Friday 29 November 2019

Crying: the brain reboot?

Our first mode of communication with the outside world was crying. The first essential cry that makes breathing possible that leads to a switch for the baby from the mother's womb to the world full of strangers. This cry is genetically coded as a behavioral pattern, which is essential for survival. Soon, the behavior of crying is repeated by the baby whenever it needs attention, be it for feeding or for wanting to be made comfortable. This makes crying the precursor of all forms of language i.e., to say that language itself then evolved from crying.

As adults we cry when we are in pain which could be physical or emotional, or when we experience extreme happiness. What if I tell you then that when we cry we go back to those pre-medieval times when language has not been born yet, but babies were being born. Sounds were are only means of communication and those ancient patterns are ingrained deeply in our brains.

Crying signified a way to link memories of horror with hope of survival. Imagine, a rain being triggered inside the brain to siphon off all the negative memories and press a reset button. Because that first cry was the biggest stress that an individual can  face in its lifetime therefore, it has to be linked with the following:

1. Create a sense of well-being
2. Wipe off the negative memory
3. Bring comfort and hope
4. Trigger feeling of security

So, in short crying is rebooting your brains to achieve the same, which you would do to reboot a frozen computer.

When you feel too overwhelmed with emotions, the brain needs to be saved from using too much energy in trying to make sense of all that is going on.
When you feel an imminent danger approaching, you again need to conserve energy to prepare yourself.
When you get hurt physically or emotionally, the brain gets again into that mode of self reboot to focus on the healing instead.

Then, crying isn't just an act of expressing emotions or words that at times become difficult to be expressed because it would take too much of brain energy to make it possible, since the brain wants to conserve energy it instead goes onto the re boot mode.
Saving energy, protecting itself and creating a sense of healing that is what crying reboot does to our brain. That is why crying isn't bad. Crying doesn't signify you are weak.

Unless of course it gets triggered by rubbing of your thumb and index finger like happened with this old man, then you definitely need to get an MRI done as soon as possible!

Monday 18 November 2019

The three future dimensions of 3D cultures (organoids)

Imagine going shopping for an organ! I am not referring to the black-market organ trade, but organs that are custom-made for you in a laboratory. The path to creating organs has been laid back by creation of what are called as organoids, which are 3-dimensional cultures of human induced pluripotent stem cells (hiPSC), or simply put mini organs. 

Pluripotency is the ability of a cell to give rise to any of the different body cells like liver cells, heart cells, or neurons and are present only in a developing embryo. Induced pluripotency is when we make normal adult body cells to change into pluripotent cells, thus starting from blood cells we can make first hiPSCs which can form neurons, liver cells and so on. 

Although, it's a far-fetched destination now, but we sure are heading there where it would be possible to replace your faulty livers with a liver made in the lab or a part of liver made from your own body cells.

How are organoids made? It's as simple as taking cells from a person's body, changing it into a type called as human induced pluripotent stem cells (hiPSCs), which can with proper signals be converted to a desired cell type. The next step is much trickier in which these cells are allowed to grow and self-assemble under conditions wherein they form 3D structures resembling mini organs of embryos. Cells are kept with minimal requirements and left on their own to grow for months. Pretty cool, right?

What are organoids used for? Organoids have been in current use for finding the right drugs for an ailment, besides understanding development and developmental disorders. The most interesting among organoids are the brain organoids, which have until recently only been limited to growing just a few regions of brain like the outermost cortex and extensions of brain like retina and sensory organs like the ear and cornea. 

The current technology does not provide a way to integrate these organs together, but it seems possibile in future. Let’s see what are some of the challenges that is preventing that from happening?

