Can a virtual brain replace lab rats?

February 14, 2014

Testing the effects of drugs on a simulated brain could lead to breakthrough treatments for neurological disorders such as Parkinson's, Huntington's and Alzheimer's disease.

Researchers from the University of Waterloo in Canada hope Spaun, the world's largest functioning model of the , will be used to test new drugs that lead to for .

Terrence Stewart, a post-doctoral researcher with the Centre for Theoretical Neuroscience at Waterloo and project manager for Spaun, will tell an audience at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Chicago about the advantages of using whole-brain simulation as a tool to aid new discoveries in medicine.

"Our hope is that you could try out different possible treatments quickly to see how the brain reacts and how each one changes behaviour before testing them in people," said Stewart. "Our brain model offers a new way to test treatments. For Alzheimer's disease or a stroke that causes memory loss, we could see how a new drug affects the firing pattern of individual brain cells and measure how it changes brain performance on memory tests before trying it on people."

Stewart's team has already made progress simulating Parkinson's and Huntington's diseases. Their next step is to simulate Alzheimer's disease after giving Spaun a hippocampus, the brain region involved in forming new memories.

Spaun is more like the than other computer brain models because it makes mistakes and loses abilities in similar ways to people. To simulate the cognitive decline associated with aging, for example, Stewart and his team killed off neurons in the brain model and observed it gradually forgetting more numbers on a memory test.

To reproduce movement problems associated with Huntington's disease and damage to the cerebellum, Stewart damaged parts of the simulated brain affected by those conditions.

"We showed that errors made in reaching behaviour seen in people with those disorders correspond to the errors made by our brain model when neurons in the affected are damaged," he said.

Spaun can see, remember, think and write using a mechanical arm. Most importantly, this virtual brain – which mimics the neuron firing patterns seen in the human brain – allows the researchers to study and understand how damage to individual cells affects the behaviour of the whole brain in different neurological diseases.

Explore further: Spaun, the new human brain simulator, can carry out tasks (w/ video)

More information: Stewart will present new research on successfully simulating the effects of aging and Huntington's disease in Spaun at a symposium panel, "Virtual Humans: Helping Facilitate Breakthroughs in Medicine" on Friday, February 14, 2014.

Related Stories

Spaun, the new human brain simulator, can carry out tasks (w/ video)

November 30, 2012
(Phys.org)—One of the challenges of understanding the complex behavior of animals is to relate the behavior to the complex processes occurring within the brain. So far, neural models have not been able to bridge this gap, ...

Scientists redefine how the brain plans movement

February 3, 2014
(Medical Xpress)—University of Queensland researchers have made a surprise discovery about how the brain plans movement that may lead to more targeted treatments for patients with Parkinson's disease.

Two parents with Alzheimer's disease? Disease may show up decades early on brain scans

February 12, 2014
People who are dementia-free but have two parents with Alzheimer's disease may show signs of the disease on brain scans decades before symptoms appear, according to a new study published in the February 12, 2014, online issue ...

Can fish oil help preserve brain cells?

January 22, 2014
People with higher levels of the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil may also have larger brain volumes in old age equivalent to preserving one to two years of brain health, according to a study published in the January ...

Scientists spot early signs of Alzheimer's disease

July 9, 2013
Early signs of Alzheimer's disease can be detected years before diagnosis, according to researchers at Birmingham City University.

New method for efficiently transporting antibodies across the blood-brain barrier reported

January 8, 2014
Today the scientific journal Neuron published results on the Roche-designed Brain Shuttle technology that efficiently transfers investigational antibodies from the blood through the blood-brain barrier (BBB) into the brain ...

Recommended for you

The neural codes for body movements

July 21, 2017
A small patch of neurons in the brain can encode the movements of many body parts, according to researchers in the laboratory of Caltech's Richard Andersen, James G. Boswell Professor of Neuroscience, Tianqiao and Chrissy ...

Faulty support cells disrupt communication in brains of people with schizophrenia

July 20, 2017
New research has identified the culprit behind the wiring problems in the brains of people with schizophrenia. When researchers transplanted human brain cells generated from individuals diagnosed with childhood-onset schizophrenia ...

Scientists reveal how patterns of brain activity direct specific body movements

July 20, 2017
New research by Columbia scientists offers fresh insight into how the brain tells the body to move, from simple behaviors like walking, to trained movements that may take years to master. The discovery in mice advances knowledge ...

Scientists discover combined sensory map for heat, humidity in fly brain

July 20, 2017
Northwestern University neuroscientists now can visualize how fruit flies sense and process humidity and temperature together through a "sensory map" within their brains, according to new research.

Team traces masculinization in mice to estrogen receptor in inhibitory neurons

July 20, 2017
Researchers at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) have opened a black box in the brain whose contents explain one of the remarkable yet mysterious facts of life.

Speech language therapy delivered through the Internet leads to similar improvements as in-person treatment

July 20, 2017
Telerehabilitation helps healthcare professionals reach more patients in need, but some worry it doesn't offer the same quality of care as in-person treatment. This isn't the case, according to recent research by Baycrest.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.