Posted on by John Ngai, PhD, NIH BRAIN Initiative
Silas Busch at the University of Chicago captured this slightly eerie scene, noting it reminded him of people shuffling through the dark of night. What you’re really seeing are some of the largest neurons in the mammalian brain, known as Purkinje cells. The photo won first place this year in the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative’s annual Show Us Your BRAINs! Photo and Video Contest.
While humans have them, too, the Purkinje cells pictured here are in the brain of a mouse. The head-like shapes you see in the image are the so-called soma, or the neurons’ cell bodies. Extending downwards are the heavily branched dendrites, which act like large antennae, receiving thousands of inputs from the rest of the body.
One reason this picture is such a standout, explains Busch, is because of what you don’t see. You’ll notice that only a few cells are fluorescently labeled and therefore lit up in green, leaving the rest in shadows. As a result, it’s possible to trace the detailed branches of individual Purkinje cells and make out their intricate forms. As it turns out, this ability to trace Purkinje cells so precisely led Busch, who is a graduate student in Christian Hansel’s lab focused on the neurobiology of learning and memory, to a surprising discovery, which the pair recently reported in Science.1
Purkinje cells connect to nerve fibers that “climb up” from the brain stem, which connects your brain and spinal cord to help control breathing, heart rate, balance and more. Scientists thought that each Purkinje cell received only one of these climbing fibers from the brain stem on its single primary branch.
However, after carefully tracing thousands of Purkinje cells in brain tissue from both mice and humans, the researchers have now shown that Purkinje cells and climbing fibers don’t always have a simple one-to-one relationship. In fact, Busch and Hansel found more than 95 percent of human Purkinje cells have multiple primary branches, not just one. In mice, that ratio is closer to 50 percent.
The researchers went on to show that mouse Purkinje cells with multiple primary branches often also receive multiple climbing fibers. The discovery rewrites the textbook idea of how Purkinje cells in the brain and climbing fibers from the brainstem are anatomically arranged.
Not surprisingly, those extra connections in the cerebellum (located in the back of the brain) also have important functional implications. When Purkinje cells have just one climbing fiber input, the new study shows, the whole cell receives each signal equally and responds accordingly. But, in cells with multiple climbing fiber inputs, the researchers could detect differences across a single cell depending on which primary branch received an input.
What this means is that Purkinje cells in the brain have much more computational power than had been appreciated. That extra brain power has important implications for understanding how brain circuits can adapt and respond to changes outside the body that now warrant further study. The new findings may have implications also for understanding the role of these Purkinje cell connections in some neurological and developmental disorders, including autism2 and a movement disorder known as cerebellar ataxia.
As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. And this winning image comes as a reminder that we still have more to learn from careful study of basic brain anatomy, with important implications for human health and disease.
 SE Busch and C Hansel. Climbing fiber multi-innervation of mouse Purkinje dendrites with arborization common to human. Science. DOI: 10.1126/science.adi1024. (2023).
 DH Simmons et al. Sensory Over-responsivity and Aberrant Plasticity in Cerebellar Cortex in a Mouse Model of Syndromic Autism. Biological Psychiatry: Global Open Science. DOI: 10.1016/j.bpsgos.2021.09.004. (2021).
Can Bioprinted Skin Substitutes Replace Traditional Grafts for Treating Burn Injuries and Other Serious Skin Wounds?
Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.
Each year in the U.S., more than 500,000 people receive treatment for burn injuries and other serious skin wounds.1 To close the most severe wounds with less scarring, doctors often must surgically remove skin from one part of a person’s body and use it to patch the injured site. However, this is an intensive process, and some burn patients with extensive skin loss do not have sufficient skin available for grafting. Scientists have been exploring ways to repair these serious skin wounds without skin graft surgery.
