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).
Chances are you know someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). It’s estimated that more than 2 million Americans struggle with this mental health condition, characterized by unwanted recurring thoughts and/or repetitive behaviors, such as excessive hand washing or constant counting of objects. While we know that OCD tends to run in families, it’s been frustratingly difficult to identify specific genes that influence OCD risk.
Now, an international research team, partly funded by NIH, has made progress thanks to an innovative genomic approach involving dogs, mice, and people. The strategy allowed them to uncover four genes involved in OCD that turn out to play a role in synapses, where nerve impulses are transmitted between neurons in the brain. While more research is needed to confirm the findings and better understand the molecular mechanisms of OCD, these findings offer important new leads that could point the way to more effective treatments.
Considering all the recent advances in mapping the complex circuitry of the human brain, you’d think we’d know all there is to know about the brain’s basic anatomy. That’s what makes the finding that I’m about to share with you so remarkable. Contrary to what I learned in medical school, the body’s lymphatic system extends to the brain—a discovery that could revolutionize our understanding of many brain disorders, from Alzheimer’s disease to multiple sclerosis (MS).
Researchers from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), the National Cancer Institute (NCI), and the University of Virginia, Charlottesville made this discovery by using a special MRI technique to scan the brains of healthy human volunteers . As you see in this 3D video created from scans of a 47-year-old woman, the brain—just like the neck, chest, limbs, and other parts of the body—possesses a network of lymphatic vessels (green) that serves as a highway to circulate key immune cells and return metabolic waste products to the bloodstream.
Credit: Raunak Basu, University of Utah, Salt Lake City
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. 
I had asthma as a child, and I still occasionally develop mild wheezing from exercising in cold air or catching a bad cold. I keep an inhaler on hand for those occasions, as this is a quick and effective way to deliver a medication that opens up those constricted airways. Now, an NIH-supported team has made the surprising discovery that some asthma medicines may also hold the potential to treat or help prevent Parkinson’s disease, a chronic, progressive movement disorder that affects at least a half-million Americans.
The results, published recently in the journal Science, provide yet another example of the tremendous potential of testing drugs originally intended for treating one disease for possible use in others . In this particular instance, researchers screened a library of more than 1,100 well-characterized chemical compounds—including drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration for treating asthma—to see if they showed any activity against a molecular mechanism known to be involved in Parkinson’s disease.