Last week, I went to the Allen Institute for Brain Science, in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, to hear about their latest project. They’re creating a gene-expression map of the spinal cord (of a mouse – more on that later). Here’s a quick hit, from the story I produced for KPLU
“… Medical researchers are looking for ways to repair damaged spinal cords, whether from a paralyzing injury, or a disease like Lou Gehrig’s. They’re getting help from a new approach involving genetics. Paul Allen’s Institute for Brain Science is combing through the spinal cord, cell by cell, to see which genes are active. Chief science officer Allan Jones says it’ll help researchers around the world work faster.”
This is hard-core science, not the kind of thing it’s easy to talk about at a barbeque.
But there’s an interesting side-bar story. The spinal cord is smarter than most people realize. It’s actually part of the brain, in the sense that it’s continuous with the part of the brain that extends down the back of your neck (called the brain stem), and it’s made of the same type of cells.
Why does this matter? When you prick your finger, or touch something hot, or step on a tack – anything that involves a reflexive recoil – your reflex is faster than your conscious awareness. That’s because there are neurons (just like the ones in your brain) in your spinal cord, and their job is to execute a reflex movement fast enough to save you from serious harm. That means faster than a message can travel from your finger, up your spine, into the processing areas of your brain, and then back down as a command to your muscles.
The neurons in your spinal cord make a calculation based on what your touch and heat sensing nerves detect. Sometimes, you might not like that reflexive move, and you might issue commands from your conscious brain to over-ride the reflex. (“This is going to hurt, so hold still until it passes.”)
The spinal cord map, from the Allen Institute, shows which genes are active in these neurons. It’ll be a helpful tool for researchers working on ways to heal a damaged or diseased spinal cord.
(They’re using a mouse spinal cord because it’s so much smaller than a human’s – 2,000 times smaller. The process of mapping involves cutting x-thick slices of the spinal cord and then analyzing each slice. So, “smaller” equals much “easier” and faster. Also, mice are still the premier lab animal, making such data useful for many lines of research.)