An NIH-funded team recently showed that bioprinted skin substitutes may serve as a promising alternative to traditional skin grafts in preclinical studies reported in Science Translational Medicine.2 The approach involves a portable skin bioprinter system that deposits multiple layers of skin directly into a wound. The recent findings add to evidence that bioprinting technology can successfully regenerate human-like skin to allow healing. While this approach has yet to be tested in people, it confirms that such technologies already can produce skin constructs with the complex structures and multiple cell types present in healthy human skin.
This latest work comes from a team led by Adam Jorgensen and Anthony Atala at Wake Forest School of Medicine’s Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, Winston-Salem, NC. Members of the Atala lab and their colleagues had earlier shown it was possible to isolate two major skin cell types found in the skin’s outer (epidermis) and middle (dermis) layers from a small biopsy of healthy skin, expand the number of cells in the lab and then deliver the cells directly into an injury using a specially designed bioprinter.3 Using integrated imaging technology to scan a wound, computer software “prints” cells right into an injury, mimicking two of our skin’s three natural layers.
In the new study, Atala’s team has gone even further to construct skin substitutes that mimic the structure of human skin and that include six primary human skin cell types. They then used their bioprinter to produce skin constructs with all three layers found in healthy human skin: epidermis, dermis, and hypodermis.
To put their skin substitutes to the test, they first transplanted them into mice. Their studies showed that the bioprinted skin encouraged the rapid growth of new blood vessels and had other features of normal-looking, healthy skin. The researchers were able to confirm that their bioprinted skin implants successfully integrated into the animals’ regenerated skin to speed healing.
Studies in a pig model of wound healing added to evidence that such bioprinted implants can successfully repair full-thickness wounds, meaning those that extend through all three layers of skin. The bioprinted skin patches allowed for improved wound healing with less scarring. They also found that the bioprinted grafts encouraged activity in the skin from genes known to play important roles in wound healing.
It’s not yet clear if this approach will work as well in the clinic as it does in the lab. To make it feasible, the researchers note there’s a need for improved approaches to isolating and expanding the needed skin cell types. Nevertheless, these advances come as encouraging evidence that bioprinted skin substitutes could one day offer a promising alternative to traditional skin grafts with the capacity to help even more people with severe burns or other wounds.
 Burn Incidence Fact Sheet. American Burn Association
 AM Jorgensen, et al. Multicellular bioprinted skin facilitates human-like skin architecture in vivo. Science Translational Medicine DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.adf7547 (2023).
 M Albanna, et al. In Situ Bioprinting of Autologous Skin Cells Accelerates Wound Healing of Extensive Excisional Full-Thickness Wounds. Scientific Reports DOI: 10.1038/s41598-018-38366-w (2019).
NIH Support: National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases
Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.
For Annalise Bond, a graduate student in the lab of Meghan Morrissey, University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), macrophages are “the professional eaters of our immune system.” Every minute of every day, macrophages somewhere in the body are gorging themselves to remove the cellular debris that builds up in our tissues and organs.
In this image, Bond caught several macrophages (green) doing what they do best: shoveling it in—in this case, during a lab experiment. The macrophages are consuming silica beads (purple) prepared with biochemicals that whet their appetites. Each bead measures about five microns in diameter. That’s roughly the size of a bacterium or a spent red blood cell—debris that a macrophage routinely consumes.
When Bond snapped this image, she noticed a pattern that reminded her of a childhood tabletop game called Hungry Hungry Hippos. Kids press a lever attached to the mouth of a plastic hippo, its lower jaw flaps open, and the challenge is to fill the mouth with as many marbles as possible . . . just like the macrophages eating beads.
Bond adjusted the colors in the photo to make them pop. She then entered it into UCSB’s 2023 Art of Science contest with the caption of Hungry Hungry Macrophages, winning high marks for drawing the association.
Though the caption was written in fun, Bond studies in earnest a fascinating biological question: How do macrophages know what to eat in the body and what to leave untouched?
