Chapter 3. Neurophysiology: The Generation, Transmission, and Integration of Neural Signals

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|By Nathan Collins Step aside, huge magnets and radioactive tracers—soon some brain activity will be revealed by simply training dozens of red lights on the scalp. A new study in Nature Photonics finds this optical technique can replicate functional MRI experiments, and it is more comfortable, more portable and less expensive. The method is an enhancement of diffuse optical tomography (DOT), in which a device shines tiny points of red light at a subject's scalp and analyzes the light that bounces back. The red light reflects off red hemoglobin in the blood but does not interact as much with tissues of other colors, which allows researchers to recover an fMRI-like image of changing blood flow in the brain at work. For years researchers attempting to use DOT have been limited by the difficulty of packing many heavy light sources and detectors into the small area around the head. They also needed better techniques for analyzing the flood of data that the detectors collected. Now researchers at Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Birmingham in England report they have solved those problems and made the first high-density DOT (HD-DOT) brain scans. The team first engineered a “double halo” structure to support the weight of 96 lights and 92 detectors, more than double the number in earlier arrays. The investigators also dealt with the computing challenges associated with that many lights—for example, they figured out how to filter out interference from blood flow in the scalp and other tissues. The team then used HD-DOT to successfully replicate fMRI studies of vision and language processing—a task impossible for other fMRI alternatives, such as functional near-infrared spectroscopy or electroencephalography, which do not cover a large enough swath of the brain or have sufficient resolution to pinpoint active brain areas. Finally, the team scanned the brains of people who have implanted electrodes for Parkinson's disease—something fMRI can never do because the machine generates electromagnetic waves that can destroy electronic devices such as pacemakers. © 2014 Scientific American

Keyword: Brain imaging
Link ID: 20151 - Posted: 10.02.2014

Michael Häusser Use light to read out and control neural activity! This idea, so easily expressed and understood, has fired the imagination of neuroscientists for decades. The advantages of using light as an effector are obvious1: it is noninvasive, can be precisely targeted with exquisite spatial and temporal precision, can be used simultaneously at multiple wavelengths and locations, and can report the presence or activity of specific molecules. However, despite early progress2 and encouragement3, it is only recently that widely usable approaches for optical readout and manipulation of specific neurons have become available. These new approaches rely on genetically encoded proteins that can be targeted to specific neuronal subtypes, giving birth to the term 'optogenetics' to signal the combination of genetic targeting and optical interrogation4. On the readout side, highly sensitive probes have been developed for imaging synaptic release, intracellular calcium (a proxy for neural activity) and membrane voltage. On the manipulation side, a palette of proteins for both activation and inactivation of neurons with millisecond precision using different wavelengths of light have been identified and optimized. The extraordinary versatility and power of these new optogenetic tools are spurring a revolution in neuroscience research, and they have rapidly become part of the standard toolkit of thousands of research labs around the world. Although optogenetics may not yet be a household word (though try it on your mother; she may surprise you), there can be no better proof that optogenetics has become part of the scientific mainstream than the 2013 Brain Prize being awarded to the sextet that pioneered optogenetic manipulation (http://www.thebrainprize.org/flx/prize_winners/prize_winners_2013/) and the incorporation of optogenetics as a central plank in the US National Institutes of Health BRAIN Initiative5. Moreover, there is growing optimism about the prospect of using optogenetic probes not only to understand mechanisms of disease in animal models but also to treat disease in humans, particularly in more accessible parts of the brain such as the retina6. © 2014 Macmillan Publishers Limited

