19 May 2010

A Brain Within a Brain: Growing a Parallel Brain In Place

The brain consists of two major cell types: neurons, which transmit information, and glial cells, which support and protect neurons. Interestingly, evidence suggests that some glial cells, including astroglia, can be directly converted into neurons by specific proteins, a transformation that may aid in the functional repair of damaged brain tissue. However, in order for the repaired brain areas to function properly, it is important that astroglia be directed into appropriate neuronal subclasses. In this study, we show that non-neurogenic astroglia from the cerebral cortex can be reprogrammed in vitro using just a single transcription factor to yield fully functional excitatory or inhibitory neurons. We achieved this result through forced expression of the same transcription factors that instruct the genesis of these distinct neuronal subtypes during embryonic forebrain development. Moreover we demonstrate that reactive astroglia isolated from the adult cortex after local injury can be reprogrammed into synapse-forming excitatory or inhibitory neurons following a similar strategy. Our findings provide evidence that endogenous glial cells may prove a promising strategy for replacing neurons that have degenerated due to trauma or disease. _PLOS
Scientists from the Helmholtz Center and Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich, have used a virus to reprogram brain helper cells -- astroglia -- into actual neurons. They were able to convert astroglia from early post-natal and adult mouse brains into either excitatory or inhibitory neurons, depending upon the transcription factors which were introduced.
The study adds to growing evidence that certain cell types can be transformed directly into other cell types without first being converted into stem cells. Researchers have previously transformed skin cells into neurons, and one type of pancreatic cell into another. Marius Wernig, a coauthor of the skin cell study and a stem cell biologist at Stanford University, says there's a growing awareness that it may not be necessary to erase a cell's existing identity before giving it a new one.

...this latest study "means that these astroglial cells could be converted in the brain" without the need for a transplant. Berninger says that one of the next challenges is to determine whether these reprogrammed neurons can survive and function in a living brain.

Fortunately, the brain seems to have a ready source of astroglia. When the brain is injured, these cells proliferate, similar to the way the skin repairs itself after a wound. The researchers found they could also derive neurons from injury-induced astroglia taken from the brains of adult mice. _TechnologyReview
we first aimed at a more potent neuronal reprogramming by inducing higher and more persistent expression of neurogenic fate determinants in astroglial cells. This allowed us not only to obtain fully functional neurons that also establish synapses from astroglial cells in vitro but also to demonstrate that distinct neurogenic transcription factors, such as on the one hand Neurog2 and on the other Dlx2 alone or in combination with Mash1, can indeed instruct the selective generation of different neuronal subtypes, such as glutamatergic and GABAergic neurons, respectively. Moreover, we found that the reprogramming efficiency of postnatal cortical astroglia towards GABAergic neurons by Dlx2 could be enhanced by first expanding the astroglial cells under neurosphere conditions prior to forced expression of Dlx2. Given that following brain injury reactive astroglia from the adult cerebral cortex de-differentiate, resume proliferation, and can give rise to self-renewing neurospheres in vitro [16], we finally show that neuronal reprogramming and subtype specification are not restricted to postnatal stages but can also be achieved from adult cortical astroglia responding to injury. _PLOS
The findings are a striking reminder that nature offers us many more possibilities than we can presently conceive of. But perhaps we will grow in our conceptual capacity, over time.

The possibility of regenerating brain tissue in situ -- without the need for inserting new cells from elsewhere -- offers new hope for brain trauma, infection, infarct, atrophy, and senility. But it also offers a distinctly new possibility which most observors are not quite ready to think about -- much less discuss.

I am referring to the possibility of growing entirely new neural networks in situ, from astroglia. The possibility that humans can induce their own brains to create entirely new brain centers and pathways, using more advanced forms of such techniques, should not be overlooked.

There is currently a race between biological methods of repairing and enhancing human organs, and technological methods of compensating for organ damage or loss -- the cyborg approach. A cyborg may utilise nano-technological enhancement, and thus manifest no outward sign of distinction from standard normal humans. The same would be true for most biological enhancements or remediation.

This lack of overt differences between ordinary persons and enhanced persons is quite important to most military uses of enhanced individuals, and to virtually all covert uses by government and other organisations.

But these tools of transformation are not likely to remain limited to deep pocketed groups and individuals. Garage biohackers are not as uncommon as you might think, and are performing a similar service for bio-hacking as the garage techno-hackers performed for microcomputers in the early days. And it is also extremely likely that persons involved in expensive and large scale research into bio-transformation technologies will set off on their own as they discover the ability to profit from their technical knowledge and skills.

Cross posted to Al Fin Longevity

More on this topic later.

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