The nervous system is the information highway of our bodies. So, what happens when there’s a traffic jam, or a rogue traveler refusing to go with the flow? This week’s Speaker Spotlight will focus on those who are working to understand how this system works, and what happens when it doesn’t. Communication in the nervous system is dynamic, ranging from electrical signals to the transfer of genetic material, and the communication can come from some unlikely places, like our gut. This communication is critical, and when it breaks down, we see a variety of ailments and illnesses emerge. The question is, how can we stop this communication breakdown?
A good place to start is to establish just how our neural network communicates. Jason Shepherd, an associate professor at the University of Utah, studies how the brain stores information, as well as how these processes can malfunction due to neurological disorders and age-related cognitive decline. Jason and his team at Shepherd Lab have discovered how Arc, a neuronal gene protein that is critical for long-term memory and synaptic plasticity, is able to form viral-like capsids capable of transporting RNA. Jason sees that the larger implications of this discovery could transform genetic engineering and gene therapy, as many gene therapies often use viruses foreign to the human body, and this protein is native to it. As we learn more about how our nervous system transfers information, we remain hopeful that scientists like Jason will be able to find ways to prevent the communication breakdown from occurring.
When blood flow in the brain is disrupted, leaving the neural communication system without oxygen, a communication breakdown occurs. This can have devastating effects on a person’s life, making stroke prevention and treatment critical for our internal information interstate. According to the American Stroke Association, stroke is the fifth-largest cause of death in the United States, killing nearly 130,000 people a year. It is also a leading cause of long-term disability and the leading preventable cause of disability. Inspired by the loss of a patient who would have benefitted from more immediate care, Chris Mansi and his team at Viz.ai got to work developing an artificial intelligence (AI) platform to dramatically reduce the amount of time it takes to detect and triage strokes. Using machine learning software to evaluate brain scans, Viz.ai’s technology is getting critical patients into treatment faster. In February 2018, the FDA granted a de novo clearance for Viz LVO, the first-ever computer-aided triage and notification platform. Most recently, Viz.ai announced its second FDA clearance for Viz CTP through the 510(k) pathway, offering healthcare providers an important tool for automated cerebral image analysis. While the brain is getting choked by a blood clot or bleed, Viz.ai has found a way to improve the communication system outside the body to treat it.
Sarkis Mazmanian, the Luis & Nelly Soux Professor of Microbiology in the Division of Biology and Biological Engineering at the California Institute of Technology, is looking at how unlikely systems are interacting with the nervous system and impacting brain function. With the majority of research for neurodegenerative diseases, like Parkinson’s Disease, focusing on the brain, Sarkis has turned to the gut, looking specifically at the microbiome and how it communicates with the brain. There are a variety of ways in which scientists are studying the relationship between the gut and Parkinson’s, as well as Alzheimer’s disease. Sarkis focuses on how the specific microbes in a person’s gut can impact the brain. In addition to researching how the gut microbiome impacts our nervous system, Sarkis has done extensive research on the relationship between the gut microbiome and the immune system focused on answering the question: why are these bacteria not attacked by our immune system? Sarkis’s team found that the immune response to these bacteria actually benefits both the bacteria and the host. With his most recent published work focused on how the gut microbiome impacts locomotor behavior in fruit flies, Sarkis continues to deepen our understanding of how our microbiome communicates with our bodily systems.
While a good diet and proper sleep are good for everyone, they can be especially impactful for those who may be prone to Alzheimer’s disease. Zooming out of the microbiome and zooming back into the brain, Padideh Kamali-Zare created computational models to understand the role cell structures play in their function during her PhD studies in Sweden, and she has applied this learning to how Alzheimer’s progresses in the brain. At Darmiyan, Padideh and her team are developing software that can detect Alzheimer’s disease up to fifteen years before symptoms of cognitive decline. Using just regular brain MRI scans, Darmiyan produces maps and scores that can detect the progression of the disease. With early detection, they aim to dramatically change lives and therapeutic development, including incorporating the best candidates for clinical trials in new therapies. By alerting individuals earlier about the potential onset of Alzheimer’s disease, Darmiyan’s technology can empower them to take steps to delay cognitive decline.
Today’s healthcare system places a heavy emphasis on healing the body, but often less so on healing the mind, leading to mental health issues that slip past doctors unnoticed and untreated. And where a mental health need is detected, physical care providers are often disconnected from our outnumbered mental health professionals, making care coordination and referral difficult, at best. Quartet Health is focused on bridging this divide, by providing primary care providers with the technology and tools to identify patients who need care. To do so, Quartet connects primary care providers with four key stakeholders: patients, behavioral health clinicians, medical health providers, and payers. Robert Accordino, Chief of Behavioral Health at Quartet, will join us in Palm Springs to share the exciting potential of Quartet’s approach that connects care of the body with the care of the mind.
Yuri Maricich and his team at Pear Therapeutics are taking a radically different approach to treat matters of the mind. By literally reshaping how we think about therapeutics, Pear has found a way to treat substance abuse, mental disorders, and neurodegenerative diseases—wherever and whenever. Based on the premise that software not only has the power to change behavior, but can also change brain function, Pear created their first app, reSET, to help treat patients with substance use disorder. reSET, a Prescription Digital Therapeutics (PDT), is the first of its kind to receive FDA approval, distinguishing it from the 10,000 other apps that may show up when you search the App Store. Through their work, Pear is finding new ways to repair the brain’s communication system while also providing a better communication system between patients and doctors.
While there is still much to learn about how the human brain functions and communicates, it is clear that we are making significant progress. Whether that is identifying Alzheimer’s disease earlier or improving how we provide treatment for mental health conditions, there are many ways that scientists, researchers, and entrepreneurs are improving our understanding of our body’s vast information highway. With improved understanding, we also are able to develop better technologies and treatments for diseases and disorders of the brain. These exciting discoveries in how the brain functions, as well as innovative ways to treat brain diseases, are shining a light toward a healthier future.