Keyword: Brain imaging
Link ID: 20142 - Posted: 10.01.2014

By Larry Greenemeier Former Grateful Dead percussionist Mickey Hart takes pride in his brain. Large, anatomically realistic 3-D animations representing the inner workings of his gray and white matter have graced video screens at several science and technology conferences. These “Glass Brain” visualizations use imaging and advanced computing systems to depict in colorful detail the fiber pathways that make Hart’s brain tick. The researchers behind the project hope it will also form the basis of a new type of tool for the diagnosis and treatment of neurological disorders. Each Glass Brain animation overlays electroencephalography (EEG) data collected in real time atop a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan—in this case Hart’s—to illustrate how different brain areas communicate with each other. Special algorithms coded into software digitally reconstruct this activity within the brain. The result is a tour of the brain that captures both the timing and location of brain signals. Hart demonstrated the Glass Brain at a computer conference in San Jose, Calif., this past March by playing a video game called NeuroDrummer on stage. The drummer is working with the Studio Bee digital animation house in San Francisco as well as the Glass Brain’s creators to develop NeuroDrummer into a tool that can determine whether teaching someone to keep a drumbeat might help improve the neural signals responsible for cognition, memory and other functions. The Glass Brain’s brain trust includes the University of California, San Francisco’s Neuroscape Lab as well as the University of California, San Diego’s Swartz Center for Computational Neuroscience, EEG maker Cognionics, Inc. and NVIDIA, a maker of extremely fast graphics processing unit (GPU) computer chips and host of the conference where Hart performed. © 2014 Scientific American,

Keyword: Brain imaging
Link ID: 20137 - Posted: 09.30.2014

2014 by Helen Thomson Shall I compare thee to... well, no one actually. A 76-year-old woman has developed an incredibly rare disorder – she has the compulsive urge to write poetry. Her brain is now being studied by scientists who want to understand more about the neurological basis for creativity. In 2013, the woman arrived at a UK hospital complaining of memory problems and a tendency to lose her way in familiar locations. For the previous two years, she had experienced occasional seizures. She was diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy and treated with the drug lamotrigine, which stopped her seizures. However, as they receded, a strange behaviour took hold. She began to compulsively write poetry – something she hadn't shown any interest in previously. Suddenly, the woman was writing 10 to 15 poems a day, becoming annoyed if she was disrupted. Her work rhymed but the content was banal if a touch wistful – a style her husband described as doggerel (see "Unstoppable creativity"). About six months after her seizures stopped, the desire to write became less strong, although it still persists to some extent. Doctors call the intense desire to write hypergraphia. It typically occurs alongside schizophrenia and an individual's output is usually rambling and disorganised. "It was highly unusual to see such highly structured and creative hypergraphia without any of the other behavioural disturbances," says the woman's neurologist, Jason Warren at University College London. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd

Keyword: Epilepsy; Aggression
Link ID: 20099 - Posted: 09.22.2014

I’m an epileptic. It’s not how I define myself, but I am writing about epilepsy, so I think pointing out the fact that I am speaking from experience is acceptable. I may not define myself by my epilepsy but it’s a big part of my life. It affects my life on a daily basis. Because of the epilepsy I can’t drive, can’t pull all-nighters or get up really early just in case I have a seizure. It’s frustrating at times, though I will gladly milk the not getting up early thing when I can, eg bin day. But whereas I’ve grown up with it, having been diagnosed when I was 17, most people I’ve met don’t understand it. You mention the fact that you’re epileptic to some people and they look at you like they’re a robot you’ve just asked to explain the concept of love; they adopt a sort of “DOES NOT COMPUTE!” expression. They often don’t know what to say, or do, or even what epilepsy is and often spend the rest of the conversation searching their data banks for information on what to do if I have a seizure, like “Do I … put a spoon in his mouth?” For the record: no, you don’t. If putting a spoon in an epileptics mouth helped, then we would be prescribed a constant supply of Fruit Corners. So let me put you at ease. No one expects you to know that much about epilepsy (unless you’re responsible for treating it). There are many different types, with many different causes. Not everyone has seizures and often those who do, when given the correct meds, can live pretty much fit-free lives. © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited

