Fwd: New windows into the brain

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Date: Tue Nov 27 2001 - 14:31:00 GMT

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    New windows into the brain
    by Apoorva Mandavilli


    The Society for Neuroscience annual meeting "is a zoo," one
    neuroscientist put it, some weeks before this year's conference:
    "Everyone hates it, yet everyone goes."

    This year was no different: Undaunted by slashed budgets or security
    concerns, a record 28,500 attendees from all over the world swarmed in on
    sunny San Diego.

    Armed with massive programs, neuroscientists could be seen and heard
    everywhere: in hotels, restaurants, on TV, in taxicabs, jogging on the
    boardwalk. For the week of the conference, the town normally known for
    such intellectual exclamations as "dude" and "sweet!" resounded with
    animated debates on neuronal plasticity, synapses and signaling.

    For some young scientists, the main attraction was the opportunity to see
    neuroscience greats and Nobelists like Eric Kandel, Stanley Prusiner and
    Paul Greengard. In a Presidential Special Lecture Paul Greengard told a
    packed conference hall that the latest studies of the dopamine receptor,
    implicated in disorders from Parkinson's disease to schizophrenia, all
    converge on DARPP-32, a molecule he predicts will make pharmaceutical
    companies very happy.

    Stem cells, which dominated last year's program, again made for memorable
    news. Glial cells, which most neuroscientists have regarded as support
    cells, can in fact serve as stem cells that generate neurons even in
    adults, Magdalena Götz and her colleagues at the Max-Plank Institute of
    Neurobiology reported. Harvard neurologist Evan Snyder proposed that
    transplanted neural stem cells can alleviate neural degeneration by
    instructing host cells to regenerate, rather than by maturing into
    neurons themselves.

    One of the most intriguing studies of the conference came from Arthur
    Craig of the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix, Arizona. Craig
    presented classic anatomical tracings, as well as cutting-edge PET and
    fMRI scans, that delineate the insular cortex, a unique region he says
    registers the inner state of the body and generates the uniquely human
    sense of self.

    Using such fancy imaging techniques to reveal the workings of the brain
    was a common thread in this year's sessions. Electron microscopy is
    poised to unravel the mysterious structures within the nerve synapse,
    revealed Uel (Jack) McMahan, a professor of neurobiology at Stanford
    University School of Medicine. Entire sessions were devoted to new
    techniques in diagnosing Alzheimer's disease (AD), the most promising of
    which is a derivative of the Congo Red probe that can penetrate the
    blood-brain barrier and selectively label plaques, tangles, and
    cerebrovascular amyloid.

    University of Pennsylvania researchers identified regions of the brain
    that become metabolically active when a person lies, using used to
    identify event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI);
    Canadian researchers unmasked the connections between speech and music,
    between listening and performing; and Emory University researchers
    pinpointed a region that helps us grasp mirror images and use them to
    direct our movement.

    For the first time, researchers have also been able to predict a monkey's
    behavior solely on the basis of which neurons fire in a portion of its
    brain. Columbia University neurologist Michael Goldberg arrived at those
    results using a novel test to measure attention. SFN's president-elect
    Huda Akil is employing increasingly popular microarrays to identify genes
    that are important in emotional response. Cortical molecules of the
    stress system play a critical role in shaping individual differences in
    emotional reactivity, Akil said.

    Several different teams also presented seemingly contradictory results on
    gender-specific differences in the response to stress. Columbia
    University neurobiologist Darcy Kelley says the South African clawed
    frog, Xenopus laevis may be a model system to study the cellular effects
    of hormones in generating gender-specific characteristics. Janis Weeks of
    the University of Oregon also showed precisely how steroid hormones
    affect individual neurons in the simple nervous system of a caterpillar.

    As with other years, several sessions were devoted to individual disease
    studies. Two types of cell transplants were shown to hold off muscle
    atrophy in mouse models of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
    University of Pennsylvania researchers discovered that dendrites, the
    signal-receiving end of neurons, go awry to cause diseases such as
    Fragile X mental retardation. Scientists cautioned that the miracle drug
    L-dopa, which has been prescribed for Parkinson's disease (PD) patients
    for more than 30 years, may itself be partly responsible for the
    cognitive deficits associated with PD. Alzheimer's disease researchers
    dueled over the efficacy of the vaccine approach, now in clinical trials,
    in reversing cognitive deficits associated with that disease.

    In normal aging brains, the prefrontal area of the brain takes the
    biggest hit, and people who age successfully compensate for the loss by
    engaging both hemispheres. In neurodegenerative diseases like AD and PD,
    some researchers argued, protein aggregates themselves may not directly
    damage the nerve cells, or produce the clinical signs. Rather, they
    suggest, dysfunction may be due to the toxic effects of soluble forms of
    the affected proteins.

    In neuroscience, perhaps more than other life sciences, such disagreement
    is not uncommon. Synaptic research veteran Thomas Sudhof rued his role in
    the "in-fighting" of the synapse world, saying, "many times, scientists
    propose ideas not because they believe it's completely true but to be
    known for an idea. It would be better to concentrate on known facts."
    Dale Schenk, who took the contentious Alzheimer's field by storm two
    years ago, advised young scientists to just worry about the science. "You
    can't own science. It is what it is," he said. "Patients don't care who
    did what when. All they care about is a treatment. And we have to work as
    hard as we can do that."

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