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Building a brain by Marc Astick

The brain: we’ve all got one, but what of it? This week is Brain Awareness Week; a global campaign to increase public awareness about the progress and benefits of brain research.
Here at Real 
Science we are powered by curiosity, so we thought this would be a good chance to ask one of our associate medical writers, Marc, about his previous life as a neuroscientist.

Before we get in to the science, a little on Marc: “I have been interested in the brain since reading the books of Susan Greenfield as a teenager. This led me to study neuroscience at university, obtaining a PhD in developmental neuroscience and going on to clock up over ten years of research experience. If someone could study my brain to see what makes me tick, they would find a cocktail of analytic thinking, thirst for knowledge, and a desire to be part of new discoveries; that is why I am powered by curiosity.”
Look at a picture of a brain. If it belongs to someone still living (we’re talking brain surgery here) it’s a white-pink colour, covered in blood vessels and membranes. If it belongs to someone long dead, it’s usually preserved in formaldehyde, with that typical yellowish hue, placed in a jar for posterity or being manhandled by medical students. Either way, it’s not particularly pretty, and if you’re trying to understand the anatomy of the thing, and how it makes people think, feel and function, it’s pretty impenetrable.
For centuries, the main approach to studying brain function was almost reverse engineering. From phrenology (looking at lumps and bumps on the skull to map character traits), to pioneering anatomists and neuroscientists who have probed ever deeper to look at specific connections and cell types to establish what makes us tick.
For me, it was my curiosity as a neuroscientist that led me to study the more bottom-up approach of developmental neuroscience: what does the brain look like as it’s developing, what are the fundamental building blocks and how do they multiply, specialise, position themselves and then link up to form the functioning human brain. This is an important question, not just for the sake of knowledge, but also to understand developmental diseases, such as autism.
Stem cells have opened up a whole new world for studying this field. In my research I was studying brain development using specialised structures called ‘organoids’. These organoids, with a little coaxing, develop from stem cells to form microscopic 3D structures similar to the developing human brain. Using this as a tool, my lab was able to look at the mechanisms that cause a developmental condition called microcephaly. Patients with microcephaly have significantly smaller brains than average and, as a result, have severe learning difficulties. Our research was able to shed light into the cause of the condition and demonstrate that the gene responsible for it could be repaired to restore normal development.
Research such as this not only allows us to understand the development of the brain as a whole, but also to probe disease and perhaps in the future understand how we can repair these defects in patients or the developing foetus.
I think it’s important to drive home how important disease research is to clinical breakthroughs. It’s also important to communicate this information effectively. This is why I feel Brain Awareness Week is such an important campaign to draw attention to the fantastic research going on around the world and how one day it may even benefit you!