London Blog

Brain Reconstruction: the next biomedical breakthrough, or a biological impossibility?

Experimental stem cell research was the topic at a new venue for Nature London tonight: Gresham College on High Holborn. Gresham College is an independent Institution founded in 1597 and although it takes no students, has 8 professors and a large group of visiting professors all of whom give public lectures. In total the college organises about 140 public lectures a year on subjects from Art and Literature to Science, with an intriguing category of “Unusual”.

Tonight’s lecture was organised as part of a series running in collaboration with the Institute of Psychiatry and featured guest speaker Professor Jack Price, Professor of Developmental Neurobiology and Head of the Centre for the Cellular Basis of Behaviour, Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London. As well as his academic commitments, Professor Price is also Consultant and Director of Cell Biology for ReNeuron Ltd, a Biotech company developing stem cells for therapeutic and drug discovery research and it was the ongoing research in therapeutics that formed the basis of tonight’s talk.

Interestingly, he began the talk with a question: with all the work that’s being done on brain reconstruction – that is, repairing brain damage from a variety of causes -is the goal even possible? Can we really rebuild brains which are physically missing bits? Or is it not just out of our current level of understanding, but actually biologically impossible?

To begin to answer the question, we need to know what damage actually consists of. Professor Price listed the main causes of brain damage, which includes strokes, traumatic brain injury and the neurodegenerative diseases Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease and Batten’s Disease. Professor Price’s work focuses on stroke victims, and with the statistics he presented that strokes are the third biggest cause of death in the UK and US (following heart disease and cancer) and the lead cause of severe disability, it isn’t hard to see why.

With regards therapy, there are two main approaches to brain reconstruction at the moment, endogenous neurogenesis, which involves stimulate the stem cells naturally found in the brain to make new brain cells at the site of the damage, and stem cell transplantation, moving stem cells from elsewhere (generally the bone marrow) to the site of the damage. Professor Price reported on the findings of the research which led to the world’s first human trials two years ago in Glasgow, in which neural stem cells were injected into the brain of an adult male who had suffered a severe stroke. For the details of the work, see Professor Price’s website, but the point he was trying to make was broader than the research itself. In a nutshell, the brains studied did show very significant improvement. BUT – and this is the crucial part – not for the reason they thought. What they had predicted would happen with the stem cells wasn’t happening at all – it was causing a completely unexpected side effect which was in fact regenerating the structural tissues. And this story neatly illustrated Professor Price’s point: science is like that. You make progress and you just keep on going, without really knowing where it may lead. Is brain reconstruction really possible? Perhaps. Is it anywhere near the magic therapy some reports on early results made it seem? No.

Professor Price’s lecture, as all the Gresham College lectures, was recorded and will be available on the website shortly. The events calendar is also well worth checking out: in the next few weeks, lectures are coming up on malaria, big telescopes and the psychological health of the UK’s armed forces.

Gresham College is based at Barnard’s Inn Hall, Holborn, London, EC1N 2HH. Lectures are free and open to all.


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