A lot of things happened in the world of science and medicine last year. Some were downright terrifying—like the scientists creating human/animal hybrids or “chimeras” in labs dotted across the country. Or the secret meeting where scientists discussed building artificial human DNA from scratch. Or the scientists who created a new and deadly form of influenza in the lab.
Some seriously scary things happened in science last year. But there were also some truly amazing stories, and not all of them got the coverage they deserved. For instance, scientists discovered a formerly unknown passageway between the brain and the rest of the body, which might be one of the keys to understanding Alzheimer’s. Others showed we might one day be able to restore memories we thought were forever lost to Alzheimer’s. And yet another group successfully froze and then thawed a rabbit brain without damaging the connections between neurons—something that was pure science fiction until mere months ago.
Of course the brain wasn’t the only place we made incredible discoveries. There were new takes on heart disease, some stunning progress in treating paralysis, strokes, and more. But of course most of these positive stories got lost in the tsunami of gloom and doom, scandals, and new drugs coming out. So in case you missed them, here are some of the most amazing stories you probably didn’t read last year.
Scientists grow new, working neurons and integrate them into a brain
Last year, researchers at Penn State University made a huge breakthrough. They turned humble glial brain cells—he “supporting” cells of the brain—into working neurons.
Other researchers had tried various methods of coaxing glial cells into becoming neurons with varying amounts of success. Some have used retroviruses. Some have used methods with questionable safety. Some have simply been too technically challenging to be practical. And some just didn't work. The Penn State group, however, succeeded in creating neurons by using a cocktail of chemicals—and not only did the new cells they work like they should, the whole process only took eight to ten days.
The cells were treated with the chemical mixture in a lab dish. The chemicals “reprogrammed” the cells and induced them to become neurons. Once the transition had been made, the new neurons made connections and formed themselves into working circuits—an essential step if they’re ever to replace damaged cells in a living brain. The new cells survived more than five months in the lab. The researchers then injected the reprogrammed cells into living mice brains, where they made themselves at home. The cells integrated themselves into the mice’s brain circuits and appeared to function normally.
That’s pretty incredible. It’s not ready for prime time yet, but it could be a ray of hope for those who have lost neurons to brain disease, to those with spinal cord injuries, to stroke victims, and more.
Scientists freeze, then thaw a brain without damaging it
Scientists have been freezing and thawing biological specimens for a long, long time. We can even successfully freeze and thaw some living things. Human eggs, sperm cells, and embryos are frozen and thawed daily in reproductive medicine. However, these consist of only a few cells. When we attempt to cryogenically—that is, through freezing—preserve things that are more complex, the technology falls apart. Cell walls burst. Tissue becomes dehydrated. Any number of things can happen, and none of them are good. This is what makes the story of the frozen brain so different.
The brain in question was a rabbit brain. Researchers replaced the blood in the brain with a cocktail of toxic chemicals intended to stop metabolic decay and fix proteins in place. These chemicals also prevented the brain from dehydrating and shrinking. They then froze the brain at a temperature of -210 degrees Fahrenheit and stored it. Later, they rewarmed the frozen brain and the chemicals were removed. They then examined it under an electron microscope — and what they found was unprecedented.
According to scientists, “Every neuron and synapse looks beautifully preserved across the entire brain.” This means that not only were the cells of the brain intact, but also the connections between them. It’s the first time that science has demonstrated a way to preserve everything we believe is involved in learning and memory.
This has huge implications for brain research. It could allow us to do what’s never been done before—really map the human brain. And that could be the key to making all kinds of other discoveries. Because to know where you’re going, you’ve got to have a map.
DARPA brought us an honest-to-God bionic arm…that’s controlled by thought
This amazing piece of technology does away with the need for an awkward harness to hold it in place. Instead, it attaches to a socket which is implanted directly into the remaining arm bone, rather like in a joint replacement.
It can be attached or detached from the socket without the hassle of the conventional harness.
The wearer can move the fingers of the hand independently, giving them the ability to do things that require manual dexterity. They can pick up tiny objects, unlike users of standard prosthetics.
The nerves which used to control the missing arm are rerouted, and sensors worn on the skin pick up electrical signals from them. This allows the wearer to control the prosthetic by thought alone.
But the most amazing thing is that the prosthesis not only receives signals from the brain—it uses special sensors to send feedback to the brain. This gives the wearer something we thought would never, ever be possible for someone who had lost a limb: a sense of touch.
Imagine: The wearer can not just pick things up—even tiny things—he can actually feel what he’s touching. He can tell how tightly he’s gripping something. He can tell whether something is cold or hot, rough or smooth. And the whole thing is thought-controlled.
Talk about amazing.