Finding Brain Circuits Tied to Alertness

Everybody knows that it’s important to stay alert behind the wheel or while out walking on the bike path. But our ability to react appropriately to sudden dangers is influenced by whether we feel momentarily tired, distracted, or anxious. How is it that the brain can transition through such different states of consciousness while performing the same routine task, even as its basic structure and internal wiring remain unchanged?

A team of NIH-funded researchers may have found an important clue in zebrafish, a popular organism for studying how the brain works. Using a powerful new method that allowed them to find and track brain circuits tied to alertness, the researchers discovered that this mental state doesn’t work like an on/off switch. Rather, alertness involves several distinct brain circuits working together to bring the brain to attention. As shown in the video above that was taken at cellular resolution, different types of neurons (green) secrete different kinds of chemical messengers across the zebrafish brain to affect the transition to alertness. The messengers shown are: serotonin (red), acetylcholine (blue-green), and dopamine and norepinephrine (yellow).

What’s also fascinating is the researchers found that many of the same neuronal cell types and brain circuits are essential to alertness in zebrafish and mice, despite the two organisms being only distantly related. That suggests these circuits are conserved through evolution as an early fight-or-flight survival behavior essential to life, and they are therefore likely to be important for controlling alertness in people too. If correct, it would tell us where to look in the brain to learn about alertness not only while doing routine stuff but possibly for understanding dysfunctional brain states, ranging from depression to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

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Studies of Dogs, Mice, and People Provide Clues to OCD

OCD

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Chances are you know someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). It’s estimated that more than 2 million Americans struggle with this mental health condition, characterized by unwanted recurring thoughts and/or repetitive behaviors, such as excessive hand washing or constant counting of objects. While we know that OCD tends to run in families, it’s been frustratingly difficult to identify specific genes that influence OCD risk.

Now, an international research team, partly funded by NIH, has made progress thanks to an innovative genomic approach involving dogs, mice, and people. The strategy allowed them to uncover four genes involved in OCD that turn out to play a role in synapses, where nerve impulses are transmitted between neurons in the brain. While more research is needed to confirm the findings and better understand the molecular mechanisms of OCD, these findings offer important new leads that could point the way to more effective treatments.

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Creative Minds: A Transcriptional “Periodic Table” of Human Neurons

neuronal cell

Caption: Mouse fibroblasts converted into induced neuronal cells, showing neuronal appendages (red), nuclei (blue) and the neural protein tau (yellow).
Credit: Kristin Baldwin, Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, CA

Writers have The Elements of Style, chemists have the periodic table, and biomedical researchers could soon have a comprehensive reference on how to make neurons in a dish. Kristin Baldwin of the Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, CA, has received a 2016 NIH Director’s Pioneer Award to begin drafting an online resource that will provide other researchers the information they need to reprogram mature human skin cells reproducibly into a variety of neurons that closely resemble those found in the brain and nervous system.

These lab-grown neurons could be used to improve our understanding of basic human biology and to develop better models for studying Alzheimer’s disease, autism, and a wide range of other neurological conditions. Such questions have been extremely difficult to explore in mice and other animal models because they have shorter lifespans and different brain structures than humans.

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Snapshots of Life: A Kaleidoscope of Worms

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.

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Creative Minds: Can Microbes Influence Mental Health?

Photo of a young woman

Elaine Hsiao
Credit: NIH Common Fund

While sitting in microbiology class as a college sophomore, Elaine Hsiao was stunned to learn that the human gut held between as much as 6 pounds of bacteria—twice the weight of an adult human brain. She went on to learn during her graduate studies in neurobiology that these microbes had co-evolved with humans and played important roles in our bodies, aiding digestion and immune function, for example. But more intriguing to her, by far, was new research that suggested that gut bacteria might even be influencing our thoughts, moods, and behavior.

Now a senior research fellow at the California Institute of Technology, Hsiao is launching her own effort to explore how these microbes can affect brain function—a very creative endeavor made possible through NIH’s Early Independence Award program—also known as the “skip the postdoc” award.

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