Stories about: neuroscience

Creating custom brains from the ground up

building a custom brain
(ADOBE STOCK)

Scientists studying how genetics impact brain disease have long sought a better experimental model. Cultures of genetically-modified cell lines can reveal some clues to how certain genes influence the development of psychiatric disorders and brain cancers. But such models cannot offer the true-to-form look at brain function that can be provided by genetically-modified mice.

Even then, carefully breeding mice to study how genes impact the brain has several drawbacks. The breeding cycles are lengthy and costly, and the desired gene specificity can only be verified — but not guaranteed — when mouse pups are born.

In today’s Nature, scientists from Boston Children’s Hospital and UC San Francisco describe a new way to create customized mouse models for studying the brain.

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Synapse ‘protection’ signal found; helps to refine brain circuits

a combination of 'eat me' and 'don't eat me' signals fine-tune synapse pruning
New evidence suggests that a ‘yin/yang’ system fine-tunes brain connections and synapse pruning (IMAGE: NANCY FLIESLER/ADOBE STOCK)

The developing brain is constantly forming new connections, or synapses, between nerve cells. Many connections are eventually lost, while others are strengthened. In 2012, Beth Stevens, PhD and her lab at Boston Children’s Hospital showed that microglia, immune cells that live in the brain, prune back unwanted synapses by engulfing or “eating” them. They also identified a set of “eat me” signals required to promote this process: complement proteins, best known for helping the immune system combat infection.

In new work published today in Neuron, Stevens and colleagues reveal the flip side: a “don’t eat me” signal that prevents microglia from pruning useful connections away.

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Earlier treatment may help reverse autism-like behavior in tuberous sclerosis

research in Purkinje cells may help complete the puzzle of autism
(IMAGE: PETER TSAI)

New research on autism has found, in a mouse model, that drug treatment at a young age can reverse social impairments. But the same intervention was not effective at an older age.

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A Manhattan Project for the brain, at age 50

Formation of the IDDRCs in the 1960s launched a Manhattan project for the brain.
Landmark federal legislation in JFK’s final days launched an explosion of neuroscience research. (PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: NANCY FLIESLER/ADOBE STOCK)

On October 30th, 2018, Boston Children’s will be marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of its Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center.

As the African-American civil rights movement was flowering in the 1960s, a less visible civil rights movement was dawning. And so was a revolution in science that may outshine that spurred by the U.S. space program.

It was a time when children with what is now called intellectual disability (ID) or developmental disability (DD) were “excused” from school and routinely abandoned to institutions. “Schools” like the Fernald Center in Massachusetts and the Willowbrook State School in New York housed thousands of residents.

Some participated in research, but not the kind you might think. At Willowbrook, children were deliberately infected with hepatitis to test a new treatment. At Fernald, they were deliberately exposed to radiation in an experiment approved by the Atomic Energy Commission. Institutional review boards did not then exist.

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy convened a panel to propose a “National Action to Combat Mental Retardation,” at the strong urging of his sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver. Three weeks before JFK’s assassination, the first legislation passed. It changed the course of history.

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Neurons from the brain amplify touch sensation. Could they be targeted to treat neuropathic pain?

neuropathic pain amplification circuit
CREDIT: ALBAN LATREMOLIERE/BOSTON CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL/JOHNS HOPKINS

Neuropathic pain is a hard-to-treat chronic pain condition caused by nervous system damage. For people affected, the lightest touch can be intensely painful. A study in today’s Nature may open up a new angle on treatment — and could help explain why mind-body techniques can sometimes help people manage their pain.

“We know that mental activities of the higher brain — cognition, memory, fear, anxiety — can cause you to feel more or less pain,” notes Clifford Woolf, MB, BCh, PhD, director of the F.M. Kirby Neurobiology Center at Boston Children’s Hospital. “Now we’ve confirmed a physiological pathway that may be responsible for the extent of the pain. We have identified a volume control in the brain for pain — now we need to learn how to switch it off.”

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‘See through,’ high-resolution EEG recording array gives a better glimpse of the brain

Transparent microelectrodes allow EEG recording at the single-neuron level, with simultaneous 2-photon optical imaging of calcium activity.
Transparent microelectrodes allow EEG recording at the single-neuron level, with simultaneous 2-photon optical imaging of calcium activity. (CREDIT: Yi Qiang et al. Sci. Adv. 4, eaat0626 (2018).)

Electroencephalography (EEG), which records electrical discharges in the brain, is a well-established technique for measuring brain activity. But current EEG electrode arrays, even placed directly on the brain, cannot distinguish the activity of different types of brain cells, instead averaging signals from a general area. Nor is it possible to easily compare EEG data with brain imaging data.

