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Cool Videos: Flashes of Neuronal Brilliance

Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins

When you have a bright idea or suddenly understand something, you might say that a light bulb just went on in your head. But, as the flashing lights of this very cool video show, the brain’s signaling cells, called neurons, continually switch on and off in response to a wide range of factors, simple or sublime.

The technology used to produce this video—a recent winner in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology’s BioArt contest—takes advantage of the fact that whenever a neuron is activated, levels of calcium increase inside the cell. To capture that activity, graduate student Caitlin Vander Weele in Kay M. Tye’s lab at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, MA, engineered neurons in a mouse’s brain to produce a bright fluorescent signal whenever calcium increases. Consequently, each time a neuron was activated, the fluorescent indicator lit up and the changes were detected with a miniature microscope. The brighter the flash, the greater the activity!

What’s amazing about this innovative system is it provides a unique view into the activity of individual neurons in the brains of living animals in real-time. In this particular video, the researchers assessed the activity of various neuronal subpopulations in the medial prefrontal cortex, which is a brain region involved in complex cognitive behaviors, while mice performed tasks accompanied by either rewards or punishments. In humans, many neuropsychiatric disorders, including addiction and depression, are characterized by an imbalance between the motivation to seek rewards and avoid punishment. Consequently, improving our fundamental understanding of how the mammalian brain works may be useful in developing new ways to help people with such disorders.

The MIT researchers, who are partly funded by NIH, generated this video using a commercially available epifluorescent microscope, in tandem with reagents obtained through the collaborative Genetically-Encoded Neuronal Indicator and Effector (GENIE) project at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus. It represents just one example of the many incredible and informative images that are being created by neuroscientists across the nation and around the world.

In fact, Vander Weele has even started a magazine, called Interstellate, to provide a platform to share these images with the public and celebrate the scientific process that produces them. The first volume of Interstellate featured images from more than 80 neuroscientists, and the fifth-year graduate student is now in the process of collecting images for Volume 2, which she hopes will debut next November just in time for the Society for Neuroscience’s meeting!


Tye Lab (Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA)

Interstellate: Celebrating the Beauty of Neuroscience (MIT News, Jan. 9. 2017)

Interstellate Volume 1

BioArt (Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, Bethesda, MD)

NIH Support: National Institute of Mental Health; National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; National Institute of General Medical Sciences

One Comment

  • Pushkar Joshi says:

    This stunning video by Caitlin Vander Weele from Dr. Tye’s laboratory speaks to the importance of the public-private partnership between researchers, federal agencies, and the private sector in catalyzing scientific breakthroughs. It is one of the foundational principles of the BRAIN Initiative that Dr. Collins helped launch in 2013.

    As Dr. Collins mentions, the top-notch neuroscientists that generated this video are at MIT, a private university, and partially funded by the NIH. The calcium indicator that enables the readout of neural activity was developed by HHMI, a biomedical non-profit. The miniature microscope that was used to capture the video was developed by a company called Inscopix, which is also partially supported by a BRAIN SBIR grant, and which in turn supports the BRAIN Initiative through its DECODE Grant Program.

    Congratulations to Caitlin and Kay!

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