Creative Minds: Modeling Neurobiological Disorders in Stem Cells

Feng Zhang

Feng Zhang

Most neurological and psychiatric disorders are profoundly complex, involving a variety of environmental and genetic factors. Researchers around the world have worked with patients and their families to identify hundreds of possible genetic leads to learn what goes wrong in autism spectrum disorder, schizophrenia, and other conditions. The great challenge now is to begin examining this growing cache of information more systematically to understand the mechanism by which these gene variants contribute to disease risk—potentially providing important information that will someday lead to methods for diagnosis and treatment.

Meeting this profoundly difficult challenge will require a special set of laboratory tools. That’s where Feng Zhang comes into the picture. Zhang, a bioengineer at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Cambridge, MA, has made significant contributions to a number of groundbreaking research technologies over the past decade, including optogenetics (using light to control brain cells), and CRISPR/Cas9, which researchers now routinely use to edit genomes in the lab [1,2].

Zhang has received a 2015 NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award to develop new tools to study multiple gene variants that might be involved in a neurological or psychiatric disorder. Zhang draws his inspiration from nature, and the microscopic molecules that various organisms have developed through the millennia to survive. CRISPR/Cas9, for instance, is a naturally occurring bacterial defense system that Zhang and others have adapted into a gene-editing tool.

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Snapshots of Life: Making the Brain Transparent

Brain webs

Credit: Ken Chan and Viviana Gradinaru Group, Caltech

What you are looking at above is something scientists couldn’t even dream of imaging less than a decade ago: bundles of neurons in the brainstem of an adult mouse. These bundles are randomly labeled with various colors that enable researchers to trace the course of each as it projects from the brainstem areas to other parts of the brain. Until recently, such a view would have been impossible because, like other organs, the brain is opaque and had to be sliced into thin, transparent sections of tissue to be examined under a light microscope. These sections forced a complex 3D structure to be visualized in 2D, losing critical detail about the connections.

But now, researchers have developed innovative approaches to make organs and other large volumes of tissue transparent when viewed with standard light microscopy [1]. This particular image was made using the Passive CLARITY Technique, or PACT, developed by the NIH-supported lab of Viviana Gradinaru at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Pasadena. Gradinaru has been working on turning tissues transparent since 2010, starting as a graduate student in the lab of CLARITY developer and bioengineering pioneer Karl Deisseroth at Stanford University. PACT is her latest refinement of the concept.

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Tracing the Neural Circuitry of Appetite

MC4R PVH neurons-the heart of hunger

Caption: A stylized image of the MC4R-expressing neurons (in red) within the brain’s PVH, which is the “heart of hunger”
Credit: Michael Krashes, NIDDK, NIH

If you’ve ever skipped meals for a whole day or gone on a strict, low-calorie diet, you know just how powerful the feeling of hunger can be. Your stomach may growl and rumble, but, ultimately, it’s your brain that signals when to start eating—and when to stop. So, learning more about the brain’s complex role in controlling appetite is crucial to efforts to develop better ways of helping the millions of Americans afflicted with obesity [1].

Thanks to recent technological advances that make it possible to study the brain’s complex circuitry in real-time, a team of NIH-funded researchers recently made some important progress in understanding the neural basis for appetite. In a study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, the researchers used a variety of innovative techniques to control activity in the brains of living mice, and identified one particular circuit that appears to switch hunger off and on [2].

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NIH-Funded Research Makes Science’s “Top 10” List

NIH-funded AAAS/Science Editors' Choice for 2014 Breakthroughs of the YearModeled after Time’s Person of the Year, the journal Science has a tradition of honoring the year’s most groundbreaking research advances. For 2014, the European Space Agency nabbed first place with the Rosetta spacecraft’s amazing landing on a comet. But biomedical science also was well represented on the “Top 10” list—with NIH helping to support at least four of the advances. So, while I’ve highlighted some of these in the past, I can’t think of a better way for the NIH Director to ring in the New Year than to take a brief look back at these remarkable achievements!

Youth serum for real? Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon may have never discovered the Fountain of Youth, but researchers have engineered an exciting new lead. Researchers fused the circulatory systems of young and old mice to create a shared blood supply. In the old mice, the young blood triggered new muscle and more neural connections, and follow-up studies revealed that their memory formation improved. The researchers discovered that a gene called Creb prompts the rejuvenation. Block the protein produced by Creb, and the young blood loses its anti-aging magic [1]. Another team discovered that a factor called GDF11 increased the number of neural stem cells and stimulated the growth of new blood vessels in the brains of older animals [2].

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Creative Minds: Trying to Curb Those Sugar Cravings

Many homemade cupcakes topped with white icing, chocolate drizzle, and a cherry.It’s that time of year again: holiday parties and family feasts! One of the most frequently made—and most often broken—New Year’s resolutions is to follow a sensible diet. All goes well until you catch sight of a cupcake or smell some cookies fresh out of the oven. Sensory cues trigger cravings that crumble resolve and, before you know it, you’re on a sugar high.

Actually, from a biological perspective, it’s not a fair fight. Once desires and preferences are hard-wired in the brain, people have difficulty changing their habits. But one of 2013 recipients of the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, Kay Tye of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, MA, is up for the challenge. In a high-risk, high-reward research project, she’s trying to find ways to control food cravings by reprogramming the brain, where the behavior begins. Continue reading