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The Amazing Brain: Visualizing Data to Understand Brain Networks

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The NIH-led Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative continues to teach us about the world’s most sophisticated computer: the human brain. This striking image offers a spectacular case in point, thanks to a new tool called Visual Neuronal Dynamics (VND).

VND is not a camera. It is a powerful software program that can display, animate, and analyze models of neurons and their connections, or networks, using 3D graphics. What you’re seeing in this colorful image is a strip of mouse primary visual cortex, the area in the brain where incoming sensory information gets processed into vision.

This strip contains more than 230,000 neurons of 17 different cell types. Long and spindly excitatory neurons that point upward (purple, blue, red, orange) are intermingled with short and stubby inhibitory neurons (green, cyan, magenta). Slicing through the neuronal landscape is a neuropixels probe (silver): a tiny flexible silicon detector that can record brain activity in awake animals [1].

Developed by Emad Tajkhorshid and his team at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, along with Anton Arkhipov of the Allen Institute, Seattle, VND represents a scientific milestone for neuroscience: using an adept software tool to see and analyze massive neuronal datasets on a computer. What’s also nice is the computer doesn’t have to be a fancy one, and VND’s instructions, or code, are publicly available for anyone to use.

VND is the neuroscience-adapted cousin of Visual Molecular Dynamics (VMD), a popular molecular biology visualization tool to see life up close in 3D, also developed by Tajkhorshid’s group [2]. By modeling and visualizing neurons and their connections, VND helps neuroscientists understand at their desktops how neural networks are organized and what happens when they are manipulated. Those visualizations then lay the groundwork for follow-up lab studies to validate the data and build upon them.

Through the Allen Institute, the NIH BRAIN Initiative is compiling a comprehensive whole-brain atlas of cell types in the mouse, and Arkhipov’s work integrates these data into computer models. In May 2020, his group published comprehensive models of the mouse primary visual cortex [3].

Arkhipov and team are now working to understand how the primary visual cortex’s physical structure (the cell shapes and connections within its complicated circuits) determines its outputs. For example, how do specific connections determine network activity? Or, how fast do cells fire under different conditions?

Ultimately, such computational research may help us understand how brain injuries or disease affect the structure and function of these neural networks. VND should also propel understanding of many other areas of the brain, for which the data are accumulating rapidly, to answer similar questions that still remain mysterious to scientists.

In the meantime, VND is also creating some award-winning art. The image above was the second-place photo in the 2021 “Show us Your BRAINs!” Photo and Video Contest sponsored by the NIH BRAIN Initiative.

References:

[1] Fully integrated silicon probes for high-density recording of neural activity. Jun JJ, Steinmetz NA, Siegle JH, Denman DJ, Bauza M, Barbarits B, Lee AK, Anastassiou CA, Andrei A, Aydın Ç, Barbic M, Blanche TJ, Bonin V, Couto J, Dutta B, Gratiy SL, Gutnisky DA, Häusser M, Karsh B, Ledochowitsch P, Lopez CM, Mitelut C, Musa S, Okun M, Pachitariu M, Putzeys J, Rich PD, Rossant C, Sun WL, Svoboda K, Carandini M, Harris KD, Koch C, O’Keefe J, Harris TD. Nature. 2017 Nov 8;551(7679):232-236.

[2] VMD: visual molecular dynamics. Humphrey W, Dalke A, Schulten K. J Mol Graph. 1996 Feb;14(1):33-8, 27-8.

[3] Systematic integration of structural and functional data into multi-scale models of mouse primary visual cortex. Billeh YN, Cai B, Gratiy SL, Dai K, Iyer R, Gouwens NW, Abbasi-Asl R, Jia X, Siegle JH, Olsen SR, Koch C, Mihalas S, Arkhipov A. Neuron. 2020 May 6;106(3):388-403.e18

Links:

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

Models of the Mouse Primary Visual Cortex (Allen Institute, Seattle)

Visual Neuronal Dynamics (NIH Center for Macromolecular Modeling and Bioinformatics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)

Tajkhorshid Lab (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)

Arkhipov Lab (Allen Institute)

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

NIH Support: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke


The Amazing Brain: Toward a Wiring Diagram of Connectivity

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It’s summertime and, thanks to the gift of COVID-19 vaccines, many folks are getting the chance to take a break. So, I think it’s also time that my blog readers finally get a break from what’s been nearly 18 months of non-stop coverage of COVID-19 research. And I can’t think of a more enjoyable way to do that than by taking a look at just a few of the many spectacular images and insights that researchers have derived about the amazing brain.

The Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative, which is an NIH-led project aimed at revolutionizing our understanding of the human brain, happens to have generated some of the coolest—and most informative—imagery now available in neuroscience. So, throughout the month of August, I’ll share some of the entries from the initiative’s latest Show Us Your BRAINs! Photo and Video Contest.

With nearly 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion connections, the human brain remains one of the greatest mysteries in science. Among the many ways in which neuroscientists are using imaging to solve these mysteries is by developing more detailed maps of connectivity within the brain.

For example, the image featured above from the contest shows a dense weave of neurons in the anterior cingulate cortex, which is the part of the brain involved in learning, memory, and some motor control. In this fluorescence micrograph of tissue from a mouse, each neuron has been labeled with green fluorescent protein, enabling you to see how it connects to other neurons through arm-like projections called axons and dendrites.

The various connections, or circuits, within the brain process and relay distinct types of sensory information. In fact, a single neuron can form a thousand or more of these connections. Among the biggest challenges in biomedicine today is deciphering how these circuits work, and how they can misfire to cause potentially debilitating neurological conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, autism, epilepsy, schizophrenia, depression, and traumatic brain injury.

This image was produced by Nicholas Foster and Lei Gao in the NIH-supported lab of Hong Wei Dong, University of California, Los Angeles. The Dong Lab is busy cataloging cell types and helping to assemble a wiring diagram of the connectivity in the mammalian brain—just one of the BRAIN Initiative’s many audacious goals. Stay tuned for more throughout the month of August!

Links:

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

Dong Lab (University of California, Los Angeles)

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

NIH Support: National Institute of Mental Health


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


Understanding Neuronal Diversity in the Spinal Cord

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Cross-section image of spinal cord showing glowing green and magenta neurons.
Credit: Salk Institute, La Jolla, CA

The spinal cord, as a key part of our body’s central nervous system, contains millions of neurons that actively convey sensory and motor (movement) information to and from the brain. Scientists have long sorted these spinal neurons into what they call “cardinal” classes, a classification system based primarily on the developmental origin of each nerve cell. Now, by taking advantage of the power of single-cell genetic analysis, they’re finding that spinal neurons are more diverse than once thought.

This image helps to visualize the story. Each dot represents the nucleus of a spinal neuron in a mouse; humans have a very similar arrangement. Most of these neurons are involved in the regulation of motor control, but they also differ in important ways. Some are involved in local connections (green), such as those that signal outward to a limb and prompt us to pull away reflexively when we touch painful stimuli, such as a hot frying pan. Others are involved in long-range connections (magenta), relaying commands across spinal segments and even upward to the brain. These enable us, for example, to swing our arms while running to help maintain balance.

It turns out that these two types of spinal neurons also have distinctive genetic signatures. That’s why researchers could label them here in different colors and tell them apart. Being able to distinguish more precisely among spinal neurons will prove useful in identifying precisely which ones are affected by a spinal cord injury or neurodegenerative disease, key information in learning to engineer new tissue to heal the damage.

This image comes from a study, published recently in the journal Science, conducted by an NIH-supported team led by Samuel Pfaff, Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla, CA. Pfaff and his colleagues, including Peter Osseward and Marito Hayashi, realized that the various classes and subtypes of neurons in our spines arose over the course of evolutionary time. They reasoned that the most-primitive original neurons would have gradually evolved subtypes with more specialized and diverse capabilities. They thought they could infer this evolutionary history by looking for conserved and then distinct, specialized gene-expression signatures in the different neural subtypes.

The researchers turned to single-cell RNA sequencing technologies to look for important similarities and differences in the genes expressed in nearly 7,000 mouse spinal neurons. They then used this vast collection of genomic data to group the neurons into closely related clusters, in much the same way that scientists might group related organisms into an evolutionary family tree based on careful study of their DNA.

The first major gene expression pattern they saw divided the spinal neurons into two types: sensory-related and motor-related. This suggested to them that one of the first steps in spinal cord evolution may have been a division of labor of spinal neurons into those two fundamentally important roles.

Further analyses divided the sensory-related neurons into excitatory neurons, which make neurons more likely to fire; and inhibitory neurons, which dampen neural firing. Then, the researchers zoomed in on motor-related neurons and found something unexpected. They discovered the cells fell into two distinct molecular groups based on whether they had long-range or short-range connections in the body. Researches were even more surprised when further study showed that those distinct connectivity signatures were shared across cardinal classes.

