The hypothalamus, which is involved basic metabolism and complex behaviors, has usually been regarded as less open to regeneration, whether naturally or by biomedical intervention. Naturally, a limited number of neurons develop during adulthood, but these are not enough to restore this area of the brain after injury or disease. “The neurons that are added during adulthood in both regions are generally smallish and are thought to act a bit like volume controls over specific signaling,” explained Jeffrey Macklis of Harvard Medical School and one of the lead researchers in the study.
“Here we've rewired a high-level system of brain circuitry that does not naturally experience neurogenesis,” Macklis said, “and this restored substantially normal function.”
The report reached this conclusion: “these experiments demonstrate that synaptic integration… [by] donor neurons can impart an organism-level rescue of metabolic defects, thereby providing a proof of concept for cell-mediated repair of a neuronal circuit controlling a complex phenotype.”
While it is important to underscore that this work is performed on mice, the results suggest that something similar might be possible someday in human beings with brain injuries. “The finding that these embryonic cells are so efficient at integrating with the native neuronal circuitry makes us quite excited about the possibility of applying similar techniques to other neurological and psychiatric diseases of particular interest to our laboratory," according to Matthew Anderson in a press release issued by Harvard Medical School.
For now, research continues using mice as models for human disease or spinal cord injury. “The next step for us is to ask parallel questions of other parts of the brain and spinal cord, those involved in ALS and with spinal cord injuries,” according to Macklis. "In these cases, can we rebuild circuitry in the mammalian brain? I suspect that we can."
This study, coming so quickly on the heels of another report showing the functional integration of human embryonic stem cells into the mouse brain, suggests that embryonic stem cell research may indeed open new ways to treat brain disease or injury. Both studies, however, open the possibility that the use of technologies of brain regeneration will not stop with disease. As always, the growing power of medicine to treat disease is also an expansion of the possibility of human enhancement. All this if far in the future. But already, advocates of human enhancement have noticed its significance. See, for example, the re-posting of the original press release on Ray Kurweil's transhumanist blog.
The report, entitled “Transplanted Hypothalamic Neurons Restore Leptin Signaling and Ameliorate Obesity in db/db Mice,” appears in the November 25, 2011 issue of Science.