1. Creating a blood supply to these organoids.
Organoids don't have vasculature i.e., the organized blood vessel network, and so connecting different parts together and keeping it alive for long is a bit difficult. But aren't there cells that can do exactly that in human body? Yes, I’m talking about cancer cells which are good at creating blood vessels to keep a tumor growing before it starts to metastasize and spread through the blood supply to other tissues. Thus, it would be needed to learn more about how vascularization and angiogenesis happens in tumors, which can then later be modeled into organoids. 3D printing can create blood vessels in an intricate network, creating the scaffold along with matrigel on which iPSCs can be grown, which would require integrating different tissues together. 
The first step has been taken in that direction by researchers at Micromatrix, using vascualture derived from a pig liver by first remiving the cells and then integerating iPSCs into that meshwork of blood vessels. Pretty neat, I would say, eagerly waiting for this work to be pulished soon.

2. Integrating different parts of an organ together.
Self-assembling organoids can be made to work together but that would require 4D cultures. Let me get back to that by first describing the formation of networks in brain organoids which have shown to generate electrical activity like that what is present in embryos. What we need is extraneous cues to guide these networks and let them associate together. That is trickier and much more complex to achieve at this stage, but the vast knowledge of brain circuits and the future advances in techniques like optogenetics, which uses light to switch on and off neurons, can allow for manipulation of specific brain cells makes it less distant than what we might hope. 

3. Ethics of doing the above.
All that said comes the questions of ethics, which has been a matter of debate recently. There are numerous articles that can be read for understanding the fears that brain organoids and their evolution into complete brains are creating among the scientific community and society in general. What  if they become conscious and feel pain? 
Anyone who has watched the British show Black Mirror would be bale to visualize the horrors associated with simulations of a consciousness. It forces us to imagine scenarios that we never have witnessed before along with enetring into a realm of the unknown. I am certain that as the science of organoids would advance so would the need to make rigorous ethical standards and implementing them, which would redefine the existing set of rules and bring new ones into place. So, at the moment there isn't anything to be scared of brain organoids and of a simulated version of you getting stuck for eternity inside a Teddy bear or on a space vessel.


Friday 15 November 2019

Part II: What if a whole generation decides to adopt?

In my earlier post I had raised a question, "What if a whole generation decides to not to conceive?", but in this post I want to modify that question along with presenting statistical data and evidence for why should this be done and how it can be made possible.

Before talking about how to make it possible it's essential to see the statistics on adoption and population growth provided by different NGOs and the UN, respectively.

Population has doubled in the last 30 years in Asia and Africa specifically and is rising, depleting the natural and man made resources alike, thus there is a need to control our population unless we want to exhaust our resources.

The population growth at the moment is above 1%, which makes it an ideal time period to think about a radical movement of mind and spirit that together we can bring about a change.

Median age of the population is 30 at the moment and again it is the ideal age to think about raising children*.

While in US there are 0.135 million children being adopted each year, in India the figure is a mere 0.003 million and is declining constantly. The more heart wrenching figures are the number of abandoned children in India which are 30 million as estimated in 2017, and probably rising at this very moment. Startlingly, the number of infertile couples seeking a child is approx 27 million**.

It therefore, seems that we (especially Asia and Africa) are at a juncture in global history, which is ripe for making a decision and a commitment towards choosing adoption that brings me to how to make that transition.

Role of social media in highlighting the good aspects of adoption

We live in an age where decisions and opinions are best affected through social media. It is thus important to address the crucial role that social media and big data shall play in making it possible.
We may try to nudge people in the direction of choosing adoption with free will by showing them the positive aspects of adoption and removing their fears and apprehensions about it. Some of those are as follows:

1. Stronger and robust bonds between parents and child due to the following#:

  • Children living with adoptive parents have been better taken care of by parents.
  • Adopted children spend more time with their adoptive parents.
  • The relationship between the child and parent is much better than they had expected even after the child is aware about being adopted.
  • Most importantly people who have adopted would want to adopt again if given a chance.

2. Better parenting
Adoption means that parents would be held accountable to their children's growth and because they are making an informed and committed choice they would be spending more time in equipping themselves with the necessary skills of parenting, which many biological parents would not get the time for.
Also, the general public opinion is that parents and their family would not treat the child as their own because they aren't genetically related. But what is the guarantee that even the biological children would be treated fairly. Aren't there disparities that exist in how female versus male child is raised?

