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Celebrating the Power of Connection This Holiday Season

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Happy holidays to one and all! This short science video brings to mind all those twinkling lights now brightening the night, as we mark the beginning of winter and shortest day of the year. This video also helps to remind us about the power of connection this holiday season.

It shows a motor neuron in a mouse’s primary motor cortex. In this portion of the brain, which controls voluntary movement, heavily branched neural projections interconnect, sending and receiving signals to and from distant parts of the body. A single motor neuron can receive thousands of inputs at a time from other branching sensory cells, depicted in the video as an array of blinking lights. It’s only through these connections—through open communication and cooperation—that voluntary movements are possible to navigate and enjoy our world in all its wonder. One neuron, like one person, can’t do it all alone.

This power of connection, captured in this award-winning video from the 2022 Show Us Your Brains Photo and Video contest, comes from Forrest Collman, Allen Institute for Brain Science, Seattle. The contest is part of NIH’s Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative.

In the version above, we’ve taken some liberties with the original video to enhance the twinkling lights from the synaptic connections. But creating the original was quite a task. Collman sifted through reams of data from high-resolution electron microscopy imaging of the motor cortex to masterfully reconstruct this individual motor neuron and its connections.

Those data came from The Machine Intelligence from Cortical Networks (MICrONS) program, supported by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA). It’s part of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, one of NIH’s governmental collaborators in the BRAIN Initiative.

The MICrONS program aims to better understand the brain’s internal wiring. With this increased knowledge, researchers will develop more sophisticated machine learning algorithms for artificial intelligence applications, which will in turn advance fundamental basic science discoveries and the practice of life-saving medicine. For instance, these applications may help in the future to detect and evaluate a broad range of neural conditions, including those that affect the primary motor cortex.

Pretty cool stuff. So, as you spend this holiday season with friends and family, let this video and its twinkling lights remind you that there’s much more to the season than eating, drinking, and watching football games.

The holidays are very much about the power of connection for people of all faiths, beliefs, and traditions. It’s about taking time out from the everyday to join together to share memories of days gone by as we build new memories and stronger bonds of cooperation for the years to come. With this in mind, happy holidays to one and all.

Links:

NIH BRAIN Initiative Unveils Detailed Atlas of the Mammalian Primary Motor Cortex,” NIH News Release, October 6, 2021

Forrest Collman (Allen Institute for Brain Science, Seattle)

MICroNS Explorer

Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative (NIH)

Show Us Your Brains Photo and Video Contest (BRAIN Initiative)


The Amazing Brain: Seeing Two Memories at Once

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Light microscopy. Green at top and bottom with a middle blue layer showing cells.
Credit: Stephanie Grella, Boston University, MA

The NIH’s Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative is revolutionizing our understanding of the human brain. As described in the initiative’s name, the development of innovative imaging technologies will enable researchers to see the brain in new and increasingly dynamic ways. Each year, the initiative celebrates some standout and especially creative examples of such advances in the “Show Us Your BRAINs! Photo & Video Contest. During most of August, I’ll share some of the most eye-catching developments in our blog series, The Amazing Brain.

In this fascinating image, you’re seeing two stored memories, which scientists call engrams, in the hippocampus region of a mouse’s brain. The engrams show the neural intersection of a good memory (green) and a bad memory (pink). You can also see the nuclei of many neurons (blue), including nearby neurons not involved in the memory formation.

This award-winning image was produced by Stephanie Grella in the lab of NIH-supported neuroscientist Steve Ramirez, Boston University, MA. It’s also not the first time that the blog has featured Grella’s technical artistry. Grella, who will soon launch her own lab at Loyola University, Chicago, previously captured what a single memory looks like.

To capture two memories at once, Grella relied on a technology known as optogenetics. This powerful method allows researchers to genetically engineer neurons and selectively activate them in laboratory mice using blue light. In this case, Grella used a harmless virus to label neurons involved in recording a positive experience with a light-sensitive molecule, known as an opsin. Another molecular label was used to make those same cells appear green when activated.