Keyword: Epilepsy
Link ID: 20091 - Posted: 09.18.2014

Elie Dolgin When Carol Steinberg was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in 1995, there was only one drug approved by the US Food and Drug Administration to treat the disease. Now there are eleven. Yet none of these agents can help Steinberg. She suffers from progressive MS, a form of the disease that is characterized by steadily worsening neurological function. All eleven approved drugs combat the unpredictable symptom outbreaks that are associated with the relapsing–remitting form of MS. Around 85% of newly diagnosed patients have the relapsing–remitting form; after 10 to 20 years, most of them develop the progressive type. The lack of good treatment options for progressive MS weighs heavily on Steinberg. She uses a wheelchair, but continues to work as a trial lawyer in Newton, Massachusetts. “I’m constantly afraid of my disease getting worse,” she says. A global initiative called the Progressive MS Alliance now hopes to kick-start the development of therapies specifically for Steinberg and the million or so people worldwide living with progressive MS. On 11 September, at a joint meeting of the European and Americas Committees for Treatment and Research in Multiple Sclerosis, the alliance announced an inaugural round of research awards — part of a six-year, €22-million (US$28.5-million) programme that is the first concerted effort to tackle the disease’s less-common form. © 2014 Nature Publishing Group

Keyword: Epilepsy; Aggression
Link ID: 20089 - Posted: 09.18.2014

By Erik Schechter The folks who brought us the giant, smartphone-controlled cyborg cockroach are back—this time, with a wired-up scorpion. Be afraid. Backyard Brains, a small Michigan-based company dedicated to spreading the word about neuroscience, has been running surgical experiments on these deadly arachnids for the past two months, using electrical current to induce them to strike. Dylan Miller, a summer intern working the project, insists it's the first time that an electrical current has ever been used to remotely induce a scorpion to strike with its pedipalps (claws) and tail. "I was originally looking at how scorpions sense the ground vibrations of their prey," says Miller, a neuroscience major at Michigan State University, "and I just kind of stumbled on this defensive response." In retrospect, it's easy to see how Miller got there. Scorpions use vibrations and their tactile sense to navigate the world, identifying both prey and predator. A touch on the leg, for instance, tells a scorpion that it's under attack, provoking a defensive fight-or-flight reaction—either fleeing from danger or going full-out Bruce Lee. In nature, the scorpion would have to be physically touched for that to happen. But in the lab, an electrode to the leg nerves and a tiny, remote-controlled function generator feeding a signal will do the trick. The scorpion experiments build on the earlier work Backyard Brains has done with cockroaches, namely RoboRoach. A Kickstarter project back in June 2013 and now a real for-sale home kit, RoboRoach enables purchasers to surgically implant a live roach with three sets of electrodes and then control its movement with a smartphone app via a Bluetooth control unit worn on the roach's back. The controversial kit has been criticized as cruel by people like cognitive ethologist Marc Bekoff, but the company argues that RoboRoach's educational "benefits outweigh the cost." Undaunted by the criticism, Backyard Brains co-founder Gregory Gage was already tossing around the idea of robo-scorpions last October. ©2014 Hearst Communication, Inc

Keyword: Miscellaneous
Link ID: 19891 - Posted: 07.29.2014

By Kelly Clancy In one important way, the recipient of a heart transplant ignores its new organ: Its nervous system usually doesn’t rewire to communicate with it. The 40,000 neurons controlling a heart operate so perfectly, and are so self-contained, that a heart can be cut out of one body, placed into another, and continue to function perfectly, even in the absence of external control, for a decade or more. This seems necessary: The parts of our nervous system managing our most essential functions behave like a Swiss watch, precisely timed and impervious to perturbations. Chaotic behavior has been throttled out. Or has it? Two simple pendulums that swing with perfect regularity can, when yoked together, move in a chaotic trajectory. Given that the billions of neurons in our brain are each like a pendulum, oscillating back and forth between resting and firing, and connected to 10,000 other neurons, isn’t chaos in our nervous system unavoidable? The prospect is terrifying to imagine. Chaos is extremely sensitive to initial conditions—just think of the butterfly effect. What if the wrong perturbation plunged us into irrevocable madness? Among many scientists, too, there is a great deal of resistance to the idea that chaos is at work in biological systems. Many intentionally preclude it from their models. It subverts computationalism, which is the idea that the brain is nothing more than a complicated, but fundamentally rule-based, computer. Chaos seems unqualified as a mechanism of biological information processing, as it allows noise to propagate without bounds, corrupting information transmission and storage. © 2014 Nautilus,

