With humans living longer than ever before, diseases associated with aging are becoming a major focus of medical research. Neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease, are a major source of concern to aging adults. This is because such diseases not only lead to death, they do so through a particularly frightening route that includes loss of independence, memory, function, and personality. All adults experience a decline in certain aspects of brain function as they age. Memory, speed of cognition, and reasoning are among the functions most affected . The effects of aging on cognition appear to be due to atrophy of brain tissue in particular regions, especially the prefrontal cortex and parietal cortex , as well as decreased neurotransmitter levels.
Ed Boyden is creating new brains. A pioneer in the field of optogenetics, he is the founder and principal investigator of the synthetic neurobiology group at the MIT Media Lab, which invents technologies to reveal how cognition and emotion arise from brain networks — and to enable systematic repair of disorders such as epilepsy and post-traumatic stress disorder (ptsd).
Using a combination of lasers and genetic engineering, Boyden’s lab implants brains with optical fibers that allow them to activate special proteins in specific neurons and see their connections. In addition to helping create detailed maps of brain circuitry, the engineering of these cells has been used to cure blindness in mice, and could point the way to cures for Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s disease. On the horizon: ways of connecting to the brain via prosthetics.
By inserting genes for light-sensitive proteins into brain cells, neurons can be selectively activated or de-activated with fiber-optic implants. Check out Boyden’s demonstration at TED2011 below.
Dr. Menahem Segal, head of the Laboratory of Neuronal Plasticity at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, studies the neuronal basis of long term memory in the brain. Of particular interest are conditions that are associated with deterioration of memory systems, such as those occurring in Alzheimer’s disease patients and mentally retarded children.
In addition to the well-known impact on risk for disorders such as diabetes and reduced life-expectancy, the effects of obesity may extend to psychological function. The so-called obesity epidemic may be causing decline in cognitive function through direct and indirect impacts on brain functioning. An expanding waistline thus appears to link to decreasing ability to learn and remember.
Brain Awareness Week (BAW) is an annual celebration, coordinated by the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives and the European Dana Alliance for the Brain, dedicated to raising public awareness about the progress and benefits of brain research. Every March, BAW unites the efforts of organizations around the world to bring the excitement of science and communicate the progress and benefits of brain research to the general public.