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Stanford neuroscientists at World Economic Forum discuss interdisciplinary approaches to tackling brain diseases

Jan 23 2015

By Amy Adams

Stanford University faculty formed a panel today at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to discuss their interdisciplinary approach to tackling major health challenges like stroke, neurodegenerative diseases and mental health conditions.

The panel, titled "The Rise of Neuro-Health with Stanford University," was moderated by Phil Campbell, editor-in-chief of Nature, and included members from three research teams created through the Stanford Neurosciences Institute's Big Ideas in Neuroscience initiative.

In addition to their own research, the group discussed the pressing need to bring diverse ideas and expertise together to solve health challenges that are becoming an increasing emotional and economic burden as our society ages. "We are really lucky here at Stanford that we can leverage the work of engineers and basic scientists, and we have expertise in moving discoveries into the clinic," said Marion Buckwalter, assistant professor of neurology and of neurosurgery, who leads the Stroke Collaborative Action Network, which unites stroke research efforts under way across campus to develop therapies and improve stroke recovery.

Tony Wyss-Coray, professor of neurology, co-leads the Stanford Brain Rejuvenation Project, which creates a center for neurodegeneration research focusing on brain maintenance and regeneration, and the role of the immune system in these processes.

In his own research, Wyss-Coray has found that factors in the blood of young mice can restore brains of older mice. Wyss-Coray and his team connected the blood supplies of an old and young mouse, then found physical and biochemical changes in a region of the older mouse's brain that is involved in learning and memory – called the hippocampus. The hippocampus in the older mouse essentially got a recharge from substances in the younger blood.

The Brain Rejuvenation Project will draw on these findings, as well as those of Anne Brunet, professor of genetics. Her group is investigating the role of genes and other factors in aging of the neural stem cells that repair damage in the brain. Her work could lead to insights into our own longevity, cognitive function in old age and susceptibility to diseases of aging.

Amit Etkin, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, co-leads the NeuroCircuit project, which brings engineering, basic sciences and clinical faculty together to map brain circuits associated with health and disease. In parallel with that work, the group is developing technologies to non-invasively manipulate those circuits and treat mental health conditions.

Etkin said that in addition to identifying brain circuit abnormalities in psychiatric disorders, they are investigating how circuits are altered by existing treatments such as psychotherapy or medication. "There might be places we can stimulate as a stand-alone therapy or to enhance response to psychotherapy or medication based on understanding those interventions in the language of brain circuits," he said.

Like NeuroCircuit, the Stroke Collaborative Action Network brings together diverse faculty that had been looking at similar problems but from different perspectives. "The idea of forming our group is to leverage different perspectives to both understand why the brain doesn't rebuild itself completely and to generate therapies for stroke survivors," Buckwalter said.

Buckwalter introduced new technologies being developed by engineering collaborators that will help measure a person's movement after stoke and an implantable sensor that they hope will help discoveries in animals translate more effectively to humans. She also described her own ongoing research into the role the immune system plays in stroke recovery.

In addition to the panel session, Wyss-Coray and Etkin will speak in a session with NPR science correspondent Joe Palca, who is moderating a series of live conversations about the human brain throughout the meeting. That conversation will be webcast live starting Jan. 24 at noon Davos time.

Contact: Amy Adams, University Communications: amyadams@stanford.edu, (650) 796-3695