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Meeting with Congressman Ro Khanna

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Larry Tabak, Congressman Ro Khanna and Francis Collins at the NIH Clinical Center

We had a great visit with Congressman Ro Khanna (center) of California. Our discussion included recent advances in neuroscience, genomics, Big Data, and research on food allergies. NIH Deputy Director Larry Tabak (left) and I welcomed Congressman Khanna to the NIH Clinical Center on July 30, 2018.

How the Brain Regulates Vocal Pitch

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Credit: University of California, San Francisco

Whether it’s hitting a high note, delivering a punch line, or reading a bedtime story, the pitch of our voices is a vital part of human communication. Now, as part of their ongoing quest to produce a dynamic picture of neural function in real time, researchers funded by the NIH’s Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative have identified the part of the brain that controls vocal pitch [1].

This improved understanding of how the human brain regulates the pitch of sounds emanating from the voice box, or larynx, is more than cool neuroscience. It could aid in the development of new, more natural-sounding technologies to assist people who have speech disorders or who’ve had their larynxes removed due to injury or disease.

Brain in Motion

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Credit: Itamar Terem, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA, and Samantha Holdsworth, University of Auckland, New Zealand

Though our thoughts can wander one moment and race rapidly forward the next, the brain itself is often considered to be motionless inside the skull. But that’s actually not correct. When the heart beats, the pumping force reverberates throughout the body and gently pulsates the brain. What’s been tricky is capturing these pulsations with existing brain imaging technologies.

Recently, NIH-funded researchers developed a video-based approach to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) that can record these subtle movements [1]. Their method, called phase-based amplified MRI (aMRI), magnifies those tiny movements, making them more visible and quantifiable. The latest aMRI method, developed by a team including Itamar Terem at Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA, and Mehmet Kurt at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, NJ. It builds upon an earlier method developed by Samantha Holdsworth at New Zealand’s University of Auckland and Stanford’s Mahdi Salmani Rahimi [2].

Measuring Brain Chemistry

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Anne Andrews

Anne Andrews
Credit: From the American Chemical Society’s “Personal Stories of Discovery”

Serotonin is one of the chemical messengers that nerve cells in the brain use to communicate. Modifying serotonin levels is one way that antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications are thought to work and help people feel better. But the precise nature of serotonin’s role in the brain is largely unknown.

That’s why Anne Andrews set out in the mid-1990s as a fellow at NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health to explore changes in serotonin levels in the brains of anxious mice. But she quickly realized it wasn’t possible. The tools available for measuring serotonin—and most other neurochemicals in the brain—couldn’t offer the needed precision to conduct her studies.

Instead of giving up, Andrews did something about it. In the late 1990s, she began formulating an idea for a neural probe to make direct and precise measurements of brain chemistry. Her progress was initially slow, partly because the probe she envisioned was technologically ahead of its time. Now at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) more than 15 years later, she’s nearly there. Buoyed by recent scientific breakthroughs, the right team to get the job done, and the support of a 2017 NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award, Andrews expects to have the first fully functional devices ready within the next two years.

Study Shows Genes Unique to Humans Tied to Bigger Brains

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cortical organoid

Caption: Cortical organoid, showing radial glial stem cells (green) and cortical neurons (red).
Credit: Sofie Salama, University of California, Santa Cruz

In seeking the biological answer to the question of what it means to be human, the brain’s cerebral cortex is a good place to start. This densely folded, outer layer of grey matter, which is vastly larger in Homo sapiens than in other primates, plays an essential role in human consciousness, language, and reasoning.

Now, an NIH-funded team has pinpointed a key set of genes—found only in humans—that may help explain why our species possesses such a large cerebral cortex. Experimental evidence shows these genes prolong the development of stem cells that generate neurons in the cerebral cortex, which in turn enables the human brain to produce more mature cortical neurons and, thus, build a bigger cerebral cortex than our fellow primates.

That sounds like a great advantage for humans! But there’s a downside. Researchers found the same genomic changes that facilitated the expansion of the human cortex may also render our species more susceptible to certain rare neurodevelopmental disorders.

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