Neuroscience news block: octopuses on drugs, brain cancer and reversing blindness (walk into a bar)

While I was busy working an office job and preparing for a web development bootcamp (sorry, PhD… maybe later!) neuroscientists all over the world were busy discovering cool stuff. Like, did you know FDA approved psychedelic therapy trials for depression? Or that we as a humanity managed to start reversing blindness in mice? Or what octopuses do after you give them MDMA? Hopefully you didn’t. But even if you did, read on to find out even more cool things.

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Let’s start with some really good news. Scientists from the University of Leeds kicked cancer in the balls. Or, more scientifically speaking, aggressive brain tumor cells were forced to self-destruct after being exposed to a specific synthetic chemical [1]. Glioblastoma, the cancer in question, is a real bitch -- it is hard to treat and hard to survive. Originally, the authors just wanted to test whether this synthetic molecule would have a therapeutic effect and slow the cancer down; what they got, however, was something even better. The said chemical had a toxic effect on the cancer cells and basically just messed with their mitochondria (powerhouse of the cell!). This shut down the energy supply of the cells and led to their destruction. Moreover, the scientists tested whether this chemical can cross the blood-brain-barrier, a border that separates circulating blood from our precious brain, by first introducing glioblastoma into mice and then injecting them with the chemical. And indeed: it successfully crossed the barrier and decreased the tumor growth by around 50%. Also good to mention that normal brain cells were unaffected by the killer molecule. It is still a long way before human trials are approved but it is extremely promising. In your face, cancer!

  Glioblastoma cells under normal conditions (left) compared with glioblastoma cells after 48 hours of exposure to the mentioned synthetic chemical (right). At the picture to the right the cells are grouped together to undergo cell death. Credit: Wurdak Group, University of Leeds, UK.

Glioblastoma cells under normal conditions (left) compared with glioblastoma cells after 48 hours of exposure to the mentioned synthetic chemical (right). At the picture to the right the cells are grouped together to undergo cell death. Credit: Wurdak Group, University of Leeds, UK.

Now for everyone's favorite topic of psychedelics (favorite to the extent of me getting mails from random dudes asking where to get DMT… Not the fame I asked for). First off, neuroscientists at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine who normally study social behavior of animals decided to go one (or rather hundred) step(s) further and to give MDMA to octopuses [2]. Ecstasy is known to make people extraverted, sociable, happy and longing for physical touch and the researchers wondered whether the drug would have the same effect on the social behavior of species which is a) completely different to humans and b) is known to live a solitary life and not being super social (now I’m bitter the labs I worked in never had such brilliant ideas). First off, the scientists analyzed the octopus genom and found out that they also have genes that create serotonin transporters in the brain (serotonin is the neurotransmitter which gets released in excessive amounts after taking ecstasy). They proceeded by adding ecstasy in water tanks and see there — octopuses started telling all their friends they love them while listening to techno. Or almost — they started spending more time with the fellow octopuses and even touching each other and other objects not just with one but with as many as six tentacles. Also this happened: “Another octopus was doing backflips and looked like he was playing in the water, but we don't have good ways of quantifying that.". Well, if that isn’t what I see in Berlin clubs. Overall, the scientists believe that serotonin does play an important role in the social behavior of octopuses just like it does in humans. Moreover, despite the huge differences between our brains (as the octopuses don’t have a cortex or a reward circuit like we do) it seems like the social behavior is built in on the molecular level. It is incredible that a creature with a brain which developed completely different from our own reacts to a drug in the same way — and indicates that the brain pathways of social behavior may have arisen in our common ancestor (which is more than 500 million years ago).

 After taking MDMA octopuses spent more time in the chamber with another octopus than they did with an inanimate object. Johns Hopkins University: Gul Dolen.

After taking MDMA octopuses spent more time in the chamber with another octopus than they did with an inanimate object. Johns Hopkins University: Gul Dolen.

And now for human studies. For one, researchers have found that taking DMT induces a state which is very similar to the near death experience (NDE) [3]. In order to find that out they asked people who actually experienced NDE and people whom they gave DMT to fill out a standardized questionnaire trying to grasp their experience and then compared them. Turns out, that all the people who took DMT scored above the threshold for determining an NDE; meaning that DMT seems to be able to mimic content and intensity of almost dying. The shared experiences included being in an unearthly environment, feeling peace, separating from your own body and encountering some kind of a ~~mysterious God-like entity~~. Next step would be to compare the MRI scans of both groups in order to see whether the a DMT high and an NDE share a neuroscientific basis -- and then we can step by step understand the psychology and biology of dying better. These findings alone are, however, already important, as they show that an NDE happens not because God is getting to ready to welcome Her child but because of our neurons in our brains firing in a specific way.

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Not only that, FDA (the US Food and Drug Administration) has recently approved a trial where psilocybin (the main ingredient in magic mushrooms) is gonna be used to treat depression [4]. Due to the recent psychedelic Renaissance (I wrote about it here — click!) it is known that psilocybin, LSD and ayahuasca have an immense potential to treat mental diseases (again, briefly described here or if you want more hit me up for a research paper I wrote for the uni on this topic), so that it’s only logical that FDA gives a green light for a phase two trial. 216 patients with treatment-resistant depression will participate in the study where they will receive doses of the drug coupled with therapy sessions. If the trial is successful it can mean a marketing authorization in two to three years which is a huge revolution in depression treatment: psychedelics act fast, the effect lasts long and the side effects are virtually non-existent (if done in a controlled medical setting of course).

And last but not least, blindness has received a kick in the private areas as well: researchers have successfully reversed congenital blindness in mice by manipulating cells in their retina [5]. To do that, they used gene therapy and transformed supportive cells called Müller glia (which normally just care about retina being stable) into photoreceptors, the light-sensitive cells that actually allow us to see. Photoreceptors themselves cannot regenerate, whereas Müller cells have been shown to divide in response to injury and regenerate into photoreceptors and other retinal cells (this was shown in zebrafish, but still). With some gene therapy magic the scientists first forced the Müller cells to divide and then injected mice’ eyes with chemicals forcing the freshly divided cells to become something completely different. The newly created photoreceptors did not differ in structure from the normal ones; moreover, they functioned just as well! They were communicating with other photoreceptors and successfully transmitting the light signals to the brain. Now the scientists are running behavioral studies in order to test the performance of mice who regained their vision in tasks that require eyesight (big if true).

 Hope for these fellas! (I debated including a complicated figure from the paper and decided that blind mice are better).

Hope for these fellas! (I debated including a complicated figure from the paper and decided that blind mice are better).

Sources:

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30111643

  2. https://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(18)30991-6

  3. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01424/full

  4. https://www.newswire.ca/news-releases/compass-pathways-receives-fda-approval-for-psilocybin-therapy-clinical-trial-for-treatment-resistant-depression-691452071.html

  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?term=30111842