It might astonish you to know that, although we use our brains all the time, science knows very little about how they actually work. That is why recently, President Barack Obama announced a $100 million initiative to map the human brain.
“We can identify galaxies light-years away; we can study particles smaller than an atom; but we still haven’t unlocked the mysteries of the three pounds of matter that sits between our ears,” Obama said in a press conference on the announcement April 2.
Obama’s Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) project will seek to discover what occurs between the 100 billion cells firing inside the brain with the goalof helping to prevent and even cure neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, that affect as many as 100 million Americans.
Johns Hopkins University is at the forefront of brain science research. The Brain Science Institute (BSi) at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine was launched to develop new multidisciplinary research teams; create cutting edge-research cores for use by all brain researchers at Hopkins; and foster translation of discoveries to treatments of brain diseases, in part, by improving our ability to partner with industry and biotechnology.
In 2012, Peter Searson, professor of materials science and engineering and director of Johns Hopkins Institute for NanoBioTechnology (INBT), joined forces with Jeffrey Rothstein MD, PhD, director of the BSi, to create the Blood-Brain Barrier Working Group. This group brings together researchers with diverse interests and expertise to address key problems associated with drug delivery, to discover the role of the blood-brain barrier (BBB) in disease, and to elucidate the structure and function of the BBB.
“The blood-brain barrier is a dynamic interface that separates the brain from the circulatory system and protects the central nervous system from potentially harmful chemicals while, at the same time, regulating transport of essential molecules and maintaining a stable environment,” Searson said. “It is formed from highly specialized endothelial cells that line the brain capillaries, which transduce signals in two directions: from the vascular system and from the brain. The structure and function of the BBB is dependent upon the complex interplay between different cell types, specifically the endothelial cells, astrocytes and pericytes, within the extracellular matrix of the brain and with the blood flow in the capillaries.”
Although the BBB serves the important purpose of tightly regulating the environment of the brain and preventing sudden changes, which the brain cannot tolerate, Searson said, “this interface also blocks the passage of drug molecules to treat disease, neurodegenerative disorders, inflammation or stroke. Unfortunately, animal models are insufficient for use in under-standing how the human blood-brain barrier functions or responds to drugs. In addition, little is known about how disease, inflammation or stroke disrupts or damages the blood-brain barrier.”
With this in mind, the BBB working group has two primary goals, Searson explained. “Our long-term goal is to build an artificial microvessel that will be the first platform that recapitulates a brain capillary in its local microenvironment. This will enable fundamental studies as well as drug discovery and the development of methods to cross the blood-brain barrier,” Searson said.
The second goal is to understand how the blood-brain barrier can be damaged or disrupted so that strategies can be developed to repair it. Injury and disease can disrupt the normal structure and function of the blood brain barrier.
Currently the BBB Working Group has 40 researchers from disciplines as diverse as anesthesiology, materials science and engineering, pharmacology and oncology. Three postdoctoral fellows and 12 pre-doctoral students are also involved. The group meets monthly and hosts expert speakers on various topics. The working group website also lists current funding opportunities to which members can apply and conferences and workshops of interest.
Membership in the working group is open to any student, faculty member or staff at Johns Hopkins University in any discipline.
Visit the Blood-Brain Barrier Working Group website here.
This article was written by Mary Spiro and appeared in the 2013 issue of Nano-Bio Magazine.