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Human concussions could soon be treated using bug brains

Published On: Oct 21 2013 12:54:56 AM CDT
Updated On: Oct 21 2013 01:01:34 AM CDT
DNA genes genetics

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MADISON, Wis. -

Fruit flies are nothing new to UW genetic scientists Barry Ganetzky and David Wasserman. They’ve been buzzing around the lab for decades, in fact.

"Studying the nervous system, studying neuro-degeneration in flies, studying development of the nervous system in flies," Ganetzky explained. "And it was only because we had this long background of work that people might have thought, 'why are you spending your time doing that,' that we were able to get to this point."

"This has been the most exciting time in my career of doing science," Wasserman said.

Now the two use a simplistic contraption made of a heavy-wired spring and a base board to test how brain injuries affect those flies. The pair said by studying the disoriented fruit flies, they are confident in figuring out if some people are more prone to serious injury from hard hits to the head.

Up to this point, Ganetzky said most concussions or traumatic brain injuries (TBI’s) are diagnosed by someone’s symptoms. This research, he said, could change that.

"There's no real quantitative measurement. It isn't like diabetes where you measure blood glucose levels, or high blood pressure where you actually measure the blood pressure, or cholesterol levels," Ganetzky said. "So if we know something about the genetic mechanisms involved - genes are being turned on, genes are being turned off following a traumatic brain injury - that gives us the opportunity to actually measure something."

"You could say, 'this injury is worse than this injury,'" Ganetzky continued, "so it provides some sort of diagnostic tools, biomarkers of traumatic brain injury."

Ganetzky and Wasserman said the building blocks of the bug’s brain are no different than what’s in our skull. Humans just have more of those genes, they said.

"An individual nerve cell in a fly brain doesn't look any different from an individual nerve cell in a human brain," Ganetzky said, "and how it functions is exactly the same."

"About 75% of the genes in flies are conserved in humans, so you can find a gene just like it in humans," Wasserman said.

The scientists said fruit flies are an advantageous way to research for a number of reasons. For one, they can mass produce the insects easily. The lab has more than a million in containers. Additionally, they say it's possible to study long-term effects in humans in a matter of a few weeks in flies.

"As we learn this, we can personalize the therapy, find the right therapy for the right individual," Ganetzky explained.

Ganetzky and Wasserman hope to publish findings on this topic within the next year.

"I did imagine it would get to this point, and I'm thrilled that it has," Wasserman said.

"We feel that this is both exciting science and something that is also of medical relevance," Ganetzky said.

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