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The Top 10 Neuroscience Stories of 2022

A white brain with colored wires emerging from it.
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From discoveries about the origins of multiple sclerosis to a potential new drug for Alzheimer’s disease – it has been a busy 2022 for the brain. After another huge year in neuroscience, we review 10 of the most important developments in the field.

1.      Multiple Sclerosis Is Likely Caused by a Virus, Finds Study of 10 Million Military Personnel

At the start of the year, a breakthrough study revealed that the demyelinating neurodegenerative disease multiple sclerosis (MS) is a complication of infection by the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV). The finding, which was based on blood samples taken from US military records, gives research a long-needed therapeutic target for the condition.

Published in: Science

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2.      First Scan of the Dying Brain Reveals a "Last Recall"

In February, neuroscientists recorded the activity of a dying human brain for what appears to be the first time. The unusual case, which involved a patient who died suddenly while their brain waves were being recorded by a battery of electroencephalography (EEG) electrodes, brought new insight into a possible organizational role of the brain during death and suggested an explanation for life recall in near-death experiences.

Published in: Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience

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3.      Unexpected Element in the Aging Process Discovered

In many countries of the global West, the population is rapidly aging. In March, a research team studying mice found that disabling a system in the brain called the cystine/glutamate antiporter system xc- can eliminate memory loss during the aging process. The system xc- transfers a molecule called glutamate out of cells while importing cystine. This mechanism is thought to regulate both neurotransmission and neuroinflammation. However, excessive glutamate release from cells is thought to be neurotoxic. Mice modified to have no system xc- had longer lives and appeared to retain their memory function for longer.

Published in: Molecular Psychiatry

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4.      For the First Time, a Completely Locked-In Patient Can Communicate, Thanks to a Brain Implant

An eye-catching publication in March told the story of a man left in a completely locked-in state by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The patient was given the ability to communicate with his family and carers thanks to a brain implant. The device helped the patient, who was unable to move any muscles or even open his eyes, contact the outside world using only his brain activity.

Published in: Nature Communications

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5.      Psilocybin May Relieve Depression Through “Disintegration” of Entrenched Brain Networks

An analysis published in April looked at the apparent antidepressant effects produced by the psychedelic magic mushroom compound psilocybin. The paper suggested that clinical improvement experienced by patients with depression may be driven by changes to connectivity that free up brain networks. The proposed mechanism of action may not be shared by traditional selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants.

Published in: Nature Medicine

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6.      A Popular Theory About Depression Wasn’t "Debunked" by a New Review

A paper that reviewed the evidence around the serotonin “chemical imbalance” theory of depression caused an online storm in July. The review article aimed to assess the available evidence for and against the serotonin theory of depression systematically. The theory has been around for decades, but the authors’ overarching conclusion is that it is not correct, given that there appears to be no link between measurable serotonin concentration and depression. Technology Networks weighed in on the debate to try and cut through the hype around a controversial topic. 

Published in: Molecular Psychiatry

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7.      Stimulating the Vagus Nerve Strengthens the GutBrain Axis

The vagus nerve is the highway that nerve signals use to travel between body and brain. In September, a research team showed for the first time that non-invasive stimulation of the vagus nerve at the ear can strengthen the communication between the stomach and the brain within minutes. The study gave new insight into a link that has proven to be an enduring hot topic among neuroscientists.

Published in: Brain Stimulation

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8.       Psilocybin and Psychotherapy Relieve Treatment-Resistant Depression in Largest Clinical Trial to Date

In November, the largest trial yet assessing the ability of the psychedelic compound psilocybin to relieve treatment-resistant depression was published. This revealed that the mushroom-derived drug, delivered in combination with integrative psychotherapy sessions, significantly reduced participants’ depression as compared to a placebo after three weeks. Beyond this headline finding, however, some of the trial’s data produced mixed results.

Published in: New England Journal of Medicine

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9.      Nine Paralysis Patients Walk Again Thanks to Newly Identified Neurons

Once thought purely an idea from science fiction, the ability of brain stimulation interventions to restore walking ability in paralyzed people has now been shown repeatedly in research papers. A November study identified the nerve cells that are altered in response to this, pointing the way to a better understanding of the cellular and electrical changes behind this miraculous intervention.

Published in: Nature

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10.  "Momentous" Breakthrough as Alzheimer’s Drug Modestly Slows Cognitive Decline

Sneaking in at the end of the year were the results of a long-awaited clinical trial exploring the effectiveness of a monoclonal antibody treatment for people with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease. The Eisai-developed drug, lecanemab, produced a small but robust effect, the clinical significance of which remains up for debate. The presence of some side effects may reduce the drug’s long-term use. Nevertheless, lecanemab is the first anti-amyloid antibody to show convincing effects in Alzheimer’s disease – a milestone in the field.

Published in: New England Journal of Medicine

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