Skin cells morphed into brain cells
Researchers from Case Western Reserve School of Medicine may have found a way to reprogram human skin cells to become functioning brain cells. And this technique could be a major advance in treatment of conditions related to brain damage, such as multiple sclerosis.
When a person gets multiple sclerosis, for instance, the body begins to attack its own brain cells, destroying the protective “sheath” that surrounds the neurons in the brain. By destroying the sheath cells, the nerve is left without its protective layer, making it vulnerable. For patients with MS, there is no way to regenerate the sheath brain cells.
But the technique developed at Case Western would enable “on demand” production of insulating brain cells, known as myelinating cells. The reprogramming process involves the conversion of fibroblasts - a skin cell – into oligodendrocytes – the cells most responsible for protecting neurons in the brain. Previously, researchers had turned to fetal tissue and other stem cells for hope, though these techniques have limitations. With this new skin cell conversion, scientists could have a nearly unlimited supply of source material.
In addition to its application for multiple sclerosis, this new technique could also be used for cerebral palsy and a genetic disease called leukodystrophies, among other conditions.
Brain scans allow doctors to ‘see’ pain
The days of rating your pain level on a scale of 1 to 10 at your doctor’s office may be coming to an end. New research published in the New England Journal of Medicine has unlocked a way for doctors to use a functional MRI (fMRI) to ‘see’ the pain level of a patient without relying on the subjective and unreliable ‘1 to 10’ rating system.
For the study, researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder performed fMRI scans on the brains of 114 volunteers while they were being exposed to varying degrees of heat from pleasantly warm to painfully hot.
An fMRI brain scan is different from a normal MRI brain scan because rather than taking a still picture of the brain (as a normal MRI does) an fMRI allows doctors to observe brain patterns in motion, similar to the difference between a still picture and a video.
The fMRI scans of the volunteers in the study showed a particular neurological signature in the brain that predicted with 90 to 100 percent accuracy whether the volunteer was experiencing painful heat or non-painful warmth. Even more encouraging is that the neurological patterns were not unique from patient to patient but seemed to be consistent for all the volunteers.
Further research will focus on finding neurological patterns for different kinds of pain like pressure pain, mechanical pain or emotional pain. Of course, more research is required before these kinds of pain predictions will be useful in a clinical setting.
Google searches show mental health trends
Apparently, it’s not just seasonal affective disorder that is exacerbated in the winter months. An analysis of Google searches on common mental illnesses found that people are far more likely to search for information on mental disorders during the winter months than in warmer months.
For the study, researchers analyzed Google’s public database for search queries on mental health in Australia and the United States between 2006 and 2010. They categorized each query by type of mental illness including OCD, schizophrenia, suicide, ADHD, anxiety, eating disorders, depression and bipolar.
According to the findings, the number of search queries in each of the categories declined during the summer months. For example, bipolar searches dropped 16 percent during the U.S.’s summer months and 17 percent during Australia’s summer, and ADHD searches dropped by 28 percent during the U.S.’s summer and 31 percent during Australia’s summer. The condition with the smallest drop was anxiety, which only dropped 7 percent during the U.S.’s summer and 15 percent during Australia’s summer.
Now, an Internet search does not necessarily mean that the searcher actually has a mental illness. But, search queries do provide a way to monitor mental health trends in a passive way without relying on self-reporting data, which is often inaccurate and unreliable.