Scientists Just Shapeshifted a Brain Cell

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Turns out, you can force cells to make more dopamine.

This is one of those stories that seems cheery but leaves you feeling just a little bit haunted. It all started on one dark and stormy night (or bright, dry day, the paper didn't specify). Some scientists in Texas were in a laboratory, trying to turn one kind of brain cell into a different kind of brain cell.

The brain is full of glial cells, a kind of cells that basically insulate neurons. Scientists wanted to take some of these plentiful glia and turn them into cells that produce dopamine, a neurotransmitter (chemical signal) that cells send to each other.

Dopamine is famous as far as neurotransmitters go. People talk about it like it's the pleasure chemical, but it's actually responsible for a lot more than that — like NOT getting Parkinson’s. So you can imagine why one might want a brain that produces more dopamine.

The scientists had a plan: they'd trick the glial cells into aging backwards like Benjamin Button. Then they'd turn the glial cells into dopamine-making cells.

The scientists injected a bunch of chemicals that would do all that somehow into mouse brain cells (this is why the mice hate us). And the glial cells ... did nothing.

Something far more unexpected happened. Medium spiny neurons (MSNs), another kind of brain cell, started producing dopamine. That's weird enough, but it gets stranger: the MSNs didn't turn back into stem cells first. They just shapeshifted on the spot.

That's a bit technical, but imagine you had a castle made out of LEGOs and decided you wanted to build a spaceship. You take apart the castle and, with all the newly unattached pieces, you build the spaceship. Now imagine your LEGO castle just turned into a spaceship without breaking apart. That's what these cells did. They transformed from one kind of cell into another without going back to infancy.

“Initially, I was a little disappointed that we converted medium spiny neurons instead of glia,” explained Chun-Li Zhang, a researcher at the University of Texas. “But when we realized the novelty of our results, we were kind of amazed. To our knowledge, changing the phenotype of resident, already-mature neurons has never been accomplished before."

It raises some questions too. How much shapeshifting are cells up to, anyway? And shapeshifting aside, are we going to program our brains to be happier?

If scientists are trying to get brain cells to produce more dopamine, you know somebody's going to want to use that to make their brain happier. Wealthy people could program themselves happy. This is going real Twilight Zone real fast, people.