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NIH’s Nobel Winners Demonstrate Value of Basic Research

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Credit: Niklas Elmehed © Nobel Prize Outreach

Last week was a big one for both NIH and me. Not only did I announce my plans to step down as NIH Director by year’s end to return to my lab full-time, I was reminded by the announcement of the 2021 Nobel Prizes of what an honor it is to be affiliated an institution with such a strong, sustained commitment to supporting basic science.

This year, NIH’s Nobel excitement started in the early morning hours of October 4, when two NIH-supported neuroscientists in California received word from Sweden that they had won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. One “wake up” call went to David Julius, University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), who was recognized for his groundbreaking discovery of the first protein receptor that controls thermosensation, the body’s perception of temperature. The other went to his long-time collaborator, Ardem Patapoutian, Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, CA, for his seminal work that identified the first protein receptor that controls our sense of touch.

But the good news didn’t stop there. On October 6, the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to NIH-funded chemist David W.C. MacMillan of Princeton University, N.J., who shared the honor with Benjamin List of Germany’s Max Planck Institute. (List also received NIH support early in his career.)
The two researchers were recognized for developing an ingenious tool that enables the cost-efficient construction of “greener” molecules with broad applications across science and industry—including for drug design and development.

Then, to turn this into a true 2021 Nobel Prize “hat trick” for NIH, we learned on October 12 that two of this year’s three Nobel winners in Economic Sciences had been funded by NIH. David Card, an NIH-supported researcher at University of California, Berkley, was recognized “for his empirical contributions to labor economics.” He shared the 2021 prize with NIH grantee Joshua Angrist of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, and his colleague Guido Imbens of Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA, “for their methodological contributions to the analysis of causal relationships.” What a year!

The achievements of these and NIH’s 163 past Nobel Prize winners stand as a testament to the importance of our agency’s long and robust history of investing in basic biomedical research. In this area of research, scientists ask fundamental questions about how life works. The answers they uncover help us to understand the principles, mechanisms, and processes that underlie living organisms, including the human body in sickness and health.

What’s more, each advance builds upon past discoveries, often in unexpected ways and sometimes taking years or even decades before they can be translated into practical results. Recent examples of life-saving breakthroughs that have been built upon years of fundamental biomedical research include the mRNA vaccines for COVID-19 and the immunotherapy approaches now helping people with many types of cancer.

Take the case of the latest Nobels. Fundamental questions about how the human body responds to medicinal plants were the initial inspiration behind the work of UCSF’s Julius. He’d noticed that studies from Hungary found that a natural chemical in chili peppers, called capsaicin, activated a subgroup of neurons to create the painful, burning sensation that most of us have encountered from having a bit too much hot sauce. But what wasn’t known was the molecular mechanism by which capsaicin triggered that sensation.

In 1997, having settled on the best experimental approach to study this question, Julius and colleagues screened millions of DNA fragments corresponding to genes expressed in the sensory neurons that were known to interact with capsaicin. In a matter of weeks, they had pinpointed the gene encoding the protein receptor through which capsaicin interacts with those neurons [1]. Julius and team then determined in follow-up studies that the receptor, later named TRPV1, also acts as a thermal sensor on certain neurons in the peripheral nervous system. When capsaicin raises the temperature to a painful range, the receptor opens a pore-like ion channel in the neuron that then transmit a signal for the unpleasant sensation on to the brain.

In collaboration with Patapoutian, Julius then turned his attention from hot to cold. The two used the chilling sensation of the active chemical in mint, menthol, to identify a protein called TRPM8, the first receptor that senses cold [2, 3]. Additional pore-like channels related to TRPV1 and TRPM8 were identified and found to be activated by a range of different temperatures.

Taken together, these breakthrough discoveries have opened the door for researchers around the world to study in greater detail how our nervous system detects the often-painful stimuli of hot and cold. Such information may well prove valuable in the ongoing quest to develop new, non-addictive treatments for pain. The NIH is actively pursuing some of those avenues through its Helping to End Addiction Long-termSM (HEAL) Initiative.

