Plugging into the brain

Driven by curiosity and therapeutic goals, Anikeeva leaves no scientific stone unturned in her drive to invent neurotechnology.

The audience sits utterly riveted as Polina Anikeeva highlights the gaps she sees in the landscape of neural tools. With a background in optoelectronics, she has a decidedly unique take on the brain.

“In neuroscience,” says Anikeeva, “we are currently applying silicon-based neural probes with the elastic properties of a knife to a delicate material with the consistency of chocolate pudding—the brain.”

A key problem, summarized by Anikeeva, is that these sharp probes damage tissue, making such interfaces unreliable and thwarting long term brain studies of processes including development and aging. The state of the art is even grimmer in the clinic. An avid climber, Anikeeva recalls a friend sustaining a spinal cord injury. “She made a remarkable recovery,” explains Anikeeva, “but seeing the technology being used to help her was shocking. Not even the simplest electronic tools were used, it was basically lots of screws and physical therapy.” This crude approach, compared to the elegant optoelectronic tools familiar to Anikeeva, sparked a drive to bring advanced materials technology to biological systems.

Outside the box

As the group breaks up after the seminar, the chatter includes boxes, more precisely, thinking outside of them. An associate professor in material sciences and engineering at MIT, Anikeeva’s interest in neuroscience recently led to a McGovern Institute appointment. She sees her journey to neurobiology as serendipitous, having earned her doctorate designing light-emitting devices at MIT.

“I wanted to work on tools that don’t exist, and neuroscience seemed like an obvious choice. Neurons communicate in part through membrane voltage changes and as an electronics designer, I felt that I should be able to use voltage.”

Comfort at the intersection of sciences requires, according to Anikeeva, clarity and focus, also important in her chief athletic pursuits, running and climbing. Through long distant running, Anikeeva finds solitary time (“assuming that no one can chase me”) and the clarity to consider complicated technical questions. Climbing hones something different, absolute focus in the face of the often-tangled information that comes with working at scientific intersections.

“When climbing, you can only think about one thing, your next move. Only the most important thoughts float up.”

This became particularly important when, in Yosemite National Park, she made the decision to go up, instead of down, during an impending thunderstorm. Getting out depended on clear focus, despite imminent hypothermia and being exposed “on one of the tallest features in the area, holding large quantities of metal.” Polina and her climbing partner made it out, but her summary of events echoes her research philosophy: “What you learn and develop is a strong mindset where you don’t do the comfortable thing, the easy thing. Instead you always find, and execute, the most logical strategy.”

In this vein, Anikeeva’s research pursues two very novel, but exceptionally logical, paths to brain research and therapeutics: fiber development and magnetic nanomaterials.

Drawing new fibers

Walking into Anikeeva’s lab, the eye is immediately drawn to a robust metal frame containing, upon closer scrutiny, recognizable parts: a large drill bit, a motor, a heating element. This custom-built machine applies principles from telecommunications to draw multifunctional fibers using more “brain-friendly” materials.

“We start out with a macroscopic model, a preform, of the device that we ultimately want,” explains Anikeeva.

This “preform” is a transparent block of polymers, composites, and soft low-melting temperature metals with optical and electrical properties needed in the final fiber. “So, this could include
electrodes for recording, optical channels for optogenetics, microfluidics for drug delivery, and one day even components that allow chemical or mechanical sensing.” After sitting in a vacuum to remove gases and impurities, the two-inch by one-inch preform arrives at the fiber-drawing tower.

“Then we heat it and pull it, and the macroscopic model becomes a kilometer-long fiber with a lateral dimension of microns, even nanometers,” explains Anikeeva. “Take one of your hairs, and imagine that inside there are electrodes for recording, there are microfluidic channels to infuse drugs, optical channels for stimulation. All of this is combined in a single miniature form
factor, and it can be quite flexible and even stretchable.”

Construction crew

Anikeeva’s lab comprises an eclectic mix of 21 researchers from over 13 different countries, and a range of expertises, including materials science, chemistry, electrical and mechanical engineering, and neuroscience. In 2011, Andres Canales, a materials scientist from Mexico, was the second person to join Anikeeva’s lab.

“There was only an idea, a diagram,” explains Canales. “I didn’t want to work on biology when I arrived at MIT, but talking to Polina, seeing the pictures, thinking about what it would entail, I became very excited by the methods and the potential applications she was thinking of.”

