Thursday, September 22, 2011

Stem Cells of the Mind ?

Living in today's world, where obsolescence is built in , one never ceases to be amazed at the Human Body. No one really knows, absolutely everything about it.

True, thanks to brilliant instruments, amazing diagnostic techniques ,tests, and fast computer analyses, we keep learning newer and newer things about our bodies.

And the most path breaking type of research happens to be taking place in a field, which has to do with how a human is actually formed. The process, the cellular magic , that has been happening since time immemorial. Fertilization of an ovum and sperm, each loaded with what may be called attitudinal genes, equally, striving towards the formation of a human with a full complement of chromosomes.

You yourself, wonder, as you sit reading this, how that little single fertilized egg, that latched on to a caring uterus wall, actually ended up becoming you, complete with your interesting intellect, your musical ear, your nimble fingers that do origami, and your confidence, that gets a class quiet, as soon as you enter in......

At the base of everything is the amazing ability of a single cell, to subdivide, and make copies of itself. The inspiration and energy to do that comes from the instructions coded in the DNA , which sits in the nucleus of the cell. It is very interesting to notice how this process develops.

The fertilized egg, undergoes some changes before getting implanted on to the wall of the uterus. It takes about 5 days, and during this time, the embryo, is actually called a blastocyte. It develops and forms an internal set of cells, an outer set of cells, and an intermediate set. The outer ones develop into a placenta, and the pregnancy is on its way soon. But what intrigues us, is the inner most set of cells, in this 5 day period.

Once the fertilized egg implants itself in the uterine wall, the innermost set of cells, keep subdividing into copies of themselves up to a point. After which the same subdivided cells, by some precoded instruction within, start specializing. Some become brain cells, some become heart cells, some become skin, some become liver, and so on and follow a preplanned pattern to form the necessary organs, which you eventually get to see vaguely, when you accompany a pregnant dear one for an ultrasound exam.

The smart scientists have realized that the main wizards here are the cells that get created in the 5 days before latching on to the uterine wall. Why ? Because these are hitherto "general" embryonic stem cells, which, with the necessary scientific knowhow can eventually become cells that specialize in building a particular organ like the heart, or even brain.

These are called stem cells . And you end up appreciating the nomenclature, as you visualize a soft plant shoot, developing into a firm stem and later a stout trunk , which leads to the creation of a wonderful tree, complete with leaves, thorns, roots, flowers , branches and so on.

For some time now, scientists have known about the existence of special purpose stem cells , such as the bone marrow cells. One often hears of people being asked to donate bone marrow to someone suffering from a particular form of cancer. There are issues of the donors bone marrow matching that of the patient. And doctors screen the various donors for a perfect match.

Today, scientists have found, that many of our organs, eg brain, muscles, etc, have besides the accomplished trained cells , so to speak, some stem cells that lie dormant within actual organ . These cells, are activated automatically by our bodies, under specific circumstances, to repair and heal the particular organ in difficult times. How they get activated, how they lie quiet, and how much of a repair they can conduct and how well , is something that is coded in the cells, as instructions.

But the scientists are actually interested in the embryonic cells in the blastocytes. Which are , what could be called , "bahuroopi" cells, that actually at that point are general purpose embryo cells, with the capability of later on becoming special purpose cells.

Where do they get these cells ?

Thanks to In vitro fertilization techniques today, once a fertilized egg is implanted in a woman's uterus, and is likely to thrive, most of the extra fertilized eggs in the petri dish, would be going waste. These instead , now make it to various Life Sciences Labs , where they are preserved and studied , and the secret of how they can be made to specialize is deciphered.

Once we know that we can make the general purpose stem cells into special purpose stem cells, we need to realize that the sky is the limit as far as usage goes.

So many older people today suffer from things like Alzheimer's disease, and Parkinson's disease, which are caused due to the death of certain cells in our brains. An ability to utilize the stem cells here, would be a gift from the Gods for these geriatric patients.

Diabetes which is now rampant, is often caused by non working insulin producing cells in the pancreas. Those that suffer from Type 1 diabetes, because of this, often suffer from an early age, and must take medications/injections for life, that cause other restrictions and complications in other bodily functions. Just think what a wonderful future these folks could have, if we could introduce in their pancreas, stem cells that not only produce insulin themselves, but multiply and make copies of themselves.

There are so many diseases , like Multiple Sclerosis , again a life changing disease, which has to do with nerve cells deficient or even missing something called myelin. Stem cell therapy for such a situation is also being studied. Burn patients, could get a new life, if we could implant stem cells, that are trained to become skin cells. So very relevant in our country where the current census is showing up a skewed sex ratio, and women's issues are still dictated by misinformed ultra conservative male gramsabha heads.

So stem cells therapy , if we learn the intricacies of it all, is likely to become the technology of the 21st century . It certainly will not be something in pill form, but will be a careful procedure, carried out under proper medical supervision. Very recently, scientists have found that one can harvest these embryonic stem cells from the cord blood, soon after a baby is delivered. Several companies now offer to store these cells for your child's future.

