The assertion that brain equals behavior brings up many questions and concerns. I am currently most concerned by the effects of physical damage to the brain. Although we have concluded that behavior is based at the lowest level upon the workings of neurons, it is the actual integration of these neurons that account for behavior. Any damage done to the brain either by disease or other disorders can result in a direct change in not only behavior but also personality and our very concept of self. These are things that are very important to us as human beings and are important to be able to treat or cure such disorders. Because a "network" of neurons acting together directs behavior, it is very difficult to repair or treat any disorders of the nervous system. Doctor's are not just treating a single cell that can be replaced but an entire system with intertwining and unknown connections.
Recent research involving transplanted fetal tissue has shown vast potential for hope in many areas of neural study. The basic idea is that the issue will replace or regrow tissue in damaged areas of the brain. Fetal tissue research was banned during the Bush administration due to the abortion controversy but Clinton lifted the ban during his first year as president. Since then, amazing progress has been made in this field. Although there have yet to be any true "cures" improvements and possible treatments are in the working. This technique is currently being used to research treatments for illnesses such as Parkinson's disease, Aids, Tay-Sach's disease, strokes, brain tumors, MS, spinal cord injuries and many other neural disorders.
The use of fetal tissue for research dates back to around the 1920's when it was used, unsuccessfully, to treat diabetes. Later, work with fetal tissue was used in ground breaking research that led to vaccines for diseases such as Rubella and Polio. Fetal material is used primarily because it has not yet completely undergone the specialization that adult tissue has. The primary fetal cells used for research are called stem cells that are capable of growing and specializing. The hope that most researchers have is that this transplanted tissue will specialize into cells that can regrow or replace missing or damaged tissue in the patient. Unfortunately, the tissue, especially that used in the research for Parkinson's disease, does not survive for very long in it's new host. However, for a short time after the transplantation symptoms decrease or even reverse themselves.
Although most research has showed that this idea has the potential to work, many people oppose it because of ethical questions. They fear that the number of planned abortions will increase because mothers will feel better about having an abortion if the fetus's cells are being used to save someone else's life. There is also the fear of a black market forming for fetal tissue; people would pay women to become pregnant and then abort the fetus. Due to the heavy political side of science, research has been slowed or even stopped in many areas. It was very difficult to find scientific sites about fetal tissue transplant research due to the overwhelming number of religious sites opposing it. The opposition posts thousands of sites talking down the benefits of this type of research and pointing out all of the failures involved in the testing. One particularly strong site is called "Stop Fetal Tissue Research" (1).
An article found in the Harvard Gazette (2) produced a possible solution to this problem in an article titled "Nerve Cell Clones Repair Brain Damage" (3) by William J. Cromie. Research being done at Harvard involves the cloning of fetal neural stem cells. Stem cells are cells that have yet to specialize into a particular type of cell. When injected into test subjects, these cells migrate to the damaged areas and in most cases replace the cells that have been destroyed. This cloning drastically reduces the number of aborted fetuses used for research and should appease most members of anti-fetal research groups.
Harvard has had some very significant results using this cloning method mainly involving inherited genetic disorders such as Tay-Sach's disease. They have been able to genetically engineer cells to produce the missing protein that causes this deadly childhood disease. When the new cells were introduced to the deficient Tay-Sach's cells they were able to stop the course of the disease and even reverse it. They are hoping that results continue in this direction with other inherited genetic diseases.
For me, and I am sure for many other people, nothing is more frightening than the prospect of damage to my brain. The fear that who I am and how I behave could be altered by something uncontrollable is a very terrifying thought. This is why research that involves treatments for disorders of the nervous system is so important. It may provide cures, or at least further knowledge, of some of the most terrifying and devastating diseases known to mankind. The hope of both researchers and victims alike is that we will one day be able to transplant nervous tissue like we do organs. The prospect of transplanting an organ from one person to another used to seem impossible. But research has created methods and drugs used in transplantation which have made it a reality. The current lines of fetal tissue research seem to promise, or at least imply, similar results.
This is an area of research that has a very significant importance in our time and is one that should be followed closely. Many researchers and I believe that we are on the edge of a great new discovery that will bring hope and comfort to many people. Not only will it be creating relief to victims of neural disorders but also it will provide tremendous insight to the development of the nervous system and to its workings.
2)Harvard Gazette Homepage ,
3) Nerve Cell Clones Repair Brain Damage ,
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