Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
You may think that you’re looking at a telescopic heat-map of a distant planet, with clickable thumbnail images to the right featuring its unique topography. In fact, what you’re looking at is a small region of the brain that’s measured in micrometers and stands out as a fascinating frontier of discovery into the very origins of thought and cognition.
It’s a section of a mouse hippocampus, a multi-tasking region of the brain that’s central to memory formation. What makes the image on the left so interesting is it shows four individual neurons (numbered circles) helping to form a memory.
The table of images on the right shows in greater detail how the memory is formed. You see those same four neurons, their activity logged individually. Cooler colors—indigo to turquoise—indicate background or low neuronal activity; warmer colors—yellow to red—indicate high neuronal activity.
Now, take a closer look at the rows of the table that are labeled “Initial.” The four neurons have responded to an initial two-part training session: the sounding of a tone (gray-shaded columns) followed by a stimulus (red-shaded columns) less than a minute later. The neurons, while active (multi-colored pattern), don’t fire in unison or at the same activity levels. A memory has not yet been formed.
That’s not the case just below in the rows labeled “Trained.” After several rounds of reinforcing the one-two sequence, neurons fire together at comparable activity levels in response to the tone (gray) followed by the now-predictable stimulus (red). This process of firing in unison, called neuronal synchronization, encodes the memory. In fact, the four neurons even deactivate in unison after each prompt (unshaded columns).
These fascinating images are the first to show an association between neuronal burst synchronization and hippocampus-dependent memory formation. This discovery has broad implications, from improving memory to reconditioning the mental associations that underlie post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
This research comes from a team led by the NIH-supported investigator Xuanmao Chen, University of New Hampshire, Durham. In the study, published in the FASEB Journal, Chen and colleagues used deep-brain imaging technology to shed new light on some old-fashioned classical conditioning: Pavlovian training .
Over a century ago, Ivan Pavlov conducted experiments that conditioned dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell that signaled their feeding time. This concept of “classical conditioning” is central to our understanding of how we humans form certain types of memories. A baby smiles at the sound of her mother’s voice. Stores play holiday music at the end of the year, hoping the positive childhood association puts shoppers in the mood to buy more gifts. Our phone plays a distinctive tone, and we immediately check our text messages. In each example, the association with an otherwise neutral stimulus is learned—and stored in the brain as a “declarative,” or explicit, memory.
The researchers wanted to see what happened in neural cells when mice learned a new association. They applied Pavlov’s learning paradigm, training mice over repeated sessions by pairing an audible tone and, about 30 seconds later, a brief, mild foot stimulus. Mice instinctively halt their activities, or freeze, in response to the foot stimulus. After a few tone-stimulus training sessions, the mice also began freezing after the tone was sounded. They had formed a conditioned response.
During these training sessions, Chen and his colleagues were able to take high-resolution, real-time images of the hippocampus. This allowed them to track the same four neurons over the course of the day—and watch as memory creation, in the form of neuronal synchronization, took place. Later, during recall experiments, the tone itself elicited both the behavioral change and the coordinated neuronal response—if with a bit less regularity. It’s something we humans experience whenever we forget a computer password!
The researchers went on to capture even more evidence. They showed that these neurons, which became part of the stored “engram,” or physical location of the memory, were already active even before they were synchronized. This finding contributes to recent work challenging the long-held paradigm that memory-eligible neurons “switch on” from a silent state to form a memory . The researchers offered a new name for these active neurons: “primed,” as opposed to “silent.”
Chen and his colleagues continue studying the priming process and working out more of the underlying molecular details. They’re attempting to determine how the process is regulated and primed neurons become synchronized. And, of course, the big question: how does this translate into an actual memory in other living creatures? The next round of results should be memorable!
 Induction of activity synchronization among primed hippocampal neurons out of random dynamics is key for trace memory formation and retrieval. Zhou Y, Qiu L, Wang H, Chen X. FASEB J. 2020 Mar;34(3):3658–3676.
 Memory engrams: Recalling the past and imagining the future. Josselyn S, Tonegawa S. Science 2020 Jan 3;367(6473):eaaw4325.
Brain Basics: Know Your Brain (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke/NIH)
Neuroanatomy, Hippocampus Fogwe LA, Reddy V, Mesfin FB. StatPearls Publishing (National Library of Medicine/NIH)
Xuanmao Chen (University of New Hampshire, Durham)
NIH Support: National Institute of Mental Health; National Institute on Aging; National Institute of General Medical Sciences
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
There’s a lot of groundbreaking research now underway to map the organization and internal wiring of the brain’s hippocampus, essential for memory, emotion, and spatial processing. This colorful video depicting a mouse hippocampus offers a perfect case in point.