After any new memory is formed, there’s a period of up to about 24 hours during which the memory is malleable. Then, the memory tends to stabilize. But with each retrieval, the memory can be modified as it restabilizes, a process known as memory reconsolidation.

Grella and team decided to try to use memory reconsolidation to their advantage to neutralize an existing fear. To do this, they placed their mice in an environment that had previously startled them. When a mouse was retrieving a fearful memory (pink), the researchers activated with light associated with the positive memory (green), which for these particular mice consisted of positive interactions with other mice. The aim was to override or disrupt the fearful memory.

As shown by the green all throughout the image, the experiment worked. While the mice still showed some traces of the fearful memory (pink), Grella explained that the specific cells that were the focus of her study shifted to the positive memory (green).

What’s perhaps even more telling is that the evidence suggests the mice didn’t just trade one memory for another. Rather, it appears that activating a positive memory actually suppressed or neutralized the animal’s fearful memory. The hope is that this approach might one day inspire methods to help people overcome negative and unwanted memories, such as those that play a role in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health issues.

Links:

Stephanie Grella (Boston University, MA)

Ramirez Group (Boston University)

Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative (NIH)

Show Us Your BRAINs Photo & Video Contest (BRAIN Initiative)

NIH Support: BRAIN Initiative; Common Fund


Human Brain Compresses Working Memories into Low-Res ‘Summaries’

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Stimulus images are disks of angled lines. A thought bubble shows similar angles in her thoughts
Credit: Adapted from Kwak Y., Neuron (2022)

You have probably done it already a few times today. Paused to remember a password, a shopping list, a phone number, or maybe the score to last night’s ballgame. The ability to store and recall needed information, called working memory, is essential for most of the human brain’s higher cognitive processes.

Researchers are still just beginning to piece together how working memory functions. But recently, NIH-funded researchers added an intriguing new piece to this neurobiological puzzle: how visual working memories are “formatted” and stored in the brain.

The findings, published in the journal Neuron, show that the visual cortex—the brain’s primary region for receiving, integrating, and processing visual information from the eye’s retina—acts more like a blackboard than a camera. That is, the visual cortex doesn’t photograph all the complex details of a visual image, such as the color of paper on which your password is written or the precise series of lines that make up the letters. Instead, it recodes visual information into something more like simple chalkboard sketches.

The discovery suggests that those pared down, low-res representations serve as a kind of abstract summary, capturing the relevant information while discarding features that aren’t relevant to the task at hand. It also shows that different visual inputs, such as spatial orientation and motion, may be stored in virtually identical, shared memory formats.

The new study, from Clayton Curtis and Yuna Kwak, New York University, New York, builds upon a known fundamental aspect of working memory. Many years ago, it was determined that the human brain tends to recode visual information. For instance, if passed a 10-digit phone number on a card, the visual information gets recoded and stored in the brain as the sounds of the numbers being read aloud.

Curtis and Kwak wanted to learn more about how the brain formats representations of working memory in patterns of brain activity. To find out, they measured brain activity with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while participants used their visual working memory.

In each test, study participants were asked to remember a visual stimulus presented to them for 12 seconds and then make a memory-based judgment on what they’d just seen. In some trials, as shown in the image above, participants were shown a tilted grating, a series of black and white lines oriented at a particular angle. In others, they observed a cloud of dots, all moving in a direction to represent those same angles. After a short break, participants were asked to recall and precisely indicate the angle of the grating’s tilt or the dot cloud’s motion as accurately as possible.

It turned out that either visual stimulus—the grating or moving dots—resulted in the same patterns of neural activity in the visual cortex and parietal cortex. The parietal cortex is a part of the brain used in memory processing and storage.

These two distinct visual memories carrying the same relevant information seemed to have been recoded into a shared abstract memory format. As a result, the pattern of brain activity trained to recall motion direction was indistinguishable from that trained to recall the grating orientation.

