Tag Archives: brain

Magnetic brain stimulation:New technique could lead to long-lasting localized stimulation of brain tissue without external connections.

By David Chandler


CAMBRIDGE, Mass–Researchers at MIT have developed a method to stimulate brain tissue using external magnetic fields and injected magnetic nanoparticles — a technique allowing direct stimulation of neurons, which could be an effective treatment for a variety of neurological diseases, without the need for implants or external connections.

The research, conducted by Polina Anikeeva, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering, graduate student Ritchie Chen, and three others, has been published in the journal Science.

Previous efforts to stimulate the brain using pulses of electricity have proven effective in reducing or eliminating tremors associated with Parkinson’s disease, but the treatment has remained a last resort because it requires highly invasive implanted wires that connect to a power source outside the brain.

“In the future, our technique may provide an implant-free means to provide brain stimulation and mapping,” Anikeeva says.

In their study, the team injected magnetic iron oxide particles just 22 nanometers in diameter into the brain. When exposed to an external alternating magnetic field — which can penetrate deep inside biological tissues — these particles rapidly heat up.

The resulting local temperature increase can then lead to neural activation by triggering heat-sensitive capsaicin receptors — the same proteins that the body uses to detect both actual heat and the “heat” of spicy foods. (Capsaicin is the chemical that gives hot peppers their searing taste.) Anikeeva’s team used viral gene delivery to induce the sensitivity to heat in selected neurons in the brain.

The particles, which have virtually no interaction with biological tissues except when heated, tend to remain where they’re placed, allowing for long-term treatment without the need for further invasive procedures.

“The nanoparticles integrate into the tissue and remain largely intact,” Anikeeva says. “Then, that region can be stimulated at will by externally applying an alternating magnetic field. The goal for us was to figure out whether we could deliver stimuli to the nervous system in a wireless and noninvasive way.”

The new work has proven that the approach is feasible, but much work remains to turn this proof-of-concept into a practical method for brain research or clinical treatment.

The use of magnetic fields and injected particles has been an active area of cancer research; the thought is that this approach could destroy cancer cells by heating them. “The new technique is derived, in part, from that research,” Anikeeva says. “By calibrating the delivered thermal dosage, we can excite neurons without killing them. The magnetic nanoparticles also have been used for decades as contrast agents in MRI scans, so they are considered relatively safe in the human body.”

The team developed ways to make the particles with precisely controlled sizes and shapes, in order to maximize their interaction with the applied alternating magnetic field. They also developed devices to deliver the applied magnetic field: Existing devices for cancer treatment — intended to produce much more intense heating — were far too big and energy-inefficient for this application.

The next step toward making this a practical technology for clinical use in humans “is to understand better how our method works through neural recordings and behavioral experiments, and assess whether there are any other side effects to tissues in the affected area,” Anikeeva says.

In addition to Anikeeva and Chen, the research team also included postdoc Gabriela Romero, graduate student Michael Christiansen, and undergraduate Alan Mohr. The work was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and the National Science Foundation.

The rise and fall of cognitive skills:Neuroscientists find that different parts of the brain work best at different ages.

By Anne Trafton


CAMBRIDGE, Mass–Scientists have long known that our ability to think quickly and recall information, also known as fluid intelligence, peaks around age 20 and then begins a slow decline. However, more recent findings, including a new study from neuroscientists at MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), suggest that the real picture is much more complex.

The study, which appears in the XX issue of the journal Psychological Science, finds that different components of fluid intelligence peak at different ages, some as late as age 40.

“At any given age, you’re getting better at some things, you’re getting worse at some other things, and you’re at a plateau at some other things. There’s probably not one age at which you’re peak on most things, much less all of them,” says Joshua Hartshorne, a postdoc in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and one of the paper’s authors.

“It paints a different picture of the way we change over the lifespan than psychology and neuroscience have traditionally painted,” adds Laura Germine, a postdoc in psychiatric and neurodevelopmental genetics at MGH and the paper’s other author.

Measuring peaks

Until now, it has been difficult to study how cognitive skills change over time because of the challenge of getting large numbers of people older than college students and younger than 65 to come to a psychology laboratory to participate in experiments. Hartshorne and Germine were able to take a broader look at aging and cognition because they have been running large-scale experiments on the Internet, where people of any age can become research subjects.

