Creative Minds: Reprogramming the Brain

Cells of a mouse retina

Caption: Neuronal circuits in the mouse retina. Cone photoreceptors (red) enable color vision; bipolar neurons (magenta) relay information further along the circuit; and a subtype of bipolar neuron (green) helps process signals sensed by other photoreceptors in dim light.
Credit: Brian Liu and Melanie Samuel, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston.

When most people think of reprogramming something, they probably think of writing code for a computer or typing commands into their smartphone. Melanie Samuel thinks of brain circuits, the networks of interconnected neurons that allow different parts of the brain to work together in processing information.

Samuel, a researcher at Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, wants to learn to reprogram the connections, or synapses, of brain circuits that function less well in aging and disease and limit our memory and ability to learn. She has received a 2016 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award to decipher the molecular cues that encourage the repair of damaged synapses or enable neurons to form new connections with other neurons. Because extensive synapse loss is central to most degenerative brain diseases, Samuel’s reprogramming efforts could help point the way to preventing or correcting wiring defects before they advance to serious and potentially irreversible cognitive problems.

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Regenerative Medicine: The Promise and Peril

Retinal pigment epithelial cells

Caption: Scanning electron micrograph of iPSC-derived retinal pigment epithelial cells growing on a nanofiber scaffold (blue).
Credit: Sheldon Miller, Arvydas Maminishkis, Robert Fariss, and Kapil Bharti, National Eye Institute/NIH

Stem cells derived from a person’s own body have the potential to replace tissue damaged by a wide array of diseases. Now, two reports published in the New England Journal of Medicine highlight the promise—and the peril—of this rapidly advancing area of regenerative medicine. Both groups took aim at the same disorder: age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a common, progressive form of vision loss. Unfortunately for several patients, the results couldn’t have been more different.

In the first case, researchers in Japan took cells from the skin of a female volunteer with AMD and used them to create induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) in the lab. Those iPSCs were coaxed into differentiating into cells that closely resemble those found near the macula, a tiny area in the center of the eye’s retina that is damaged in AMD. The lab-grown tissue, made of retinal pigment epithelial cells, was then transplanted into one of the woman’s eyes. While there was hope that there might be actual visual improvement, the main goal of this first in human clinical research project was to assess safety. The patient’s vision remained stable in the treated eye, no adverse events occurred, and the transplanted cells remained viable for more than a year.

Exciting stuff, but, as the second report shows, it is imperative that all human tests of regenerative approaches be designed and carried out with the utmost care and scientific rigor. In that instance, three elderly women with AMD each paid $5,000 to a Florida clinic to be injected in both eyes with a slurry of cells, including stem cells isolated from their own abdominal fat. The sad result? All of the women suffered severe and irreversible vision loss that left them legally or, in one case, completely blind.

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Snapshots of Life: Lighting up the Promise of Retinal Gene Therapy

mouse retina

Caption: Large-scale mosaic confocal micrograph showing expression of a marker gene (yellow) transferred by gene therapy techniques into the ganglion cells (blue) of a mouse retina.
Credit: Keunyoung Kim, Wonkyu Ju, and Mark Ellisman, National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research, University of California, San Diego

The retina, like this one from a mouse that is flattened out and captured in a beautiful image, is a thin tissue that lines the back of the eye. Although only about the size of a postage stamp, the retina contains more than 100 distinct cell types that are organized into multiple information-processing layers. These layers work together to absorb light and translate it into electrical signals that stream via the optic nerve to the brain.

In people with inherited disorders in which the retina degenerates, an altered gene somewhere within this nexus of cells progressively robs them of their sight. This has led to a number of human clinical trials—with some encouraging progress being reported for at least one condition, Leber congenital amaurosis—that are transferring a normal version of the affected gene into retinal cells in hopes of restoring lost vision.