Meanwhile, Patapoutian was busy cracking the molecular basis of another basic sense: touch. First, Patapoutian and his collaborators identified a mouse cell line that produced a measurable electric signal when individual cells were poked. They had a hunch that the electrical signal was generated by a protein receptor that was activated by physical pressure, but they still had to identify the receptor and the gene that coded for it. The team screened 71 candidate genes with no luck. Then, on their 72nd try, they identified a touch receptor-coding gene, which they named Piezo1, after the Greek word for pressure [4].

Patapoutian’s group has since found other Piezo receptors. As often happens in basic research, their findings have taken them in directions they never imagined. For example, they have discovered that Piezo receptors are involved in controlling blood pressure and sensing whether the bladder is full. Fascinatingly, these receptors also seem to play a role in controlling iron levels in red blood cells, as well as controlling the actions of certain white blood cells, called macrophages.

Turning now to the 2021 Nobel in Chemistry, the basic research of MacMillan and List has paved the way for addressing a major unmet need in science and industry: the need for less expensive and more environmentally friendly catalysts. And just what is a catalyst? To build the synthetic molecules used in drugs and a wide range of other materials, chemists rely on catalysts, which are substances that control and accelerate chemical reactions without becoming part of the final product.

It was long thought there were only two major categories of catalysts for organic synthesis: metals and enzymes. But enzymes are large, complex proteins that are hard to scale to industrial processes. And metal catalysts have the potential to be toxic to workers, as well as harmful to the environment. Then, about 20 years ago, List and MacMillan, working independently from each other, created a third type of catalyst. This approach, known as asymmetric organocatalysis [5, 6], builds upon small organic molecule catalysts that have a stable framework of carbon atoms, to which more active chemical groups can attach, often including oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, or phosphorus.

Organocatalysts have gone on to be applied in ways that have proven to be more cost effective and environmentally friendly than using traditional metal or enzyme catalysts. In fact, this precise new tool for molecular construction is now being used to build everything from new pharmaceuticals to light-absorbing molecules used in solar cells.

That brings us to the Nobel Prize in the Economic Sciences. This year’s laureates showed that it’s possible to reach cause-and-effect answers to questions in the social sciences. The key is to evaluate situations in groups of people being treated differently, much like the design of clinical trials in medicine. Using this “natural experiment” approach in the early 1990s, David Card produced novel economic analyses, showing an increase in the minimum wage does not necessarily lead to fewer jobs. In the mid-1990s, Angrist and Imbens then refined the methodology of this approach, showing that precise conclusions can be drawn from natural experiments that establish cause and effect.

Last year, NIH added the names of three scientists to its illustrious roster of Nobel laureates. This year, five more names have been added. Many more will undoubtedly be added in the years and decades ahead. As I’ve said many times over the past 12 years, it’s an extraordinary time to be a biomedical researcher. As I prepare to step down as the Director of this amazing institution, I can assure you that NIH’s future has never been brighter.

References:

[1] The capsaicin receptor: a heat-activated ion channel in the pain pathway. Caterina MJ, Schumacher MA, Tominaga M, Rosen TA, Levine JD, Julius D. Nature 1997:389:816-824.

[2] Identification of a cold receptor reveals a general role for TRP channels in thermosensation. McKemy DD, Neuhausser WM, Julius D. Nature 2002:416:52-58.

[3] A TRP channel that senses cold stimuli and menthol. Peier AM, Moqrich A, Hergarden AC, Reeve AJ, Andersson DA, Story GM, Earley TJ, Dragoni I, McIntyre P, Bevan S, Patapoutian A. Cell 2002:108:705-715.

[4] Piezo1 and Piezo2 are essential components of distinct mechanically activated cation channels. Coste B, Mathur J, Schmidt M, Earley TJ, Ranade S, Petrus MJ, Dubin AE, Patapoutian A. Science 2010:330: 55-60.

[5] Proline-catalyzed direct asymmetric aldol reactions. List B, Lerner RA, Barbas CF. J. Am. Chem. Soc. 122, 2395–2396 (2000).

