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Aging, Neuroscience, Stanford News, Stroke, Videos

Stanford expert responds to questions about brain repair and the future of neuroscience

Stanford expert responds to questions about brain repair and the future of neuroscience

One cool thing about being at Stanford is access to really, really smart people. Case in point, I get to work with William Newsome, PhD, who, in addition to doing really interesting neuroscience research, co-leads the group that made recommendations to the national BRAIN Initiative, and also directs the new Stanford Neurosciences Institute. He has a lot of insight into the state of neuroscience, where the field is headed, and what challenges scientists face in trying to better understand the brain and develop new therapies.

Newsome recently participated in an Open Office Hours, in which Stanford faculty take questions through Facebook, essentially opening their office doors to anyone with questions. He later recorded answers to those questions in the video above.

In addition to the full- length video, we’ve been posting short excerpts on Facebook. In this clip, Newsome discusses the dynamic nature of our brain’s connections. As he explains, the brain can switch connectivity to let us have one set of behaviors with our boss and another with our spouse.

In today’s installment, Newsome discusses efforts to repair nerves that are damaged in stroke, spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injuries or other conditions. Stroke is of particular interest right now – the Neurosciences Institute that Newsome leads recently announced the creation of an interdisciplinary consortium at Stanford focused on stroke as one of their Big Ideas in Neuroscience.

In that segment, Newsome points out that nerves of our arms or legs, the so-called peripheral nervous system, can regrow if they get damaged. If you cut your finger, the nerves regrow. If you have a stroke or damage your spinal cord, the nerves don’t regrow. Newsome said:

What’s the difference between the central nervous system and the peripheral nervous system such that the central nervous system does not regrow most of the time yet the peripheral nervous system does? … When we get that knowledge the hope is that we’ll be able to set the conditions right for regrowth when there’s an injury and we’ll actually be able to help people recover function.

Previously: Deciphering “three pounds of goo” with Stanford neurobiologist Bill Newsome, Open Office Hours: Stanford neurobiologist taking your questions on brain research, Neuroscientists dream big, come up with ideas for prosthetics, mental health, stroke and more, Co-leader of Obama’s BRAIN Initiative to direct Stanford’s interdisciplinary neuroscience institute and Brain’s gain: Stanford neuroscientist discusses two major new initiatives

Aging, Health and Fitness, History, Neuroscience

Walking and aging: A historical perspective

Walk on by_flickrThe evidence that exercise helps stave off mental decline in elderly people has been mounting for several years now, but an article by Wayne Curtis in The Atlantic today puts this research in perspective by looking back a century at Edward Payson Weston’s walk from San Francisco to New York in 1909, when Weston was 70.

Curtis notes that the field of gerontology, the study of aging, had been around for less than a decade at that point. Most scientists thought brain cells were not capable of regenerating – something we know today that they’re most definitely capable of – and doctors were of the mind that too-vigorous exercise could harm mental acuity. Popular reaction to Weston’s trek is documented through newspaper accounts of the day:

A column in the Dallas Morning News admitted that many considered Weston’s walk from ocean to ocean “foolishness” and “an idle waste of time.” But, the writer asked, was it “preferred to the needless senility into which far too many men begin to drift at the period of three score years and 10?”

Curtis eventually moves into recent decades and details some of the recent research into how moderate to vigorous walking can actually improve mental acuity in several populations, including Alzheimer’s patients:

The results [of one long-term study], published in the journal Neurology, were sweeping and conclusive: Those who walked the most cut in half their risk of developing memory problems. The optimal exercise for cognitive health benefits, the 
researchers concluded, was to walk six to nine miles each week. That’s a mile to a mile and a half a day, without walking on Sundays if you’re inclined to follow Weston’s example of resting on the Sabbath. (This study concluded that walking an additional mile didn’t help all that much.)

I have to admit I’m glad I live in this century and not in Weston’s time. I don’t think I have the fortitude he showed in bucking popular opinion – or, to be honest, in walking.

