Top 10 Neuroscience News Stories of 2019
1. Neuralink makes a big splash, but produces no big publication
Neuralink, the computer-brain interface company helmed by tech innovator, Rick and Morty voice actor and SEC violator Elon Musk, made headlines in August when it released a paper on preprint server BiorXiv suggesting it had created electrodes that would enable people to easily interact with computers using their minds. Despite a flashy press conference accompanying the paper, no peer-reviewed research has been forthcoming, adding to the project’s mystique, if not its scientific rigor. If Neuralink can back up its talk with tech, it should make waves in the next decade.
Read Jenna Tsui’s article on Neuralink here.
2. New neurons until ninety?
Far from being a capability that ends in maturity, an April study found that the adult human brain is able to produce new neurons until the tenth decade of life. This finding remains a subject of hot debate, and a live discussion between two dissenting researchers was one of my highlights of this year’s Neuroscience 2019 conference in Chicago.
Read my piece from April on the surprising finding here.
3. Parkinson’s could travel from gut to brain
Part of a wider focus on the gut-brain axis (see 9), this mouse study by Johns Hopkins Medicine researchers built on previous suggestions that neurodegenerative Parkinson’s disease could actually begin in the gut and migrate to the brain. Whilst this is just one of many theories around Parkinson’s, the study importantly provides a reliable model for investigating potential mechanisms in future research.
Read more here.
4. FDA approves ketamine-derived treatment for depression
This is a huge story. Traditional treatments for depression, such as SSRIs, do nothing for up to a third of patients, and other therapies that can help these patients are desperately needed. According to the FDA, head honchos of drug regulation in the US, party drug and horse tranquilizer ketamine could be the answer.
Read the full story here.
Read my analysis of the mechanisms behind ketamine’s effects on depression here
5. “Zombie Pig” excites tabloids and pushes boundaries
Yale researchers developed a way to deliver an artificial blood supply to the isolated and very much dead brain of a pig, preventing the degradation that would otherwise destroy many cellular and molecular functions. Whilst plenty newspapers covered this with images of the undead, the fact remains that whilst some preservation of flow through blood vessels and energy use was achieved, no brain activity in higher regions was seen. This could both be a huge step for model organ analysis, or a potential moral minefield.
Read the story here
6. Aducanumab is revived, but the data remains unsatisfying
Speaking of zombies, Biogen shocked the pharma industry by announcing that its anti-Alzheimer’s compound aducanumab, which was buried after poor results in March this year, was alive and kicking and would be put to the FDA for approval. This is potentially very exciting, but huge questions remain over dodgy data and unconvincing efficacy.
Read my piece on aducanumab’s revival here.
And read about the perplexed response from the scientific community here.
7. Can we restore voice to the voiceless?
A very exciting study from the University of California San Francisco has shown that a computer may be capable of translating brain signals into words. Whilst the technology has yet to be tested in paralyzed patients, the potential of the research to restore speech to those who have been robbed of it is quite thrilling.
Read my article here.
8. Brain organoids are cool, but are they sentient?
Brain organoids, tiny neural models grown using human-derived stem cells, have featured in the headlines regularly this year. But concerns have been raised that the primitive activity produced by these lumps of brain tissue could be closer to consciousness than researchers realize. Could we be making sentience in a jar? It’s quite a bit more complicated than a yes or no question…
Read my investigations into “mini-brains” here.
9. Gut bacteria signature shows depression link
The gut microbiota has never been far from the headlines this year. Armed with nifty new sequencing tools, neuroscientists are joining biologists from many different disciplines by investigating how the billions of bugs in our bellies might impact our brains. Whilst the research is in its infancy, one study from February has thrown up the enticing prospect that our gut bacteria could not only be associated with depression, but potentially be producing compounds that are neuroactive. A more substantial analysis begins in Spring 2020, so keep tuned.
Read the full story here.
10. Drugs rescued from the vault could be reborn for new treatments
Failed drugs often are left on the shelf to gather dust. But sometimes, drugs can be dusted down and repurposed. This is something we’ve seen increasingly over the last few years; using drugs already recognised as safe in humans is a lot cheaper than starting a clinical trial afresh. Expect to see more creative uses of “failed” drugs in the next decade.
Read my article on a company repurposing drugs for everything from chronic pain to MS here.
And a reminder – if all these tales of brain disease and scientific endeavour are raising your blood pressure , just go for a walk; research suggests twenty minutes should do the trick.
Here’s to another huge year in neuroscience in 2020! Thanks for reading!