Did you know ancient Egyptians used to remove corpses’ brains when mummifying their deceased? I remember being taught at a young age that it was because the civilization did not value the brain as an organ, but it turns out that’s far from the truth. Not only were there many different factors that could affect excerebration, but the ancient Egyptians were the first recorded civilization to study the actual anatomy of the brain, even hypothesizing the communicative function of the spinal cord… But we’re not here to discuss antiquity.
In modern day, we more definitively know that the brain is the seat of both thought and emotion, and have better learned how little we actually know of its functionality. From a macroscopic perspective, we can study how the different areas of the brain and central nervous system respond to any number of stimuli: music, foreign languages, food, even bad dreams. But focusing on a smaller scale can uncover the mystery of how the greater machine works, and how it can even be assisted and improved.
Last time on our Amazing Samples blog series, we took a look at the research being put into eyes. Today, let’s feel out some of the ways neural tissue can be an Amazing Sample.
Diagnosing Neurodegenerative Diseases
One of the most obvious values of neural tissue would be researching diseases that directly affect the central nervous system, whether through the investigating the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) around the tissue or the brain tissue or neurons themselves. For example, while we know that multiple sclerosis (MS) is a condition affecting millions of people worldwide, in which the immune system attacks the myelin sheath around nerves, we still do not understand why this occurs. Current therapies for this condition are typically immunosuppressant in nature, and while some regenerative medicine and cell therapies are being developed for replacing the stripped myelin from nerves, these are treatments only administered once the illness has started manifesting. Add to this that the diagnosis criteria for MS are not yet very refined, and there is much room for improvement in our current treatment of the ailment. To this end, there are many different biorepositories across the country collecting CSF, brain tissue, and any other relevant samples from both healthy individuals and individuals affected by MS or other neurodegenerative diseases. These biospecimen collections in turn have been working to accelerate research to improve both identification and treatment for these conditions.
As a particular example of the untapped potential in this realm of research, anyone who had internet access last summer would have noticed the ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) Ice Bucket Challenge. Of the $115M that the ALS Association raised through the 2014 campaign, a full 67% went towards research into a cure for the devastating condition. In fact, earlier this year a group of researchers identified a gene associated with the disease, partially thanks to rising awareness and corresponding financial support of research on the topic. One of those researchers, Dr. Richard Bedlack, credited partial financial support from the campaign in his research of ALS reversals, where individuals very occasionally have the condition regress. See him discuss the condition, the ALS reversals, and his research to replicating these reversals in the video below:
Creating What is Difficult to Collect
Admittedly, the Inside Biobanking blog discussed yesterday, the processing and biobanking of CSF has some careful considerations that must be taken, and there are ethical concerns in the collection from healthy volunteers due to potential risks involved. Add to that the danger and ethics of taking brain tissue samples from living individuals, and researching neurological conditions from a biochemical standpoint faces a substantial obstacle. Sure, it’s easy enough to find cadaver’s brains, but such tissue is useless for anyone trying to study the subtle functioning of the organ.
That is why some researchers have taken to creating their own neurons for research. We’ve talked before about researchers learning to re-differentiate progenitor cells and stem cells into other classes of cells – last year, however, a group of researchers from Washington University managed utilize microRNA to convert human fibroblasts directly into striatal neurons without any such intermediary step. This research is specifically trying to develop a treatment for Huntington’s disease, another neurodegenerative disorder, but imagine the utility of transforming differentiated cells directly like that. For example, Stanford researchers discovered that in vitro neurons can bunch together into brain-like microstructures, and plan on exploring this phenomenon as a way to study the biochemical conditions that can lead to various neurological disorders. Their cells were obtained via induced pluripotent stem cells obtained from skin tissue, however – while the newer technique would have to be compared and evaluated for efficiency, imagine how much their research could be accelerated if they could use the fibroblasts in addition to the pluripotent stem cells.
Researchers from the Swedish Medical Nanoscience Center, on the other hand, have taken neurological research in a… different direction. They have created artificial biomimetic neurons that can not only communicate chemically with biological neurons, but also convert chemical signals into an electrical current, transmit said current to a distant biomimetic neuron, and have that neuron deliver the original chemical signals to the biological neurons around it. This technology has a huge possibility for application both in treating damaged nerves and in a huge number of bioelectronic applications, and while the brain’s exact manner of functioning still requires greater clarity, hopefully this research will be expanded substantially in coming years.
Whether looking at the ground-level biochemistry of the neurons and CSF, or observing the high-level functioning of the whole system, neurobiological research has a wealth of potential lying ahead of us. Truly, neural tissue can be an Amazing Sample!
Does your research involve neural tissue or cerebrospinal fluid? Share your story in the comments below!
We recently interviewed Clive Green, Director and Head of Sample Management at AstraZeneca, about the challenges in the biospecimen supply chain, from both a small molecule and biospecimen perspective. To read more, download our eBook Maximizing the Value of Biospecimens to Deliver New Therapies.