Previously: Even old brains can stay healthy, says Stanford neurologistExercise and your brain: Stanford research highlighted on NIH Director’s blog and The state of Alzheimer’s research: A conversation with Stanford neurologist Michael Greicius
Photo by  Stefano Corso

Aging, Neuroscience, Research, Stanford News, Stroke

Drug helps old brains learn new tricks, and heal

Drug helps old brains learn new tricks, and heal

shatz_news

Our brains go through remarkably flexible periods in childhood when they can form new connections in a flash and retain information at a rate that leaves adults (or at least me) both impressed and also deeply jealous.

Now neurobiologist Carla Shatz, PhD, has developed a drug that at least in mice can briefly open that window for making new connections in the adult brain. It works as a sort of decoy, tricking other molecules in the cell into binding to it rather than to the “real” protein on the neuron’s surface. Without the bound molecules, the protein on the neuron’s surface releases its brake on synapse formation.

There are still a number of hurdles to overcome before the drug could work in people. The human version of the protein she studied is slightly different than the mouse version, and she had to inject the drug directly into the mouse brain. She would need to find a way of delivering the drug as a pill before it could be useful in people.

Despite those hurdles, the possibilities are exciting. From a story I wrote on the possible uses for such a drug, which she had tested in a form of blindness in mice:

This model that the team studied in mice directly applies to forms of blindness in people. Children who are born with cataracts need to have the problem repaired while the vision processing region of the brain is still able to form new connections with the eyes. “If the damage isn’t repaired early enough then it’s extremely difficult if not impossible to recover vision,” Shatz said.

If a version of the decoy protein could work in people, then kids born with cataracts in countries with limited access to surgery could potentially have their cataracts removed later, receive a drug, and be able to see. Similarly, the window could be briefly opened to help people recover from stroke or other conditions.

Previously: How villainous substance starts wrecking synapses long before clumping into Alzheimer’s plaques, “Pruning synapses” and other strides in Alzheimer’s research
Image, which shows neurons of the visual system in mice that have formed new connections, courtesy of the Shatz lab

Neuroscience, Research, Sleep, Videos

How sleep acts as a cleaning system for the brain

How sleep acts as a cleaning system for the brain

Here’s one more reason why getting a good night’s sleep is critical to your health. As neuroscientist Jeff Iliff, PhD, explains in this just released TEDMED video, the brain has a specialized waste-disposal system that’s only active when we’re slumbering. Watch the talk above to learn how this system clears the brain of toxic metabolic byproducts that could lead to Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological disorders.

Previously: Why sleeping in on the weekends may not be beneficial to your health, The high price of interrupted sleep on your health and Examining how sleep quality and duration affect cognitive function as we age

Aging, Health Policy, In the News, Neuroscience, Patient Care

The toll of Alzheimer’s on caretakers

The toll of Alzheimer’s on caretakers

Loving Hands Vannesa Pike-Russell FlickrMy last grandparent, my paternal grandmother, passed away earlier this year. She lived into her 90s and, like both my maternal grandmother and grandfather, she suffered mild to moderate dementia in the final years of her life. My mother cared for each of them as one by one their health declined. She had ample support from our extended family, but she was the one who had to bathe them and help them go to the bathroom or remind repeatedly them that so-and-so relative had died many years ago. My parents’ experience taking care of elderly family members who no longer had their full mental faculties lasted two to three years in each case, unlike people who care for family members with Alzheimer’s disease – a task that can last a decade or more.

Last week, Tiffany Stanley wrote a feature in the National Review about her experience caring for her ailing aunt, Jackie, who was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. Stanley’s father had been caring for his sister when his congestive heart failure made him too ill to continue, so his 29-year-old daughter stepped in. She was unprepared for the realities of caring for an Alzheimer’s patient, and she chronicles her experiences with touching anecdotes about her family’s experiences, as well as a detailed look at Alzheimer’s care in the U.S. She also details the impact the disease has on caregivers:

Alzheimer’s places a heavy toll on family caregivers. Their own health suffers. Dementia caregivers report higher rates of depression and stress than the general population. Some studies show they have an increased risk for heart disease and stroke as well as higher mortality rates. Their own use of medical services, including emergency-room visits and doctors’ appointments, goes up, and their yearly health care costs increase by nearly $5,000, according to research from the University of Pittsburgh and the National Alliance for Caregiving. “Caring for a person with dementia is particularly challenging, causing more severe negative health effects than other types of caregiving,” reads an article in the American Journal of Nursing.