3. Imparting a healthy lifestyle
Another big concern is to address the nature versus nurture question. A lot many people would be doubtful in adoption because they won't be passing on their genes and so won't be sure as to how the child would turn up. This issue gets addressed by bringing in neuroplasticity and the role of environment in shaping the growth of a child into picture.
Our brains are plastic enough to adapt and learn from the environment therefore, genes which nonetheless do play a role, but are less important than the lifestyle that only the parents would be giving to the child.

4. Making it cool and acceptable
Remember how peer pressure works? Thankfully, a lot has been done in this direction by celebrities and people supporting the cause. Had it not been for Angelina Jolie, Sushmita Sen and Sunny Leone, people would not have been thinking how cool it is to adopt. The next step is to make it acceptable with general public and the more people would go for it the more feasible it would appear for people around them. It is therefore, important to raise a dialogue among youngsters and people of child bearing age to make them aware of this not only cool but noble option.

Support groups for awareness and assistance to prospective parents

Mentoring and teaching general public as to how to deal with psychological issues that may arise during and after adoption. The families who have adopted can take up this role well. I read about how there are Whatsapp groups for prospective parents and how they get emotional support along with the plaguing questions that keep coming to them when it comes to going for a legal procedure as complex as adoption.

Streamlining of the expensive and chaotic legal procedure for adoption

All would be in vain without the legal procedures being streamlined. The ordeal that most adoptive parents go through is no less than the pains of child birth and the wait is always more than 9 months. There is a need of active participation of advocates in creating a simpler and less exhausting procedure for adoption. I would request all the lawyers who read this to please contribute in this direction by providing suggestions as to how this can be achieved.

Lastly the more we try to feel how unique each of us are, the more we forget of the similarities; the similarities exist in our thoughts and the feelings, the awe and wonder along with empathy and gushing compassion that rises within us when we look at a child.

It would be through our similar patterns of emotional thinking and the similar problems that we face (pain, loneliness, injustice along with need for belonging, validation and appreciation), which would make us realize how united we all are in our thoughts in trying to make a change of this magnitude happen; a thought followed by an action of commitment, which would be remembered for generations to come.

So, here is my question to you all, what if a whole generation decides to adopt?
Do we have it in us to make it happen?

Surprisingly the answer is yes, it is and if a whole generation, i.e., our generation does decide to adopt then there is a big chance that many of the world's problems would be solved.

All illustrations are made using Microsoft PowerPoint.

Part I: What if a whole generation decides to not to conceive?

Those of you who have read Dan Brown's Inferno would be familiar with Bertrand Zobrist's ingenuity in fighting the epidemic of rising global population. How appalling is it to make half of the world's population sterile? Yes, it sure is but isn't that brilliant at the same time, only if you would pause for some time to think.

The fact that scientists have used this very approach to bring in check the mosquito population in Chinese city of Guangzhou shows the practical application of the technique.

Before, I  be deemed a mad scientist, I would like to put forth some of the outcomes of entering a similar scenario, but with our own free will. I have a list of reasons and solid facts to back myself up, which if given a hearing might convince if not all but just a few, and all we need are a few people only to make this change happen.

1. The rising population
The population explosion is no lie. We all are witnessing the growth in the number of our population that is happening at an exponential rate. The result is a depletion of resources, which would dwindle further for the future generations. This is making us enter a world which soon would be unfit for our very own survival and also for our children as well.
But if we do think of adopting children at a global scale the outcome would be a reduction in overall population. And wouldn't that be something?

2. Global climate change
Climate change is what most of us would shun away from thinking about, because the more we would think about it the higher are the chances that we would feel glum at what the future might hold for us. Wouldn't it therefore be better to try to reduce the population and combine efforts in the direction of first repairing the damage that we have done to our planet?
The reduced demand might help in tipping us back to balance on a path of sustainable growth.

3. Increase in infertility
No wonder, our own lifestyles have drawn us to an increase in infertility. And this my friends is a big sign that we need to pause and think about adoption rather than trying to conceive.
The outcome would be that infertility would not be a problem to tackle, anymore but instead would be a pure research pursuit in finding answers to improve reproductive health for all.

