Advancements Give New Picture of Brain's Inner Workings

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • Talk about momentum! Two new reports showcase how much progress already has been made in learning about the brain and provide hope about what could come for millions with brain disorders, including those with Alzheimer’s.

    The Brain and Pain

    Researchers have found a way to see the effect of pain on brain scans for the first time, including measuring its intensity and determining whether a drug was easing it. “Although many studies have found brain areas that light up when pain is present, the new work is the first to develop a combined signature from all these signals that can be used to measure pain,” wrote Associated Press reporter Marilynn Marchione.

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    This type of breakthrough is especially important in relation to Alzheimer’s and dementia, when it is really difficulty to determine whether the person who is in the later stages of these conditions is in pain but cannot talk or signal it.

    The study involved 114 healthy participants who volunteered to have heating elements placed against a forearm. The temperature was never severe enough to burn the subject or cause lasting damage. While they were exposed to these heating elements, the participants participated in a functional magnetic resonance imaging scan, which recorded changes in the each participant’s brain blood flow. The researchers then used computer to identify brain patterns from these readings.

    At some point, researchers plan to use this technology on more common points, including headaches, bad backs and pain caused by disease. Ultimately, they hope this particular technology will eventually lead to the development of new pain medications that are less addictive.

    Getting a Better Picture of the Brain

    And a second news story reported that Stanford University scientists have been able to make the brain of a mouse as well as a portion of the human brain transparent without slicing up the organ. Their research has enabled them to see the networks of neurons that transmit information in color as well as in three-dimensional views.  This process, which is perfectly named “Clarity,” actually preserves the brain’s biochemistry, which allows the researchers to continue to test the organ with chemicals that help them identify specific structures and offer hints to what happened within that portion of the brain. The researchers hope that Clarity will help them better understand the physical foundation of mental disorders.  Furthermore, this technique also works in human brains that have been preserved for many years in formalin.

    This process provides more anatomical detail than researchers would find in MRIs. While this process won’t work in live brains, it does provide the first way that scientists can reconstruct a three-dimensional understanding of the brain’s anatomy. Researchers use specialized stains in look at the brain. These stains make selected structures visible. They also highlight specific chemical data, such as the location of specific proteins. These stains offer details about the brain’s circuitry as well as the connections between different parts of the brains. Previously, researchers had to dissect the brain into thin slices and then study each one.

  • The New York Times reports that experts believe this new process will assist in creating “an anatomical ‘foundation’” for the new brain initiative created by President Barack Obama. "What these guys have done is just stupendous," Dr. Bernardo Sabatini of Harvard Medical School told CBS News. "It's exactly the technique everyone's been waiting for," Terry Sejnowski of the Salk Institute stated to CBS News. Dr. Sejnowski predicted that the Clarity process will speed up brain anatomy research by up to 100 times.

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    Both of these studies are good news for everyone who has dementia or who, like me, is worried about developing. Let’s hope these researchers continue their efforts and continue to make these important findings that will eventually help us all!

    Primary Sources for This Sharepost:

    CBS News. (2013). Scientist: Transparent mouse brains “just stupendous.

    Houston Chronicle. (2013). Brains made transparent, neurons examined in color.

    Marchione, M. (2013). Study: Brain scans can measure pain. USA Today.

Published On: April 11, 2013