Tufts University researchers had recently discovered the brain to take an active part in bodily development well before movement or other independent behaviours occur.
“Our research shows that the brain is engaged before that [autonomous activity], before it’s even fully built,” said corresponding author on the paper Michael Levin, PhD.
“What is particularly promising on the therapeutic side is that we were able to reverse developmental defects that result in the absence of a brain by applying relatively simple bioelectric and neurotransmitter manipulations.”
In the study, researchers removed the brains of Xenopus Iaevis frog embryos during an early period of development, after the eggs were fertilised, but prior to any self-directed activity.
The alteration led to abnormal development of the muscles and the peripheral nervous system, indicating the importance of the brain for embryogenesis even in distant regions of the body.
When exposed to drugs which cause no disturbance in normal embryos, their brainless counterparts went on to develop severe birth defects, such as bent spinal cords and tails, which made it clear that the brain also acts as a barrier against potentially dangerous substances.
“Our data suggest that the brain exercises these functions using electrical and chemical channels that communicate locally and at a distance. Such distributed communications means we may be able to repair damage in a difficult-to-reach site by providing therapies to more easily-accessible tissues,” said first author on the study Celia Herrera-Rincon.
In the future, the research team plans to more fully explore what types of information get sent via the newly discovered communication channels, as well as their relevance in other species.
Michael Levin is particularly interested in how the brain manages to deliver information while in the process of development itself. According to him, the brain and the body enter a feedback loop – forming each other simultaneously.
“Explaining this could lead to understanding how brains keep memories during massive remodeling and regeneration. We might one day be able to regenerate portions of the brain while the memories were still intact.”
The paper was published in the journal Nature Communications.