3 Important Neuroscience Milestone Discoveries Of 2020
Neuroscientists have been on a mission to understand the brain for years. They’ve strived to learn details on its intricate structure and how it enables us to do the things we’re able to do. Advancements in technology have helped this research progress, and 2020 experienced some significant breakthroughs.
1- The genetic architecture of gray matter
The study, carried out by over 360 scientists and led by Jason Stein, Ph.D., focused on the structural properties of the cerebral cortex and how genetic differences impact individuals.
As the layer of the brain crucial in thinking, information processing, memory, and attention, researchers have focused on studying and understanding its functionality. The result was scientists knew little about its genetic structure or the underlying effects of that structural variation. Scientists now know the full DNA sequence of over 200 genomic regions and more than 300 specific genetic variations that affect and make up the structure of the cerebral cortex.
There has long been evidence that the size and thickness of the cortex are linked to psychiatric disorders, psychological, and neurological disorders, and now scientists can begin to understand exactly how genetics influence and contribute to these various disorders and diseases.
Neuroscientists hope to further build on this study to possibly find ways to detect certain neurological conditions at the earliest stages before there are physical signs of them. They also hope to determine the level of brain development each individual can attain from birth in order to slow down aging and age-related degradation in the brain and body.
2- How obesity affects brain plasticity
Led by Dr. Brenton Hordacre from UniSA and a fellow from Deakin University, this groundbreaking research provides the first physiological link between obesity and impaired brain function.
According to the study, patients suffering from obesity are less likely to find or create new neural pathways, making them less likely to learn new tasks and remember things. This is particularly important as we age and in the event of stroke or other brain injuries. Having less neuroplasticity means our brain struggles to repair itself and its ability to find new neural pathways is vital in recovery.
As the first study to link obesity and reduced brain plasticity, it emphasizes the importance to maintain a healthy body weight. Obesity is measured by calculating the ratio between an individual’s height and weight. The result is our estimated body fat. Individuals with a BMI higher than 25 but lower than 29.9 are considered overweight, and individuals over the 29.9 threshold are considered obese.
Obesity has been linked with numerous health issues such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and strokes. The results of this study add to the growing body of evidence in understanding the detrimental effects of obesity on our body and brain. It also broadens our understanding of how maintaining healthy body weight, especially as we age, can help maintain healthy brain functionality and increase the likelihood of recovery from brain injuries and strokes. Strokes in particular affect 15 million people worldwide each year.
3- A model of the embryonic brain
When it comes to embryonic development, little is known about how the brain forms in utero. Specifically, the development between two weeks and seven weeks was entirely unknown. In order to answer these unknowns, researchers from the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Neuroscience and the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Stem Cell Biology at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences worked in collaboration with bioengineers from Lund University in Sweden to develop a model of the embryonic brain.
To achieve this, researchers grew embryonic stem cells in a microfluidic system. This model will mimic these early brain development stages which allows researchers to study what happens to individual cells during each stage of development. Researchers hope to create a ‘developmental tree’ mapping the development of embryonic brain cells. This map will then be used as a guide to produce specific nerve cells for various stem cell therapies in the treatment of neurological diseases such as epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, and certain types of dementia.
Researchers also hope that this embryonic model might be used to shed more light on the effect of chemicals prevalent in our surrounding environments. Substances found in cosmetics, food, household or other consumer products and medications for example. There has been no way to measure or study the effects these items may have on brain cells during these early embryonic stages up until now.
As scientific studies continue to build and technology allows us to develop new ways to research the brain, the field of neuroscience will continue to break barriers and announce new discoveries. As we continue to learn how the brain works, we can adjust our lifestyle to protect our brain health. And as new therapies and treatments are discovered, diseases and injuries that were once insurmountable, have new hope towards recovery.