Brain Awareness Week 2022
Each March, we observe Brain Awareness Week. Typically occurring the third week of the month, this observance is a global education initiative that brings together individuals from academia, government and other organizations in more than 120 countries.
Since its conception in 1996, the observance has focused on increasing brain research — with specific aims in treatments, preventative measures and cures for many brain disorders and diseases affecting people of all ages. In addition, recent efforts by the Dana Foundation have sought to include information about other aspects of brain research, such as the brain’s development, sensory systems and plasticity.
Below, I’ll describe some current areas of exploration in brain science and disease.
Alzheimer’s and similar neurological diseases
A healthy brain is composed of neurons that communicate to one another through electrical and chemical signaling pathways. As we age, the brain shrinks with the loss of neurons, but this shrinking is minimal in the absence of disease.
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive neurological disease that causes the destruction of neurons many orders of magnitude greater than that of senescence and aging. The typical symptom for diagnosis is memory loss, as Alzheimer’s usually destroys neurons in the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex first.
As the disease progresses, it disrupts neuronal networks within the cerebral cortex associated with the processes behind communication, language, reasoning and behavior. Brain connections for metabolism and repair also are lost, eventually leading to a point of degeneration at which a person can no longer care for themselves.
The disease is eventually fatal. Once interconnected parts of the brain no longer can communicate with organs, organ failure occurs.
There are many cellular and molecular underpinnings to the cause (and symptomatic diagnosis) of Alzheimer’s. Amyloid-beta plaques occur when abnormal Aβ proteins clump together in the brain, causing synaptic dysfunction and neurodegeneration. Neurofibrillary tangles of a protein called tau also contribute, causing buildup on synapses in the brain neurons instead of fulfilling their cellular responsibility of microtubule stability. Chronic inflammation and vascular disease also have been reported as contributing factors.
While Alzheimer’s is devastating to the brain and body, it is not the only neurological disease to occur in individuals with increased age; in fact, the mechanism of aging is correlated to most neurological diseases.
For Parkinson’s disease, a progressive nervous system disorder that affects an individual’s movement, age is the largest risk factor (aside from hereditary causes).
This disease can be caused by oligomeric forms of a protein called alpha-synuclein. Normally, this protein regulates synaptic vesicle trafficking and neurotransmitter release; when it is in its oligomeric, protofibril state, however, it causes dysregulation and subsequent death of neuronal pathways.
Dementia is perhaps one of the most common neurological disorders, yet its cause is not always age (or Alzheimer’s) as many have come to think. Recently, it has been subcategorized by the diseases and/or injuries causing it, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, HIV and traumatic brain injury, to name a few.
An interesting form of dementia is caused by Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease, which leads to a very quick progression of decline due to the misfolding of prion proteins and their subsequent destruction of brain cells.
The brain is the most complex organ in the human body, consisting of distinct yet interconnected regions that are subspecialized for unique functions. Many disease mechanisms, therefore, are also interconnected. Thus, commonalities found in the causes and effects of these diseases on the brain have led researchers to adapt the philosophy of “cure one, cure many.”
Physician Wendy Yau states this best in her 2021 Next Generation Research Grant acceptance speech: “Once you’ve developed a successful treatment, you can then adapt the technique to a related disorder that may be caused by a different gene or different abnormal protein.”
Research in Alzheimer’s and related diseases is one of the most funded fields in all of science.
A stroke is any event that causes a disruption of blood flow to the brain.
With an ischemic stroke, a blood clot often becomes trapped in a fat-deposited artery, causing a blockage that cuts off blood supply to the brain.
With hemorrhagic strokes, bleeding within the brain or on the surface of the brain causes damage that affects speech and movement as well as other complications.
Risk factors include but are not limited to age, heart disease, diabetes, obesity and genetics.
One area of ongoing research in the field includes molecular signatures of the events following a stroke for diagnostic and treatment purposes.
ASBMB Today contributor Connor O’Hara wrote about stroke for National Stroke Awareness Month in May.
Multiple sclerosis is a neuroimmunological disorder in which the immune system attacks the protective sheath — myelin — that covers nerve fibers, causing communication problems between the brain and the rest of the body. Eventually, the disease can cause permanent damage or deterioration of the nerves.
Both the (molecular) cause and cure of this disorder are still unknown, but risk factors associated with MS are age, genetics, climate and the presence of other autoimmune disorders.
This field is booming, with many areas of research — one being identification of biomarkers present in MS patients.
Interestingly, MS may be linked to previous infection with the Epstein–Barr virus, or EBV. A herpes family virus, EBV infects many adults but often is dormant in somatic cells. It can reactivate, however, causing diseases such as mononucleosis (commonly known as mono).
Researchers have been curious in recent years about whether EBV could predict future onset of MS. A group at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, supported in part by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, retroactively looked for possible links between EBV and MS patients using blood samples. Not only did they find that a person infected with EBV was 32 times more likely to develop MS, but they also could not find any association between MS and other human viruses.
