Finding Brain Circuits Tied to Alertness

Everybody knows that it’s important to stay alert behind the wheel or while out walking on the bike path. But our ability to react appropriately to sudden dangers is influenced by whether we feel momentarily tired, distracted, or anxious. How is it that the brain can transition through such different states of consciousness while performing the same routine task, even as its basic structure and internal wiring remain unchanged?

A team of NIH-funded researchers may have found an important clue in zebrafish, a popular organism for studying how the brain works. Using a powerful new method that allowed them to find and track brain circuits tied to alertness, the researchers discovered that this mental state doesn’t work like an on/off switch. Rather, alertness involves several distinct brain circuits working together to bring the brain to attention. As shown in the video above that was taken at cellular resolution, different types of neurons (green) secrete different kinds of chemical messengers across the zebrafish brain to affect the transition to alertness. The messengers shown are: serotonin (red), acetylcholine (blue-green), and dopamine and norepinephrine (yellow).

What’s also fascinating is the researchers found that many of the same neuronal cell types and brain circuits are essential to alertness in zebrafish and mice, despite the two organisms being only distantly related. That suggests these circuits are conserved through evolution as an early fight-or-flight survival behavior essential to life, and they are therefore likely to be important for controlling alertness in people too. If correct, it would tell us where to look in the brain to learn about alertness not only while doing routine stuff but possibly for understanding dysfunctional brain states, ranging from depression to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

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Creative Minds: Building a CRISPR Gene Drive Against Malaria

Valentino Gantz

Valentino Gantz/Credit: Erik Jepsen

Researchers have used Drosophila melanogaster, the common fruit fly that sometimes hovers around kitchens, to make seminal discoveries involving genetics, the nervous system, and behavior, just to name a few. Could a new life-saving approach to prevent malaria be next? Valentino Gantz, a researcher at the University of California, San Diego, is on a path to answer that question.

Gantz has received a 2016 NIH Director’s Early Independence Award to use Drosophila to hone a new bioengineered tool that acts as a so-called “gene drive,” which spreads a new genetically encoded trait through a population much faster than would otherwise be possible. The lessons learned while working with flies will ultimately be applied to developing a more foolproof system for use in mosquitoes with the hope of stopping the transmission of malaria and potentially other serious mosquito-borne diseases.

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Creative Minds: A New Way to Look at Cancer

Bradley Bernstein

Bradley Bernstein

Inside our cells, strands of DNA wrap around spool-like histone proteins to form a DNA-histone complex called chromatin. Bradley Bernstein, a pathologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard University, and Broad Institute, has always been fascinated by this process. What interests him is the fact that an approximately 6-foot-long strand of DNA can be folded and packed into orderly chromatin structures inside a cell nucleus that’s just 0.0002 inch wide.

Bernstein’s fascination with DNA packaging led to the recent major discovery that, when chromatin misfolds in brain cells, it can activate a gene associated with the cancer glioma [1]. This suggested a new cancer-causing mechanism that does not require specific DNA mutations. Now, with a 2016 NIH Director’s Pioneer Award, Bernstein is taking a closer look at how misfolded and unstable chromatin can drive tumor formation, and what that means for treating cancer.

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Nanodiamonds Shine in Root Canal Study

Nanodiamonds

Caption: An artistic rendering of nanodiamonds
Credit: Ho Lab

When the time comes to get relief from a dental problem, we are all glad that dentistry has come so far—much of the progress based on research supported by NIH’s National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. Still, almost no one looks forward to getting a root canal. Not only can the dental procedure be uncomfortable and costly, there’s also a risk of failure due to infection or other complications. But some NIH-supported researchers have now come up with what may prove to be a dazzling strategy for reducing that risk: nanodiamonds!

That’s right, these researchers decided to add tiny diamonds—so small that millions could fit on the head of the pin—to the standard filler that dentists use to seal off a tooth’s root. Not only are these nanodiamonds extremely strong, they have unique properties that make them very attractive vehicles for delivering drugs, including antimicrobials that help fight infections of the sealed root canal.

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Creative Minds: Using Machine Learning to Understand Genome Function

Anshul Kundaje

Anshul Kundaje / Credit: Nalini Kartha

Science has always fascinated Anshul Kundaje, whether it was biology, physics, or chemistry. When he left his home country of India to pursue graduate studies in electrical engineering at Columbia University, New York, his plan was to focus on telecommunications and computer networks. But a course in computational genomics during his first semester showed him he could follow his interest in computing without giving up his love for biology.

Now an assistant professor of genetics and computer science at Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA, Kundaje has received a 2016 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award to explore not just how the human genome sequence encodes function, but also why it functions in the way that it does. Kundaje even envisions a time when it might be possible to use sophisticated computational approaches to predict the genomic basis of many human diseases.

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