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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


From Electrical Brain Maps to Learning More About Migraines

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Rainbo Hultman
Credit: University of Iowa Health Care

One of life’s greatest mysteries is the brain’s ability to encode something as complex as human behavior. In an effort to begin to unravel this mystery, neuroscientists often zoom in to record the activities of individual neurons. Sometimes they expand their view to look at a specific region of the brain. But if they zoom out farther, neuroscientists can observe many thousands of neurons across the entire brain firing at once to produce electrical oscillations that somehow translate into behaviors as distinct as a smile and a frown. The complexity is truly daunting.

Rainbo Hultman, University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, Iowa City, realized years ago that by zooming out and finding a way to map all those emergent signals, she could help to change the study of brain function fundamentally. She also realized doing so offered her an opportunity to chip away at cracking the complicated code of the electrical oscillations that translate into such complex behaviors. To pursue her work in this emerging area of “electrical connectomics,” Hultman recently received a 2020 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award to study the most common human neurological disorder: migraine headaches.

A few years ago, Hultman made some impressive progress in electrical connectomics as a post-doctoral researcher in the lab of Kafui Dzirasa at Duke University, Durham, NC. Hultman and her colleagues refined a way to use electrodes to collect electrical field potentials across an unprecedented seven separate mouse brain regions at once. Using machine learning to help make sense of all the data, they uncovered a dynamic, yet reproducible, electrical brain network encoding depression [1].

What’s more, they found that the specific features of this brain-wide network could predict which mice subjected to chronic stress would develop signs of major depressive disorder. As Hultman noted, when measured and mapped in this way, the broad patterns of electrical brain activity, or “Electome factors,” could indicate which mice were vulnerable to stress and which were more resilient.

Moving on to her latest area of research, Hultman is especially intrigued by the fact that people who endure regular migraine attacks often pass through a characteristic sequence of symptoms. These symptoms can include a painful headache on one side of the head; visual disturbances; sensitivity to light, odors, or sound; mood changes; nausea; trouble speaking; and sometimes even paralysis. By studying the broad electrical patterns and networks associated with migraine in mice—simultaneously capturing electrical recordings from 14 brain regions on a millisecond timescale—she wants to understand how brain circuits are linked and work together in ways that produce the complex sequences of migraine symptoms.

More broadly, Hultman wants to understand how migraine and many other disorders affecting the brain lead to a state of heightened sensory sensitivity and how that emerges from integrated neural circuits in the brain. In her studies of migraine, the researcher suspects she might observe some of the same patterns seen earlier in depression. In fact, her team is setting up its experiments to ensure it can identify any brain network features that are shared across important disease states.

By the way, I happen to be one of many people who suffer from migraines, although fortunately not very often in my case. The visual aura of flashing jagged images that starts in the center of my visual field and then gradually moves to the periphery over about 20 minutes is pretty dramatic—a free light show! I’ve wondered what the electrical component of that must be like. But, even with treatment, the headache that follows can be pretty intense.

Hultman also has seen in her own life and family how debilitating migraines can be. Her goal isn’t just to map these neural networks, but to use them to identify where to target future therapeutics. Ultimately, she hopes her work will pave the way for more precise approaches for treating migraine and other brain disorders that are based on the emergent electrical characteristics of each individual’s brain activity. It’s a fascinating proposition, and I certainly look forward to where this research leads and what it may reveal about the fundamentals of how our brains encode complex behaviors and emotions.

Reference:

[1] Brain-wide electrical spatiotemporal dynamics encode depression vulnerability. Hultman R, Ulrich K, Sachs BD, Blount C, Carlson DE, Ndubuizu N, Bagot RC, Parise EM, Vu MT, Gallagher NM, Wang J, Silva AJ, Deisseroth K, Mague SD, Caron MG, Nestler EJ, Carin L, Dzirasa K. Cell. 2018 Mar 22;173(1):166-180.e14.

Links:

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

Laboratory for Brain-Network Based Molecular Medicine (University of Iowa, Iowa City)

Hultman Project Information (NIH RePORTER)

NIH Director’s New Innovator Award (Common Fund)

NIH Support: Common Fund; National Institute of Mental Health


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


Why Flies and Humans Freeze When Startled

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When faced with something unexpected and potentially ominous, like a sudden, loud noise or a threat of danger, humans often freeze before we act. This is colloquially referred to as the “deer in the headlights” phenomenon. The movie of fruit flies that you see above may help explain the ancient origins of the “startle response” and other biomechanical aspects of motion.