Stanley also writes about the tension between funding a cure – to keep people from spiraling late stage dementia – and caring for those who are already sliding down that route:

Lost too often in the discussion about a cure has been a much more basic, more immediate, and in many ways more important question: How can we better care for those who suffer from the disease? Dementia comes with staggering economic consequences, but it’s not the drugs or medical interventions that have the biggest price tag; it’s the care that dementia patients need. Last year, a landmark Rand study identified dementia as the most expensive American ailment. The study estimated that dementia care purchased in the marketplace—including nursing-home stays and Medicare expenditures—cost $109 billion in 2010, more than was spent on heart disease or cancer. “It’s so costly because of the intensity of care that a demented person requires,” Michael Hurd, who led the study, told me. Society spends up to $56,000 for each dementia case annually, and the price of dementia care nationwide increases to $215 billion per year when the value of informal care from relatives and volunteers is included.

The story is equal parts frustrating and heart-wrenching, but I came away much better informed about what a diagnosis entails, not just for the patients, but the families connected to them.

Previously: No one wants to talk about dying, but we all need to, Mindfulness training may ease depression and improve sleep for both caregivers and patients, Can Alzheimer’s damage to the brain be repaired?The state of Alzheimer’s research: A conversation with Stanford neurologist Michael Greicius and Exploring the psychological trauma facing some caregivers
Photo by Henry Rabinowitz

Cancer, Neuroscience, Stanford News, Technology, Videos

Stanford celebrates 20th anniversary of the CyberKnife

Stanford celebrates 20th anniversary of the CyberKnife

Just about 30 years ago, Stanford neurosurgeon John Adler, MD, traveled to the Karolinksa Institute in Sweden, home to Lars Leksell, MD, and a device Leksell had invented called the Gamma Knife. Leksell had long been a visionary figure in neurosurgery, and Adler – inspired by the device that enables non-invasive brain surgery - began to imagine a next step, driven by the addition of computer technology.

Coming up with an idea, of course, can happen in a matter of minutes. Adler had no idea that it would take 18 years before his next step, the CyberKnife, would treat its first patient. Stanford Hospital was the first to own a CyberKnife, and Adler unhesitatingly admits that without the agreement of hospital administrators to purchase that very first device – designed to treat tumors, brain and spine conditions, as well as cancers of the pancreas, prostate, liver and lungs - its development would not have been completed.

This year, Adler and his Stanford colleagues are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the CyberKnife. Stanford has two, one of just a handful of medical centers with that distinction, and it has accumulated the longest and largest history of patient care with the device. To honor Adler and those Stanford physicians who continue to explore its ever-lengthening list of applications to patient care, a new video featuring Adler was created. It’s a quick glimpse of the determination – and luck – required to make that leap from inspired idea to groundbreaking therapy.

Previously: CyberKnife: From promising technique to proven tumor treatment

Bioengineering, Biomed Bites, Neuroscience, Research, Videos

Deciphering “three pounds of goo” with Stanford neurobiologist Bill Newsome

Deciphering "three pounds of goo" with Stanford neurobiologist Bill Newsome

Thursday means it’s time for Biomed Bites, a weekly feature that highlights some of Stanford’s most compelling research and introduces readers to innovative scientists from a variety of disciplines. If you aren’t hooked on this series yet, you will be after hearing from this neuroscientist.

Stanford neurobiologist Bill Newsome, PhD, doesn’t invent new drugs, develop creative treatments or diagnose mysterious afflictions. He mostly uses moving dots to study vision. So it makes sense that even Newsome’s own mother asks the point of his research.

Newsome, who directs the Stanford Neuroscience Institute, fields the question with grace in the video above:

I  am interested in the brain as a biological organ that gives rise to intelligence. We study vision because we believe it’s going to give us certain cues how the brain actually works and understanding the mechanisms by which the brain produces behavior will help us understand all kinds of diseases of the brain… how thought and decision-making and memory and attention go wrong in diseases like schizophrenia, in diseases like depression.