In her studies, Bond coats the silica beads shown above with a lipid bilayer to mimic a cell membrane. To that coating, she adds various small molecules and proteins as “eat-me” signals often found on the surface of dying cells. Some of the signals are well characterized; but many aren’t, meaning there’s still a lot to learn about what makes a macrophage “particularly hungry” and what makes a particular target cell “extra tasty.”
Capturing fluorescent images of macrophages under the microscope, Bond counts up how many beads are eaten. Beads bearing no signal to stimulate their appetite might get eaten occasionally. But when an especially enticing signal is added, macrophages will gorge themselves until they can’t eat anymore.
In the experiment pictured above, the beads contain the antibody immunoglobulin G (IgG), which tags foreign pathogens for macrophage removal. Interestingly, IgG antibody responses also play an important role in cancer immunotherapies, in which the immune system is unleashed to fight cancer.
Among its many areas of study, the NIH-supported Morrissey lab’s wants to understand better how macrophages interact with cancer cells. They want to learn how to make cancer cells even tastier to macrophages and program their elimination from the body. Sorting out the signals will be challenging, but we know that macrophages will take a bite at the right ones. They are, after all, professional eaters.
Cancer Immunotherapy (NIH)
Annalise Bond (University of California, Santa Barbara)
Morrissey Lab (University of California, Santa Barbara)
Art of Science (University of California, Santa Barbara)
NIH Support: National Institute of General Medical Sciences
Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.
With the summer holiday season now in full swing, the blog will also swing into its annual August series. For most of the month, I will share with you just a small sampling of the colorful videos and snapshots of life captured in a select few of the hundreds of NIH-supported research labs around the country.
To get us started, let’s turn to the study of viruses. Researchers now can generate vast amounts of data relatively quickly on a virus of interest. But data are often displayed as numbers or two-dimensional digital images on a computer screen. For most virologists, it’s extremely helpful to see a virus and its data streaming in three dimensions. To do so, they turn to a technological tool that we all know so well: animation.
This research animation features the chikungunya virus, a sometimes debilitating, mosquito-borne pathogen transmitted mainly in developing countries in Africa, Asia and the Americas. The animation illustrates large amounts of research data to show how the chikungunya virus infects our cells and uses its specialized machinery to release its genetic material into the cell and seed future infections. Let’s take a look.
In the opening seconds, you see how receptor binding glycoproteins (light blue), which are proteins with a carbohydrate attached on the viral surface, dock with protein receptors (yellow) on a host cell. At five seconds, the virus is drawn inside the cell. The change in the color of the chikungunya particle shows that it’s coated in a vesicle, which helps the virus make its way unhindered through the cytoplasm.
At 10 seconds, the virus then enters an endosome, ubiquitous bubble-like compartments that transport material from outside the cell into the cytosol, the fluid part of the cytoplasm. Once inside the endosome, the acidic environment makes other glycoproteins (red, blue, yellow) on the viral surface change shape and become more flexible and dynamic. These glycoproteins serve as machinery that enables them to reach out and grab onto the surrounding endosome membrane, which ultimately will be fused with the virus’s own membrane.
As more of those fusion glycoproteins grab on, fold back on themselves, and form into hairpin-like shapes, they pull the membranes together. The animation illustrates not only the changes in protein organization, but the resulting effects on the integrity of the membrane structures as this dynamic process proceeds. At 53 seconds, the viral protein shell, or capsid (green), which contains the virus’ genetic instructions, is released back out into the cell where it will ultimately go on to make more virus.
This remarkable animation comes from Margot Riggi and Janet Iwasa, experts in visualizing biology at the University of Utah’s Animation Lab, Salt Lake City. Their data source was researcher Kelly Lee, University of Washington, Seattle, who collaborated closely with Riggi and Iwasa on this project. The final product was considered so outstanding that it took the top prize for short videos in the 2022 BioArt Awards competition, sponsored by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB).
