep up with neuroscience findings, here are the most popular neuroscience blogs.