In this video, which shows a footrace between two flies (Drosophila melanogaster), there are no winners or losers. Their dash across the screen provides a world-class view of the biomechanics of walking in these tiny, 3 millimeter-long insects that just won’t sit still.

The fly at the top zips along at about 25 millimeters per second, the normal walking speed for Drosophila. As a six-legged hexapod, the fly walks with a “tripod gait,” alternating between its stance phase—right fore (RF), left middle (LM), and right hind (RH) —and its swing phase sequence of left fore (LF), right middle (RM), and left hind (LH).

The slowpoke at the bottom of the video clocks in at a mere 15 millimeters per second. This fly’s more-tentative gait isn’t due to an injury or a natural lack of speed. What is causing the delay is the rapid release of the chemical messenger serotonin into its nervous system, which models a startle response.

You may have already heard about serotonin because of its role in regulating mood and appetite in humans. Now, a team led by Richard S. Mann and Clare Howard, Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute, New York, has discovered that fruit flies naturally release serotonin to turn on neural circuits that downshift and steady the speed of their gait.

As detailed recently in Current Biology [1], serotonin is active under myriad conditions to tell flies to slow things down. For example, serotonin helps flies weather the stress of extreme temperatures, conserve energy during bouts of hunger, and even walk upside down on the ceiling.

But the research team, which was supported by the NIH-led Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative, found that serotonin’s most-powerful effect came during an actual startle response, prompted by a sudden, jolting vibration. Scientists suspect the release of serotonin activates motor neurons much like an emergency brake, stiffening and locking up the fly’s leg joints. When the researchers blocked the fly’s release of serotonin, it interrupted their normal startle response.

In years past, such a detailed, high-resolution “action video” of Drosophila, one of the most-popular model organisms in biology, would have been impossible to produce. Fruit flies are tiny and possess extremely high energy.

But a few years ago, the Mann lab developed the approach used in this video to bring the hurried gait of fruit flies into tight focus [2]. Their system combines an optical touch sensor and high-speed video imaging that records the footfalls of all six of a fly’s feet.

Then, using the lab’s unique software program called FlyWalker , the researchers can extract various biomechanical parameters of walking in time and space. These include step length, footprint alignment, and, as the letters in the video show, the natural sequence of a tripod gait.

Drosophila may be a very distant relative of humans. But these ubiquitous insects that sometimes buzz around our fruit bowls contain many fundamental clues into human biology, whether the area of research is genetics, nutrition, biomechanics, or even the underlying biology of the startle response.

Reference:

[1] Serotonergic Modulation of Walking in Drosophila. Howard CE, Chen CL, Tabachnik T, Hormigo R, Ramdya P, Mann RS. Curr Biol. 2019 Nov 22.

[2] Quantification of gait parameters in freely walking wild type and sensory deprived Drosophila melanogaster. Mendes CS, Bartos I, Akay T, Márka S, Mann RS. Elife. 2013 Jan 8;2:e00231.

Links:

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

Mann Lab (Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute, New York)

MouseWalker Colored Feet (YouTube)

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


Largest-Ever Genetic Study of Autism Yields New Insights

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Baby and DNA Strands

Anyone who’s spent time with people affected by autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can tell you that it’s a very complex puzzle. The wide variability seen among individuals with this group of developmental brain disorders, which can disrupt communication, behavior control, and social skills, has also posed a huge challenge for researchers trying to identify underlying genetic and environmental factors. So, it’s no surprise that there’s been considerable interest in the recent findings of the largest-ever genetic study of ASD.

In a landmark study that analyzed the DNA of more than 35,000 people from around the world, the NIH-funded international Autism Sequencing Consortium (ASC) identified variants in 102 genes associated with increased risk of developing ASD, up from 65 identified previously. Of the 102 genes, 60 had not been previously linked to ASD and 53 appeared to be primarily connected to ASD as opposed to other types of intellectual disability or developmental delay. It is expected that this newfound genetic knowledge will serve to improve understanding of the complex biological mechanisms involved in ASD, ultimately paving the way for new approaches to diagnosis and treatment.

