Back to All News

An injured jellyfish can clone itself and potentially produce hundreds of offspring

Fixing a brain by Timothy Davies

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, Tim, about his previous life as a neuroscientist.

We know you can't wait to get into the science, but first a brief word from Tim: “I am a former researcher with a background in neuroscience. I am excited to say I recently started work as a Medical Writer at Real Science. It was my studies that led me to the realisation that only through curiosity and a deep understanding of biology can we transform the lives of people with debilitating diseases, and this has led me to where I am now.”
The brain is the most complicated organ in the body; an inconceivable number of connections give rise to an intelligence that, in some respects, is still unmatched by computers. As I learned more about this complexity during my undergraduate degree in biochemistry, my curiosity drew me to study it further, leading me to embark on Master’s degree in Neuroscience at University College London.
As I studied neuroscience in more detail, the thing that really struck me was the brain’s vulnerability. When damaged, for example through stroke or neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, the ability of the brain to repair itself is woefully inadequate. One reason for this is that the functional cells of the brain, the neurons, cannot replicate themselves to replace their damaged and dying neighbours. In learning about strategies to repair a damaged brain, a fascination with the therapeutic potential of stem cells led to them becoming the focus for my PhD.
Stem cells have two very useful properties: firstly, they can renew themselves to generate more stem cells, and secondly, they can give rise to multiple different types of cells, or lineages. This makes them an attractive option for cell replacement. If we can give stem cells the right instructive signals to tell them to expand and generate the kind of cells we need (i.e. neurons), we could replace the cells lost through diseases such as stroke.
There are two main approaches to using stem cells for brain repair. One is to inject cells into the brain directly. The second to encourage one of two small populations of stem cells — which we only recently discovered reside in the brain — to amplify and hone to the site of injury. In my PhD project, I tried to understand which signals are needed to encourage resident neural stem cells to expand and develop, with the hope that one day we can persuade the brain to repair itself in a more efficient way.
In a screen to identify which proteins play an important role in controlling neural stem cell division, we were surprised to find that p53 came out as our top hit. If you’ve heard of p53, it’s probably in association with any number of cancers, in which it is commonly lost or mutated. For this reason, it is most commonly thought of as a guardian protein, protecting cells from becoming cancerous by arresting their division. In my PhD and postdoc that followed, I unpicked these pathways with the hope that through a better understanding of neural stem cell division, we could one day mobilize these cells to improve outcomes in people that suffer brain injury.   
As an Associate Medical Writer at Real Science, I look forward to using my research experience and academic background to communicate the exciting therapies being developed in the commercial setting. This is why I feel passionately about Brain Awareness Week as a great way to draw our attention to the brain in all amazing complexity and vulnerability, and remind us of the wonderful research being done on it by scientists around the world.