[6] New strategies for organic catalysis: the first highly enantioselective organocatalytic Diels-AlderReaction. Ahrendt KA, Borths JC, MacMillan DW. J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2000, 122, 4243-4244.

Links:

Basic Research – Digital Media Kit (NIH)

Curiosity Creates Cures: The Value and Impact of Basic Research (National Institute of General Medical Sciences/NIH)

Explaining How Research Works (NIH)

NIH Basics, Collins FS, Science, 3 Aug 2012. 337; 6094: 503.

NIH’s Commitment to Basic Science, Mike Lauer, Open Mike Blog, March 25, 2016

Nobel Laureates (NIH)

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2021 (The Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden)

Video: Announcement of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (YouTube)

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2021 (The Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institutet)

Video: Announcement of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (YouTube)

The Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences (The Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institutet)

Video: Announcement of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences (YouTube)

Julius Lab (University of California San Francisco)

The Patapoutian Lab (Scripps Research, La Jolla, CA)

Benjamin List (Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung, Mülheim an der Ruhr, Germany)

The MacMillan Group (Princeton University, NJ)

David Card (University of California, Berkeley)

Joshua Angrist (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge)

NIH Support:

David Julius: National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke; National Institute of General Medical Sciences; National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research

Ardem Patapoutian: National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke; National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute

David W.C. MacMillan: National Institute of General Medical Sciences

David Card: National Institute on Aging; Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development

Joshua Angrist: Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development


Celebrating the Fourth with Neuroscience Fireworks

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There’s so much to celebrate about our country this Fourth of July. That includes giving thanks to all those healthcare providers who have put themselves in harm’s way to staff the ERs, hospital wards, and ICUs to care for those afflicted with COVID-19, and also for everyone who worked so diligently to develop, test, and distribute COVID-19 vaccines.

These “shots of hope,” created with rigorous science and in record time, are making it possible for a great many Americans to gather safely once again with family and friends. So, if you’re vaccinated (and I really hope you are—because these vaccines have been proven safe and highly effective), fire up the grill, crank up the music, and get ready to show your true red, white, and blue colors. My wife and I—both fully vaccinated—intend to do just that!

To help get the celebration rolling, I’d like to share a couple minutes of some pretty amazing biological fireworks. While the track of a John Philip Sousa march is added just for fun, what you see in the video above is the result of some very serious neuroscience research that is scientifically, as well as visually, breath taking. Credit for this work goes to an NIH-supported team that includes Ricardo Azevedo and Sunil Gandhi, at the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, University of California, Irvine, and their collaborator Damian Wheeler, Translucence Biosystems, Irvine, CA. Azevedo is also an NIH National Research Service Award fellow and a Medical Scientist Training Program trainee with Gandhi.

The team’s video starts off with 3D, colorized renderings of a mouse brain at cellular resolution. About 25 seconds in, the video flashes to a bundle of nerve fibers called the fornix. Thanks to the wonders of fluorescent labeling combined with “tissue-clearing” and other innovative technologies, you can clearly see the round cell bodies of individual neurons, along with the long, arm-like axons that they use to send out signals and connect with other neurons to form signaling circuits. The human brain has nearly 100 trillion of these circuits and, when activated, they process incoming sensory information and provide outputs that lead to our thoughts, words, feelings, and actions.

As shown in the video, the nerve fibers of the fornix provide a major output pathway from the hippocampus, a region of the brain involved in memory. Next, we travel to the brain’s neocortex, the outermost part of the brain that’s responsible for complex behaviors, and then move on to explore an intricate structure called the corticospinal tract, which carries motor commands to the spinal cord. The final stop is the olfactory tubercle —towards the base of the frontal lobe—a key player in odor processing and motivated behaviors.

