Have you thought of how we are able to speak, think or move?
Well, I am Senada and I have always been intrigued by the brain. As part of my master’s year, I will be working alongside Professor Nicolas Locker on a project that focuses on neurodegenerative diseases. Neurodegenerative diseases, an umbrella of diseases characterised by progressive degeneration or death of nerve cells, affect millions of people worldwide. Although current treatments help relieve physical or mental symptoms, there is no cure to slow disease progression or even reverse the condition.
But what is so special about the brain? Well, the brain is the most complex organ of the body, which is responsible for every thought, action, decision, memory and feeling. I personally think that it is the most important organ in the human body as if it is dysfunctional, we would not be able to function properly (e.g. think, feel or even move). But shhhh 🤫 let’s keep this between us as people that love the heart might have a different opinion!
On a personal note, I think of the brain as the choreographer of a dance performance. It is the one that takes the lead and coordinates everything as a choreographer would do in order to come up with an incredible and well-coordinated performance. A choreographer, though, needs support throughout the process and dancers on stage. Similarly, this occurs with the brain too. The brain is a soft mass of supportive tissues that contains hundreds of billions of nerve cells and each one of them has small branches that project to connect with other neurons. Neurons then work in collaboration with the spinal cord to help the brain take any message to the rest of the body and back.
A simple example of how this would work is when we try to learn something new. Have you ever tried learning a new dance move? Do your friends respond like mine that they have two left feet and they can’t dance? Well, that was also me before I started dancing! Let me tell you that even a new dance move is a new message for the brain, which travels from one neuron to another. If you keep practicing, the neuron keeps sending the message back and forth. After a while, the brain creates a connection (known as neural pathways in scientific terms) between the little branches that project from neurons to connect with other neurons to a different location. Therefore, things would become easier and you would be able to perform even better with time. I am a living example of that! I have been practicing dancing for almost 4 years and I dance without even thinking now. People think that I am an amazing dancer when in fact my brain has simply created this “neural dancing pathway” that I access the moment the beat is on. So, no more excuses!
Summary of the functions related to different areas of the brain
Connections between neurons are highly important as that’s how patterns, memories and even personalities are created or degraded based on what we are experiencing at different stages of our life. Things are not so simple though! Neurons in our brain have multiple ways to communicate with each other. Communication can also occur through signals that are released in the form of a ‘chemical substance’ known as a neurotransmitter, such as dopamine (mediates pleasure in the brain) and acetylcholine (causes muscles to contrast). These chemicals work in the connection created by transmitting a specific message from its original site to end points that are known as receptors or spread the message to wider regions of the brain.
Even though researchers have studied and discovered a lot about the brain and its functions, there are still mysteries and unanswered questions regarding the brain and diseases related to the brain. Understanding how the brain functions is key when it comes to dysfunctional activities or diseases. For instance, a deficiency in the dopamine neurotransmitter in the basal ganglia, which is the region of the brain that is linked to movement, can lead to symptoms representative of Parkinson’s disease, such as tremor, cramped handwriting and rigid facial expression. Similarly, a deficiency of acetylcholine in the cerebral cortex can lead to characteristics of Alzheimer’s disease, as this part of the brain is associated with thinking, perceiving, producing and understanding language.
Each neurodegenerative disease involves unique proteins and manifests their symptoms in different ways and in different cells, but common regulatory aspects might exist to drive changes in protein homeostasis (maintaining proper biological activity). My project aims to achieve something that has never been done before in this field as current research focuses mainly on each neurodegenerative disease separately. Therefore, for the first-time we will try to address any potential differences and similarities between various neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and ALS, by using unique cell models that will allow us to cause mutations that will be representative to each of these diseases. Once we understand the fundamental basis of neurodegenerative diseases, the question is “would we be able to reverse diseases that affect the neurons in the brain once they have occurred and cure them?’.
I told you, the brain is a complex, but a very fascinating organ of the body. What do you think?
Senada Karmaj, MSci Biochemistry Student
Further Reading and References
Francis, P. (2005). The Interplay of Neurotransmitters in Alzheimer’s Disease. CNS Spectrums, 10(S18), pp.6-9.
Gitler, A. D., Dhillon, P., & Shorter, J. (2017). Neurodegenerative disease: models, mechanisms, and a new hope. Disease models & mechanisms, 10(5), 499–502.
National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. (2020). Neurodegenerative Diseases. [online] Available at: https://www.niehs.nih.gov/research/supported/health/neurodegenerative/index.cfm [Accessed 3 Jan. 2020].