This result indicated that only the task-relevant features of the visual stimuli had been extracted and recoded into a shared memory format. But Curtis and Kwak wondered whether there might be more to this finding.

To take a closer look, they used a sophisticated model that allowed them to project the three-dimensional patterns of brain activity into a more-informative, two-dimensional representation of visual space. And, indeed, their analysis of the data revealed a line-like pattern, similar to a chalkboard sketch that’s oriented at the relevant angles.

The findings suggest that participants weren’t actually remembering the grating or a complex cloud of moving dots at all. Instead, they’d compressed the images into a line representing the angle that they’d been asked to remember.

Many questions remain about how remembering a simple angle, a relatively straightforward memory formation, will translate to the more-complex sets of information stored in our working memory. On a technical level, though, the findings show that working memory can now be accessed and captured in ways that hadn’t been possible before. This will help to delineate the commonalities in working memory formation and the possible differences, whether it’s remembering a password, a shopping list, or the score of your team’s big victory last night.

Reference:

[1] Unveiling the abstract format of mnemonic representations. Kwak Y, Curtis CE. Neuron. 2022, April 7; 110(1-7).

Links:

Working Memory (National Institute of Mental Health/NIH)

The Curtis Lab (New York University, New York)

NIH Support: National Eye Institute


Tapping Into The Brain’s Primary Motor Cortex

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If you’re like me, you might catch yourself during the day in front of a computer screen mindlessly tapping your fingers. (I always check first to be sure my mute button is on!) But all that tapping isn’t as mindless as you might think.

While a research participant performs a simple motor task, tapping her fingers together, this video shows blood flow within the folds of her brain’s primary motor cortex (gray and white), which controls voluntary movement. Areas of high brain activity (yellow and red) emerge in the omega-shaped “hand-knob” region, the part of the brain controlling hand movement (right of center) and then further back within the primary somatic cortex (which borders the motor cortex toward the back of the head).

About 38 seconds in, the right half of the video screen illustrates that the finger tapping activates both superficial and deep layers of the primary motor cortex. In contrast, the sensation of a hand being brushed (a sensory task) mostly activates superficial layers, where the primary sensory cortex is located. This fits with what we know about the superficial and deep layers of the hand-knob region, since they are responsible for receiving sensory input and generating motor output to control finger movements, respectively [1].

The video showcases a new technology called zoomed 7T perfusion functional MRI (fMRI). It was an entry in the recent Show Us Your BRAINs! Photo and Video Contest, supported by NIH’s Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative.

The technology is under development by an NIH-funded team led by Danny J.J. Wang, University of Southern California Mark and Mary Stevens Neuroimaging and Informatics Institute, Los Angeles. Zoomed 7T perfusion fMRI was developed by Xingfeng Shao and brought to life by the group’s medical animator Jim Stanis.

Measuring brain activity using fMRI to track perfusion is not new. The brain needs a lot of oxygen, carried to it by arteries running throughout the head, to carry out its many complex functions. Given the importance of oxygen to the brain, you can think of perfusion levels, measured by fMRI, as a stand-in measure for neural activity.

There are two things that are new about zoomed 7T perfusion fMRI. For one, it uses the first ultrahigh magnetic field imaging scanner approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The technology also has high sensitivity for detecting blood flow changes in tiny arteries and capillaries throughout the many layers of the cortex [2].

Compared to previous MRI methods with weaker magnets, the new technique can measure blood flow on a fine-grained scale, enabling scientists to remove unwanted signals (“noise”) such as those from surface-level arteries and veins. Getting an accurate read-out of activity from region to region across cortical layers can help scientists understand human brain function in greater detail in health and disease.

Having shown that the technology works as expected during relatively mundane hand movements, Wang and his team are now developing the approach for fine-grained 3D mapping of brain activity throughout the many layers of the brain. This type of analysis, known as mesoscale mapping, is key to understanding dynamic activities of neural circuits that connect brain cells across cortical layers and among brain regions.