Azevedo and his colleagues imaged the brain in this video in about 40 minutes using their imaging platform called the Translucence Biosystems’ Mesoscale Imaging System™. This process starts with a tissue-clearing method that eliminates light-scattering lipids, leaving the mouse brain transparent. From there, advanced light-sheet microscopy makes thin optical sections of the tissue, and 3D data processing algorithms reconstruct the image to high resolution.

Using this platform, researchers can take brain-wide snapshots of neuronal activity linked to a specific behavior. They can also use it to trace neural circuits that span various regions of the brain, allowing them to form new hypotheses about the brain’s connectivity and how such connectivity contributes to memory and behavior.

The video that you see here is a special, extended version of the team’s first-place video from the NIH-supported BRAIN Initiative’s 2020 “Show Us Your BRAINS!” imaging contest. Because of the great potential of this next-generation technology, Translucence Biosystems has received Small Business Innovation Research grants from NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health to disseminate its “brain-clearing” imaging technology to the neuroscience community.

As more researchers try out this innovative approach, one can only imagine how much more data will be generated to enhance our understanding of how the brain functions in health and disease. That is what will be truly spectacular for everyone working on new and better ways to help people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, schizophrenia, autism, epilepsy, traumatic brain injury, depression, and so many other neurological and psychiatric disorders.

Wishing all of you a happy and healthy July Fourth!

Links:

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

NIH National Research Service Award

Medical Scientist Training Program (National Institute of General Medical Sciences/NIH)

Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer (NIH)

Translucence Biosystems (Irvine, CA)

Sunil Gandhi (University of California, Irvine)

Ricardo Azevedo (University of California, Irvine)

Video: iDISCO-cleared whole brain from a Thy1-GFP mouse (Translucence Biosystems)

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

NIH Support: National Institute of Mental Health; National Eye Institute


Taking a Closer Look at COVID-19’s Effects on the Brain

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MRI of a brain damaged by COVID-19
Caption: Magnetic resonance microscopy showing lower part of a COVID-19 patient’s brain stem postmortem. Arrows point to light and dark spots indicative of blood vessel damage with no signs of infection by the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Credit: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, NIH

While primarily a respiratory disease, COVID-19 can also lead to neurological problems. The first of these symptoms might be the loss of smell and taste, while some people also may later battle headaches, debilitating fatigue, and trouble thinking clearly, sometimes referred to as “brain fog.” All of these symptoms have researchers wondering how exactly the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, affects the human brain.

In search of clues, researchers at NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) have now conducted the first in-depth examinations of human brain tissue samples from people who died after contracting COVID-19. Their findings, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, suggest that COVID-19’s many neurological symptoms are likely explained by the body’s widespread inflammatory response to infection and associated blood vessel injury—not by infection of the brain tissue itself [1].

The NIH team, led by Avindra Nath, used a high-powered magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner (up to 10 times as sensitive as a typical MRI) to examine postmortem brain tissue from 19 patients. They ranged in age from 5 to 73, and some had preexisting conditions, such as diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease.
The team focused on the brain’s olfactory bulb that controls our ability to smell and the brainstem, which regulates breathing and heart rate. Based on earlier evidence, both areas are thought to be highly susceptible to COVID-19.

Indeed, the MRI images revealed in both regions an unusual number of bright spots, a sign of inflammation. They also showed dark spots, which indicate bleeding. A closer look at the bright spots showed that tiny blood vessels in those areas were thinner than normal and, in some cases, leaked blood proteins into the brain. This leakage appeared to trigger an immune reaction that included T cells from the blood and the brain’s scavenging microglia. The dark spots showed a different pattern, with leaky vessels and clots but no evidence of an immune reaction.

While those findings are certainly interesting, perhaps equally noteworthy is what Nath and colleagues didn’t see in those samples. They could find no evidence in the brain tissue samples that SARS-CoV-2 had invaded the brain tissue. In fact, several methods to detect genetic material or proteins from the virus all turned up empty.

The findings are especially intriguing because there has been some suggestion based on studies in mice that SARS-CoV-2 might cross the blood-brain barrier and invade the brain. Indeed, a recent report by NIH-funded researchers in Nature Neuroscience showed that the viral spike protein, when injected into mice, readily entered the brain along with many other organs [2].