Keyword: Biological Rhythms
Link ID: 19859 - Posted: 07.21.2014

Sam McDougle By now, perhaps you’ve seen the trailer for the new sci-fi thriller Lucy. It starts with a flurry of stylized special effects and Scarlett Johansson serving up a barrage of bad-guy beatings. Then comes Morgan Freeman, playing a professorial neuroscientist with the obligatory brown blazer, to deliver the film’s familiar premise to a full lecture hall: “It is estimated most human beings only use 10 percent of the brain’s capacity. Imagine if we could access 100 percent. Interesting things begin to happen.” Johansson as Lucy, who has been kidnapped and implanted with mysterious drugs, becomes a test case for those interesting things, which seem to include even more impressive beatings and apparently some kind of Matrix-esque time-warping skills. Of course, the idea that “you only use 10 percent of your brain” is, indeed, 100 hundred percent bogus. Why has this myth persisted for so long, and when is it finally going to die? Unfortunately, not any time soon. A survey last year by The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research found that 65 percent of Americans believe the myth is true, 5 percent more than those who believe in evolution. Even Mythbusters, which declared the statistic a myth a few years ago, further muddied the waters: The show merely increased the erroneous 10 percent figure and implied, incorrectly, that people use 35 percent of their brains. The idea that swaths of the brain are stagnant pudding while one section does all the work is silly. Like most legends, the origin of this fiction is unclear, though there are some clues. © 2014 by The Atlantic Monthly Group

Keyword: Brain imaging
Link ID: 19848 - Posted: 07.17.2014

By Tanya Lewis and Live Science They say laughter is the best medicine. But what if laughter is the disease? For a 6-year-old girl in Bolivia who suffered from uncontrollable and inappropriate bouts of giggles, laughter was a symptom of a serious brain problem. But doctors initially diagnosed the child with “misbehavior.” “She was considered spoiled, crazy — even devil-possessed,” José Liders Burgos Zuleta of the Advanced Medical Image Centre in La Paz said in a statement. [ But Burgos Zuleta discovered that the true cause of the girl’s laughing seizures, medically called gelastic seizures, was a brain tumor. After the girl underwent a brain scan, the doctors discovered a hamartoma, a small, benign tumor that was pressing against her brain’s temporal lobe. Surgeons removed the tumor, the doctors said. She stopped having the uncontrollable attacks of laughter and now laughs only normally, they said. Gelastic seizures are a relatively rare form of epilepsy, said Solomon Moshé, a pediatric neurologist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. “It’s not necessarily ‘ha-ha-ha’ laughing,” Moshé said. “There’s no happiness in this. Some of the kids may be very scared,” he added. The seizures are most often caused by tumors in the hypothalamus, although they can also come from tumors in other parts of brain, Moshé said. Although laughter is the main symptom, patients may also have outbursts of crying.

Keyword: Emotions; Aggression
Link ID: 19765 - Posted: 06.24.2014

In a new study, scientists at the National Institutes of Health took a molecular-level journey into microtubules, the hollow cylinders inside brain cells that act as skeletons and internal highways. They watched how a protein called tubulin acetyltransferase (TAT) labels the inside of microtubules. The results, published in Cell, answer long-standing questions about how TAT tagging works and offer clues as to why it is important for brain health. Microtubules are constantly tagged by proteins in the cell to designate them for specialized functions, in the same way that roads are labeled for fast or slow traffic or for maintenance. TAT coats specific locations inside the microtubules with a chemical called an acetyl group. How the various labels are added to the cellular microtubule network remains a mystery. Recent findings suggested that problems with tagging microtubules may lead to some forms of cancer and nervous system disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease, and have been linked to a rare blinding disorder and Joubert Syndrome, an uncommon brain development disorder. “This is the first time anyone has been able to peer inside microtubules and catch TAT in action,” said Antonina Roll-Mecak, Ph.D., an investigator at the NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), Bethesda, Maryland, and the leader of the study. Microtubules are found in all of the body’s cells. They are assembled like building blocks, using a protein called tubulin. Microtubules are constructed first by aligning tubulin building blocks into long strings. Then the strings align themselves side by side to form a sheet. Eventually the sheet grows wide enough that it closes up into a cylinder. TAT then bonds an acetyl group to alpha tubulin, a subunit of the tubulin protein.

