Neuroscience

9 Major Neuroscience Breakthroughs of 2020

Although it’s been a difficult year for most fields of science, the golden age of neuroscience has continued to thrive at an accelerating pace throughout 2020. In particular there have been multiple sci-fi like breakthroughs for mapping our brains, major developments for improving human health into older age, and the dawn of a new era of AI-based neuroscience. Lets take a look at 9 of the top neuroscience discoveries of this past year.

1. Live 3D Brain Function Mapping

Earlier this year MIT scientists developed a new technique to pair structural mapping (brain anatomy) with functional mapping (how the brain behaves) - the first time this has been properly achieved. In addition, this has been done in live mice, with the mapping performed across mouse brain regions in real-time. This video gives an idea of how fascinating it is to see the coupling of brain structures and live activity changing in response to a mouse being shown different images.

The vanguard technique combines third-harmonic generation (THG) three-photon microscopy with retinotopic mapping, allowing activity to be observed through deep brain tissue via electrical signatures.

It also delivers stunning resolution, allowing individual neurons and their substructures to be studied, as well as fine blood vessels and myelin – a kind of insulator known to be a critical factor in brain processing speed.  

This study focused on the visual centers of the brain, but the same method can be used to study other regions. It promises to be a powerful tool for understanding differences in healthy and diseased brain states, as well as how the brain responds to environmental stimulation.

2. Seeing Decisions Being Made in the Brain

Stanford University made a key breakthrough with a new bifocal microscopy technique called COSMOS. Their work captured movies of neural activity across the whole of the cerebral cortex of a mouse brain.

These signals were recorded by essentially filming the brain from three different angles, then computationally extracting signals to provide a live video of macroscopic activity over the left and right hemispheres. Here is a sample where you literally see the remarkable electrical storm of a real brain in action.

As the cortex handles complex higher-level cognitive functions, more mysterious behaviors like decision-making processes can now start to be unraveled in a global way. For example for understanding of the relationship of decisions dependent on sensory perception and motor function (think about what’s involved in deciding which way to dodge an oncoming car).

The researchers also expect COSMOS to be a low-cost method for screening the effects of psychiatric drugs, so that they can be developed to be more functionally effective.

3. Sleep Breakthrough for Artificial Brains

As we’ve covered in a previous blog, a major breakthrough for Google’s Deep Mind artificial intelligence program came through mimicking the neo-cortical columns of the human mind. This led to vastly increased intelligence using a fraction of the computing power. As a result this human-modelled AI has now surpassed the world’s best chess, Go and then eSports players at their own games.

Though not fully understood, sleep provides a critical function for mammalian and human brains, with serious problems occurring whenever sleep deprivation is endured. This year Los Alamos National Laboratory discovered that the spiking computational networks of AI systems also suffer a kind of sleep deprivation, becoming unstable when performing for long periods without rests. Yet, when put into a network state similar to the brainwaves we experience during sleep, optimal performance was restored.

This may not sound like such a big deal, but advancements in AI are likely to transform the way we all our lives. The findings also hint that the merging disciplines of neuroscience and AI field could yield a new era of super smart computers.

4. Tiny Implant Allows Paralyzed Patients to Control a Computer

A minuscule brain device has been used to improve quality of life patients with severe upper limb paralysis caused by motor neuron disease. Carried out at the University of Melbourne, this trial implanted the new micro technology inside the brains of the participants.

The device called Stentrode™ was inserted through keyhole surgery into the neck, and from there moved into the motor cortex via blood vessels. This minimally invasive method avoids the associated risks and recovery complications of open brain surgery.

The implant uses wireless technology to relay specific neuronal activity into a computer, where it is converted in actions based off the intentions of the patients. Amazingly, this tiny chip allowed the patients to perform actions like click and zoom, and write with 93% accuracy, helping them do things we take for granted like text, email and shop online.  

It's very early days still, but the minimally invasive nature of the treatment shows the great potential for micro neurotechnologies to help aid people with all kinds of cognitive impairments.