Another recent report in the Journal of Experimental Medicine, which used mouse and human brain tissue, suggests that SARS-CoV-2 may indeed directly infect the central nervous system, including the brain [3]. In autopsies of three people who died from complications of COVID-19, the NIH-supported researchers detected signs of SARS-CoV-2 in neurons in the brain’s cerebral cortex. This work was done using the microscopy-based technique of immunohistochemistry, which uses antibodies to bind to a target, in this case, the virus’s spike protein. Also last month, in a study published in the journal Neurobiology of Disease, another NIH-supported team demonstrated in a series of experiments in cell culture that the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein could cross a 3D model of the blood-brain barrier and infect the endothelial cells that line blood vessels in the brain [4].

Clearly, more research is needed, and NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has just launched the COVID-19 Neuro Databank/Biobank (NeuroCOVID) to collect more clinical information, primarily about COVID-19-related neurological symptoms, complications, and outcomes. Meanwhile, Nath and colleagues continue to explore how COVID-19 affects the brain and triggers the neurological symptoms often seen in people with COVID-19. As we learn more about the many ways COVID-19 wreaks havoc on the body, understanding the neurological symptoms will be critical in helping people, including the so-called Long Haulers bounce back from this terrible viral infection.

References:

[1] Microvascular Injury in the Brains of Patients with Covid-19. Lee MH, Perl DP, Nair G, Li W, Maric D, Murray H, Dodd SJ, Koretsky AP, Watts JA, Cheung V, Masliah E, Horkayne-Szakaly I, Jones R, Stram MN, Moncur J, Hefti M, Folkerth RD, Nath A. N Engl J Med. 2020 Dec 30.

[2] The S1 protein of SARS-CoV-2 crosses the blood-brain barrier in mice. Rhea EM, Logsdon AF, Hansen KM, Williams LM, Reed MJ, Baumann KK, Holden SJ, Raber J, Banks WA, Erickson MA. Nat Neurosci. 2020 Dec 16.

[3] Neuroinvasion of SARS-CoV-2 in human and mouse brain. Song E, Zhang C, Israelow B, et al. J Exp Med (2021) 218 (3): e20202135.

[4] The SARS-CoV-2 spike protein alters barrier function in 2D static and 3D microfluidic in-vitro models of the human blood-brain barrier. Buzhdygan TP, DeOre BJ, Baldwin-Leclair A, Bullock TA, McGary HM, Khan JA, Razmpour R, Hale JF, Galie PA, Potula R, Andrews AM, Ramirez SH. Neurobiol Dis. 2020 Dec;146:105131.

Links:

COVID-19 Research (NIH)

Avindra Nath (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke/NIH)

NIH Support: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; National Institute on Aging; National Institute of General Medical Sciences; National Cancer Institute; National Institute of Mental Health


Getting Closer to a Blood Test for Alzheimer’s Disease?

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Blood Test
iStock/ericsphotography

As research on Alzheimer’s disease (AD) advances, a desperate need remains for an easy blood test to help diagnose the condition as early as possible. Ideally, such a test could also distinguish AD from other forms of dementia that produce similar symptoms. As published recently in Nature Medicine, an NIH-funded research team has designed a simple blood test that is on course to meet these criteria [1].

The latest work builds on a large body of work showing that one secret to predicting a person’s cognitive decline and treatment response in AD lies in a protein called tau. Using the powerful, but expensive, approach of PET scan imaging, we know that tau builds up in the brain as Alzheimer’s disease progresses. We also know that some tau spills from the brain into the bloodstream.

The trouble is that the circulating tau protein breaks down far too quickly for a blood test to offer a reliable measure of what’s happening in a person’s brain. A few years ago, researchers discovered a possible solution: test for blood levels of a slightly different and more stable version of the protein called pTau181 [2]. (The “p” in its name comes from the addition of phosphorus in a particular part of the protein’s structure.)

