Opening the ‘Black Box’ of the Human Brain

In a "golden age" of science and biology, collaboration (and stem cells!) are bringing us closer to targeted treatments for the brain.

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We are in a golden age of biology and medicine, according to neuroscientist Freda Miller.

Just a decade or two ago, we knew very little about the brain. But today we are witnessing leaps being made in technology, and the increasingly collaborative nature of research is propelling our understanding forward.

Where the brain used to be a black box, researchers are so close to understanding how it works that it’s possible to start rationally designing drugs to treat the injured brain.

Miller, a researcher at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children and collaborator at the University of Toronto’s Medicine by Design, is working to provide a clearer picture of how brain stem cells can help the brain heal.

“You cannot fix something that you don’t understand,” says Miller. “The brain has been like a black box for decades and decades. People have been fascinated with it and they’ve only been able to find little tiny things out about it. And honestly, coming up with a rational therapeutic has been a pipe dream.”

This is all starting to change, starting with a better understanding of the biology of the brain. Miller and her team are working to build a more complete understanding of brain stem cells so that she can understand how to tweak them to trigger repair following injury.

“Even before a paper is published,” says Miller, “if you have a great idea, especially with something like Medicine by Design, you can go to your colleagues immediately and start moving down the therapeutic road.”

That means that in this golden age of biology and medicine, the gap between making a discovery and using that discovery to help patients in the clinic is getting smaller every day.

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Dr. Freda Miller is a cell and molecular developmental neurobiologist at The Hospital for Sick Children Research Institute and Professor at the University of Toronto.  She is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute International Research Scholar, Canada Research Chair in Developmental Neurobiology, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  She has authored more than 140 scientific papers, reviews and book chapters and has 15 patents (issued and pending).   

Miller is best known for her studies of neural and dermal stem cells and of neuronal growth, survival and apoptosis.  Major findings from her lab have provided evidence that adult mammalian skin contains an accessible multipotent dermal stem cell that can generate peripheral neural cells, that the p75 and p63 play a critical role in determining the life, death and degeneration of mammalian neurons, and that one way genetic disorders cause cognitive dysfunction  is by perturbing embryonic neurogenesis. 

Miller obtained her B.Sc. in Biochemistry at the University of Saskatchewan, her PhD in Medical Sciences from the University of Calgary and completed her postdoctoral training at the Scripps Research Foundation.  She then held faculty positions at the University of Alberta and the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University prior to moving to her current position in 2002.  Miller was also a founder of Aegera Therapeutics Inc., a Canadian biotechnology company.  

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