The Lee lab uses various research methods to understand the specific shape-shifting changes that chikungunya and other viruses perform as they invade and infect cells. One of the lab’s key visual tools is cryo-electron microscopy (Cryo-EM), specifically cryo-electron tomography (cryo-ET). Cryto-ET enables complex 3D structures, including the intermediate state of biological reactions, to be captured and imaged in remarkably fine detail.
In a study in the journal Nature Communications  last year, Lee’s team used cryo-ET to reveal how the chikungunya virus invades and delivers its genetic cargo into human cells to initiate a new infection. While Lee’s cryo-ET data revealed stages of the virus entry process and fine structural details of changes to the virus as it enters a cell and starts an infection, it still represented a series of snapshots with missing steps in between. So, Lee’s lab teamed up with The Animation Lab to help beautifully fill in the gaps.
Visualizing chikungunya and similar viruses in action not only makes for informative animations, it helps researchers discover better potential targets to intervene in this process. This basic research continues to make progress, and so do ongoing efforts to develop a chikungunya vaccine  and specific treatments that would help give millions of people relief from the aches, pains, and rashes associated with this still-untreatable infection.
 Visualization of conformational changes and membrane remodeling leading to genome delivery by viral class-II fusion machinery. Mangala Prasad V, Blijleven JS, Smit JM, Lee KK. Nat Commun. 2022 Aug 15;13(1):4772. doi: 10.1038/s41467-022-32431-9. PMID: 35970990; PMCID: PMC9378758.
 Experimental chikungunya vaccine is safe and well-tolerated in early trial, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases news release, April 27, 2020.
Chikungunya Virus (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta)
Global Arbovirus Initiative (World Health Organization, Geneva, Switzerland)
The Animation Lab (University of Utah, Salt Lake City)
Video: Janet Iwasa (TED Speaker)
Lee Lab (University of Washington, Seattle)
BioArt Awards (Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, Rockville, MD)
NIH Support: National Institute of General Medical Sciences; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.
Human neurons are long, spindly structures, but if you could zoom in on their surfaces at super-high resolution, you’d see surprisingly large pores. They act as gated channels that open and close for ions and other essential molecules of life to pass in and out the cell. This rapid exchange of ions and other molecules is how neurons communicate, and why we humans can sense, think, move, and respond to the world around us .
Because these gated channels are so essential to neurons, mapping their precise physical structures at high-resolution has profound implications for informing future studies on the brain and nervous system. Good for us in these high-tech times that structural biologists keep getting better at imaging these 3D pores.
In fact, as just published in the journal Nature Communications , a team of NIH-supported scientists imaged the molecular structure of a gated pore of major research interest. The pore is called calcium homeostasis modulator 1 (CALHM1). Pictured below, you can view its 3D structure at near atomic resolution . Keep in mind, this relatively large neuronal pore still measures approximately 50,000 times smaller than the width of a hair.
The structure comes from a research team led by Hiro Furukawa, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Cold Spring Harbor, NY. He and his team relied on cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) to produce the first highly precise 3D models of CALHM1.
Cryo-EM involves flash-freezing molecules in liquid ethane and bombarding them with electrons to capture their images with a special camera. When all goes well, cryo-EM can reveal the structure of intricate macromolecular complexes in a matter of weeks.
Furukawa’s team had earlier studied CALHM1 from chickens with cryo-EM , and their latest work reveals that the human version is quite similar. Eight copies of the CALHM1 protein assemble to form the circular channel. Each of the protein subunits has a flexible arm that allows it to reach into the central opening, which the researchers now suspect allows the channels to open and close in a highly controlled manner. The researchers have likened the channels’ eight flexible arms to the arms of an octopus.
The researchers also found that fatty molecules called phospholipids play a critical role in stabilizing and regulating the eight-part channel. They used simulations to demonstrate how pockets in the CALHM1 channel binds this phospholipid over cholesterol to shore up the structure and function properly. Interestingly, these phospholipid molecules are abundant in many healthy foods, such as eggs, lean meats, and seafood.