In the latest study, researchers in the lab of Adam Boxer, University of California, San Francisco, followed up further on this compelling lead. Boxer’s team measured pTau181 levels in blood samples from 362 people between the ages of 58 and 70. Those samples included 56 people with an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, along with 47 people with mild cognitive impairment and 69 healthy controls.

The researchers also included another 190 people diagnosed with frontotemporal lobar degeneration (FTLD). It is a relatively rare form of dementia that leads to a gradual decline in behavior, language, and movement, often in connection with a buildup of tau in the brain.

The study found that levels of pTau181 were roughly 3.5-times higher in the blood of people with AD compared to people without AD. Those with mild cognitive impairment due to underlying AD also showed an intermediate increase in blood levels of pTau181.

Importantly, people with FLTD had normal blood levels of pTau181. As a result, the blood test could reliably distinguish between a person with AD and a person with FLTD. That’s important because, while FLTD is a relatively rare condition, its prevalence is similar to AD in people under the age of 65. But both conditions have similar symptoms, making it often challenging to distinguish them.

The findings add to evidence that the new blood test can help in diagnosing AD and in distinguishing it from other neurodegenerative conditions. In fact, it does so with an accuracy that often rivals more expensive PET scans and more invasive cerebrospinal fluid tests, which are now the only reliable ways to measure tau.

There’s still plenty of work to do before this blood test is ready for a doctor’s office. But these initial findings are very promising in helping to simplify the diagnosis of this devastating condition that now affects an estimated 5.5 million Americans [3].

References:

[1] Diagnostic value of plasma phosphorylated tau181 in Alzheimer’s disease and frontotemporal lobar degeneration. Thijssen EH, La Joie R, Wolf A, Strom A, Wang P, Iaccarino L, Bourakova V, Cobigo Y, Heuer H, Spina S, VandeVrede L, Chai X, Proctor NK, Airey DC, Shcherbinin S, Duggan Evans C, Sims JR, Zetterberg H, Blennow K, Karydas AM, Teunissen CE, Kramer JH, Grinberg LT, Seeley WW, Rosen H, Boeve BF, Miller BL, Rabinovici GD, Dage JL, Rojas JC, Boxer AL; Advancing Research and Treatment for Frontotemporal Lobar Degeneration (ARTFL) investigators. Nat Med. 2020 Mar 2.

[2] Plasma phospho-tau181 increases with Alzheimer’s disease clinical severity and is associated with tau- and amyloid-positron emission tomography. Mielke MM, Hagen CE, Xu J, Chai X, Vemuri P, Lowe VJ, Airey DC, Knopman DS, Roberts RO, Machulda MM, Jack CR Jr, Petersen RC, Dage JL. Alzheimers Dement. 2018 Aug;14(8):989-997.

[3] Alzheimer’s Disease Fact Sheet. National Institute on Aging, May 22, 2019.

Links:

Alzheimer’s Disease & Related Dementias (National Institute on Aging/NIH)

What Are Frontotemporal Disorders? (NIA)

Accelerating Medicines Partnership: Alzheimer’s Disease (NIH)

Adam Boxer (University of California, San Francisco)

NIH Support: National Institute on Aging; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences


How Our Brains Replay Memories

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Retrieving a Memory
Caption: Encoding and replaying learned memory. Left panel shows the timed sequence of neurons firing in a part of a person’s brain involved in memory as it encodes the random pair of words, “crow” and “jeep.” Colors are assigned to different neurons to differentiate their firing within the sequence. Right panel shows a highly similar timed sequence of those same neurons firing just before a person given the word “jeep,” recalled and said the correct answer “crow.” Credit: Vaz AP, Science, 2020.

Note to my blog readers: the whole world is now facing a major threat from the COVID-19 pandemic. We at NIH are doing everything we can to apply the best and most powerful science to the development of diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines, while also implementing public health measures to protect our staff and the patients in our hospital. This crisis is expected to span many weeks, and I will occasionally report on COVID-19 in this blog format. Meanwhile, science continues to progress on many other fronts—and so I will continue to try to bring you stories across a wide range of topics. Perhaps everyone can use a little break now and then from the coronavirus news? Today’s blog takes you into the intricacies of memory.