Keyword: Miscellaneous
Link ID: 19729 - Posted: 06.14.2014

by Clare Wilson There is a new way to hack the brain. A technique that involves genetically engineering brain cells so that they fire in the presence of certain drugs has been used to treat an epilepsy-like condition in rats, and it could soon be trialled in humans. Chemogenetics builds on optogenetics, which involves engineering brain cells so they "fire" when lights are turned on. Selected neurons can then be activated with the flick of a switch. But this requires fibre optic cables to be implanted in the brain, which is impractical for treating human brain disorders. In chemogenetics, however, no cables are needed because neurons are altered to fire in the presence of a certain chemical rather than light. "It's got more potential in that you can give drugs to people more easily than you can get light into their brains," says Dimitri Kullmann of University College London. Stop the neurons Kullmann's team tested the approach by using a harmless virus to deliver a gene into the brains of rats. The gene encoded a protein that stops neurons from firing – but only in the presence of a chemical called clozapine N-oxide (CNO). Several weeks later, they injected the rats with chemicals that trigger brain seizures, to mimic epilepsy. If the rats were then given CNO, the severity of their seizures dropped within 10 minutes. This is the first time the technique has been used to treat a brain disorder, Kullmann says. "The system is neat," says Arnd Pralle of the University of Buffalo in New York state. But he points out that optogenetics allows faster control than this, because light can be turned on and off instantly. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.

Keyword: Epilepsy
Link ID: 19668 - Posted: 05.28.2014

Sara Reardon The researchers' technique shows neurons throughout the body twinkling with activity. Researchers have for the first time imaged all of the neurons firing in a living organism, the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans. The achievement, reported today in Nature Methods1 shows how signals travel through the body in real time. Scientists mapped the connections among all 302 of the nematode's neurons in 19862 — a first that has not been repeated with any other organism. But this wiring diagram, or 'connectome', does not allow researchers to determine the neuronal pathways that lead to a particular action. Nor does it allow researchers to predict what the nematode will do at any point in time, says neuroscientist Alipasha Vaziri of the University of Vienna. By providing a means of displaying signaling activity between neurons in three dimensions and in real-time, the new technique should allow scientists to do both. Vaziri and his colleagues engineered C. elegans so that when a neuron fires and calcium ions pass through its cell membranes, the neuron lights up. To capture those signals, they imaged the whole worm using a technique called light-field deconvolution microscopy, which combines images from a set of tiny lenses and analyses them using an algorithm to give a high-resolution three-dimensional image. The researchers took as many as 50 images per second of the entire worm, enabling them to watch the neurons firing in the brain, ventral cord, and tail (see video). Next, the group applied the technique to the transparent larvae of the zebrafish (Danio rerio), imaging the entire brain as the fish responded to the odours of chemicals pumped into their water. They were able to capture the activity of about 5,000 neurons simultaneously (the zebrafish has about 100,000 total neurons). © 2014 Nature Publishing Group

Keyword: Brain imaging
Link ID: 19631 - Posted: 05.18.2014

By Pippa Stephens Health reporter, BBC News A key difference in the brains of male and female MS patients may explain why more women than men get the disease, a study suggests. Scientists at Washington University School of Medicine in the US found higher levels of protein S1PR2 in tests on the brains of female mice and dead women with MS than in male equivalents. Four times more women than men are currently diagnosed with MS. Experts said the finding was "really interesting". MS affects the nerves in the brain and spinal cord, which causes problems with muscle movement, balance and vision. It is a major cause of disability, and affects about 100,000 people in the UK. Abnormal immune cells attack nerve cells in the central nervous system in MS patients. There is currently no cure, although there are treatments that can help in the early stages of the disease. Researchers in Missouri looked at relapsing remitting MS, where people have distinct attacks of symptoms that then fade away either partially or completely. About 85% of people with MS are diagnosed with this type. Scientists studied the blood vessels and brains of healthy mice, mice with MS, and mice without the gene for S1PR2, a blood vessel receptor protein, to see how it affected MS severity. They also looked at the brain tissue samples of 20 people after they had died. They found high levels of S1PR2 in the areas of the brain typically damaged by MS in both mice and people. The activity of the gene coding for S1PR2 was positively correlated with the severity of the disease in mice, the study said. Scientists said S1PR2 could work by helping to make the blood-brain barrier, in charge of stopping potentially harmful substances from entering the brain and spinal fluid, more permeable. BBC © 2014