To better understand and improve this potential therapeutic strategy, researchers are gauging the efficiency of gene transfer into the retina via an imaging technique called large-scale mosaic confocal microscopy, which computationally assembles many small, high-resolution images in a way similar to Google Earth. In the example you see above, NIH-supported researchers Wonkyu Ju, Mark Ellisman, and their colleagues at the University of California, San Diego, engineered adeno-associated virus serotype 2 (AAV2) to deliver a dummy gene tagged with a fluorescent marker (yellow) into the ganglion cells (blue) of a mouse retina. Two months after AAV-mediated gene delivery, yellow had overlaid most of the blue, indicating the dummy gene had been selectively transferred into retinal ganglion cells at a high rate of efficiency [1].

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Creative Minds: Reverse Engineering Vision

Networks of neurons in the mouse retina

Caption: Networks of neurons in the mouse retina. Green cells form a special electrically coupled network; red cells express a distinctive fluorescent marker to distinguish them from other cells; blue cells are tagged with an antibody against an enzyme that makes nitric oxide, important in retinal signaling. Such images help to identify retinal cell types, their signaling molecules, and their patterns of connectivity.
Credit: Jason Jacoby and Gregory Schwartz, Northwestern University

For Gregory Schwartz, working in total darkness has its benefits. Only in the pitch black can Schwartz isolate resting neurons from the eye’s retina and stimulate them with their natural input—light—to get them to fire electrical signals. Such signals not only provide a readout of the intrinsic properties of each neuron, but information that enables the vision researcher to deduce how it functions and forges connections with other neurons.

The retina is the light-sensitive neural tissue that lines the back of the eye. Although only about the size of a postage stamp, each of our retinas contains an estimated 130 million cells and more than 100 distinct cell types. These cells are organized into multiple information-processing layers that work together to absorb light and translate it into electrical signals that stream via the optic nerve to the appropriate visual center in the brain. Like other parts of the eye, the retina can break down, and retinal diseases, including age-related macular degeneration, retinitis pigmentosa, and diabetic retinopathy, continue to be leading causes of vision loss and blindness worldwide.

In his lab at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago, Schwartz performs basic research that is part of a much larger effort among vision researchers to assemble a parts list that accounts for all of the cell types needed to make a retina. Once Schwartz and others get closer to wrapping up this list, the next step will be to work out the details of the internal wiring of the retina to understand better how it generates visual signals. It’s the kind of information that holds the key for detecting retinal diseases earlier and more precisely, fixing miswired circuits that affect vision, and perhaps even one day creating an improved prosthetic retina.

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Snapshots of Life: A Colorful Look Inside the Retina

Mapping neurons in the retina

Credit: Amy Robinson, Alex Norton, William Silversmith, Jinseop Kim, Kisuk Lee, Aleks Zlasteski, Matt Green, Matthew Balkam, Rachel Prentki, Marissa Sorek, Celia David, Devon Jones, and Doug Bland, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA; Sebastian Seung, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ

This eerie scene might bring back memories of the computer-generated alien war machines from Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds thriller. But what you’re seeing is a computer-generated depiction of a quite different world—the world inside the retina, the light-sensitive tissue that lines the back of the eye. The stilt-legged “creatures” are actually ganglion nerve cells, and what appears to be their long “noses” are fibers that will eventually converge to form the optic nerve that relays visual signals to the brain. The dense, multi-colored mat near the bottom of the image is a region where the ganglia and other types of retinal cells interact to convey visual information.

What I find particularly interesting about this image is that it was produced through the joint efforts of people who played EyeWire, an internet crowdsourcing game developed in the lab of computational neuroscientist Sebastian Seung, now at Princeton University in New Jersey.  Seung and his colleagues created EyeWire using a series of high-resolution microscopic images of the mouse retina, which were digitized into 3D cubes containing dense skeins of branching nerve fibers. It’s at this point where the crowdsourcing came in. Online gamers—most of whom aren’t scientists— volunteered for a challenge that involved mapping the 3D structure of individual nerve cells within these 3D cubes. Players literally colored-in the interiors of the cells and progressively traced their long extensions across the image to distinguish them from their neighbors. Sounds easy, but the branches are exceedingly thin and difficult to follow.

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