The Human Brain and All Its Complexities

From thoughts and feelings to neurons and pathways, we humans have been trying to better understand our minds and uncover its mysteries ever since our brains developed the capacity for modern human cognition. However, despite the huge advancements brain research has made in recent decades, we are only beginning to scratch the surface of this intricate and fascinating organ. At TEDMED 2017, we’re putting the brain center stage with Speakers and Innovators who are doing groundbreaking work in fields such as brain development and genetics, neurodegenerative and neurological diseases, and human cognition.

Neuroscientist Guo-li Ming is creating and using brain organoids—miniature, simplified, lab-grown versions of organs—to model diseases and experiment with new treatment options. Specifically, Guo-li and her lab at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania are focused on the Zika virus and the severe brain defect it causes, microcephaly. After the recent outbreak of the Zika virus, no one knew what exactly was causing microcephaly, which was a major roadblock to helping patients and finding potential treatment options. However, in early 2016, Guo-li’s lab, along with researchers at two other universities, published groundbreaking studies that showed how damage to neural progenitor cells could explain the reduced brain volume in babies that had been exposed to Zika in the womb. Because of Guo-li’s research, doctors, scientists, and researchers have a better understanding of the disease— which will hopefully lead to a clearer path forward in terms of treating Zika patients.  

Steven McCarroll is also exploring new ways to study the human brain and the conditions that affect its development and function. As a geneticist, Steven is particularly interested in the role that genes play in developing the brain differently in different people. At the McCarroll Lab in the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, Steven and his team of scientists are developing new technology that combines genetics, molecular biology, and engineering in an effort to uncover the causes of mental illness. In 2016, the McCarroll Lab published studies linking schizophrenia to specific gene variations that recruit immune molecules into “pruning” synapses in the brain, a discovery that is leading toward new ways of thinking about the biological basis of schizophrenia and new approaches for discovering medicines to the treat the illness.

At Yumanity Therapeutics, Chee Yeun Chung and her teammates are working to develop new treatments for neurodegenerative diseases that are caused from protein misfolding. Currently, there are over 55 million people affected by these diseases, with no kind of effective cure or treatment to change the pathology of their conditions. Along with Chee, Yumanity’s Scientific Co-founder and Associate Director of Assay Development, the team focuses on repairing the specific phenotypes of the cells and pathologies of the diseases caused by protein misfolding. Their goal is straightforward: to develop novel therapies aimed at improving the outcomes for these patients. They do so by using an integrated three-platform system comprised of a phenotypic screening platform to model disease pathologies, a human neuronal platform, and a drug-target identification platform. Combining all three of these platforms allows Yumanity to expedite their process of identifying new possible disease-modifying drugs and targets to improve the prognosis for the millions of patients affected by neurodegenerative diseases worldwide.

Like neurodegenerative diseases, neurological diseases are a condition that affects millions of people—Parkinson’s alone affects 1 million Americans. At Cala Health, Founding CEO Kate Rosenbluth and her colleagues have embraced electricity as a novel therapy to target neural circuits to “retune’ the body. Their technology, neuroperipheral therapy™, combines innovations in three categories—medical devices, consumer electronics and individualized medicine—to provide non-invasive treatment for patients suffering from neurological diseases. Currently, Cala is working to alleviate the symptoms of the essential tremor by stimulating nerves using a body-worn electronic. With their technology, Cala hopes to use electricity as a means of providing individualized medicine and custom therapies to patients with a range of nervous system disorders.

Similar to Cala Health, Kernel is also developing new technology to help us better understand and treat various neurological diseases. Chief Commercialization Officer Dan Sobek and his teammates are not only working on next-generation brain interfaces that aim to treat neurological conditions like Parkinson’s Disease, but also mental and degenerative illnesses like depression and Alzheimer’s. In parallel, the company is also developing consumer-grade devices that are able to “listen” to the brain and gather information. By accessing and then interpreting the brain’s complexities, the team intends to develop applications to “illuminate the mechanisms of intelligence and extend cognition.” Ultimately, Kernel aims to explore the possibilities of enhancing the brain—making humans smarter and one day even interfacing with computers.

These Speakers and Innovators are working on ways to better understand the intricacies and address the challenges of the complex human brain. From creating brain organoids to model diseases and test treatments, to uncovering the gene variations associated with mental illness, to developing new treatment options for neurodegenerative, neurological, and degenerative diseases, TEDMED 2017 will feature individuals who are doing pioneering work in their fields to advance our understanding of our body’s most critical organ.