Keyword: Multiple Sclerosis; Aggression
Link ID: 19595 - Posted: 05.10.2014

by Andy Coghlan A pregnancy hormone could prove a simple way to treat multiple sclerosis, after showing promise in a trial of 158 women with MS. MS is a neurological condition that results from damage to the brain and nerves inflicted by the body's own immune system. It affects 2.3 million people worldwide. Symptoms include extreme tiredness, blurred vision, muscle weakness and problems with balance and movement. The symptoms of women with MS tend to ease when they are pregnant, but worsen again after giving birth. This could be because of a hormone called oestriol, which is only produced in significant amounts during pregnancy. The hormone is thought to help suppress the mother's immune system to prevent it attacking the fetus. Fewer relapses Rhonda Voskuhl of the University of California, Los Angeles, and her colleagues wondered whether giving oestriol to people with MS who aren't pregnant might also help with symptoms. They gave 8 milligrams of oestriol daily to 86 women with MS, along with their medication, Copaxone (glatiramer acetate). The women had the most common form of MS, called relapsing-remitting MS, which results in periodic flare-ups of symptoms followed by recovery. After one year, they had 47 per cent fewer relapses than a control group that took Copaxone and a placebo. After two years, the relapse rate was 32 per cent lower than the control group in the group given the hormone, suggesting the effects had plateaued. "We think the oestriol group had bottomed out, and there was nothing left to improve," Voskuhl said, as she presented the preliminary results at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology in Philadelphia last week. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.

Keyword: Multiple Sclerosis; Aggression
Link ID: 19569 - Posted: 05.04.2014

Combining the estrogen hormone estriol with Copaxone, a drug indicated for the treatment of patients with relapsing forms of multiple sclerosis (MS), may improve symptoms in patients with the disorder, according to preliminary results from a clinical study of 158 patients with relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS). The findings were presented today by Rhonda Voskuhl, M.D., from the University of California, Los Angeles, at the American Academy of Neurology Annual Meeting in Philadelphia. The study was funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), part of the National Institutes of Health; and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. “While these results are encouraging, the results of this Phase II study should be considered preliminary as a larger study would be needed to know whether benefits outweigh the risks for persons affected by MS. At present, we cannot recommend estrogen as part of standard therapy for MS. We encourage patients to talk with their doctors before making any changes to their treatment plans,” said Walter Koroshetz, M.D., deputy director of NINDS. MS is an autoimmune disorder in which immune cells break down myelin, a protective covering that wraps around nerve cells. Loss of myelin results in pain, movement and balance problems as well as changes in cognitive ability. RRMS is the most common form of the disorder. Patients with RRMS experience relapses, or flare-ups, of neurological symptoms, followed by recovery periods during which the symptoms improve.

Keyword: Multiple Sclerosis; Aggression
Link ID: 19552 - Posted: 04.30.2014

Scientists have bioengineered, in neurons cultured from rats, an enhancement to a cutting edge technology that provides instant control over brain circuit activity with a flash of light. The research funded by the National Institutes of Health adds the same level of control over turning neurons off that, until now, had been limited to turning them on. “What had been working through a weak pump can now work through a highly responsive channel with many orders of magnitude more impact on cell function,” explained Karl Deisseroth, M.D., Ph.D., It is like going from a squirt to a gushing hose. Deisseroth and colleagues report on what is being hailed as a marvel of genetic engineering in the April 25, 2014 issue of the journal Science. Deisseroth’s team had pioneered the use of light pulses to control brain circuitry in animals genetically engineered to be light-responsive — optogenetics. Genes that allow the sun to control light-sensitive primitive organisms like algae, melded with genes that make fluorescent marker proteins, are fused with a deactivated virus that delivers them to specific types of neurons which they become part of — allowing pulses of light to similarly commandeer brain cells.

