How Baby Diapers Will Change How We Study the Brain

There was a sudden pounding in my chest, blood rushing to my head, and sense that life suddenly seemed unreal. I did not know what was happening, but somehow, instantaneously, panic had consumed me. I was eight years old, sitting in my third grade classroom, listening along as my favorite teacher was reading us a story.

I interrupted her mid-sentence, which was uncharacteristic of the shy girl I was at that age, and yelled out, “I have to use the bathroom!” I will never forget the startled look on her face as she granted me permission. I rushed out of the classroom, took a sip from the water fountain, and washed my hands, doing anything that could make me feel normal again. I regained composure and returned to my seat within minutes, utterly frightened and bewildered with what had just happened to me, and embarrassed to have drawn attention to myself.

I associated this experience with medical causality, and kept telling my eight-year-old self I was suffering from a gastric related disease or perhaps there was a tumor growing in my brain. Instead of accurately describing what had happened, which was a

PANIC ATTACK

I told my parents I had had a bad stomach ache that day. I could not articulate the foreign, sharp stab of fear I felt in my belly. For years thereafter, I suffered infrequent, random panic attacks and was still unable to articulate what I was struggling with, instead describing these episodes in terms of somatic (bodily) symptoms rather than psychological ones. Thanks to researchers, doctors and psychologists, we have made a dent in discovering neural mechanisms that are responsible for our physiological sensations or behaviors.

What I initially thought to be a somatic medical condition was what I eventually learned to be a product of my brain’s over-excited flight-or-fight activation response. But why did this happen to me?

Doctors still do not quite have a perfect answer. There is yet much to be learned about pathways in the brain and how they affect our mind and body. The brain is made up of nanoscopic particles called biomolecules, and these molecules make up the cells of the brain, called neurons. These neurons communicate with one another via electrical currents that create synapses, and when these synapses misfire, disease can transpire. MRI scans and microscopes can only allow us to see either large regions of the brain affected, or the microscopic level of neural activity. Because there are billions of neurons and subsequent connections, there is great difficulty in pinpointing specific patterns of molecular activity that cause brain disorders due to the sheer magnitude of neurons and infinitesimal nature of the brain.

One MIT neuro-engineering professor, Ed Boyden, has an interesting and unconventional idea of making the brain swell in a way where scientists can achieve a better view. Boyden and two of his graduate students may have a way of “blowing up” the human brain in a way no one has attempted before. They were inspired by the baby diaper.

In his Ted TalkBoyden reveals how and why a baby diaper could ever serve such a sociologically and psychologically significant epiphany. It may sound comical but there are important implications behind the inspiration.

Diapers are meant to hold liquid by swelling due to the small grains of polymer within them. When liquid is added, the diaper swells up about 1000 times its volume, which is a mechanism employed in order to avoid leaks from babies. Boyden and his team decided to test this same idea by inserting the monomers (building blocks of the polymer) into the brain to cause it to synthesize into a polymer via chemical reactions in the brain, and cause the brain to swell in a way where scientists can look at it more closely. The polymer would create space between the molecules of the neurons, essentially blowing up the brain to a scale much larger than ever made possible, while keeping the patterns of these molecules intact. This could ensure that the brain’s structure, internal and external, is never compromised by the process, it would just be much easier to see and study. Understanding the configurations of neurons in the brain, or the molecules within the neurons, could allow scientists to determine what causes brain disorders such as epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, depression and much more.

Over a century ago, the microscope was used to discover the existence of neurons. However, the microscope can only see so much of what the neurons are composed of.

Inserting polymers will blow up these neurons, allow researchers to extract brain tissue, and insert these monomers to see the exact patterns of biomolecules within each neuron. Doing so would allow them to see how the changes in these patterns leads to debilitating brain diseases.

The treatments and drugs currently used for brain disorders are often risky and tend to be guesswork. This knowledge could allow the creation of drugs to target specific molecular regions and potentially cure or effectively treat problems that millions of people suffer from around the world.

My personal journey of understanding what was happening to me is much like society’s journey in understanding the brain. It took years for me to realize I was suffering from random panic attacks and to be effectively treated for them, and it takes years for researchers to obtain results in their research. While researchers have made profound neuro-scientific discoveries, there is yet much to be unraveled in the realm of how the brain operates, and ways in which to control disordered neural pathways that lead to brain disorders and mental illness. Ed Boyden and his team could majorly shift the way research has been done on the brain by the use of polymers. Who knew diapers could have such life changing implications?

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