Cool Videos: Flashes of Neuronal Brilliance

When you have a bright idea or suddenly understand something, you might say that a light bulb just went on in your head. But, as the flashing lights of this very cool video show, the brain’s signaling cells, called neurons, continually switch on and off in response to a wide range of factors, simple or sublime.

The technology used to produce this video—a recent winner in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology’s BioArt contest—takes advantage of the fact that whenever a neuron is activated, levels of calcium increase inside the cell. To capture that activity, graduate student Caitlin Vander Weele in Kay M. Tye’s lab at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, MA, engineered neurons in a mouse’s brain to produce a bright fluorescent signal whenever calcium increases. Consequently, each time a neuron was activated, the fluorescent indicator lit up and the changes were detected with a miniature microscope. The brighter the flash, the greater the activity!

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Creative Minds: Helping More Kids Beat Anxiety Disorders

Dylan Gee

Dylan Gee

While earning her Ph.D. in clinical psychology, Dylan Gee often encountered children and adolescents battling phobias, panic attacks, and other anxiety disorders. Most overcame them with the help of psychotherapy. But not all of the kids did, and Gee spent many an hour brainstorming about how to help her tougher cases, often to find that nothing worked.

What Gee noticed was that so many of the interventions she pondered were based on studies in adults. Little was actually known about the dramatic changes that a child’s developing brain undergoes and their implications for coping under stress. Gee, an assistant professor at Yale University, New Haven, CT, decided to dedicate her research career to bridging the gap between basic neuroscience and clinical interventions to treat children and adolescents with persistent anxiety and stress-related disorders.

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Creative Minds: REST-ling with Alzheimer’s Disease

REST in healthy and Alzheimer's cells

Caption: The REST protein (green) is dormant in young people but switches on in the nucleus of normal aging human neurons (top), apparently providing protection against age-related stresses, including abnormal proteins associated with neurodegenerative diseases. REST is lost in neuron nuclei in critical brain regions in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease (bottom). Neurons are labeled with red.
Credit: Yankner Lab, Harvard Medical School

Why do some people remain mentally sharp over their entire lifetimes, while others develop devastating neurodegenerative diseases that destroy their minds and rob them of their memories? What factors protect the human brain as it ages? And can what we learn about those factors enable us to find ways of helping the millions of people at risk for Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of senile dementia?

Those are just a few of the tough questions that Bruce Yankner, a 2010 recipient of the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award, has set out to answer by monitoring how gene activity in the brain’s prefrontal cortex (PFC) changes as we age. The PFC is the region of the brain involved in decision-making, abstract thinking, working memory, and many other higher cognitive functions; it is also among the regions hardest hit by Alzheimer’s disease.

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Creative Minds: Making Sense of Stress and the Brain

Photo of a woman in front of a chalk board

Amy Arnsten
Credit: Terry Dagradi, Yale School of Medicine

Right behind your forehead lies the most recently evolved region of the human brain: the prefrontal cortex (PFC). It’s a major control center for abstract thinking, thought analysis, working memory, planning, decision making, regulating emotions, and many of the things we most strongly associate with being human. But in times of stress, the PFC is literally taken offline, allowing more primitive parts of the brain to take over.

Amy Arnsten, a neuroscientist at the Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, CT, has pioneered the study of stress on the brain [1] and how impaired regulation of stress response in the PFC contributes to neurological disorders, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), schizophrenia [2, 3], and Alzheimer’s disease [4]. In these disorders, cells in the PFC are negatively affected, while those in the primary sensory cortex, a more primitive part of the brain that processes vision and sound, are thought to remain relatively unscathed. With support from a 2013 NIH Director’s Pioneer Award, Arnsten hopes to uncover why the PFC is more vulnerable to disease than the primary sensory cortex—and how we might be able to prevent or reverse damage to these circuits.

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Shining a Bright Light on Cocaine Addiction

Image of a slice of a brain stained blue with fluorescent green section at the top center

Caption: Optogenetic stimulation using laser pulses lights up the prelimbic cortex
Source: Courtesy of Billy Chen and Antonello Bonci

Wow—there is a lot of exciting brain research in progress, and this week is no exception. A team here at NIH, collaborating with scientists at the University of California in San Francisco, delivered harmless pulses of laser light to the brains of cocaine-addicted rats, blocking their desire for the narcotic.

If that sounds a bit way out, I can assure you the approach is based on some very solid evidence suggesting that people—and rats—are more vulnerable to addiction when a region of their brain in the prefrontal cortex isn’t functioning properly. Brain imaging studies show that rat and human addicts have less activity in the region compared with healthy individuals; and chronic cocaine use makes the problem of low activity even worse. The prefrontal cortex is critical for decision-making, impulse control, and behavior; it helps you weigh the negative consequences of drug use. Continue reading