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psychiatric disorders

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.


Creative Minds: Seeing Memories in a New Light

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Steve Ramirez

Steve Ramirez/Joshua Sariñana

Whether it’s lacing up for a morning run, eating blueberry scones, or cheering on the New England Patriots, Steve Ramirez loves life and just about everything in it. As an undergraduate at Boston University, this joie de vivre actually made Ramirez anxious about choosing just one major. A serendipitous conversation helped him realize that all of the amazing man-made stuff in our world has a common source: the human brain.

So, Ramirez decided to pursue neuroscience and began exploring the nature of memory. Employing optogenetics (using light to control brain cells) in mice, he tagged specific neurons that housed fear-inducing memories, making the neurons light sensitive and amenable to being switched on at will.

In groundbreaking studies that earned him a spot in Forbes 2015 “30 Under 30” list, Ramirez showed that it’s possible to reactivate memories experimentally in a new context, recasting them in either a more negative or positive behavior-changing light [1–3]. Now, with support from a 2016 NIH Director’s Early Independence Award, Ramirez, who runs his own lab at Boston University, will explore whether activating good memories holds promise for alleviating chronic stress and psychiatric disease.


Creative Minds: Modeling Neurobiological Disorders in Stem Cells

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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.


Snapshots of Life: A Kaleidoscope of Worms

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C. elegans

Credit: Adam Brown and David Biron, University of Chicago

What might appear to be a view inside an unusual kaleidoscope is actually a laboratory plate full of ravenous roundworms (Caenorhabditis elegans) as seen through a microscope. Tens of thousands of worms (black), each about 1 millimeter in length at adulthood, are grazing on a field of bacteria beneath them. The yellow is a jelly-like growth medium called agar that feeds the bacteria, and the orange along the borders was added to enhance the sunburst effect.

The photo was snapped and stylized by NIH training grantee Adam Brown, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in the lab of David Biron at the University of Chicago. Brown uses C. elegans to study the neurotransmitter serotonin, a popular drug target in people receiving treatment for depression and other psychiatric disorders. This tiny, soil-dwelling worm is a go-to model organism for neuroscientists because of its relative simplicity, short life spans, genetic malleability, and complete cell-fate map. By manipulating the different components of the serotonin-signaling system in C. elegans, Brown and his colleagues hope to better understand the most basic circuitry in the central nervous system that underlies decision making, in this case choosing to feed or forage.