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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A Mother In Spain Denied Child Custody Because She Lives In Rural Area

A court in Spain usurps custody of the one-year-old boy living with his mother in the "deep" part of the Galicia region, forced to instead live with his father in the southern city of Marbella, which the judge says is "cosmopolitan" with good schools and medical care. Women's rights groups have taken up the mother's case.

A child in Galician countryside

Laure Gautherin

A Spanish court has ordered the withdrawal of a mother's custody of her one-year-old boy because she is living in the countryside in northwestern Spain, where the judge says the child won't have "opportunities for the proper development of his personality."

The case, reported Monday in La Voz de Galicia, has sparked outrage from a women's rights association but has also set off reactions from politicians of different stripes across the province of Galicia, defending the values of rural life.

Judge María Belén Ureña Carazo, of the family court of Marbella, a city on the southern coast of 141,000 people, has ordered the toddler to stay with father who lives in the city rather than with his mother because she was living in "deep Galicia" where the child would lack opportunities to "grow up in a happy environment."

Front page of La Voz de Galicia - October 25, 2021

Front page of La Voz de Galicia - Monday 25 October, 2021

La Voz de Galicia

Better in a "cosmopolitan" city?

The judge said Marbella, where the father lives, was a "cosmopolitan city" with "a good hospital" as well as "all kinds of schools" and thus provided a better environment for the child to thrive.

The mother has submitted a formal complaint to the General Council of the Judiciary that the family court magistrate had acted with "absolute contempt," her lawyer told La Voz de Galicia.

The mother quickly accumulated support from local politicians and civic organizations. The Clara Campoamor association described the judge's arguments as offensive, intolerable and typical of "an ignorant person who has not traveled much."

The Xunta de Galicia, the regional government, has addressed the case, saying that any place in Galicia meets the conditions to educate a minor. The Socialist party politician Pablo Arangüena tweeted that "it would not hurt part of the judiciary to spend a summer in Galicia."

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