All of this means that, while previously scientists had to use many different genetic tags to narrow in on a particular type of neuron, they can now do it with just two: a previously known tag for cardinal class and the newly discovered genetic tag for long-range vs. short-range connections.

Not only is this newfound ability a great boon to basic neuroscientists, it also could prove useful for translational and clinical researchers trying to determine which specific neurons are affected by a spinal injury or disease. Eventually, it may even point the way to strategies for regrowing just the right set of neurons to repair serious neurologic problems. It’s a vivid reminder that fundamental discoveries, such as this one, often can lead to unexpected and important breakthroughs with potential to make a real difference in people’s lives.

Reference:

[1] Conserved genetic signatures parcellate cardinal spinal neuron classes into local and projection subsets. Osseward PJ 2nd, Amin ND, Moore JD, Temple BA, Barriga BK, Bachmann LC, Beltran F Jr, Gullo M, Clark RC, Driscoll SP, Pfaff SL, Hayashi M. Science. 2021 Apr 23;372(6540):385-393.

Links:

What Are the Parts of the Nervous System? (Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development/NIH)

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

Samuel Pfaff (Salk Institute, La Jolla, CA)

NIH Support: National Institute of Mental Health; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development


Finding Better Ways to Image the Retina

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Two light microscopy fields of the retina showing small blue dots (rods) surrounding larger yellow dots (cones)
Credit: Johnny Tam, National Eye Institute, NIH

Every day, all around the world, eye care professionals are busy performing dilated eye exams. By looking through a patient’s widened pupil, they can view the retina—the postage stamp-sized tissue lining the back of the inner eye—and look for irregularities that may signal the development of vision loss.

The great news is that, thanks to research, retinal imaging just keeps getting better and better. The images above, which show the same cells viewed with two different microscopic techniques, provide good examples of how tweaking existing approaches can significantly improve our ability to visualize the retina’s two types of light-sensitive neurons: rod and cone cells.

Specifically, these images show an area of the outer retina, which is the part of the tissue that’s observed during a dilated eye exam. Thanks to colorization and other techniques, a viewer can readily distinguish between the light-sensing, color-detecting cone cells (orange) and the much smaller, lowlight-sensing rod cells (blue).

These high-res images come from Johnny Tam, a researcher with NIH’s National Eye Institute. Working with Alfredo Dubra, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA, Tam and his team figured out how to limit light distortion of the rod cells. The key was illuminating the eye using less light, provided as a halo instead of the usual solid, circular beam.

But the researchers’ solution hit a temporary snag when the halo reflected from the rods and cones created another undesirable ring of light. To block it out, Tam’s team introduced a tiny pinhole, called a sub-Airy disk. Along with use of adaptive optics technology [1] to correct for other distortions of light, the scientists were excited to see such a clear view of individual rods and cones. They published their findings recently in the journal Optica [2]

The resolution produced using these techniques is so much improved (33 percent better than with current methods) that it’s even possible to visualize the tiny inner segments of both rods and cones. In the cones, for example, these inner segments help direct light coming into the eye to other, photosensitive parts that absorb single photons of light. The light is then converted into electrical signals that stream to the brain’s visual centers in the occipital cortex, which makes it possible for us to experience vision.

Tam and team are currently working with physician-scientists in the NIH Clinical Center to image the retinas of people with a variety of retinal diseases, including age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a leading cause of vision loss in older adults. These research studies are ongoing, but offer hopeful possibilities for safe and non-intrusive monitoring of individual rods and cones over time, as well as across disease types. That’s obviously good news for patients. Plus it will help scientists understand how a rod or cone cell stops working, as well as more precisely test the effects of gene therapy and other experimental treatments aimed at restoring vision.

References:

[1] Noninvasive imaging of the human rod photoreceptor mosaic using a confocal adaptive optics scanning ophthalmoscope. Dubra A, Sulai Y, Norris JL, Cooper RF, Dubis AM, Williams DR, Carroll J. Biomed Opt Express. 2011 Jul 1;2(7):1864-76.

[1] In-vivo sub-diffraction adaptive optics imaging of photoreceptors in the human eye with annular pupil illumination and sub-Airy detection. Rongwen L, Aguilera N, Liu T, Liu J, Giannini JP, Li J, Bower AJ, Dubra A, Tam J. Optica 2021 8, 333-343. https://doi.org/10.1364/OPTICA.414206

Links:

Get a Dilated Eye Exam (National Eye Institute/NIH)

How the Eyes Work (NEI)

Eye Health Data and Statistics (NEI)

Tam Lab (NEI)

Dubra Lab (Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA)

NIH Support: National Eye Institute


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