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Reprogramming Brain Cells: A Breakthrough For New Kinds Of Therapy?


GENEVA – For a long time, the brain was considered a kind of black box, whose internal workings were largely a mystery. But recently, this special organ has started yielding its secrets, thanks in part to the progress made in the field of genetics.

Neuroscientists from the University of Geneva have achieved a breakthrough that could open great medical perspectives in “fixing” damaged brains. The researchers opened the cranium of mice – which remained alive throughout – and “reprogrammed” some of its brain's neurons. In other words, they changed the original function of the mice’s brain cells!

Denis Jabaudon and his colleagues -- who detailed their research earlier this year in Nature Neuroscience monthly -- studied the cerebral cortex, the grey matter that “constitutes the human’s most evolved structure compared to the other mammals, and allows us to use speech and make sharp analyses.”

We have known for several decades that the cerebral cortex has six different layers, each with its own specialized neurons. “Among those, the thalamorecipient neurons are the first to receive sensory signals from the outside,” explains Jabaudon. “In another layer, you can find the corticospinal neurons responsible for motor output, and connecting the cortex with the spinal cord.” Keeping the black box metaphor, the first are the entrance and the other, the exit door.

Holy grail

Neuroscientists know that a gene called Fezf2 plays a crucial part in the formation of corticospinal neurons. From there, it was “only” a matter of incorporating the Fezf2 into the mice’s thalamorecipients, after their progenitor cells finished dividing in order to constitute the adult organ, to eventually watch those cells mutate into cortico-spinal neurons. “We basically turned the entrance door into an exit door!”

Zoltan Molnar, professor in developmental neurosciences at Oxford University, who didn’t contribute to the experiment, believes the research is momentous. “This is the first time such a result is obtained in vivo, on cells no longer in their dividing process. And it’s fantastic,” he said. "The next step would be to try and apply the same method to superior stages.”

Jabaudon confirmed that his team used newborn mice, since their cortex is more flexible than an adult’s. As a matter of fact, the two types of neurons implicated in the metamorphosis are basically “cousins”, genetically speaking. The most important feature was to be sure the final neurons weren’t hybrids that would play both their original and newly implemented roles. "There was a complete transformation of their capacities,” Jabaudon says.

The potential applications for this research are many: “It may become possible, at some point, to reprogram people’s cortico-spinal neurons where they have become inefficient," he says. "Typical patients would include those affected by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. (ALS)” This neuro-degenerative disease, which struck American baseball player Lou Gehrig and British astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, progressively paralyses the whole muscular system from the limbs to the trunk of the body.

The Geneva researcher admits that “the Holy Grail would be to carry out this experiment on the neurons of a completely grown up organism.”

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How Brazil's Evangelical Surge Threatens Survival Of Native Afro-Brazilian Faith

Followers of the Afro-Brazilian Umbanda religion in four traditional communities in the country’s northeast are resisting pressure to convert to evangelical Christianity.

image of Abel José, an Umbanda priest

Abel José, an Umbanda priest

Agencia Publica
Géssica Amorim

Among a host of images of saints and Afro-Brazilian divinities known as orixás, Abel José, 42, an Umbanda priest, lights some candles, picks up his protective beads and adjusts the straw hat that sits atop his head. He is preparing to treat four people from neighboring villages who have come to his house in search of spiritual help and treatment for health ailments.

The meeting takes place discreetly, in a small room that has been built in the back of the garage of his house. Abel lives in the quilombo of Sítio Bredos, home to 135 families. The community, located in the municipality of Betânia of Brazil’s northeastern state of Pernambuco, is one of the municipality’s four remaining communities that have been certified as quilombos, the word used to refer to communities formed in the colonial era by enslaved Africans and/or their descendents.

In these villages there are almost no residents who still follow traditional Afro-Brazilian religions. Abel, Seu Joaquim Firmo and Dona Maura Maria da Silva are the sole remaining followers of Umbanda in the communities in which they live. A wave of evangelical missionary activity has taken hold of Betânia’s quilombos ever since the first evangelical church belonging to the Assembleia de Deus group was built in the quilombo of Bredos around 20 years ago. Since then, other evangelical, pentecostal, and neo-pentecostal churches and congregations have established themselves in the area. Today there are now nine temples spread among the four communities, home to roughly 900 families.

The temples belong to the Assembleia de Deus, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and the World Church of God's Power, the latter of which has over 6,000 temples spread across Brazil and was founded by the apostle and televangelist Valdemiro Santiago, who became infamous during the pandemic for trying to sell beans that he had blessed as a Covid-19 cure. Assembleia de Deus alone, who are the largest pentecostal denomination in the world, have built five churches in Betânia’s quilombos.

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