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Neural Prosthetic Is a "Bridge" Over Damaged Brain Areas

Experiment in rats could show the way to treating traumatic brain injury in humans

2 min read
Neural Prosthetic Is a "Bridge" Over Damaged Brain Areas

A new idea for treating brain injury doesn't involve fixing the damaged regions. Instead, researchers want to detour neural impulses around the damage. 

Scientists used to think of the brain as an collection of discrete parts, with different regions taking charge of different neural functions. Today's emerging model of brain activity indicates that even a simple act of perception or cognition involves many different brain regions. Several projects are devoted to mapping those complex webs of interconnections, collectively known as the connectome.

The current experiment on brain injury banks on the idea that a lesion in the brain may be disruptive partially because it interrupts some neural circuit. The researchers, from Case Western Reserve University and the Kansas University Medical Center, thought that a little judicious rewiring could solve the problem. 

In the study, researchers caused brain injuries in rats' caudal forelimb area, which is involved in the movement of the rats' front legs. That brain region typically processes information from a sensory area that provides information about the limbs' positions, and it sends on the command to the premotor cortex, which in turn conveys the command to the spinal cord. In these injured rats, though, the signal couldn't make it past the sensory area. A rat presented with food pellets will still try to grab them, but it will grope around almost at random, and will have little success in nabbing the food.

To restore function, researchers implanted a microdevice in the rats. One set of electrodes recorded and digitized the signals in the sensory area, then the signal was routed to another set of electrodes in the premotor cortex, where they delivered precise electrical pulses. When these cyborg rats were tested for their pellet-grabbing skills, they performed almost as well as uninjured animals. 

The video below tells the tale. Warning: Don't watch if you don't want to look at post-brain-surgery rats. They have a somewhat Frankenstein-like appearance.

Such technology could one day help a broad swath of people who suffer from traumatic brain injury, including football players, war veterans, trauma victims, and stroke patients.

Image and video: David J. Guggenmos et al.

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This CAD Program Can Design New Organisms

Genetic engineers have a powerful new tool to write and edit DNA code

11 min read
A photo showing machinery in a lab

Foundries such as the Edinburgh Genome Foundry assemble fragments of synthetic DNA and send them to labs for testing in cells.

Edinburgh Genome Foundry, University of Edinburgh

In the next decade, medical science may finally advance cures for some of the most complex diseases that plague humanity. Many diseases are caused by mutations in the human genome, which can either be inherited from our parents (such as in cystic fibrosis), or acquired during life, such as most types of cancer. For some of these conditions, medical researchers have identified the exact mutations that lead to disease; but in many more, they're still seeking answers. And without understanding the cause of a problem, it's pretty tough to find a cure.

We believe that a key enabling technology in this quest is a computer-aided design (CAD) program for genome editing, which our organization is launching this week at the Genome Project-write (GP-write) conference.

With this CAD program, medical researchers will be able to quickly design hundreds of different genomes with any combination of mutations and send the genetic code to a company that manufactures strings of DNA. Those fragments of synthesized DNA can then be sent to a foundry for assembly, and finally to a lab where the designed genomes can be tested in cells. Based on how the cells grow, researchers can use the CAD program to iterate with a new batch of redesigned genomes, sharing data for collaborative efforts. Enabling fast redesign of thousands of variants can only be achieved through automation; at that scale, researchers just might identify the combinations of mutations that are causing genetic diseases. This is the first critical R&D step toward finding cures.

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