We can look forward to our favourite cricketers not having to undergo complicated operations to heal broken limbs and abused parts, thanks to stem cell therapy. Maybe some artist who has lost his voice will be able to regain it back, by treating the voice box with stem cell therapy. We can imagine and we can speculate.

But I often wonder, if we could repair minds. Has anyone been able to identify special purpose stem cells for the mind ? Is there a way, we can treat our criminals, and psychotic people with these ? Can alcoholism , that has destroyed so many families, be cured by treating the addiction manager in the brain with this therapy ? Does that sound Orwellian ?

Research is still on. There is the matter of the ethics in harvesting the embryonic stem cells from the blastocytes, and playing around with them. Before these kind of technologies happen in our country, there will have to be laws and rules .

But we are a strange people in this country . We do not respect laws and we revel in breaking rules. Its like a disability itself.....

Like I said before, we badly need some nurturing and repairing of hurt, and disabled minds. Our forefathers knew various forms of it, like meditation, penance, prayer, and an aptitude for leading a balanced life.

We, the modern, improved version, sorely need Stem cell therapy for the Mind.


  1. Terrific post and I couldn't agree more! We do indeed need all the help we can get for the minds of today.


  2. Great post . I understood evrything you explained in such lucid way( I otherwise dread any topic of human biology).
    I am already making a list of people who need stem cell therapy of mind.
    2) kalamadi
    3) A raja
    4) Kanimozi
    They all have "hoarding genes " which need to be fixed/replaced by "nirmohi" specialised stem cell grafting.

  3. A very interesting post, indeed. The possibilities seem endless. But who decides which minds need such therapy? Dare I wonder what would happen if stem cells fell into the hands of the wrong scientists?
    — K

    Kay, Alberta, Canada
    An Unfittie's Guide to Adventurous Travel

  4. As always, I am amazed by the lucidity with which you can put forth medical facts. I wish medical textbook writers take tips from you!

  5. Many people do not know but the menstrual blood also carries stem cells so there is no dearth of finding healthy stem cells , the research in this field is heartening.

    For the minds to work properly we need something more than stem cell therapy as you hinted about spiritual practices....physiological disorders can well be treated by stem cells or otherwise.

  6. Very informative post as always. I wonder whether the secret of 'LIFE' will ever be known to humanity. Once we reach 'the' point - we see that there are many more turns still unexplored. That is how humanity keep on going.

  7. The USA took a giant step forward when President Obama allowed stem cell research to proceed unhindered by the government. Scientists really suffered when George W. Bush was president for 8 long years, because he would not allow stem cell research and treatment in this country.

  8. This is fascinating and you write with such clarity that I know understand exactly what stem cell research is all about. I knew they were trying to find a cure for diseases, but didn't fully understand how it works. Thank you for your extensive research and good explanations.

    Gigihawaii points out the absurdity of George Bush's stopping research by pandering to the ignorant Christians (?) who based their opposition on religion. They certainly need a critical thinking gene implanted n their superstitious brains. Thank God we have an enlightened president now.

  9. Hi!. Nice post.

    This is all about the magic of Mother Nature. Do not let some sick people to play with it.

    We should always maintain the balance between nature and scientific development. If mishandles... Reversal of the mistake would not be possible, our generations would be the LOOSER and they will condemn us for the same.

  10. Suranga, you should read 'The biology of belief' by Dr. Bruce Lipton that gives useful information on the role of the cell membrane in deciding the function of a cell.It is the membrane that triggers gene action. The book further tries to give scientific explanation to spirituality.

    I had earlier asked you to come over and motivate our students to enjoy Biology. I now feel like taking a course myself. Tell me, when do I join?

  11. Any repair can be physical. The mental makeup is all about so many factors that influence it. And whatever may be the scientific advances, there can be none like good values instilled in childhood.
    PS- I admire the posts that you write day after day.. no writers block whatsoever.. any research on that?

  12. Sylvia Thank you !

    Kirti I loved your list ! Thank you !

    Kay Davies Thats where we worry about the ethics of it all, and thats why countries think hard before allowing research . Hopefully there will be huge safeguards built into these things...

    sandhya Thank you ! See, I cannot write unless I understand it...:-)

    sangeeta yes I am aware of the menstrual blood source of stem cells, and I know places that store cord blood after a baby's birth. Amazing and fascinating stuff ....

    aativas Thank you. And what you say is so true !

    Gigihawaii Yes, this is a great step forward by Pres Obama . I am sure there are now a lot of safeguards built in , so that the research cannot be misused.

    Darlene Thank you for the kind words. I love the idea of implanting genes into people who act difficult and ignorant. All countries have tons of such folks ....

    Santosh Kumar That's why governments worry so much about the ethics part of this research.

    HHG I will certainly be on the lookout for the book you mention. For a person who left biology in class 11, i am just hugely honored by your invitation ! :-))

    Radha Thank you ! Writers block is there, but I am mostly reading, doing housework, or watching TV when that happens :-)