In a National Institutes of Health press release in February, Harvard’s Alberto Ascherio said: “The hypothesis that EBV causes MS has been investigated by our group and others for several years, but this is the first study providing compelling evidence of causality. This is a big step because it suggests that most MS cases could be prevented by stopping EBV infection.”
Neurobiology, biomarkers and traumatic brain injury
Neurobiologists study neuronal cells, their organization and their subsequent functional circuity that processes information from a stimulus to produce a behavioral response.
Their work — with both molecular biologists and patients via physicians of neurology and neuropsychiatry — has begun to reveal specific molecules involved in neuronal activities, some with unique signatures correlating to function and/or performance.
Thus, newly revealed biomarkers of diseased neuronal tissues and/or states have begun to provide scientists with a better outlook on disease diagnosis, progression and response to treatment.
One particular interest that has gained traction in recent years is the identification of biomarkers in traumatic brain injury patients. TBI is defined broadly as injury to the brain that affects its function, with various causes, such as falling, firearm injuries, motor vehicle crashes, or physical attack or assault. It is also commonly correlated to concussions.
The ability to identify biomarkers for this type of injury from a wide array of sources (cerebral spinal fluid, blood, tissue, etc.) could help provide answers to individualized treatment plans and cures to those suffering from TBI.
This time last year, ASBMB Today contributor Caleigh Findley wrote about nontraumatic and traumatic brain injuries for Brain Injury Awareness Month.
Neuroimmunology and neuroinflammation
Neuroimmunology is defined broadly as the study of the crosstalk between the central nervous system and the immune system. This field often combines the expertise of neuroscience, immunology and physiology for complex diseases with no simple underlying cause.
A hot topic is that of neuroinflammation, during which the central nervous system becomes inflamed as a result of underlying immunological mechanisms. Some common triggers are injury, infection, aging, and both neurological and psychiatric diseases.
Research attempting to understand neuroinflammation could lead to modulation therapies in related illnesses.
Addiction (to drugs and alcohol, in particular) is a long-lasting and complex disease state of the human brain. Although addiction often is tied to genetics, society gives these diseases a negative connotation by characterizing them as a mere choice made by individuals who should have the willpower to stop when they choose. Science has shown us that is not true, however, mapping addiction to the biological part of the brain that acts as our reward system.
As humans, we often judge experiences as positive or negative based on our memory of the same or similar experiences in the past; this causes us to have an emotional expectation tied to our experiences, with positive experiences viewed as a reward and negative experiences considered a punishment. This mechanism of thought is our reward system learning from experiences to predict later outcomes when faced with similar situations.
Biologically, this process occurs through a neurotransmitter called dopamine (among others). With addiction, an influx of synthetic molecules similar to these neurotransmitters is released —from drug use, for example — and causes the reward system to be overwhelmed with signals, and thus it falsely learns that experience is positive, leading to a constant feedback loop of drug uptake and response.
Given how complex addiction is, however, it also can play a role in other biological mechanisms, causing things like prolonged pain. Thus researchers in this area are continuing efforts toward understanding the full mechanism surrounding addiction.
Another often confusing term is migraine. Migraines historically have been misunderstood to be extreme headaches, but researchers since have classified migraines as a disabling neurological disease.
It generally is subclassified into two categories: episodic (currently 14 or fewer days a month) or chronic (15 or more days a month).
While some of the classifications of this type of neurological disease and associated risk factors still are being debated, a big challenge to the field has to do with the use of animal models for the vehicle of experimentation.
While imaging of the human brain gives lots of mapping information, the molecular pathways, proteins and even genes associated with migraines still are being explored and discovered.
Development and plasticity
Early brain development is something a small group of researchers have been working for decades in hopes of both mapping brain function and understanding its contribution to aging and disease.
The central nervous system begins development in humans at just six weeks of gestation, and it generally reaches maturity at age 25. The most critical years of development generally are understood to be the first eight years of childhood — that is why newborns and toddlers have developmental milestone screenings. Any major deviation from completing these milestones likely indicates the onset of a disorder or disease with effects on the brain.
The brain doesn’t stop growing at 25, however. In fact, the brain works at the neuron level constantly to modify connections between the neurons, essentially rewiring pathways to be most efficient. This concept is known as brain plasticity, and it ensures proper brain function whenever possible.
A cool feature of plasticity is that it sometimes enables the brain to recover certain functions lost when pathways have been destroyed due to injury, such as traumatic brain injury. Researchers in this area are exploring the underlying molecular and biochemical pathways tied to development and plasticity for potential therapies and cures for brain-related injuries, disorders and diseases.
To get involved in activities, symposiums, lectures and more for Brain Awareness Week, check out this calendar of events.
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