It’s not about the dots. It’s about deciphering the brain, which Newsome calls “three pounds of goo” by gesturing toward his own goo-container. (It’s a well-known goo-container: Newsome also co-chairs the federal BRAIN Initiative). How does what you see influence what you do? What you think? What you don’t see?

Newsome has spent more than 40 years poking around in the brain and he knows it works much better than any of our most advanced attempts to replicate it. Think of all the applications for a machine that can not only see, but can also make decisions based on what it spots. But now, Newsome says, the best artificial intelligence vision systems are only as perceptive as a fly or an ant.

The notion is that if we can understand how real biological vision works, we can build artificial intelligence systems that can do vision much, much better than our current ones can… and we can improve our lives in many ways.

Basic bio it is, and basically very important.

Learn more about Stanford Medicine’s Biomedical Innovation Initiative and about other faculty leaders who are driving forward biomedical innovation here.

Previously: Even old brains can stay healthy, says Stanford neurologist, Marked improvement in transplant success on the way, says Stanford immunologist and Discover the rhythms of life with a Stanford biologist

In the News, Neuroscience, Research, Stanford News

Stanford neurobiologist shares insights from working in Nobel-winning lab

Stanford neurobiologist shares insights from working in Nobel-winning lab

Pic3Yesterday’s Nobel Prize announcement delighted Stanford neurobiologist Lisa Giocomo, PhD -  and not because she had taken home the coveted honor. Giocomo came to Stanford last year from Norway, where she worked first as a postdoc and later as a colleague of Edvard and May-Britt Moser (both PhDs), two of the three 2014 Nobel Prize winners in physiology or medicine.

Giocomo (to the right of the Mosers in the photo here) didn’t get a chance to congratulate her former mentors yesterday due to the time difference. But she said Edvard was shocked when he was greeted by reporters and colleagues bearing flowers as he stepped off a plane yesterday: “I don’t think they were expecting it at all,” Giocomo said.

The discovery that shot the Mosers to the top of the science world (along with London-based researcher John O’Keefe, PhD) involves the inner maps that humans and other animals use to navigate. The Mosers discovered grid cells, a type of nerve cell in the brain’s entorhinal cortex that fires when an animal moves to certain points (for example, when a rat stands on the holes of a giant Chinese checker board).

The Mosers lead a large lab group at the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience, one that Giocomo was drawn to so she could pursue her investigation of computational models of single-cell biophysics. Yet despite the size of a lab, Giocomo said the group felt like a family.

“They’re very good scientists, but they’re also really nice people and very gracious mentors,” Giocomo said. “They were always very good at making time for everyone in the lab… It’s also very collaborative.”

And unlike many partnerships, the Mosers truly work together, Giocomo said. “The lab is really run as a single entity.”

Giocomo, a member of the Stanford Neurosciences Institute, said she considered staying to work with the Mosers, but ultimately chose to join the Stanford faculty. And when asked about her own Nobel aspirations, Giocomo laughed. “I’m just focusing on building a lab,” she said. “I have many other short-term goals.”

Previously: Say Cheese: A photo shoot with Stanford Medicine’s seven Nobel laureates, Stanford researcher Roger Kornberg discusses drive and creativity in Nobel Prize Talks podcast  and Stanford winners Michael Levitt and Thomas Südhof celebrate Nobel Week
Photo courtesy of Lisa Giocomo

Medical Education, Medicine and Society, Neuroscience, Science, Stanford News

Studying science at Stanford is a dream come true for one California man

Studying science at Stanford is a dream come true for one California man

new grad students

Tawaun Lucas grew up in Compton, East LA, a city with a reputation – whether deserved or not – for producing gangsters, not neuroscientists. It’s a reputation Lucas just ignored.

A high-school athlete who dreamed of playing  in the NFL or going to the Olympics, the 22-year-old instead joined this year’s entering class of neuroscience graduate students at Stanford with a new set of aspirations.

Dreams change, Lucas explained me when I interviewed him for a story I wrote about the 135 new bioscience graduate students starting the fall semester at Stanford. As I describe in the story:

Lucas only changed his aspirations from sports to science after being sidelined by injuries his sophomore year at California State University-Northridge, where he was on a scholarship as a track athlete. But starting Stanford’s neurosciences PhD program is a dream come true, he said. “Stanford was always my first choice,” he said. “I applied to 12 schools.” When he got the acceptance call from Stanford, he said he nearly dropped the phone. “I almost teared up and cried,” he said. “It was surreal. I can’t even describe the experience.”