The video presents the most detailed 3D atlas of the hippocampus ever produced, highlighting its five previously defined zones: dentate gyrus, CA1, CA2, CA3, and subiculum. The various colors within those zones represent areas with newly discovered and distinctive patterns of gene expression, revealing previously hidden layers of structural organization.
For instance, the subiculum, which sends messages from the hippocampus to other parts of the brain, includes several subregions. The subregions include the three marked in red, yellow, and blue at about 23 seconds into the video.
How’d the researchers do it? In the new study, published in Nature Neuroscience, the researchers started with the Allen Mouse Brain Atlas, a rich, publicly accessible 3D atlas of gene expression in the mouse brain. The team, led by Hong-Wei Dong, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, drilled down into the data to pull up 258 genes that are differentially expressed in the hippocampus and might be helpful for mapping purposes.
Some of those 258 genes were generally expressed only in previously defined portions of the hippocampus. Others were “turned on” only in discrete portions of known hippocampal domains, leading the researchers to define 20 distinct subregions that hadn’t been recognized before.
Combining these data, sophisticated analytical tools, and plenty of hard work, the team assembled this detailed atlas, together with connectivity data, to create a detailed wiring diagram. It includes about 200 signaling pathways that show how all those subregions network together and with other portions of the brain.
What’s really interesting is that the data also showed that these components of the hippocampus contribute to three relatively independent brain-wide communication networks. While much more study is needed, those three networks appear to relate to distinct functions of the hippocampus, including spatial navigation, social behaviors, and metabolism.
This more-detailed view of the hippocampus is just the latest from the NIH-funded Mouse Connectome Project. The ongoing project aims to create a complete connectivity atlas for the entire mouse brain.
The Mouse Connectome Project isn’t just for those with an interest in mice. Indeed, because the mouse and human brain are similarly organized, studies in the smaller mouse brain can help to provide a template for making sense of the larger and more complex human brain, with its tens of billions of interconnected neurons.
Ultimately, the hope is that this understanding of healthy brain connections will provide clues for better treating the brain’s abnormal connections and/or disconnections. They are involved in numerous neurological conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and autism spectrum disorder.
 Integration of gene expression and brain-wide connectivity reveals the multiscale organization of mouse hippocampal networks. Bienkowski MS, Bowman I, Song MY, Gou L, Ard T, Cotter K, Zhu M, Benavidez NL, Yamashita S, Abu-Jaber J, Azam S, Lo D, Foster NN, Hintiryan H, Dong HW. Nat Neurosci. 2018 Nov;21(11):1628-1643.
Mouse Connectome Project (University of Southern California, Los Angeles)
Human Connectome Project (USC)
Allen Brain Map (Allen Institute, Seattle)
NIH Support: National Institute of Mental Health; National Cancer Institute
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Play the first few bars of any widely known piece of music, be it The Star-Spangled Banner, Beethoven’s Fifth, or The Rolling Stones’ (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, and you’ll find that many folks can’t resist filling in the rest of the melody. That’s because the human brain thrives on completing familiar patterns. But, as we grow older, our pattern completion skills often become more error prone.
This image shows some of the neural wiring that controls pattern completion in the mammalian brain. Specifically, you’re looking at a cross-section of a mouse hippocampus that’s packed with dentate granule neurons and their signal-transmitting arms, called axons, (light green). Note how the axons’ short, finger-like projections, called filopodia (bright green), are interacting with a neuron (red) to form a “memory trace” network. Functioning much like an online search engine, memory traces use bits of incoming information, like the first few notes of a song, to locate and pull up more detailed information, like the complete song, from the brain’s repository of memories in the cerebral cortex.
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
The final frontier? Trekkies would probably say it’s space, but mapping the brain—the most complicated biological structure in the known universe—is turning out to be an amazing adventure in its own right. Not only are researchers getting better at charting the brain’s densely packed and varied cellular topography, they are starting to identify the molecules that neurons use to connect into the distinct information-processing circuits that allow all walks of life to think and experience the world.
This image shows distinct neural connections in a cross section of a mouse’s hippocampus, a region of the brain involved in the memory of facts and events. The large, crescent-shaped area in green is hippocampal zone CA1. Its highly specialized neurons, called place cells, serve as the brain’s GPS system to track location. It appears green because these neurons express cadherin-10. This protein serves as a kind of molecular glue that likely imparts specific functional properties to this region.