Researchers knew that an inorganic chemical called ruthenium red can block the function of the CALHM1 channel. They’ve now shown precisely how this works. The structural details indicate that ruthenium red physically lodges in and plugs up the channel.
These details also may be useful in future efforts to develop drugs designed to target and modify the function of these channels in helpful ways. For instance, on our tongues, the channel plays a role in our ability to perceive sweet, sour, or umami (savory) flavors. In our brains, studies show the abnormal function of CALHM1 may be implicated in the plaques that accumulate in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease.
There are far too many other normal and abnormal functions to mention here in this brief post. Suffice it to say, I’ll look forward to seeing what this enabling research yields in the years ahead.
 On the molecular nature of large-pore channels. Syrjanen, J., Michalski, K., Kawate, T., and Furukawa, H. J Mol Biol. 2021 Aug 20;433(17):166994. DOI: 10.1016/j.jmb.2021.166994. Epub 2021 Apr 16. PMID: 33865869; PMCID: PMC8409005.
 Structure of human CALHM1 reveals key locations for channel regulation and blockade by ruthenium red. Syrjänen JL, Epstein M, Gómez R, Furukawa H. Nat Commun. 2023 Jun 28;14(1):3821. DOI: 10.1038/s41467-023-39388-3. PMID: 37380652; PMCID: PMC10307800.
 Structure and assembly of calcium homeostasis modulator proteins. Syrjanen JL, Michalski K, Chou TH, Grant T, Rao S, Simorowski N, Tucker SJ, Grigorieff N, Furukawa H. Nat Struct Mol Biol. 2020 Feb;27(2):150-159. DOI: 10.1038/s41594-019-0369-9. Epub 2020 Jan 27. PMID: 31988524; PMCID: PMC7015811.
Brain Basics: The Life and Death of a Neuron (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke/NIH)
Alzheimer’s Disease (National Institute on Aging/NIH)
Furukawa Lab (Cold Spring Harbor Lab, Cold Spring Harbor, NY)
NIH Support: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; National Institute of Mental Health
Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.
Anyone who has ever had a bad habit knows how vexingly difficult breaking it can be. The reason is the repeated action, initially linked to some type of real or perceived reward, over time changes the way our very brains are wired to work. The bad habit becomes automatic, even when the action does us harm or we no longer wish to do it.
Now an intriguing new study shows that the same bundled nerve fibers, or brain circuits, involved in habit formation also can go awry in people with eating disorders. The findings may help to explain why eating disorders are so often resistant to will power alone. They also may help to point the way to improved approaches to treating eating disorders, suggesting strategies that adjust the actual brain circuitry in helpful ways.
These latest findings, published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, come from the NIH-supported Casey Halpern, University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, Philadelphia, and Cara Bohon, Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, CA .
Halpern, Bohon, and colleagues were interested in a growing body of evidence linking habitual behaviors to mental health conditions, most notably substance use disorders and addictions. But what especially intrigued them was recent evidence also suggesting a possible role for habitual behaviors in the emergence of eating disorders.
To look deeper into the complex circuitry underlying habit formation and any changes there that might be associated with eating disorders, they took advantage of a vast collection of data from the NIH-funded Human Connectome Project (HCP). It was completed several years ago and now serves as a valuable online resource for researchers.
The HCP offers a detailed wiring map of a normal human brain. It describes all the structural and functional neural connections based on careful analyses of hundreds of high-resolution brain scans. These connections are then layered with genetic, behavioral, and other types of data. This incredible map now allows researchers to explore and sometimes uncover the roots of neurological and mental health conditions within the brain’s many trillions of connections.
In the new study, Halpern, Bohon, and colleagues did just that. First, they used sophisticated mapping methods in 178 brain scans from the HCP data to locate key portions of a brain region called the striatum, which is thought to be involved in habit formation. What they really wanted to know was whether circuits operating within the striatum were altered in some way in people with binge eating disorder or bulimia nervosa.
