Unlocking the Diseases of the Brain

Guest blog by Carl Sherman

One evening last week, I met the mini-brain.

I was introduced to this intriguing concept by three scientists who know it intimately, at a presentation on “Unlocking Diseases of the Brain with Stem Cells,” at the headquarters of the New York Stem Cell Foundation (NYSCF).

Melissa J. Nirenberg, M.D., Ph.D., NYSCF’s chief medical officer, introduced the subject from the perspective of a neurologist with 20 years’ experience, primarily with patients with Parkinson’s disease and other movement disorders.

“It was frustrating,” she said. While treatment can attenuate some symptoms for some patients, “we don’t have anything to offer them to halt or even slow disease progression.” The same goes for Alzheimer’s. “That’s why I’m here. At NYSCF, we’re focusing on treating the underlying disorders.”

Science Laboratory

Image: Shutterstock

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New Method Reaches Deep in the Brain Without Surgery

A team of neuroscientists and engineers are working to develop a new form of treatment for people who have Parkinson’s disease, depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. According to a recent New York Times article, the available methods for treating these conditions currently involve the risks of surgery and can have limited ability with directing electrical pulses to the right areas of the brain.

Dana Alliance member Helen Mayberg, tells the Times:

They have this clever new way to deliver current[s] to a spot of interest deep in the brain and do it without invading the brain…If you didn’t have to actually open up somebody’s brain and put something in it, if it could do what we’re doing now just as well—sign me up.

So far the research has only been conducted in mice, but experts are hoping the technique will work for people, too. “This is something that many of us in the field have wished for for a long time,” says Alexander Rotenberg. Rotenberg is director of the neuromodulation program at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. The article goes on to explain the details of the non-invasive treatment:

The method, called temporal interference, involves beaming different electric frequencies, too high for neurons to respond to, from electrodes on the skull’s surface. The team found that where the currents intersected inside the brain, the frequencies interfered with each other, essentially canceling out all but the difference between them and leaving a low-frequency current that neurons in that location responded to.

For more information on the experimental study, read the full article here.

– Seimi Rurup

Lasker Award Winner: DABI Member Mahlon DeLong

This morning, the Lasker Foundation announced that two scientists, one a European Dana Alliance member and the other a Dana Alliance member, will share the 2014 Lasker~DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award. The award recognizes the work of Alim Louis Benabid and Mahlon R. DeLong to develop deep brain stimulation (DBS) of the subthalamic nucleus, surgically implanting a “brain pacemaker” that can reduce tremors and restore motor functions in people who have advanced Parkinson’s disease.

benabid and delong

European Dana Alliance member Alim Louis Benabid of Joseph Fourier Univiersity and Dana Alliance member Mahlon R. DeLong of Emory University School of Medicine, courtesy of the Lasker Foundation

There’s an 8-minute explanatory video describing their work (and featuring fellow Alliance member Helen Mayberg) and a well-written description of their work.

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Performing Medicine Festival in NYC

This Saturday in New York City, the New York Academy of Medicine is holding its daylong Performing Medicine Festival. The wide assortment of events include a creative blend of music, dance, and storytelling, with lessons about diseases and disorders.

NYAM

From the NYAM website:

Performers include Dr. Richard Kogan with a musical performance and lecture on creative genius and psychiatric illness; Brian Lobel on his comedic adventures as a cancer patient; Parkinson’s coach and dancer Pamela Quinn on reading bodies; David Leventhal with DANCE FOR PD® from Mark Morris Dance Group/Brooklyn Parkinson Group; and Mount Sinai’s Academy for Medicine and the Humanities on the art of listening. Dr. Danielle Ofri leads a panel discussion, and musicians from Weill Cornell’s Music and Medicine Initiative, provide musical interludes.

When: Saturday, April 5, 2014 • 11 am to 6 pm • Full schedule
Where: NEW YORK ACADEMY OF MEDICINE, 1216 Fifth Ave. at 103rd ST., NY, 10029.
Register here.

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Mahlon DeLong Wins Breakthrough Prize for Parkinson’s Research

Dana Alliance member Mahlon DeLong, M.D, professor of neurology at Emory University School of Medicine, is a recipient of the 2014 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences. He received the $3 million prize for defining the interlocking circuits in the brain that malfunction in Parkinson’s disease.

“This was an most unexpected and pleasant surprise,” DeLong said. “I hope that all recognize the contributions of those who did much of the ‘heavy lifting’ underlying the research and that the award helps to underscore the importance of research and its rewards, both personal and societal.”

Delong photo

DeLong and the Dana Foundation have a long history together. In addition to his DABI membership, he has written about deep brain stimulation for Cerebrum (2009) and the Dana Progress Report on Brain Research (2008). We profiled him in 2009 (two parts), when he talked about the importance of the basal ganglia, and interviewed him for Parkinson’s Awareness Month last year.

DeLong was one of six winners of the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, which recognizes excellence in research aimed at curing intractable diseases and extending human life. “The Breakthrough Prize is our effort to put the spotlight on these amazing heroes. Their work in physics and genetics, cosmology, neurology and mathematics will change lives for generations and we are excited to celebrate them,” commented Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook and one the sponsors of the award.

–Andrew Kahn

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