A collaboration between neuroscientist Michela Fagiolini, PhD at Boston Children’s Hospital and engineer Hui Fang, PhD at Northeastern University has led to a highly miniaturized, see-through EEG device. It promises to be much more useful for understanding the brain’s workings.

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Probing the brain’s earliest development, with a detour into rare childhood cancers

In early brain development there is an increase in ribosomes, contained in these nucleoli
Nucleoli, the structures in the cell nucleus that manufacture ribosomes, are enlarged in very early brain development, indicating an increase in ribosome production. Here, a 3D reconstruction of individual nucleoli. (Kevin Chau, Boston Children’s Hospital)

In our early days as embryos, before we had brains, we had a neural fold, bathed in amniotic fluid. Sometime in the early-to-mid first trimester, the fold closed to form a tube, capturing some of the fluid inside as cerebrospinal fluid. Only then did our brains begin to form.

In 2015, a team led by Maria Lehtinen, PhD, Kevin Chau, PhD and Hanno Steen, PhD, at Boston Children’s Hospital, showed that the profile of proteins in the fluid changes during this time. They further showed that these proteins “talk” to the neural stem cells that form the brain.

In new research just published in the online journal eLife, Lehtinen and Chau shed more light on this little-known early stage of brain development.

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Elusive epilepsy mutations begin to yield up their secrets

mosaic epilepsy mutations concept
Fawn Gracey illustration

Anti-seizure drugs don’t work in about a third of people with epilepsy. But for people with focal epilepsy, whose seizures originate in a discrete area of the brain, surgery is sometimes an option. The diseased brain tissue that’s removed also offers a rare opportunity to discover epilepsy-related genes.

Many mutations causing epilepsy have been discovered by testing DNA taken from the blood. But it’s becoming clear that not all epilepsy mutations show up on blood tests. So-called somatic mutations can arise directly in tissues like the brain during early prenatal development. Even within the brain, these mutations may affect only a fraction of the cells — those descended from the original mutated cell. This can create a “mosaic” pattern, with affected and unaffected cells sometimes intermingling.

One of the first such mutations to be described, by Ann Poduri, MD, MPH, and colleagues at Boston Children’s Hospital in 2012, was in Dante, a young boy who was having relentless daily seizures. The entire right side of Dante’s brain was malformed and enlarged, and he underwent a drastic operation, hemispherectomy, to remove it. Only later, studying brain samples from Dante and similar children, did Poduri find the genetic cause: a mutation in the gene AKT3. It affected only about a third of Dante’s brain cells. 

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Diagnosing autism in infants? EEG algorithms make accurate predictions

autism EEGs
EEG nets are easily slipped over an infant’s head and cause no discomfort. (Credit: Nelson Lab)

The earlier autism can be diagnosed, the more effective interventions typically are. But the signs are often subtle or can be misinterpreted at young ages. As a result, many children aren’t diagnosed until age 2 or even older. Now, a study shows that electroencephalograms (EEGs), which measure the brain’s electrical activity, can accurately predict or rule out autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in babies as young as 3 months old. It appears today in Scientific Reports.

The beauty of EEG is that it’s already used in many pediatric neurology or developmental pediatric settings. “EEGs are low-cost, non-invasive and relatively easy to incorporate into well-baby checkups,” says study co-author Charles Nelson, PhD, director of the Laboratories of Cognitive Neuroscience at Boston Children’s Hospital. “Their reliability in predicting whether a child will develop autism raises the possibility of intervening very early, well before clear behavioral symptoms emerge.”

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Mutant ferrets and kids with microcephaly shed light on brain evolution

ASPM, ferrets, microcephaly and brain evolution
Fawn Gracey illustration

Mouse brains are tiny and smooth. Ferret brains are larger and convoluted. And ferrets, members of the weasel family, could provide the missing link in understanding how we humans acquired our big brains.

Children with microcephaly, whose brains are abnormally small, have a part in the story too. Microcephaly is notorious for its link to the Zika virus, but it can also be caused by mutations in various genes. Some of these genes have been shown to be essential for growth of the cerebral cortex, the part of our brain that handles higher-order thinking.

Reporting in Nature today, a team led by Christopher A. Walsh, MD, PhD, of Boston Children’s Hospital and Byoung-Il Bae, PhD, at Yale University, inactivated the most common recessive microcephaly gene, ASPM, in ferrets. This replicated microcephaly and allowed the team to study what regulates brain size.

“I’m trained as a neurologist, and study kids with developmental brain diseases,” said Walsh in a press release from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which gave him a boost to his usual budget to support this work. “I never thought I’d be peering into the evolutionary history of humankind.”

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