Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Light Triggers a New Code for Brain Cells

Brain cells can adopt a new chemical code in response to cues from the outside world, scientists working with tadpoles at the University of California, San Diego report in the journal Nature this week.

The discovery opens the possibility that brain chemistry could be selectively altered by stimulating specific circuits to remedy low levels of neural chemicals that underlie some human ailments.

Dark tadpoles don pale camouflage when exposed to bright light. The researchers have now identified cells in the tadpole brain that respond to illumination by making dopamine, a chemical message, or neurotransmitter, recognized by the system that controls pigmentation.

"We used to think activity turned a switch to specify which transmitters a neuron would use only in early development," said co-author Davide Dulcis, a postdoctoral fellow in neurobiology who designed and conducted the experiments. "But this is happening after hatching."

The cells, found in a cluster called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, connect to a gland that releases a hormone that disperses pigments to darken skin. Dopamine squelches hormone release leaving pigments tightly packed in skin cells and the tadpoles nearly transparent.

"The behavior meets an ecological need." Dulcis said. "Pale tadpoles are difficult for predators to see in a bright environment, so the faster the tadpoles change their pigmentation, the better they are able to survive."

Cells in the core of the cluster always make dopamine, but a ring of surrounding cells normally don't, even though they are connected to the gland.

Bright light alters this pattern, however. After just two hours, cells in the surrounding ring show signs of making the new neurotransmitter. Because they are already hooked up to the hormone-producing target, illumination can result in noticeably paler tadpoles in as little as ten minutes.

"The new dopamine neurons are not simply activated at random," said co-author Nicholas Spitzer, a professor of neurobiology who leads the research group. "It's as if they are a kind of national guard, waiting in reserve to be called out. There's a pool of neurons waiting for the right sensory stimulus to be called into action and to adopt a new transmitter."

The signal-switching cells receive a link directly from the eye and are part of a brain circuit shared by a variety of animals from bony fish to humans. Although these cells don't contribute to vision, they do monitor light levels for other purposes, particularly for coordinating daily rhythms of physiology and behavior.

Activity might alter brain chemistry in other circuits as well, the researchers say. Light helps people who experience seasonal affective disorder, for example. Their symptoms of depression, which descend during long winter nights, lift in summer and also abate when they are regularly exposed to bright light, a therapy that can be as effective as anti-depressant drugs.

"Maybe it's the case that for many neurons there is additional circuitry that can be activated under certain circumstances," Spitzer said.

Depleted brain chemistry underlies several diseases, including Parkinson's. If a reserve pool of neurons could be identified and recruited by stimulating particular neural circuitry some of the side effects that stem from flooding the entire brain and body with drugs designed to boost levels of specific neurotransmitters might be avoided, he said.

The National Institutes of Health funded the study.

Susan Brown | Newswise Science News
Further information:

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht Gene therapy shows promise for treating Niemann-Pick disease type C1
27.10.2016 | NIH/National Human Genome Research Institute

nachricht 'Neighbor maps' reveal the genome's 3-D shape
27.10.2016 | International School of Advanced Studies (SISSA)

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Etching Microstructures with Lasers

Ultrafast lasers have introduced new possibilities in engraving ultrafine structures, and scientists are now also investigating how to use them to etch microstructures into thin glass. There are possible applications in analytics (lab on a chip) and especially in electronics and the consumer sector, where great interest has been shown.

This new method was born of a surprising phenomenon: irradiating glass in a particular way with an ultrafast laser has the effect of making the glass up to a...

Im Focus: Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion

Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

How nanoscience will improve our health and lives in the coming years

27.10.2016 | Materials Sciences

OU-led team discovers rare, newborn tri-star system using ALMA

27.10.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

'Neighbor maps' reveal the genome's 3-D shape

27.10.2016 | Life Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>