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For those of you who know me know that I am, simply put, neuro-obsessed. Here’s where I try to justify that.
Think about the human body and how incredibly complex it is. Think of all the chemicals that course through your bloodstream to regulate this organ or that, that allow you to grow and mature. Think of the electrical and structural precision that is needed to keep your heartbeat normal. Think of the myriad events that go on to maintain normal digestion even when you are unaware that it is going on.
Now think of the brain and think of the fact that it regulates all of it. A three-pound (give or take a few ounces), gelatinous and convoluted mass of neural tissue sitting comfortably in your cranium regulates all of it. I think that’s pretty cool, right?
Consider this a kind of (grossly simplified) neuroscience primer from someone who has neither an M.D. nor Ph.D (so take it for what it’s worth).
I should probably start out by saying I’m not entirely sure what to make of the readiness with which doctors prescribe a pill for anything and everything. This is mostly based on my observations and what I’ve heard. I’m not a doctor (though I want to be) and I’m trying to understand this as best as I can given my relative lack of medical knowledge. Yet my gut instinct is to say that doctors are all too willing to find a condition to fit a pill, or a pill to fit a condition (and for everything else, an antibiotic). This seems to especially be the case with psychiatric conditions. Everyone that’s depressed seems to be prescribed pills. I concede that are some that legitimately need medication in order to function, but for the vast majority, it seems unnecessary.
I’m going to stick with antidepressant/stimulant meds for this one. Fibromyalgia and antibiotics deserve their own post.
Tara Parker Pope always has great articles in her Health blog on the New York Times website. One of her more recent ones pertains to the fate of embryos created to help infertile couples who end up not using all of them.
Here is my problem with the naysayers who cry foul because embryos are being used for embryonic stem cell research. While they are embryos, by definition, they are not remotely multi-systemic entities. The embryos in question are, in fact, cell masses of mostly totipotent stem cells (this is also a correction to the comment I made on TPP’s blog where I said they are not embryos when in fact, they are still classified as such). I feel like it is made out by some camps like babies are being slaughtered to save lives. Maybe that’s a little extreme, but you get the picture. Perhaps more realistically, it is not as if 3-4 week old embryos are being killed to harvest stem cells. They look a bit more like this. In fact, at that stage, they would have few stem cells if any at all. Whatever they would have would have limited differentiating potential.
Why should hundreds, if not thousands to tens of thousands, of these cell masses go to waste. Understandably, some should be saved, if a couple wishes to have another child, but it is not as if each couple will need or be able to use all the embryos that are created. Meanwhile, there are several neurological disorders (Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, stroke, neurological trauma) and cancers, among other disorders, that could benefit directly from stem cell research and certain stem cell therapies. Those victims are being neglected. I hope this next Presidential administration brings a repeal of the legislation that has been preventing new stem cell lines from being used for research, and allows stem cell research to march forward instead of stagnating.
What’s your take?
This made me very happy. The theory, to date, has always been that neurons are differentiated to the point that they cannot replicate in the event of any sort of damage. Hence, if you lose a neuron, you can’t replace it. This has been the problem in dealing with diseases and conditions that are characterized by targeted or widespread loss of certain neural pathways: Parkinson’s and dopaminergic neurons in the substantia nigra, Alzheimer’s and acetylcholinergic neurons, heck ecstasy use and 5-HT (serotonin) pathways, etc. etc.
The results of this study are promising: they were able to generate functioning tissues (not just cells) from stem cells. Besides serving as another way to study neurological conditions, perhaps without so much of a need for rat or other models, the fact that functioning neural tissue can be generated means that several diseases characterized by a loss of neural tissue may be able to be cured.
Now to deal with the matter of funding stem cell research more strongly…