5. Neuroscientists Turn Normal Neurons Into Regenerating Ones

In 2018 we reported that scientists learned how to reprogram stem cells into specific neurons. This year researchers from four different US universities have taken a bigger step towards the holy grail of life extension. By identifying genes networks that regulate cellular regeneration, they have been able to manipulate normal cells to turn into progenitor cells, which can morph into any cell type to replace dying cells.

Their proof of concept was carried out with the glial cells of Zebra fish, effectively converting them into stem cells which then detected and restored damaged retinal cells to recover impaired vision.

Cell death, or apoptosis, is a plays a big role in the inevitably of natural aging in humans. The researchers believe that the process for regenerating neurons in the brain will be similar. If successful it will have vast implications for conditions such as Alzheimer’s Disease, where large regions of the brain can be lost to the death of neurons. It may also play a role in preventing the many side-effects of natural aging in the brain, for longer and healthier living in peak shape into old age.

6. Preventing Neurodegeneration

Rather than replaced dying cells, scientists at Heidelberg University have identified key processes involved in the death of brain cells, called neurodegeneration. It involved uncovering the process by which cellular glutamate uptake prevents cell death in healthy people, yet becomes inactive in diseased state like stroke, where oxygen supply to brain cells becomes restricted.

In effect this leads to cell killing themselves off simply because they are not getting the correct chemical signals to tell them to stay alive. The researchers then developed a special class of inhibitors that can step in and deactivate the cellular ‘death complex’ before it occurs.

The inhibitors showed to be highly effective at protecting nerve cells, hopefully leading to a new class of treatments options for neurodegenerative diseases.

7. Parkinson’s Disease is One of Two Different Diseases

Aarhus University researchers have used advanced PET and MRI imaging techniques to reveal Parkinson’s disease to actually be either of two different variants of the disease.

In one variant the disease starts in the intestines, going on to spread to the brain through neural connections. In the other, it starts in the brain and then moves into the intestines and other organs. This video gives a great overview.

Though not curative, it’s a major step in the right direction for being able to identify early stage onset for preventative measures. For example, it may lead to treatments which prevent the disease from even making it into the brain altogether, where the effects then become debilitating over time. It is also another key piece in the puzzle of the powerful symbioses between our intestines and our mind, known scientifically as the gut-brain axis.

8. AI Advances the Challenging Diagnoses of Brain Injuries

Scientists at the University of Cambridge and Imperial College London have developed a new type of AI algorithm that can detect, differentiate and identify different types of brain injuries from topographical CT scan data.

CT scans collect a huge amount of data which can take experts hours to analyze, and this needs to include the collective evaluation of multiple scans over time in order to track recovery trajectories or disease progression. This new AI tool appears to better than human experts at detecting such changes, as well as being far quicker and cheaper.

For example, their research showed the software to be highly effective at automatically quantifying the progression of multiple types of brain lesions, helping predict which lesions would get larger. The innovative application of this type of AI to assist human analysis is likely to be first of many that will transform medical diagnostics in cost-effective ways.

9. Secret of Super-Agers Discovered

Super-agers are individuals whose cognitive skills are way past their peers in old age, retaining youthful mental abilities well into their 70s and 80s. Until now the secret to retaining their peak shape has been little understood.

University Hospital Cologne and the Research Center Juelich have discovered a key difference in their biology. Using PET scans they revealed that super-agers have markedly increased resistance to tau and amyloid proteins. Until recent years these proteins have proven difficult to study.

Super-agers also have lower levels of tau and amyloid pathology, which in turns leads to various kinds of neurodegeneration in most people in their later years. It’s now been identified that reduced resistance to tau and amyloid accumulation is a primary biological factor for the loss of peak cognitive shape.

New research can be focused on these processes to find ways to possibly cure mental decline generally, as well as help develop therapeutics to protect against forms of dementia that are already occurring.

We hope you found these neuroscience highlight interesting. If you're keen to learn more about the remarkable pace of progress in neuroscience, then also read our blogs on the highlights of the previous three years.

Top 3 Mind-blowing Neuroscience Stories of 2019

5 Neuroscience Breakthroughs of 2018

7 Major Developments in Neuroscience of 2017

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