3 Notable Neuroscience Discoveries in 2021

January 18, 2022

Written by: Lindsay Ejoh

Though 2021 was a tough year, scientists remained hard at work seeking answers to life’s most complex questions, as well as creating and optimizing solutions to diseases of the nervous system. The neuroscience field made many discoveries last year, and we want to highlight several notable innovations, including prosthetic glasses for the blind, 3D-printing tumors for cancer treatment, and nasal sprays that may be able to slow the progression of Parkinson’s Disease.

Brain Implant Allows a Blind Woman to See for the First Time in 16 Years

A team of scientists at the University of Utah and Spain’s Miguel Hernandez University created an artificial way to send visual signals straight to the brain1. To do this, they implanted a microelectrode array into the visual cortex of a 57-year-old fully-blind woman. This microelectrode array implant produces electrical activation of nerve cells in the part of the brain necessary for processing visual information. Normally, the visual cortex receives signals from the optic nerve in the eye, but for people who aren’t able to receive these signals, this implant system provides another source of visual information. The implant bypasses the eye completely and relies instead on prosthetic glasses equipped with a miniature camera to signal the array about what is in the field of vision, which in turn stimulates the correct brain cells to create an image2. Scientists attempted this before 2021, but patients reported seeing bright white spots and could not recognize shapes. The patient in this most recent study reported no complications from the brain implant surgery, and is now able to see and identify edges, shapes, and simple letters. These results are very promising, and this work is one of the first steps towards providing blind people with tools to be more mobile and more easily navigate the world around them.

3D Printing Tumors May Improve Personalized Cancer Treatments

Biological 3D printing technology is on the rise, and scientists have taken advantage of this to re-create tumors from brain cancer patients. The majority of tumors found in brain cancers are called glioblastomas, which spread quickly and unpredictably. These cancers are difficult to treat, with an average prognosis of 14-15 month survival after tumor detection.

A research team at Tel Aviv University has developed a way to grow glioblastomas in the lab3. To do this, they performed a biopsy surgery to extract brain tissue and surrounding cells from the tumor area. This allowed them to “print” the tumor out and study it in the lab for up to two weeks. This model is especially useful because it contains both artificial blood vessels and tissue from the area that surrounded the tumor, mimicking how the tumor develops in the body. The team was able to test an array of drugs against this patient’s tumor and identify the treatment that was best able to delay the tumor’s growth4.

3D printing tumors may be a critical step towards individualized cancer medicine. A sample from one patient can become 100 mini-tumors, allowing researchers to try numerous drug combinations to eliminate that specific tumor, speeding up the process of deciding which treatment would be best for the patient. The implications for cancer drug development and prescription are quite promising.

Nasal Spray Drug Combats Parkinson’s Disease

Almost 1 million Americans suffer from a movement disorder called Parkinson’s Disease (PD), which is a neurodegenerative disorder marked by the death of dopamine neurons that are responsible for regulating body movement. Patients experience neurological symptoms like tremors, muscle rigidity, difficulty balancing, dementia, and others. Treatments that are currently available help reduce symptoms, but there is no treatment option that slows down the progression of the disease in humans

In 2021, researchers found two peptide treatments5 that can slow down progression of PD in mice. They work by slowing the spread of Lewy bodies, which are abnormal protein deposits found in the brain of PD patients. When given to mice with Parkinson’s symptoms, the treatments reduced brain inflammation, protected dopamine neurons, and slowed down the spread of the Lewy bodies. This drug was delivered through the nose, which helps it reach the brain more efficiently. The nasally-administered drug was effective in improving gait, balance, and other motor movements in mice. As it moves towards clinical trials, we remain hopeful that these treatments could improve quality of life and slow down disease progression in human PD patients.

As we toast to a new year, we are especially excited to see what new neuroscience discoveries are made in 2022.

References:

  1. Scientists enable blind woman to see simple shapes using brain implant. University of Utah Health. (n.d.). Retrieved January 13, 2022, from https://healthcare.utah.edu/publicaffairs/news/2021/10/10-blind-moran.php
  2. Fernández, E., Alfaro, A., Soto-Sánchez, C., Gonzalez-Lopez, P., Lozano, A. M., Peña, S., Grima, M. D., Rodil, A., Gómez, B., Chen, X., Roelfsema, P. R., Rolston, J. D., Davis, T. S., & Normann, R. A. (2021). Visual percepts evoked with an intracortical 96-channel microelectrode array inserted in human occipital cortex. The Journal of clinical investigation, 131(23), e151331. https://doi.org/10.1172/JCI151331
  3. 3D printing takes on Brain Cancer. Tel Aviv University. (2021, November 24). Retrieved January 13, 2022, from https://english.tau.ac.il/news/3d_printing_brain_cancer 
  4. Neufeld, L., Yeini, E., Reisman, N., Shtilerman, Y., Ben-Shushan, D., Pozzi, S., Madi, A., Tiram, G., Eldar-Boock, A., Ferber, S., Grossman, R., Ram, Z., & Satchi-Fainaro, R. (2021). Microengineered perfusable 3D-bioprinted glioblastoma model for in vivo mimicry of tumor microenvironment. Science advances, 7(34), eabi9119. https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.abi9119
  5. Dutta, D., Jana, M., Majumder, M., Mondal, S., Roy, A., & Pahan, K. (2021). Selective targeting of the TLR2/myd88/NF-ΚB pathway reduces α-synuclein spreading in vitro and in vivo. Nature Communications, 12(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-021-25767-1
  6. Nasal drugs show promise for slowing parkinson’s disease progression in lab study. News | Rush University. (2021, September 20). Retrieved January 13, 2022, from https://www.rushu.rush.edu/news/nasal-drugs-show-promise-slowing-parkinson%E2%80%99s-disease-progression-lab-study

Cover Image from Unsplash user Valentin Balan

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