When recalling the name of an acquaintance, you might replay an earlier introduction, trying to remember the correct combination of first and last names. (Was it Scott James? Or James Scott?) Now, neuroscientists have found that in the split second before you come up with the right answer, your brain’s neurons fire in the same order as when you first learned the information [1].

This new insight into memory retrieval comes from recording the electrical activity of thousands of neurons in the brains of six people during memory tests of random word pairs, such as “jeep” and “crow.” While similar firing patterns had been described before in mice, the new study is the first to confirm that the human brain stores memories in specific sequences of neural activity that can be replayed again and again.

The new study, published in the journal Science, is the latest insight from neurosurgeon and researcher Kareem Zaghloul at NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). Zaghloul’s team has for years been involved in an NIH Clinical Center study for patients with drug-resistant epilepsy whose seizures cannot be controlled with drugs.

As part of this work, his surgical team often temporarily places a 4 millimeter-by-4 millimeter array of tiny electrodes on the surface of the brains of the study’s participants. They do this in an effort to pinpoint brain tissues that may be the source of their seizures before performing surgery to remove them. With a patient’s informed consent to take part in additional research, the procedure also has led to a series of insights into what happens in the human brain when we make and later retrieve new memories.

Here’s how it works: The researchers record electrical currents as participants are asked to learn random word pairs presented to them on a computer screen, such as “cake” and “fox,” or “lime” and “camel.” After a period of rest, their brain activity is again recorded as they are given a word and asked to recall the matching word.

Last year, the researchers reported that the split second before a person got the right answer, tiny ripples of electrical activity appeared in two specific areas of the brain [2]. The team also had shown that, when a person correctly recalled a word pair, the brain showed patterns of activity that corresponded to those formed when he or she first learned to make a word association.

The new work takes this a step further. As study participants learned a word pair, the researchers noticed not only the initial rippling wave of electricity, but also that particular neurons in the brain’s cerebral cortex fired repeatedly in a sequential order. In fact, with each new word pair, the researchers observed unique firing patterns among the active neurons.

If the order of neuronal firing was essential for storing new memories, the researchers reasoned that the same would be true for correctly retrieving the information. And, indeed, that’s what they were able to show. For example, when individuals were shown “cake” for a second time, they replayed a very similar firing pattern to the one recorded initially for this word just milliseconds before correctly recalling the paired word “fox.”

The researchers then calculated the average sequence similarity between the firing patterns of learning and retrieval. They found that as a person recalled a word, those patterns gradually became more similar. Just before a correct answer was given, the recorded neurons locked onto the right firing sequence. That didn’t happen when a person gave an incorrect answer.

Further analysis confirmed that the exact order of neural firing was specific to each word pair. The findings show that our memories are encoded as unique sequences that must be replayed for accurate retrieval, though we still don’t understand the molecular mechanisms that undergird this.

Zaghloul reports that there’s still more to learn about how these processes are influenced by other factors such as our attention. It’s not yet known whether the brain replays sequences similarly when retrieving longer-term memories. Along with these intriguing insights into normal learning and memory, the researchers think this line of research will yield important clues as to what changes in people who suffer from memory disorders, with potentially important implications for developing the next generation of treatments.

Reference:

[1] Replay of cortical spiking sequences during human memory retrieval. Vaz AP, Wittig JH Jr, Inati SK, Zaghloul KA. Science. 2020 Mar 6;367(6482):1131-1134.

[2] Coupled ripple oscillations between the medial temporal lobe and neocortex retrieve human memory. Vaz AP, Inati SK, Brunel N, Zaghloul KA. Science. 2019 Mar 1;363(6430):975-978.

Links:

Epilepsy Information Page (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke/NIH)

Brain Basics (NINDS)

Zaghloul Lab (NINDS)

NIH Support: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; National Institute of General Medical Sciences


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