To find out, the researchers recruited 34 women who have an eating disorder and, with their consent, imaged their brains using a variety of techniques. Twenty-one participants were diagnosed with binge eating disorder, and 13 had bulimia nervosa. For comparison purposes, the researchers looked at the same brain circuits in 19 healthy volunteers.
The two groups were otherwise similar in terms of their ages, weights, and other features. But the researchers suspected they might find differences between the healthy group and those with an eating disorder in brain circuits known to have links to habitual behaviors. And, indeed, they did.
In comparison to a “typical” brain, those from people with an eating disorder showed striking changes in the connectivity of a portion of the striatum known as the putamen. That’s especially notable because the putamen is known for its role in learning and movement control, including reward, thinking, and addiction. What’s more, those observed changes in the brain’s connections and circuitry in this key brain area were more evident in people whose eating disorder symptoms and emotional eating were more frequent and severe.
Using other brain imaging methods in 10 of the volunteers (eight with binge eating disorder and two healthy controls), the researchers also connected those changes in the habit-forming brain circuits to high levels of a protein receptor that responds to dopamine. Dopamine is an important chemical messenger in the brain involved in pleasure, motivation, and learning. They also observed in those with eating disorders structural changes in the architecture of the densely folded, outer layer of the brain known as grey matter.
While there’s much more to learn, the researchers note the findings may lead to future treatments aimed to modify the brain circuitry in beneficial ways. Indeed, Halpern already has encouraging early results from a small NIH-funded clinical trial testing the ability of deep brain stimulation (DBS) in people with binge eating disorder to disrupt signals that drive food cravings in another portion of the brain associated with reward and motivation, known as the nucleus accumbens, . In DBS, doctors implant a pacemaker-like device capable of delivering harmless therapeutic electrical impulses deep into the brain, aiming for the spot where they can reset the abnormal circuitry that’s driving eating disorders or other troubling symptoms or behaviors.
But the latest findings published in Science Translational Medicine now suggest other mapped brain circuits as potentially beneficial DBS targets for tackling binge eating, bulimia nervosa, or other life-altering, hard-to-treat eating disorders. They also may ultimately have implications for treating other conditions involving various other forms of compulsive behavior.
These findings should come as a source of hope for the family and friends of the millions of Americans—many of them young people—who struggle with eating disorders. The findings also serve as an important reminder for the rest of us that, despite common misconceptions that disordered eating is a lifestyle choice, these conditions are in fact complex and serious mental health problems driven by fundamental changes in the brain’s underlying circuitry.
Finding new and more effective ways to treat serious eating disorders and other compulsive behaviors is a must. It will require equally serious ongoing efforts to unravel their underlying causes and find ways to alter their course—and this new study is an encouraging step in that direction.
 Human habit neural circuitry may be perturbed in eating disorders. Wang AR, Kuijper FM, Barbosa DAN, Hagan KE, Lee E, Tong E, Choi EY, McNab JA, Bohon C, Halpern CH. Sci Transl Med. 2023 Mar 29;15(689):eabo4919.
 Pilot study of responsive nucleus accumbens deep brain stimulation for loss-of-control eating. Shivacharan RS, Rolle CE, Barbosa DAN, Cunningham TN, Feng A, Johnson ND, Safer DL, Bohon C, Keller C, Buch VP, Parker JJ, Azagury DE, Tass PA, Bhati MT, Malenka RC, Lock JD, Halpern CH. Nat Med. 2022 Sep;28(9):1791-1796.
Eating Disorders (National Institute of Mental Health/NIH)
Casey Halpern (Penn Medicine, Philadelphia)
Cara Bohon (Stanford University, Stanford, CA)
NIH Support: National Institute of Mental Health; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.