Keyword: Brain imaging
Link ID: 19537 - Posted: 04.26.2014

By JAMES GORMAN SAN DIEGO — Dr. Karl Deisseroth is having a very early breakfast before the day gets going at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience. Thirty thousand people who study the brain are here at the Convention Center, a small city’s worth of badge-wearing, networking, lecture-attending scientists. For Dr. Deisseroth, though, this crowd is a bit like the gang at Cheers — everybody knows his name. He is a Stanford psychiatrist and a neuroscientist, and one of the people most responsible for the development of optogenetics, a technique that allows researchers to turn brain cells on and off with a combination of genetic manipulation and pulses of light. He is also one of the developers of a new way to turn brains transparent, though he was away when some new twists on the technique were presented by his lab a day or two earlier. “I had to fly home to take care of the kids,” he explained. He went home to Palo Alto to be with his four children, while his wife, Michelle Monje, a neurologist at Stanford, flew to the conference for a presentation from her lab. Now she was home and, here he was, back at the conference, looking a bit weary, eating eggs, sunny side up, and talking about the development of new technologies in science. A year ago, President Obama announced an initiative to invest in new research to map brain activity, allocating $100 million for the first year. The money is a drop in the bucket compared with the $4.5 billion the National Institutes of Health spends annually on neuroscience, but it is intended to push the development of new techniques to investigate the brain and map its pathways, starting with the brains of small creatures like flies. Cori Bargmann of Rockefeller University, who is a leader of a committee at the National Institutes of Health setting priorities for its piece of the brain initiative, said optogenetics was a great example of how technology could foster scientific progress. © 2014 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Brain imaging
Link ID: 19520 - Posted: 04.22.2014

by Ashley Yeager A nerve cell's long, slender tentacle isn’t evenly coated with an insulating sheath as scientists had thought. Instead, many nerve cells in the brains of mice have stretches of these tentacles, called axons, that are naked, researchers report April 18 in Science. The unsheathed feeler can be as long as 80 micrometers. Nerve cells can also have specific patterns in the gaps of the insulating layer, called myelin. The differences in the thickness of that coating may control how fast signals travel between nerve cells, the scientists suggest. The finding could have implications for understanding nerve-based diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, and improve scientists’ understanding of how signals are transmitted in the brain. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2013.

Keyword: Glia; Aggression
Link ID: 19507 - Posted: 04.19.2014

Everything we do — all of our movements, thoughts and feelings – are the result of neurons talking with one another, and recent studies have suggested that some of the conversations might not be all that private. Brain cells known as astrocytes may be listening in on, or even participating in, some of those discussions. But a new mouse study suggests that astrocytes might only be tuning in part of the time — specifically, when the neurons get really excited about something. This research, published in Neuron, was supported by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), part of the National Institutes of Health. For a long time, researchers thought that the star-shaped astrocytes (the name comes from the Greek word for star) were simply support cells for the neurons. It turns out that these cells have a number of important jobs, including providing nutrients and signaling molecules to neurons, regulating blood flow, and removing brain chemicals called neurotransmitters from the synapse. The synapse is the point of information transfer between two neurons. At this connection point, neurotransmitters are released from one neuron to affect the electrical properties of the other. Long arms of astrocytes are located next to synapses, where they can keep tabs on the conversations going on between neurons. In recent years, it has been shown that astrocytes may also play a role in neuronal communication. When neurons release neurotransmitters, levels of calcium change within astrocytes. Calcium is critical for many processes, including release of molecules from the cell, and activation of a host of proteins within the cell. The role of this astrocytic calcium signaling for brain function remains a mystery.

Keyword: Glia
Link ID: 19505 - Posted: 04.17.2014