Discoveries that advance our understanding of the brain give rise to prevention and treatment for conditions common among older adults. Scientists are now devising methods to manipulate the brain and central nervous system to fight dementia, paralysis, and blindness.
“We are at an inflection point where we are starting to give functions back to people,” said Michael Lim, MD, Stanford Medicine professor and chair of neurosurgery. A Stanford Medicine magazine article, summarized below, describes several of these breakthroughs.
Abnormal amyloid protein accumulation in the brain is often the focus of Alzheimer’s disease research. But Frank Longo, MD, PhD, thinks multiple forces promote degeneration and is investigating a therapy that could address them simultaneously.
Dr. Longo and his colleagues discovered a neural molecule that regulates network signals involved in degeneration. In response, they developed a synthetic molecule, C-31, that binds to neurons, blocking the degenerative process and promoting regeneration. The molecule may also help treat Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases and counter nerve damage caused by chemotherapy drug cisplatin.
Michael Greicius, MD, MPH, is searching for rare genetic variations that could protect against APOE4, a gene that increases Alzheimer’s risk. Upon identifying the variations, researchers can pinpoint the proteins and develop therapies to block or enhance them. The goal is to slow or stop the degenerative process.
Research shows that inflammation is a cause of cognitive decline among patients with Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative diseases. Katrin Andreasson, MD, MS, identified a possible pathway for brain inflammation and a way to block the pathway to restore cognitive function. Now she researches how changing the behavior of myeloid cells in the brain and blood could slow the Alzheimer’s disease process.
Nerve transfer is a microsurgical technique that grafts a functioning nerve with a lesser role to a critical, damaged nerve. The transferred nerve then regenerates and restores function.
Neurosurgeons typically use nerve transfer surgery to treat nerve injuries. However, neurosurgeons, including Thomas J. Wilson, MD, are expanding nerve transfer use. They’re finding success with restoring hand and arm function lost through spinal cord injury, traumatic brain injuries (TBI), cerebral palsy, and stroke.
Helen Bronte-Stewart, MD, MS, is spearheading efforts to better treat Parkinson’s by boosting the ability of brain-implanted electrodes. She is the principal investigator on a global trial of an advanced version of deep brain stimulation (DBS).
The new adaptive DBS allows the implant’s pulse generator to read and respond to patients’ brain signals in real time.
Neurosurgeries with stem cells demonstrate the brain’s resiliency and adaptability. Gary Steinberg, MD, PhD, is a pioneer of injecting stem cells derived from bone marrow into the brain’s injured areas. Numerous studies show that the procedure can restore functionality for some stroke and TBI patients.
Now Dr. Steinberg investigates transplanting neural stem cells from human embryonic tissue into stroke patients’ brains. He is the only investigator in North America using direct brain transplantation of stem cells for stroke. Future applications could treat TBI, spinal cord injury, Parkinson’s, ALS, and Alzheimer’s.
Could wearable technology with origins in video game technology help restore hand function lost from a stroke? Caitlyn Seim, PhD, and collaborators Maarten Lansberg, MD, PhD, and Allison Okamura, PhD, designed a glove with haptic technology to stimulate patients’ hands with programmed vibration patterns. Patients can wear the glove at home to help regain muscle control and relieve involuntary muscle contractions.
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