Detecting the earliest signs of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) in middle-aged people and tracking its progression over time in research studies continue to be challenging. But it is easier to do in shorter-lived mammalian models of AD, especially when paired with cutting-edge imaging tools that look across different regions of the brain. These tools can help basic researchers detect telltale early changes that might point the way to better prevention or treatment strategies in humans.
That’s the case in this technicolor snapshot showing early patterns of inflammation in the brain of a relatively young mouse bred to develop a condition similar to AD. You can see abnormally high levels of inflammation throughout the front part of the brain (orange, green) as well as in its middle part—the septum that divides the brain’s two sides. This level of inflammation suggests that the brain has been injured.
What’s striking is that no inflammation is detectable in parts of the brain rich in cholinergic neurons (pink), a distinct type of nerve cell that helps to control memory, movement, and attention. Though these neurons still remain healthy, researchers would like to know if the inflammation also will destroy them as AD progresses.
This colorful image comes from medical student Sakar Budhathoki, who earlier worked in the NIH labs of Lorna Role and David Talmage, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). Budhathoki, teaming with postdoctoral scientist Mala Ananth, used a specially designed wide-field scanner that sweeps across brain tissue to light up fluorescent markers and capture the image. It’s one of the scanning approaches pioneered in the Role and Talmage labs [1,2].
The two NIH labs are exploring possible links between abnormal inflammation and damage to the brain’s cholinergic signaling system. In fact, medications that target cholinergic function remain the first line of treatment for people with AD and other dementias. And yet, researchers still haven’t adequately determined when, why, and how the loss of these cholinergic neurons relates to AD.
It’s a rich area of basic research that offers hope for greater understanding of AD in the future. It’s also the source of some fascinating images like this one, which was part of the 2022 Show Us Your BRAIN! Photo and Video Contest, supported by NIH’s Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative.
 NeuRegenerate: A framework for visualizing neurodegeneration. Boorboor S, Mathew S, Ananth M, Talmage D, Role LW, Kaufman AE. IEEE Trans Vis Comput Graph. 2021;Nov 10;PP.
 NeuroConstruct: 3D reconstruction and visualization of neurites in optical microscopy brain images. Ghahremani P, Boorboor S, Mirhosseini P, Gudisagar C, Ananth M, Talmage D, Role LW, Kaufman AE. IEEE Trans Vis Comput Graph. 2022 Dec;28(12):4951-4965.
Alzheimer’s Disease & Related Dementias (National Institute on Aging/NIH)
Role Lab (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke/NIH)
Talmage Lab (NINDS)
Show Us Your BRAINs! Photo and Video Contest (BRAIN Initiative)
NIH Support: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.
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.
“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)
Show Us Your Brains Photo and Video Contest (BRAIN Initiative)
Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.
Through the years, NIH has supported a total of 169 researchers who have received or shared 101 Nobel Prizes. That’s quite a testament to the world-leading science that NIH pursues and its continued impact on improving human health and well-being.
Those numbers include the news late last week that the 2022 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was shared by two long-time grantees for their work on a transformative scientific approach known as “click chemistry.” This form of chemistry has made it possible for researchers to snap together, like LEGO pieces, molecular building blocks to form hybrid biomolecules, often with easy-to-track imaging agents attached. Not only has click chemistry expanded our ability to explore the molecular underpinnings of a wide range of biological processes, but it has provided us with new tools for developing drugs, diagnostics, and a wide array of “smart” materials.
For K. Barry Sharpless, Scripps Research, La Jolla, CA, October 5, 2022 marked the second time that he’s received an early-morning congratulatory call from The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The first such call came in 2001, when Sharpless got the news that he was a co-winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery of asymmetric catalytic reactions.
This time around, Sharpless was recognized for his groundbreaking studies in the mid-1990s with click chemistry, a term that he coined himself. His initial work established click chemistry as a fast-and-reliable way to attach molecules of interest in the lab . He and co-recipient Morten Meldal, University of Copenhagen, Denmark, who is not funded by NIH, then independently introduced a copper-catalyzed click that further refined the chemistry and helped popularize it across biology and the material sciences [2,3].