Their web sites, gameswithwords.org and testmybrain.org, feature cognitive tests designed to be completed in just a few minutes. Through these sites, the researchers have accumulated data from nearly 3 million people in the past several years.

In 2011, Germine published a study showing that the ability to recognize faces improves until the early 30s before gradually starting to decline. This finding did not fit into the theory that fluid intelligence peaks in late adolescence. Around the same time, Hartshorne found that subjects’ performance on a visual short-term memory task also peaked in the early 30s.

Intrigued by these results, the researchers, then graduate students at Harvard University, decided that they needed to explore a different source of data, in case some aspect of collecting data on the Internet was skewing the results. They dug out sets of data, collected decades ago, on adult performance at different ages on the Weschler Adult Intelligence Scale, which is used to measure IQ, and the Weschler Memory Scale. Together, these tests measure about 30 different subsets of intelligence, such as digit memorization, visual search, and assembling puzzles.

Hartshorne and Germine developed a new way to analyze the data that allowed them to compare the age peaks for each task. “We were mapping when these cognitive abilities were peaking, and we saw there was no single peak for all abilities. The peaks were all over the place,” Hartshorne says. “This was the smoking gun.”

However, the dataset was not as large as the researchers would have liked, so they decided to test several of the same cognitive skills with their larger pools of Internet study participants. For the Internet study, the researchers chose four tasks that peaked at different ages, based on the data from the Weschler tests. They also included a test of the ability to perceive others’ emotional state, which is not measured by the Weschler tests.

The researchers gathered data from nearly 50,000 subjects and found a very clear picture showing that each cognitive skill they were testing peaked at a different age. For example, raw speed in processing information appears to peak around age 18 or 19, then immediately starts to decline. Meanwhile, short-term memory continues to improve until around age 25, when it levels off and then begins to drop around age 35.

For the ability to evaluate other people’s emotional states, the peak occurred much later, in the 40s or 50s.

More work will be needed to reveal why each of these skills peaks at different times, the researchers say. However, previous studies have hinted that genetic changes or changes in brain structure may play a role.

“If you go into the data on gene expression or brain structure at different ages, you see these lifespan patterns that we don’t know what to make of. The brain seems to continue to change in dynamic ways through early adulthood and middle age,” Germine says. “The question is: What does it mean? How does it map onto the way you function in the world, or the way you think, or the way you change as you age?”

Accumulated intelligence

The researchers also included a vocabulary test, which serves as a measure of what is known as crystallized intelligence — the accumulation of facts and knowledge. These results confirmed that crystallized intelligence peaks later in life, as previously believed, but the researchers also found something unexpected: While data from the Weschler IQ tests suggested that vocabulary peaks in the late 40s, the new data showed a later peak, in the late 60s or early 70s.

The researchers believe this may be a result of better education, more people having jobs that require a lot of reading, and more opportunities for intellectual stimulation for older people.

Hartshorne and Germine are now gathering more data from their websites and have added new cognitive tasks designed to evaluate social and emotional intelligence, language skills, and executive function. They are also working on making their data public so that other researchers can access it and perform other types of studies and analyses.

“We took the existing theories that were out there and showed that they’re all wrong. The question now is: What is the right one? To get to that answer, we’re going to need to run a lot more studies and collect a lot more data,” Hartshorne says.

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and a National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship.

Source: MIT News Office

Electrical and computer engineering Professor Barry Van Veen wears an electrode net used to monitor brain activity via EEG signals. His research could help untangle what happens in the brain during sleep and dreaming.

Photo Credit: Nick Berard/UW-Madison

Stanford scientists seek to map origins of mental illness and develop noninvasive treatment

An interdisciplinary team of scientists has convened to map the origins of mental illnesses in the brain and develop noninvasive technologies to treat the conditions. The collaboration could lead to improved treatments for depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.

BY AMY ADAMS


Over the years imaging technologies have revealed a lot about what’s happening in our brains, including which parts are active in people with conditions like depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder. But here’s the secret Amit Etkin wants the world to know about those tantalizing images: they show the result of a brain state, not what caused it.

This is important because until we know how groups of neurons, called circuits, are causing these conditions – not just which are active later – scientists will never be able to treat them in a targeted way.