Lucas’s mother worked as a bus driver for the Long Beach school district. His dad was a maintenance worker. No one in his family went to college, and he wasn’t a particularly good student in high school, so the path to studying neuroscience at Stanford was an unexpected one. But programs for underrepresented minorities in the sciences helped him along the way, as did his own fascination with human behavior and the study of the brain:

His interest in science didn’t develop until his undergraduate years. He was living at home at the time with his parents, working as a bank teller while attending Cal State Northridge.  He began to turn his energies to academics when athletics was no longer an option. “Once I figured out what I wanted to do, I became focused,” he said. He chose to study psychology because the environment he grew up in had sparked his curiosity about human behavior. “I grew up in an urban area around some pretty crazy people who made some pretty weird decisions,” he said. “I began to wonder why do people, say, raised in Compton or Watts, for example, make different choices than someone raised in, say, Manhattan Beach? Is it socioeconomic? Psychological? Is there a genetic element?

Anthony Ricci, PhD, a professor of otolaryngology and member of the Stanford Neurosciences Institute, who played a role in encouraging Lucas to apply to Stanford and is part of an institution-wide effort to encourage diversity in the sciences, emphasized just how important diversity is to future advances in science:

“A person’s background is really important to how they think about a problem,” Ricci said. “If everyone were white, middle-class, Harvard-trained, they might think too much alike. Science needs people who think differently.”

Previously: First-year science graduate students enter brave new world and No imposters here: Stanford grad students reassured as they begin school
Photo by Norbert von der Groeben

Addiction, Bioengineering, Mental Health, Neuroscience, Stanford News, Stroke

Neuroscientists dream big, come up with ideas for prosthetics, mental health, stroke and more

Neuroscientists dream big, come up with ideas for prosthetics, mental health, stroke and more

lightbulbs

So there you are, surrounded by some of the smartest neuroscientists (and associated engineers, biologists, physicists, economists and lawyers) in the world, and you ask them to dream their biggest dreams. What could they achieve if money and time were no object?

That’s the question William Newsome, PhD, asked last year when he became director of the new Stanford Neurosciences Institute. The result is what he calls the Big Ideas in Neuroscience. Today the institute announced seven Big Ideas that will become a focus for the institute, each of which includes faculty from across Stanford schools and departments.

In my story about the Big Ideas,I quote Newsome:

The Big Ideas program scales up Stanford’s excellence in interdisciplinary collaboration and has resulted in genuinely new collaborations among faculty who in many cases didn’t even know each other prior to this process. I was extremely pleased with the energy and creativity that bubbled up from faculty during the Big Ideas proposal process. Now we want to empower these new teams to do breakthrough research at important interdisciplinary boundaries that are critical to neuroscience.

The Big Ideas are all pretty cool, but I find a few to be particularly fascinating.

One that I focus on in my story is a broad collaboration intended to extend what people like psychiatrist Robert Malenka, MD, PhD, and psychologist Brian Knutson, PhD, are learning about how the brain makes choices to improve policies for addiction and economics. Keith Humphreys, PhD, a psychiatry professor who has worked in addiction policy and is a frequent contributor to this blog, is working with this group to help them translate their basic research into policy.

Another group led by bioengineer Kwabena Boahen, PhD, and ophthalmologist E.J. Chichilnisky, PhD, are working to develop smarter prosthetics that interface with the brain. I spoke with Chichilnisky today, and he said his work develop a prosthetic retina is just the beginning. He envisions a world where we as people interface much more readily with machines.

Other groups are teaming up to take on stroke, degenerative diseases, and mental health disorders.

One thing that’s fun about working at Stanford is being able to talk with really smart people. It’s even more fun to see what happens when those smart people dream big. Now, they face the hard work of turning those dreams into reality.

Previously: This is your brain on a computer chip, Dinners spark neuroscience conversation, collaboration and Brain’s gain: Stanford neuroscientist discusses two major new initiatives
Photo by Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock

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