Seven Big Brain Stories of 2013

What were the biggest neuroscience stories of 2013? It may be years before we gain the perspective to know for sure. But here’s a list of top contenders, and one of dubious value.

Each year at this time top psychics make their predictions for the coming year. Back when these appeared only in newspapers, one would need to do real work in order to see just how many of these predictions came true. Then along came the internet, and suddenly we can find out, for example, that LaMont Hamilton’s “mind-to-mind telepathic telecommunication device” has not quite come about – and  Nikki’s prediction of a UFO invasion? Premature.

It’s with this in mind that I offer my own list – a “prediction” of which of the many stories of 2013 will have the most impact on the future of brain science. Plus one that probably won’t.

1) Human cloning. That’s right, we’ve cloned people cells. But not to worry, these are not implanted embryos, but copies that are nevertheless genetically identical to the donor. More precisely, somatic cell nuclear transfer was used this year to make viable human embryonic stem cells. This is a big advance for neuroscience because it will allow the creation of cells with specific disease-related genomes for biomedical research, and may allow personalized treatments to be developed for a range of genetically linked neurological diseases. Sure, there will be major continuing ethical debates over this technology in the coming decade – but for now, welcome to the future!

2) The Brain Initiative. President Obama’s BRAIN initiative may not be the most important story of 2013, but it certainly got huge press coverage and raised the profile of neuroscience research. If congress provides funding, the initiative could provide a booster shot for brain science for the next decade. But that’s a big “if” – the excitement and anticipation of increased funding of the BRAIN initiative was diminished by concerns that already austere NIH budgets would shift money away from important work done at a smaller scale.  And, a government shutdown in October had many scientists wondering whether greater cuts in overall research grant funding would kill this initiative in the cradle – and even worse, dissuade future generations of scientists from pursuing neuroscience research. Call this one a draw.

3) Sleep does something (else). Scientists know a lot about sleep, including its phases, circadian rhythms and how it affects certain brain functions, like memory. But at the molecular level, why do we sleep? This year, researchers report that during sleep the brain cleanses itself of certain metabolic byproducts, including beta amyloid, a protein implicated in Alzheimer’s disease. This process (called a glymphatic system due to its reliance on glia, and similarities to the peripheral lymphatic system) was found to be many times more active during sleep, during which the brain removed significantly more beta amyloid. Another study late in the year reported that as little as one night of missed sleep may increase the levels of certain biomarkers that are also elevated in head injuries. The cool thing is that these studies point to a practical necessity for sleep that supports basic cognitive function. I’m going to take a nap now.

4) Fears of our fathers. A recent study has shown that mice that are taught to fear an odor can pass on this fear response to their offspring and even their grandkids. The mechanism involves demethlylation (normally methylation can suppress genes) of an olfactory receptor gene activated by the odor – leading to enhanced sensitivity to the odor.  While there’s a lot of work to be done before so-called innate fears are explained, and it will be important to replicate the study, the proposed mechanism is compelling when considering the evolutionary advantage of passing down fears that may affect survival. What other complex behaviors might use a similar mechanism?

5) Google wants to make scifi real – but is it a bold new future, or something scary? First there’s Calico, an anti-aging initiative that is being funded by Google. Why is this big news for neuroscience? Mainly because successfully slowing the aging clock down could mitigate or delay age related neurological diseases. It’s a hard problem but with Google-level resources behind it, who knows what might happen?  More recently, Google bought the robotics company Boston Dynamics, whose work you can see here and here. So at least if Google can’t help us live forever they might cover the market by making new robot bodies for us to upload our intelligence – or, just rename themselves Cyberdyne Systems and be done with it.

6) Crisper gene editing. CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly-Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, and, along with the DNA enzyme Cas9, is a system enabling the editing of genome-wide arrays of genes. This is a departure from the more common practice of knocking out single genes. The molecular biology has been understood for a while, but this year the CRISPR-Cas9 system was deployed in many types of human cells, promising to allow manipulation of arrays of genes or gene families that may contribute to neurological diseases. The system is reportedly being used to create lines of transgenic monkeys, which could presage translational potential for the technology very soon down the road. Come and get your Bioshock plasmids!

7) Rise of the cerebral organoids. In September we saw a report of the first successful effort to grow a nervous system outside a body. “Cerebral organoids”, apart from being a very cool name for a grunge band, are really three dimensional matrices made of stem cells that self-organize into brain like structures, complete with certain stages of neural development and cells that have normal shapes found in adult brains. These not-quite brains are a significant advance because it has been difficult to study the complex sequences of brain development – usually this is done in normal animals by blocking some aspect of development (either genetic or experiential) and assessing the result. With this technology, a proto brain can be “seeded” with stem cells from patients with specific disorders to determine how genetic traits play out as the brain grows and develops. There are ethical issues to consider with this technology as well – if we eventually build a brain without the ability to communicate, will we know if it is conscious? And if it’s in pain, how would we tell?

Finally, I’ll end on what I think may be a bad idea:

8) An EEG-to-speech converter for dogs.  Undoubtably inspired by “Up”, the makers of this device would have us believe that talking dogs are a good thing. While you might agree with this, let’s consider first whether it is plausible. What is proposed is a gadget that on the basis of a few dry EEG electrodes will do for a creature without known speech centers what we’ve been unable to do for humans (with well-defined speech centers) using the best EEG systems yet developed.

Let’s imagine that this effort is successful. Do you really want a talking dog (“talking” in the sense of an extrapolated algorithm that likely will generate phrases that probably will not reflect the intent of your dog at all)? And really, ask yourself whether you want to hear this all day and night:

“Let me out, let me out, let me out” or, “Let me in, so I can go out again!”, or “My [insert body part] itches, need to scratch!” Yeah…no thanks!

Maybe it’s better to enjoy the body language of our pooches, which is easy to read, dirt cheap and blessedly silent (though I guess there’s always the possibility of a mute button).

Looking back on 2013, it’s easy to get excited about the year ahead as neuroscience continues to march into incredible translational territory. While none of the stories I’ve outlined may end up being as important as I believe them to be (and please, add your own in the comments), one thing’s for sure – whatever replaces them this year will be even better.

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