Stories about: neuroscience

Biological explorers find new player in the formation of the nervous system

Tom Schwarz recently found a new function for the kinetochore
(PHOTO: MICHAEL GODERRE / BOSTON CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL)

Tom Schwarz, PhD, is a cell biologist who conducts his research in a cluttered laboratory overlooking Boston Children’s Hospital. But he likens his scientific approach to that of the great explorers of the past.  “It’s like marching off into the jungle,” he says, “because you really don’t know what you’re going to find.”

Schwarz and colleagues at the F.M. Kirby Neurobiology Center have just returned from an “expedition” that could profoundly change our understanding of how the nervous system forms — and give an unexpected new role to an old standby in cell biology: the kinetochore.

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How the antidepressant ketamine rapidly awakens the brain, and why its effects vary more in women

(CREDIT: NATHALIE PICARD / BOSTON CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL)

In small doses, the anesthetic ketamine is a mildly hallucinogenic party drug known as “Special K.” In even smaller doses, ketamine relieves depression — abruptly and sometimes dramatically, steering some people away from suicidal thoughts. Studies indicate that ketamine works in 60 to 70 percent of people not helped by slower-acting SSRIs, the usual drugs for depression.

Two ketamine-like drugs are in the clinical pipeline, and, as of this week, one appears close to FDA approval. With no significant new antidepressant in more than 30 years, anticipation is high. Yet no one has pinned down how low-dose ketamine works. Studies have implicated various brain neurotransmitters and their receptors — serotonin, dopamine, glutamate, GABA receptors, opioid receptors — but findings have been contradictory.

“We felt it was time to figure this out once and for all,” says neuroscientist Takao Hensch, PhD.

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Microglia in the brain: Which are good and which are bad?

Timothy Hammond studying brain microglia in the Stevens Lab at Boston Children's Hospital
If we see microglia in brain disease, are they part of the problem, or part of the solution? asks Timothy Hammond. (PHOTOS: MICHAEL GODERRE / BOSTON CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL)

Microglia are known to be important to brain function. The immune cells have been found to protect the brain from injury and infection and are critical during brain development, helping circuits wire properly. They also seem to play a role in disease — showing up, for example, around brain plaques in people with Alzheimer’s.

It turns out microglia aren’t monolithic. They come in different flavors, and unlike the brain’s neurons, they’re always changing. Tim Hammond, PhD, a neuroscientist in the Stevens lab at Boston Children’s Hospital, showed this in an ambitious study, perhaps the most comprehensive survey of microglia ever conducted. Published last week in Immunity, the findings open a new chapter in brain exploration.

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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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