The study reported in the journal Cell was led by Joseph Buxbaum, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York; Stephan Sanders, University of California, San Francisco; Kathryn Roeder, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA; and Mark Daly, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Cambridge, MA. These researchers and their teams faced what might seem like a rather daunting task.

While common genetic variants collectively are known to contribute substantially to ASD, rare variants have been recognized individually as more major contributors to a person’s risk of developing ASD. The challenge was how to find such rare variants—whether inherited or newly arising.

To do so, the researchers needed to analyze a enormous amount of DNA data. Fortunately, they and their ASC colleagues already had assembled a vast trove of data. Over the last decade, the ASC had collected DNA samples with full consent from thousands of people with and without ASD, including unaffected siblings and parents. All were aggregated with other studies, and, at the time of this investigation, they had gathered 35,584 unique samples. Those included more than 21,000 family-based samples and almost 12,000 samples from people diagnosed with ASD.

In search of rare genetic alterations, they sequenced whole exomes, the approximately 1.5 percent of the genome that codes for proteins. Their search produced a list of 102 ASD-associated genes, including 30 that had never been implicated in any developmental brain disorder previously.

But that was just the beginning. Next, the ASC team dug deeper into this list. The researchers knew from previous work that up to half of people with ASD also have an intellectual disability or developmental delay. Many of the associated genes overlap, meaning they play roles in both outcomes. So, in one set of analyses, the team compared the list to the results of another genetic study of people diagnosed with developmental delays, including problems with learning or gross motor skills such as delayed walking.

The detailed comparison allowed them to discern genes that are more associated with features of ASD, as opposed to those that are more specific to these developmental delays. It turns out that 49 of the 102 autism-associated genes were altered more often in people with developmental delay than in those diagnosed with ASD. The other 53 were altered more often in ASD, suggesting that they may be more closely linked to this condition’s unique features.

Further study also showed that people who carried alterations in genes found predominantly in ASD also had better intellectual function. They also were more likely to have learned to walk without a developmental delay.

The 102 new genes fell primarily into one of two categories. Many play a role in the brain’s neural connections. The rest are involved primarily in switching other genes on and off in brain development. Interestingly, they are expressed both in excitatory neurons, which are active in sending signals in the brain, and in inhibitory neurons that squelch such activity. Many of these genes are also commonly expressed in the brain’s cerebral cortex, the outermost part of the brain that is responsible for many complex behaviors.

Overall, these findings underscore that ASD truly does exist on a spectrum. Indeed, there are many molecular paths to this disorder. The ASC researchers continue to collect samples, so we can expect this list of 102 genes will continue to expand in the future.

With these gene discoveries in hand, the researchers will now also turn their attention to unravelling additional details about how these genes function in the brain. The hope is that this growing list of genes will converge on a smaller number of important molecular pathways, pointing the way to new and more precise ways of treating ASD in all its complexity.

Reference:

[1] Large-scale exome sequencing study implicates both developmental and functional changes in the neurobiology of autism. Satterstrom FK, Kosmicki JA, Wang J, Breen MS, De Rubeis S, An JY, Peng M, Collins R, Grove J, Klei L, Stevens C, Reichert J, Mulhern MS, Artomov M, Gerges S, Sheppard B, Xu X, Bhaduri A, Norman U, Brand H, Schwartz G, Nguyen R, Guerrero EE, Dias C; Autism Sequencing Consortium; iPSYCH-Broad Consortium, Betancur C, Cook EH, Gallagher L, Gill M, Sutcliffe JS, Thurm A, Zwick ME, Børglum AD, State MW, Cicek AE, Talkowski ME, Cutler DJ, Devlin B, Sanders SJ, Roeder K, Daly MJ, Buxbaum JD.Cell. 2020 Jan 23. {Epub ahead of print]

Links:

Autism Spectrum Disorder (NIH/National Institute of Mental Health)

Joseph Buxbaum (Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York)

Sanders Lab (University of California, San Francisco)

Kathryn Roeder (Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA)

Mark Daly (Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Cambridge, MA)

Autism Sequencing Consortium (Emory University, Atlanta)

NIH Support: National Institute Mental Health; National Human Genome Research Institute


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