We Must Learn To Better Guard the Brain

We are our brains - all that we are, and that life means for us is contained within. Perhaps the most vital of all lines of technological development are those devoted to protecting and repairing the brain. It seems very plausible that medical science could be capable of growing any organ - on demand, from your own tissue, and possibly with the accumulated biochemical damage of the years erased - some 30 years from now. Your body might be as new as you'd like it to be ... but the brain is in a class of its own. You can't simply up and replace the brain, so we'd better become very good at repairing and protecting it.

A glance at the work taking place today in laboratories around the world indicates just how far we have to go to reach the end of this path:

Brain Tumor Vaccine Trial Shows Promising Results:

A vaccine for treating a recurrent cancer of the central nervous system that occurs primarily in the brain has shown promise in preliminary data from a clinical trial at the University of California, San Francisco.


"Our goal is to change the management of recurrent glioma from a life threatening disease, in which survival rates are typically 25 to 26 weeks, into a chronic disease with extended survival and improved quality of life for patients," Parsa said. "Although our survival data are encouraging, a larger phase 2 study will be required to determine the benefit of vitespen for patients with recurrent glioma. The consistent, tumor specific immune response seen in these patients suggests that in the right patient population, the vaccine could have a significant impact."

Brain structure changes years before memory loss begins:

Researchers performed brain scans and cognitive tests on 136 people over the age of 65 who were considered cognitively normal at the beginning of the five-year study. Participants were then followed annually with neurologic examination and extensive mental status testing. By the end of the study, 23 people had developed [mild cognitive impairment (MCI)], and nine of the 23 went on to be diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. The brain scans of the 23 people with memory loss were then compared to the 113 people who remained cognitively normal.

Compared to the group that didn't develop memory problems, the 23 people who developed MCI or Alzheimer's disease had less gray matter in key memory processing areas of their brains even at the beginning of the study when they were cognitively normal.

"We found that changes in brain structure are present in clinically normal people an average of four years before MCI diagnosis," said study author Charles D. Smith, MD, with the University of Kentucky Medical Center in Lexington and member of the American Academy of Neurology. "We knew that people with MCI or Alzheimer's disease had less brain volume, but before now we didn't know if these brain structure changes existed, and to what degree, before memory loss begins."

These are the days of exploration and very incremental success, the early days of the biotechnology revolution. Researcher work with tools and knowledge that would have been - and in some cases were - science fiction in past decades. At the same time, we are but stumbling about in the dark with a shovel in comparison to what we know is possible for the decades to come. Yet the tools will become ever better, and progress builds upon progress. We have seen the growth in computer hardware, software and the internet over the past decades - this sort of growth is possible in biotechnology and medicine too, if regulators step aside to allow it.

If we want to live a long, long time in good health, ten thousands incremental advances of the sort quoted above will be but a part of the progress required. It might look like a steep cliff to climb, but it will happen. Our task is to ensure it happens fast enough to benefit us, rather than those who come after us.

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I think it's interesting that we older people (I'm almost 70) could have a brain scan that would tell us if we were probably going to develop Alzheimer's. My qustion is, would you want to know? Given the fact that there is no way to prevent Alzheimer's and no known cure, my answer would be, "no thanks." If Alzheimer's is in my future, I can wait to know.


Posted by: Douglas Hanna at April 17th, 2007 7:31 AM
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