Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Lighting the way to understanding the brain

30.11.2011
Harvard researcher creates neurons that light up as they fire

In a scientific first that potentially could shed new light on how signals travel in the brain, how learning alters neural pathways, and might lead to speedier drug development, scientists at Harvard have created genetically-altered neurons that light up as they fire.

The work, led by John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Natural Sciences Adam Cohen, and described in Nature Methods on Nov. 28, involved using a gene from a Dead Sea microorganism to produce a protein that, when exposed to the electrical signal in a neuron, fluoresces, allowing researchers to trace the propagation of signals through the cell.

"It's very exciting," Cohen said of the research. "In terms of basic biology, there are a number of things we can now do which we've never been able to do. We can see how these signals spread through the neuronal network. We can study the speed at which the signal spreads, and if it changes as the cells undergo changes. We may someday even be able to study how these signals move in living animals."

To create the light-up neurons, Cohen and his team infected brain cells that had been cultured in the lab with a genetically-altered virus that contained the protein-producing gene. Once infected, the cells began manufacturing the protein, allowing them to light up.

"The way a neuron works is it has a membrane around the whole cell, sort of like a wire and insulation, except in a neuron the membrane is an active substance," Cohen said. "Normally, the inside of the cell is negatively-charged relative to the outside.

"When a neuron fires, the voltage reverses for a very short time, about 1/1,000th of a second," he continued. "This brief spike in voltage travels down the neuron and then activates other neurons downstream. Our protein is sitting in the membrane of the neurons, so as that pulse washes over the proteins, they light up, giving us an image of the neurons as they fire."

The research has the potential to revolutionize our understanding of how electrical signals move through the brain, as well as other tissues, Cohen said.

"Before, the best way to make a measurement of the electrical activity in a cell was to stick a little electrode into it and record the results on a volt meter," he said. "The issue, however, was that you were only measuring the voltage at one point, you weren't seeing a spatial map of how signals propagate. Now, we will be able to study how the signal spreads, whether it moves through all neurons at the same speed, and even how signals change if the cells are undergoing something akin to learning."

Another limitation of using electrodes, Cohen said, is that the process tends to kill the cells relatively quickly, making it impossible to study processes that take place over time. His new process, however, opens the door to studying the effects of growth and development on neurons, or to monitor how stem cells develop.

Being able to track the electrical pathways in cells also holds practical applications, Cohen said, particularly when it comes to the development of new drugs or other therapies.

"Many, many drugs target ion channels, which are important proteins in governing the activity of the heart and brain," he said. "Right now, if you want to test a compound designed to activate or inactivate a particular ion channel, you have to culture the cell, test it with an electrode, then add the drug and see what happens. This is an extremely slow process – it typically takes an hour or two for each data point.

"Now that we can do it optically in the microscope, we can test the efficacy of a drug on a cell in a few seconds. Instead of testing one compound or ten compounds, we can try to test thousands or even hundreds of thousands. We can test different conditions, different mixtures – it will increase the throughput for testing new drugs."

The process may even open new research avenues for those studying genetic conditions ranging from depression to heart disease.

Using stem cells, researchers can culture cells in the lab that are genetically identical to a patient known to carry a genetic predisposition to a particular condition, then study how signals move through those cells.

Cohen's research was supported by the Harvard Center for Brain Science, National Institutes of Health grants and the Harvard/MIT Joint Research Grants Program in Basic Neuroscience.

Peter Reuell | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.harvard.edu

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht Staying in Shape
16.08.2018 | Max-Planck-Institut für molekulare Zellbiologie und Genetik

nachricht Chips, light and coding moves the front line in beating bacteria
16.08.2018 | Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST) Graduate University

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

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

Im Focus: Unraveling the nature of 'whistlers' from space in the lab

A new study sheds light on how ultralow frequency radio waves and plasmas interact

Scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles present new research on a curious cosmic phenomenon known as "whistlers" -- very low frequency packets...

Im Focus: New interactive machine learning tool makes car designs more aerodynamic

Scientists develop first tool to use machine learning methods to compute flow around interactively designable 3D objects. Tool will be presented at this year’s prestigious SIGGRAPH conference.

When engineers or designers want to test the aerodynamic properties of the newly designed shape of a car, airplane, or other object, they would normally model...

Im Focus: Robots as 'pump attendants': TU Graz develops robot-controlled rapid charging system for e-vehicles

Researchers from TU Graz and their industry partners have unveiled a world first: the prototype of a robot-controlled, high-speed combined charging system (CCS) for electric vehicles that enables series charging of cars in various parking positions.

Global demand for electric vehicles is forecast to rise sharply: by 2025, the number of new vehicle registrations is expected to reach 25 million per year....

Im Focus: The “TRiC” to folding actin

Proteins must be folded correctly to fulfill their molecular functions in cells. Molecular assistants called chaperones help proteins exploit their inbuilt folding potential and reach the correct three-dimensional structure. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry (MPIB) have demonstrated that actin, the most abundant protein in higher developed cells, does not have the inbuilt potential to fold and instead requires special assistance to fold into its active state. The chaperone TRiC uses a previously undescribed mechanism to perform actin folding. The study was recently published in the journal Cell.

Actin is the most abundant protein in highly developed cells and has diverse functions in processes like cell stabilization, cell division and muscle...

Im Focus: Lining up surprising behaviors of superconductor with one of the world's strongest magnets

Scientists have discovered that the electrical resistance of a copper-oxide compound depends on the magnetic field in a very unusual way -- a finding that could help direct the search for materials that can perfectly conduct electricity at room temperatur

What happens when really powerful magnets--capable of producing magnetic fields nearly two million times stronger than Earth's--are applied to materials that...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

VideoLinks
Industry & Economy
Event News

Within reach of the Universe

08.08.2018 | Event News

A journey through the history of microscopy – new exhibition opens at the MDC

27.07.2018 | Event News

2018 Work Research Conference

25.07.2018 | Event News

 
Latest News

Staying in Shape

16.08.2018 | Life Sciences

Diving robots find Antarctic seas exhale surprising amounts of carbon dioxide in winter

16.08.2018 | Earth Sciences

Protein droplets keep neurons at the ready and immune system in balance

16.08.2018 | Life Sciences

VideoLinks
Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>