“You see things activated in brain images but you can’t tell just by watching what is cause and what is effect,” said Amit Etkin, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. Etkin is co-leader of a new interdisciplinary initiative to understand what brain circuits underlie mental health conditions and then direct noninvasive treatments to those locations.

“Right now, if a patient with a mental illness goes to see their doctor they would likely be given a medication that goes all over the brain and body,” Etkin said. “While medications can work well, they do so for only a portion of people and often only partially.” Medications don’t specifically act on the brain circuits critically affected in that illness or individual.

The Big Idea: treat roots of mental illness

The new initiative, called NeuroCircuit, has the goal of finding the brain circuits that are responsible for mental health conditions and then developing ways of remotely stimulating those circuits and, the team hopes, potentially treating those conditions.

The initiative is part of the Stanford Neurosciences Institute‘s Big Ideas, which bring together teams of researchers from across disciplines to solve major problems in neuroscience and society. Stephen Baccus, an associate professor of neurobiology who co-leads the initiative with Etkin, said that what makes NeuroCircuit a big idea is the merging of teams trying to map circuits responsible for mental health conditions and teams developing new technologies to remotely access those circuits.

“Many psychiatric disorders, especially disorders of mood, probably involve malfunction within specific brain circuits that regulate emotion and motivation, yet our current pharmaceutical treatments affect circuits all over the brain,” said William Newsome, director of the Stanford Neurosciences Institute. “The ultimate goal of NeuroCircuit is more precise treatments, with minimal side effects, for specific psychiatric disorders.”

“The connection between the people who develop the technology and carry out research with the clinical goal, that’s what’s really come out of the Big Ideas,” Baccus said.

Brain control

Etkin has been working with a technology called transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS, to map and remotely stimulate parts of the brain. The device, which looks like a pair of doughnuts on a stick, generates a strong magnetic current that stimulates circuits near the surface of the brain.

TMS is currently used as a way of treating depression and anxiety, but Etkin said the brain regions being targeted are the ones available to TMS, not necessarily the ones most likely to treat a person’s condition. They are also not personalized for the individual.

Pairing TMS with another technology that shows which brain regions are active, Etkin and his team can stimulate one part of the brain with TMS and look for a reaction elsewhere. These studies can eventually help map the relationships between brain circuits and identify the circuits that underlie mental health conditions.

In parallel, the team is working to improve TMS to make it more useful as a therapy. TMS currently only reaches the surface of the brain and is not very focused. The goal is to improve the technology so that it can reach structures deeper in the brain in a more targeted way. “Right now they are hitting the only accessible target,” he said. “The parts we really want to hit for depression, anxiety or PTSD are likely deeper in the brain.”

Technology of the future

In parallel with the TMS work, Baccus and a team of engineers, radiologists and physiologists have been developing a way of using ultrasound to stimulate the brain. Ultrasound is widely used to image the body, most famously for producing images of developing babies in the womb. But in recent years scientists have learned that at the right frequency and focus, ultrasound can also stimulate nerves to fire.

In his lab, Baccus has been using ultrasound to stimulate nerve cells of the retina – the light-sensing structure at the back of the eye – as part of an effort to develop a prosthetic retina. He is also teaming up with colleagues to understand how ultrasound might be triggering that stimulation. It appears to compress the nerve cells in a way that could lead to activation, but the connection is far from clear.

Other members of the team are modifying existing ultrasound technology to direct it deep within the brain at a frequency that can stimulate nerves without harming them. If the team is successful, ultrasound could be a more targeted and focused tool than TMS for remotely stimulating circuits that underlie mental health conditions.

The group has been working together for about five years, and in 2012 got funding from Bio-X NeuroVentures, which eventually gave rise to the Stanford Neurosciences Institute, to pursue this technology. Baccus said that before merging with Etkin’s team they had been focusing on the technology without specific brain diseases in mind. “This merger really gives a target and a focus to the technology,” he said.

Etkin and Baccus said that if they are successful, they hope to have both a better understanding of how the brain functions and new tools for treating disabling mental health conditions.

Source: Stanford News

Electrical and computer engineering Professor Barry Van Veen wears an electrode net used to monitor brain activity via EEG signals. His research could help untangle what happens in the brain during sleep and dreaming.