Decoding circuits, and ultimately rewiring them, is a major goal of NIH’s BRAIN Initiative. Zoomed 7T perfusion fMRI gives us a window into 4D biology, which is the ability to watch 3D objects over time scales in which life happens, whether it’s playing an elaborate drum roll or just tapping your fingers.

References:

[1] Neuroanatomical localization of the ‘precentral knob’ with computed tomography imaging. Park MC, Goldman MA, Park MJ, Friehs GM. Stereotact Funct Neurosurg. 2007;85(4):158-61.

[2]. Laminar perfusion imaging with zoomed arterial spin labeling at 7 Tesla. Shao X, Guo F, Shou Q, Wang K, Jann K, Yan L, Toga AW, Zhang P, Wang D.J.J bioRxiv 2021.04.13.439689.

Links:

Brain Basics: Know Your Brain (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke)

Laboratory of Functional MRI Technology (University of Southern California Mark and Mary Stevens Neuroimaging and Informatics Institute)

The Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative (NIH)

Show Us Your BRAINs! Photo and Video Contest (BRAIN Initiative)

NIH Support: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering; Office of the Director


The Amazing Brain: Motor Neurons of the Cervical Spine

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Today, you may have opened a jar, done an upper body workout, played a guitar or a piano, texted a friend, or maybe even jotted down a grocery list longhand. All of these “skilled” arm, wrist, and hand movements are made possible by the bundled nerves, or circuits, running through a part of the central nervous system in the neck area called the cervical spine.

This video, which combines sophisticated imaging and computation with animation, shows the density of three types of nerve cells in the mouse cervical spine. There are the V1 interneurons (red), which sit between sensory and motor neurons; motor neurons associated with controlling the movement of the bicep (blue); and motor neurons associated with controlling the tricep (green).

At 4 seconds, the 3D animation morphs to show all the colors and cells intermixed as they are naturally in the cervical spine. At 8 seconds, the animation highlights the density of these three cells types. Notice in the bottom left corner, a light icon appears indicating the different imaging perspectives. What’s unique here is the frontal, or rostral, view of the cervical spine. The cervical spine is typically imaged from a lateral, or side, perspective.

Starting at 16 seconds, the animation highlights the location and density of each of the individual neurons. For the grand finale, viewers zoom off on a brief fly-through of the cervical spine and a flurry of reds, blues, and greens.

The video comes from Jamie Anne Mortel, a research assistant in the lab of Samuel Pfaff, Salk Institute, La Jolla, CA. Mortel is part of a team supported by the NIH-led Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative that’s developing a comprehensive atlas of the circuitry within the cervical spine that controls how mice control their forelimb movements, such as reaching and grasping.

This basic research will provide a better understanding of how the mammalian brain and spinal cord work together to produce movement. More than that, this research may provide valuable clues into better treating paralysis to arms, wrists, and/or hands caused by neurological diseases and spinal cord injuries.

As a part of this project, the Pfaff lab has been busy developing a software tool to take their imaging data from different parts of the cervical spine and present it in 3D. Mortel, who likes to make cute cartoon animations in her spare time, noticed that the software lacked animation capability. So she took the initiative and spent the next three weeks working after hours to produce this video—her first attempt at scientific animation. No doubt she must have been using a lot of wrist and hand movements!

With a positive response from her Salk labmates, Mortel decided to enter her scientific animation debut in the 2021 Show Us BRAINs! Photo and Video Contest. To her great surprise and delight, Mortel won third place in the video competition. Congratulations, and continued success for you and the team in producing this much-needed atlas to define the circuitry underlying skilled arm, wrist, and hand movements.

Links:

Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative (NIH)

Spinal Cord Injury Information Page (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke/NIH)

Samuel Pfaff (Salk Institute, La Jolla, CA)

Show Us Your BRAINs! Photo and Video Contest (Brain Initiative/NIH)

NIH Support: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke


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