Cool Videos: Flashes of Neuronal Brilliance

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!

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Are E-cigarettes Leading More Kids to Smoke?

Cigarettes vs. E-Cigarettes

Thinkstock\MilknCoffee

Today, thanks to decades of educational efforts about the serious health consequences of inhaled tobacco, fewer young people than ever smoke cigarettes in the United States. So, it’s interesting that a growing of number of middle and high school kids are using e-cigarettes—electronic devices that vaporize flavored liquid that generally contains nicotine.

E-cigarettes come with their own health risks, including lung inflammation, asthma, and respiratory infections. But their supporters argue that “vaping,” as it’s often called, might provide an option that would help young people steer clear of traditional cigarettes and the attendant future risks of lung cancer, emphysema, heart disease, and other serious health conditions. Now, a new NIH-funded study finds that this is—pardon the pun—mostly a pipe dream.

Analyzing the self-reported smoking behaviors of thousands of schoolkids nationwide, researchers found no evidence that the availability of e-cigarettes has served to accelerate the decline in youth smoking. In fact, the researchers concluded the opposite: the popularity of e-cigarettes has led more kids—not fewer—to get hooked on nicotine, which meets all criteria for being an addictive substance.

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Snapshots of Life: Reward Seeking, in Technicolor

Rainbow noodles

Credit: Saleem Nicola, Vincent B. McGinty, James J. Kim, and Sylvie Lardeux

Originally, this vibrant picture was just a set of black lines on a graph, charting the various paths of a laboratory rat as it made its way toward a lever to release a shot of sugar water. But Dr. Saleem Nicola, an NIH-funded researcher at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Bronx, NY, wanted to pique the interest of his colleagues, so he decided to have a bit of fun with the image.

First, Dr. Nicola broadened the lines, giving them a noodle-like appearance. He then went on to use other information about the rat journeys to add rainbow hues, and, finally, he replaced the white background with black. The result is an eye-catching image that is among the winners of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology’s 2013 BioArt competition.

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Creative Minds: Trying to Curb Those Sugar Cravings

Many homemade cupcakes topped with white icing, chocolate drizzle, and a cherry.It’s that time of year again: holiday parties and family feasts! One of the most frequently made—and most often broken—New Year’s resolutions is to follow a sensible diet. All goes well until you catch sight of a cupcake or smell some cookies fresh out of the oven. Sensory cues trigger cravings that crumble resolve and, before you know it, you’re on a sugar high.

Actually, from a biological perspective, it’s not a fair fight. Once desires and preferences are hard-wired in the brain, people have difficulty changing their habits. But one of 2013 recipients of the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, Kay Tye of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, MA, is up for the challenge. In a high-risk, high-reward research project, she’s trying to find ways to control food cravings by reprogramming the brain, where the behavior begins. Continue reading

Shining a Bright Light on Cocaine Addiction

Image of a slice of a brain stained blue with fluorescent green section at the top center

Caption: Optogenetic stimulation using laser pulses lights up the prelimbic cortex
Source: Courtesy of Billy Chen and Antonello Bonci

Wow—there is a lot of exciting brain research in progress, and this week is no exception. A team here at NIH, collaborating with scientists at the University of California in San Francisco, delivered harmless pulses of laser light to the brains of cocaine-addicted rats, blocking their desire for the narcotic.

If that sounds a bit way out, I can assure you the approach is based on some very solid evidence suggesting that people—and rats—are more vulnerable to addiction when a region of their brain in the prefrontal cortex isn’t functioning properly. Brain imaging studies show that rat and human addicts have less activity in the region compared with healthy individuals; and chronic cocaine use makes the problem of low activity even worse. The prefrontal cortex is critical for decision-making, impulse control, and behavior; it helps you weigh the negative consequences of drug use. Continue reading