Photo Credit: Nick Berard/UW-Madison

Imagination, reality flow in opposite directions in the brain

By Scott Gordon


As real as that daydream may seem, its path through your brain runs opposite reality.

Aiming to discern discrete neural circuits, researchers at the University of Wisconsin–Madison have tracked electrical activity in the brains of people who alternately imagined scenes or watched videos.

“A really important problem in brain research is understanding how different parts of the brain are functionally connected. What areas are interacting? What is the direction of communication?” says Barry Van Veen, a UW-Madison professor of electrical and computer engineering. “We know that the brain does not function as a set of independent areas, but as a network of specialized areas that collaborate.”

Van Veen, along with Giulio Tononi, a UW-Madison psychiatry professor and neuroscientist, Daniela Dentico, a scientist at UW–Madison’s Waisman Center, and collaborators from the University of Liege in Belgium, published results recently in the journalNeuroImage. Their work could lead to the development of new tools to help Tononi untangle what happens in the brain during sleep and dreaming, while Van Veen hopes to apply the study’s new methods to understand how the brain uses networks to encode short-term memory.

During imagination, the researchers found an increase in the flow of information from the parietal lobe of the brain to the occipital lobe — from a higher-order region that combines inputs from several of the senses out to a lower-order region.

Electrical and computer engineering Professor Barry Van Veen wears an electrode net used to monitor brain activity via EEG signals. His research could help untangle what happens in the brain during sleep and dreaming. Photo Credit: Nick Berard/UW-Madison
Electrical and computer engineering Professor Barry Van Veen wears an electrode net used to monitor brain activity via EEG signals. His research could help untangle what happens in the brain during sleep and dreaming.
Photo Credit: Nick Berard/UW-Madison

In contrast, visual information taken in by the eyes tends to flow from the occipital lobe — which makes up much of the brain’s visual cortex — “up” to the parietal lobe.

“There seems to be a lot in our brains and animal brains that is directional, that neural signals move in a particular direction, then stop, and start somewhere else,” says. “I think this is really a new theme that had not been explored.”

The researchers approached the study as an opportunity to test the power of electroencephalography (EEG) — which uses sensors on the scalp to measure underlying electrical activity — to discriminate between different parts of the brain’s network.

Brains are rarely quiet, though, and EEG tends to record plenty of activity not necessarily related to a particular process researchers want to study.

To zero in on a set of target circuits, the researchers asked their subjects to watch short video clips before trying to replay the action from memory in their heads. Others were asked to imagine traveling on a magic bicycle — focusing on the details of shapes, colors and textures — before watching a short video of silent nature scenes.

Using an algorithm Van Veen developed to parse the detailed EEG data, the researchers were able to compile strong evidence of the directional flow of information.

“We were very interested in seeing if our signal-processing methods were sensitive enough to discriminate between these conditions,” says Van Veen, whose work is supported by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering. “These types of demonstrations are important for gaining confidence in new tools.”

Source: UW-Madison News

Neuroscientists reverse memories’ emotional associations

MIT study also identifies the brain circuit that links feelings to memories.

By Anne Trafton

Most memories have some kind of emotion associated with them: Recalling the week you just spent at the beach probably makes you feel happy, while reflecting on being bullied provokes more negative feelings.

A new study from MIT neuroscientists reveals the brain circuit that controls how memories become linked with positive or negative emotions. Furthermore, the researchers found that they could reverse the emotional association of specific memories by manipulating brain cells with optogenetics — a technique that uses light to control neuron activity.

The findings, described in the Aug. 27 issue of Nature, demonstrated that a neuronal circuit connecting the hippocampus and the amygdala plays a critical role in associating emotion with memory. This circuit could offer a target for new drugs to help treat conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, the researchers say.

“In the future, one may be able to develop methods that help people to remember positive memories more strongly than negative ones,” says Susumu Tonegawa, the Picower Professor of Biology and Neuroscience, director of the RIKEN-MIT Center for Neural Circuit Genetics at MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, and senior author of the paper.