For Carolyn R. Bertozzi of Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA, it is her first Nobel. Bertozzi was recognized for expanding the use of click chemistry with so-called bioorthogonal chemistry, which is a copper-free version of the approach that can be used inside living cells without the risk of metal-associated toxicities [4,5].
Bertozzi’s work has been especially interesting to me because of her focus on glycans, which I’ve studied throughout my career. Glycans are the carbohydrate molecules that coat the surfaces of our cells and most secreted proteins. They are essential to life, and, in higher organisms, play fundamental roles in basic processes such as metabolism, immunity, and cellular communication.
Glycans also remain poorly understood, largely because, until recently, they have been so difficult for basic scientists to study with traditional techniques. That has changed with development of new tools to study glycans and the enzymes that assemble them. My long-time collaborator, Kelly Ten Hagen, a senior investigator at NIH’s National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, and I collaborated with Carolyn on identifying small molecules that inhibit the enzyme responsible for the first step in mucin-type O-glycosylation 
In the early 2000s, Bertozzi and her team introduced bioorthogonal chemistry, which enabled researchers to label glycans and visualize them in a range of cells and living organisms. Her team’s pioneering approach quickly became an essential tool in basic science labs around the world that study glycans, leading to a number of stunning discoveries that would have otherwise been difficult or impossible.
For clinical researchers, click chemistry has emerged as a workhorse in drug discovery and the improved targeting of cancer chemotherapies and other small-molecule drugs. The approach also is being used to improve delivery of antibody-based therapies and to create new biomaterials. Meanwhile, in the material sciences, click chemistry has been used to solve a number of problems in working with polymers and to expand their industrial uses.
Click chemistry is an excellent example of how advances in basic science can build the foundation for a wide range of practical applications, including those aimed at improving human health. It also highlights the value of strong, sustained public funding for fundamental research, and NIH is proud to have supported Sharpless continuously since 1975 and Bertozzi since 1999. I send my sincere congratulations to both of these most-deserving scientists.
 Click Chemistry: Diverse chemical function from a few good reactions. Kolb, HC, Finn, MG, Sharpless, KB. Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2001, 40 (11), 2004–2021
 A stepwise huisgen cycloaddition process: Copper(I)-catalyzed regioselective “Llgation” of azides and terminal alkynes. Rostovtsev VV, Green LG, Fokin VV, Sharpless KB. Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2002, 41 (14), 2596–2599.
 Peptidotriazoles on solid phase: [1,2,3]-Triazoles by regiospecific copper(I)-catalyzed 1,3-dipolar cycloadditions of terminal alkynes to azides. Tornøe CW, Sengeløv H, Meldal M. J. Org. Chem. 2002, 67 (9), 3057–3064.
 A strain-promoted [3 + 2] azide−alkyne cycloaddition for covalent modification of biomolecules in living systems. Agard NJ, Prescher JA, Bertozzi CR. J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2004, 126 (46), 15046–15047
 In vivo imaging of membrane associated glycans in developing zebrafish. Laughlin ST, Baskin JM, Amacher SL, Bertozzi CR. Science 2008, 320 (5876), 664–667.
 Small molecule inhibitors of mucin-type O-glycosylation from a uridine-based library. Hang, HC, Yu, C, Ten Hagen, KG, Tian, E, Winans, KA, Tabak, LA, Bertozzi, Chem Biol. 2004 Jul;11(7):1009-1016.
The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2022 (The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Stockholm)
Video: Announcement of the 2022 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (YouTube)
Click Chemistry and Bioorthogonal Chemistry (The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences)
Sharpless Lab (Scripps Research, La Jolla, CA)
Bertozzi Group (Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA)
K. Barry Sharpless: National Institute of General Medical Sciences
Carolyn R. Bertozzi: National Cancer Institute; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Institute of General Medical Sciences