4. Ability to love another's child
The fact that humans have the capacity to care for a child that is not born out of them is another big sign that adoption would make this world a better place to live in. The result would be then lesser children with no parents in the world, and brighter smiles.

5. Nirvana
And lastly, the ones who truly believe in getting free from the cycles of life and death, this is a sure shot way. You are no longer looking for ways to be bound to the earthly ties of life. You don't have a desire to let your genes live on. What else can be then more liberating for  a soul?

Tuesday 12 November 2019

Left brain versus right brain myth

In popular culture there are a lot of myths surrounding the human brain, the second biggest of these is that some people are left brain dominant and others are right brain dominant.

What exactly does this mean? I was at a complete loss to explain this to people when they either make such claims or ask such questions, because being a science student at times shields you from myths by studying only the facts. Therefore, let's blow this myth which has been a big commercial advert for multiple brain training games and programmes.

Let's see what created this notion in the first place?

1. Left versus right handers: a fact that we all are familiar with.

Handedness is the easiest one to notice. There is a genetic reason as to why most people prefer their right hand over left to perform majority of motor tasks.
Just like a bilateral human body in which the right side is the mirror image of the left, a symmetry also exists in the brain. The brain is divided into the right and the left hemisphere. For motor control that causes muscle movement in the body, the right side of the body is controlled by the left hemisphere and vice versa. So, it is possible that taking analogy from handedness the notion came into existence that even in the brain one of the two hemispheres might be more dominant.

2. “Nous parlons avec l’hémisphère gauche!” 
(We speak with the left hemisphere!) 
Brain asymmetry exists just like asymmetry of different internal organs. For majority of people liver is on the right side of the body and heart slightly towards the left. Now similar to such an asymmetric placement of organs in the body, there is functional asymmetry between the two hemispheres of the brain. The discovery of Broca's area, which is present in the left hemisphere and is responsible for creating articulate speech and understanding language, provided localized regions for brain function. It was discovered when a patient came to Paul Broca, who could not speak anything else other than Tan. When this patient died, a specific region in the left hemisphere (which is now termed as the Broca area) was found to be damaged by a brain lesion. This provided early cues to how there could be sepatrate regions in the brain that govern specific functions. Thus, the discovery of Broca's area, a speech area in the left hemisphere of the brain must have started this myth.

3. The split brain 
Further research into the field of brain lateralization was carried out and it was Roger Sperry (who won the Nobel Prize in 1981) who while studying the role of corpus callosum, the connecting tether between the left and right hemisphere of the brain, made the discovery that added the most credibilty to this myth. He performed split brain experiments on animals and studied epilepsy patients who had their corpus callosum severed. He found that the two hemispheres act as independent brains with the communication between the two abrupted. Now, when these split brain people were shown a word with their right eye they could speak it but when shown with the left eye they could not. This led him to conclude that left brain hemisphere processes language.

Now that we know what started this myth let's see some facts that shall shatter it. So, left side of the brain controls language and logic, while right side controls creativity and imagination as per the popular myth.
The only truth in this is left side of the brain has centres that control language comprehension and helps in creating speech. It also has centers for understanding semantic information associated with language i.e., logic behind what is being said or is written. While the right brain has centers that help in assessing emotional aspects of lnaguage. Thus, you need  both the hemispheres to understand langauage.
When it comes to creativity, we still don't know how and what kind of genes can actually make a person more creative and brain scans show activity all over the brain when a person is engaged in a creative task.
Just like for digesting your food the entire gut along with organs placed on the right and left work together, to do a task as to write or make a picture, we require a whole lot of collaboration between different areas of the brain, now some are present on the left side while others on the right.

I discovered some cool blogs while writing this post. The first one features animated videos where you can know more such brain myths that are prevalent and the second one talks about Broca's work and how brain laterilazation was discovered with the interesting story of his patient who could not speak anything else but Tan.

You can also watch House MD, season 5, episode 24 (Both sides now) to make it more interesting!

Eric Kandel's Principles of Neural Science.