 This image depicts the injection sites and the expression of the viral constructs in the two areas of the brain studied: the Dentate Gyrus of the hippocampus (middle) and the Basolateral Amygdala (bottom corners). Credits Image courtesy of the researchers/MIT

This image depicts the injection sites and the expression of the viral constructs in the two areas of the brain studied: the Dentate Gyrus of the hippocampus (middle) and the Basolateral Amygdala (bottom corners).
Credits: Image courtesy of the researchers/MIT

The paper’s lead authors are Roger Redondo, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute postdoc at MIT, and Joshua Kim, a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Biology.

Shifting memories

Memories are made of many elements, which are stored in different parts of the brain. A memory’s context, including information about the location where the event took place, is stored in cells of the hippocampus, while emotions linked to that memory are found in the amygdala.

Previous research has shown that many aspects of memory, including emotional associations, are malleable. Psychotherapists have taken advantage of this to help patients suffering from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, but the neural circuitry underlying such malleability is not known.

In this study, the researchers set out to explore that malleability with an experimental technique they recently devised that allows them to tag neurons that encode a specific memory, or engram. To achieve this, they label hippocampal cells that are turned on during memory formation with a light-sensitive protein called channelrhodopsin. From that point on, any time those cells are activated with light, the mice recall the memory encoded by that group of cells.

Last year, Tonegawa’s lab used this technique to implant, or “incept,” false memories in miceby reactivating engrams while the mice were undergoing a different experience. In the new study, the researchers wanted to investigate how the context of a memory becomes linked to a particular emotion. First, they used their engram-labeling protocol to tag neurons associated with either a rewarding experience (for male mice, socializing with a female mouse) or an unpleasant experience (a mild electrical shock). In this first set of experiments, the researchers labeled memory cells in a part of the hippocampus called the dentate gyrus.

Two days later, the mice were placed into a large rectangular arena. For three minutes, the researchers recorded which half of the arena the mice naturally preferred. Then, for mice that had received the fear conditioning, the researchers stimulated the labeled cells in the dentate gyrus with light whenever the mice went into the preferred side. The mice soon began avoiding that area, showing that the reactivation of the fear memory had been successful.

The reward memory could also be reactivated: For mice that were reward-conditioned, the researchers stimulated them with light whenever they went into the less-preferred side, and they soon began to spend more time there, recalling the pleasant memory.

A couple of days later, the researchers tried to reverse the mice’s emotional responses. For male mice that had originally received the fear conditioning, they activated the memory cells involved in the fear memory with light for 12 minutes while the mice spent time with female mice. For mice that had initially received the reward conditioning, memory cells were activated while they received mild electric shocks.

Next, the researchers again put the mice in the large two-zone arena. This time, the mice that had originally been conditioned with fear and had avoided the side of the chamber where their hippocampal cells were activated by the laser now began to spend more time in that side when their hippocampal cells were activated, showing that a pleasant association had replaced the fearful one. This reversal also took place in mice that went from reward to fear conditioning.

Altered connections

The researchers then performed the same set of experiments but labeled memory cells in the basolateral amygdala, a region involved in processing emotions. This time, they could not induce a switch by reactivating those cells — the mice continued to behave as they had been conditioned when the memory cells were first labeled.

This suggests that emotional associations, also called valences, are encoded somewhere in the neural circuitry that connects the dentate gyrus to the amygdala, the researchers say. A fearful experience strengthens the connections between the hippocampal engram and fear-encoding cells in the amygdala, but that connection can be weakened later on as new connections are formed between the hippocampus and amygdala cells that encode positive associations.

“That plasticity of the connection between the hippocampus and the amygdala plays a crucial role in the switching of the valence of the memory,” Tonegawa says.

These results indicate that while dentate gyrus cells are neutral with respect to emotion, individual amygdala cells are precommitted to encode fear or reward memory. The researchers are now trying to discover molecular signatures of these two types of amygdala cells. They are also investigating whether reactivating pleasant memories has any effect on depression, in hopes of identifying new targets for drugs to treat depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

David Anderson, a professor of biology at the California Institute of Technology, says the study makes an important contribution to neuroscientists’ fundamental understanding of the brain and also has potential implications for treating mental illness.

“This is a tour de force of modern molecular-biology-based methods for analyzing processes, such as learning and memory, at the neural-circuitry level. It’s one of the most sophisticated studies of this type that I’ve seen,” he says.

The research was funded by the RIKEN Brain Science Institute, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the JPB Foundation.