At Asia Research News, we have a strong network of researchers at institutes throughout Asia and beyond. Every couple of months we will highlight ongoing research and expertise around one theme or topic.
Chan’s lab studies a group of rare degenerative disorders that cause progressive death of nerve cells in the cerebellum, leading to failure of muscle control in the arms and legs, lack of balance and coordination of gait and slurred speech. The team found a novel inhibitor against polyQ diseases, and recently reported an improved version for neurodegenerative diseases. [Read story in Asia Research News 2020 magazine.]
ENGINEERING MIMICS BIOLOGY
Nakayama’s lab uses a "neuromorphic" metal nanowire network to provide a highly interconnected structure between huge number of synaptic elements not individually controlled, which is remarkably similar to the neuron network in the brain. The team uses the network to study and improve non-biological realms, such as materials and information processing. Comparison between functionalities of the biological brain and the non-biological neuromorphic networks would contribute to the progress of true brain science.
INFECTIONS & LEARNING
Ohtsuki and colleagues are advancing the basic understanding of the cerebellum’s role in motor coordination, balance and learning, as well how cerebellar impairments caused by microbial or viral infection contribute to diseases such as autism spectrum disorder, developmental disorder, and schizophrenia. He specialises in electrophysiology recording and multi-photon imaging to track neural activity, and is investigating the role of specific neurons in the cerebellum in humans' ability to learn and think.
Glioma is the most common and aggressive brain cancer with extremely high mortality and morbidity rate, and patients typically have very different genetic mutations that enable the tumour’s growth. Wang’s lab has collected hundreds of terabytes of clinical data from brain cancer patients to help develop mathematical models and machine learning methods to identify optimal treatments. The work has recently led to a successful Phase I clinical trial in a previous incurable disease, secondary glioblastoma.
Barrantes studies neurotransmitter receptors, with a particular focus on the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor and its role in health and disease. This receptor and others in the same family are involved in motor control, memory, arousal and reward mechanisms; alteration of such mechanisms is associated with diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, schizophrenia spectrum disorders, myasthenia gravis, and some forms of epilepsy. He explores new techniques to study neurotransmitter receptors in live cells, including super-resolution microscopy.
Guo has developed an intraoperative magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) guided robot for bilateral stereotactic neurosurgery, which can assist in treating various movement and neuropsychiatric disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease, essential tremor and major depression. The robot incorporates compact manipulator, magnetic resonance-safe actuation and wireless tracking to facilitate dexterous and accurate operation under intraoperative MRI guidance. It allows for shorter procedural time and optimized workflow, as surgeons could accurately control and evaluate the stereotactic manipulation bilaterally to the left and right brain targets in real-time. Guo was named an MIT Technology Review Innovators Under 35 in 2019.
The Shimono lab studies brain networks known as the connectome, and smaller microcircuits they call the microconnectome. To observe brain networks, they developed a new experimental protocol to accurately embed microcircuits into the whole brain using 3D scanning technology, and are integrating data from the microconnectome and macroconnectome into one database.
Kawasaki’s team investigates the development of the folds on the brain’s surface, which can be affected in diseases such as autism-spectrum disorders, schizophrenia, polymicrogyria and lissencephaly. Working in ferrets, which have a similar fold structure, the team has identified a key gene and an important cell type responsible for making the folds, and shown that abnormalities in this gene resulted in diseases such as polymicrogyria and lissencephaly.
Researchers are using games and machine learning to improve attention span of children with ADHD. The Duke-NUS Neuroscience & Behavioural Disorders programme is rolling out a pilot home-based intervention programme for children with ADHD with a wireless headband and a Samsung tablet with the pre-loaded game. A large-scale randomised clinical trial of the system showed attention span improvements.
Wang’s team recently described how dormant neural stem cells in fruit flies are activated and generate new neurons. The team investigated the factors at play in developing Drosophila brains at the larval stage. They discovered that a protein complex called CRL4 is essential for the reactivation of neural stem cells as it downregulates a pathway that normally keeps neural stem cells in a dormant state. If the same mechanisms apply in the human brain, the ability to awaken dormant neural stem cells could stimulate new treatments to compensate for brain injury or the neuronal loss seen in neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s.
Yung’s lab developed a nano-surgical technique to harvest neural stem cells from live adult subjects, which could allow the development of treatments using Parkinson’s patients’ own neural stem cells. The lab then further combined stem cell technology with other novel nanotechnologies that provides significant insights into drug screening and cell therapies to treat Parkinson’s disease. They also identified novel groups of small molecules to treat Alzheimer's disease and other neurodegenerative diseases.
Jufang’s lab works to understand the specific molecular processes enabling memory formation in the brain, including which receptors are involved and how they work. Their latest research shows that the release of a neuropeptide, called cholecystokinin (CCK), enables memory formation. They also are developing drugs to treat neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease, depression and epilepsy.
IMAGING LIVE CELLS
Je’s lab developed a chemical probe that enables live-imaging of a type of immune cells, microglia, in the brain. Microglia are the brain’s primary resident immune cells and have recently been found to play an important role in the development of various neurological diseases such as stroke, autism, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease. Being able to study them separately from other cells in the brain is critical for understanding brain development and disease.
MEMORY & HONEY
The Neuroscience Research Group is a multi-disciplinary team investigating the nervous system. They are focusing on animal behavioral models for memory in the laboratory. They are studying the effects of food, such as Habbatus Sauda/Black cumin (Nigella sativa) and honey, on brain microstructures and memory. They also compare Islamic and neuroscience perspectives on issues like learning and sleep for children with and without autism spectrum disorders.
Sato’s lab focuses on the way neurons gather to form three-dimensional structures called ‘columns’, which serve as basic units of the brain. They work with fruit flies to study the genes and molecules involved in column formation, which are also found in humans, and focus on the roles of essential genes and molecules that function in both the fly and human brain.
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