Neuronal connections, heal thyselves
Tiny chambers mimicking the environment of the brain will allow University of Illinois researchers to make and study networks of brain cells to find new treatments for brain damage and diseases.
"We have to fool the neurons into thinking they're in the brain," UI chemistry Professor Jonathan Sweedler said recently.
Sweedler and colleagues Martha Gillette and Ralph Nuzzo are the leaders in an unusual new center combining neuroscience, the study of the brain, with chemistry and materials science.
Announced this month, the ultimate goal of the program, funded by a $1.2 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation, is to better understand how neurons and neuronal networks function and to find new ways of getting the brain to repair itself.
The research eventually could have application in treating brain damage – as from a blow to the head, stroke or aneurysm – and diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, in which neuronal connections, the brain's wiring, are broken.
"We're trying to understand how they (neurons) make the connections and how to repair connections in the brain," Sweedler said. "How can we encourage the brain to repair itself? Why doesn't it repair itself? What's different about a growing neuron and one that can't?"
Essentially, our brains lose the ability to repair themselves as we age, said Gillette, a UI scientist known for her work on the molecular mechanics of the body's biological clock.
Currently, the predominant idea is to use stem cells – blanks that can take on a variety of functions – to repair the brain, she said.
But the approach of the new UI center is to repair what's already in place.
"It's really very novel," said Gillette, who heads the UI Cell and Structural Biology Department.
They will start by studying single neurons and then two-cell and larger simple networks of cells.
That's where Nuzzo, director of the UI Materials Research Lab, comes into the picture.
Studying cells in a lab dish is no big deal. Scientists do it all the time. But the UI researchers want to examine neurons and neuronal networks in their natural habitat, so to speak.
That includes recording how the cells function normally, damaging the cells to see what happens and determining if the cells can be prompted to reform damaged connections, said Sweedler, who also directs the UI Biotechnology Center.
They can't use a real brain, for obvious reasons. So Nuzzo and his materials science colleagues are going to create microchambers that for all intents and purposes mirror the brain's environment.
Easier said than done. The containers have to match such things as the shape, texture and chemistry neurons experience in the brain, and on a cellular scale, Nuzzo said. If those conditions and others aren't just right, the cells could either die or adapt to the variances.
"They stop having the properties that you're interested in looking at," Nuzzo said. "This is a really complicated problem. There will be a lot of things we're going to be able to learn as a result of this research."
Eventually, the UI researchers plan to move up to mollusks like sea slugs, and then to mice and rats.
Much as we might recoil from the comparison, slugs actually have brains that work a lot like ours.
No, a slug Hemingway isn't going to write the great American novel. But Sweedler, who uses the slugs to study brain chemistry, said they learn – feeding, reproductive and escape behaviors, among other things.
Moreover, their brains, like ours, depend on neurons reaching out tiny fingers or filaments and touching each other to create the biological wiring on which brain function depends.
"Many of the repair mechanisms seem chemically very similar," Sweedler said.
Even better, slug brains only have about 10,000 neurons, compared to the hundred billion or so in our brains, and the cells are about 10 times larger than the human variety, making for a far easier system to study.
The collaboration among scientists from different fields – some of which are unusual for a brain study – resulted, in part, from an initiative by UI Chancellor Nancy Cantor. Cantor asked UI researchers, who have a tradition of cross-disciplinary research, to think about ways to break new ground by collaborating in new ways, said Sweedler, who had worked with both Gillette and Nuzzo.
The three started talking about possibilities, and the discussions came at the right time. The Keck Foundation was looking for proposals for cross-disciplinary research into novel ideas with a big potential payoff, but unproven to the extent that they might not be able to attract traditional funding, for example from federal agencies like the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation.
Sweedler said the Keck grant runs for three years. The hope is that the UI scientists will have impressive enough developments by then to attract money to continue the program.
You can reach Greg Kline at (217) 351-5215 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.