Despite the lack of preliminary models, Anikeeva’s ideas were compelling. Elegant as the fibers are, the road involved painstaking, iterative refinement. From a materials perspective, drawing a fiber containing a continuous conductive element was challenging, as was validation of its properties. But the resulting fiber can deliver optogenetics vectors, monitor expression, and then stimulate neuronal activity in a single surgery, removing the spatial and temporal guesswork usually involved in such an experiment.

Seongjun Park, an electrical engineering graduate student in the lab, explains one biological challenge. “For long term recording in the spinal cord, there was even an additional challenge as the fiber needed to be stretchable to respond to the spine’s movement. For this we developed a drawing process compatible with an elastomer.”

The resulting fibers can be deployed chronically without the scar tissue accumulation that usually prevents long-term optical manipulation and drug delivery, making them good candidates for the treatment of brain disorders. The lab’s current papers find that these implanted fibers are useful for three months, and material innovations make them confident that longer time periods are possible.

Magnetic moments

Another wing of Anikeeva’s research aims to develop entirely non-invasive modalities, and use magnetic nanoparticles to stimulate the brain and deliver therapeutics.

“Magnetic fields are probably the best modality for getting any kind of stimulus to deep tissues,” explains Anikeeva, “because biological systems, except for very specialized systems, do not perceive magnetic fields. They go through us unattenuated, and they don’t couple to our physiology.”

In other words, magnetic fields can safely reach deep tissues, including the brain. Upon reaching their tissue targets these fields can be used to stimulate magnetic nanoparticles, which might one day, for example, be used to deliver dopamine to the brains of Parkinson’s disease patients. The alternating magnetic fields being used in these experiments are tiny, 100-1000 times smaller than fields clinically approved for MRI-based brain imaging.

Tiny fields, but they can be used to powerful effect. By manipulating magnetic moments in these nanoparticles, the magnetic field can cause heat dissipation by the particle that can stimulate thermal receptors in the nervous system. These receptors naturally detect heat, chili peppers and vanilla, but Anikeeva’s magnetic nanoparticles act as tiny heaters that activate these receptors, and, in turn, local neurons. This principle has already been used to activate the brain’s reward center in freely moving mice.

Siyuan Rao, a postdoc who works on the magnetic nanoparticles in collaboration with McGovern Investigator Guoping Feng, is unhesitating when asked what most inspires her.

“As a materials scientist, it is really rewarding to see my materials at work. We can remotely modulate mouse behavior, even turn hopeless behavior into motivation.”

Pushing the boundaries

Such collaborations are valued by Anikeeva. Early on she worked with McGovern Investigator Emilio Bizzi to use the above fiber technology in the spinal cord. “It is important to us to not just make these devices,” explains Anikeeva, “but to use them and show ourselves, and our colleagues, the types of experiments that they can enable.”

Far from an assembly line, the researchers in Anikeeva’s lab follow projects from ideation to deployment. “The student that designs a fiber, performs their own behavioral experiments, and data analysis,” says Anikeeva. “Biology is unforgiving. You can trivially design the most brilliant electrophysiological recording probe, but unless you are directly working in the system, it is easy to miss important design considerations.”

Inspired by this, Anikeeva’s students even started a project with Gloria Choi’s group on their own initiative. This collaborative, can-do ethos spreads beyond the walls of the lab, inspiring people around MIT.

“We often work with a teaching instructor, David Bono, who is an expert on electronics and magnetic instruments,” explains Alex Senko, a senior graduate student in the lab. “In his spare time, he helps those of us who work on electrical engineering flavored projects to hunt down components needed to build our devices.”

These components extend to whatever is needed. When a low frequency source was needed, the Anikeeva lab drafted a guitar amplifier.

Queried about difficulties that she faces having chosen to navigate such a broad swath of fields, Anikeeva is focused, as ever, on the unknown, the boundaries of knowledge.

“Honestly, I really, really enjoy it. It keeps me engaged and not bored. Even when thinking about complicated physics and chemistry, I always have eyes on the prize, that this will allow us to address really interesting neuroscience questions.”

With such thinking, and by relentlessly seeking the tools needed to accomplish scientific goals, Anikeeva and her lab continue to avoid the comfortable route, instead using logical routes toward new technologies.

Polina Anikeeva

Probing the Mind

Polina Anikeeva designs, synthesizes, and fabricates optoelectronic and magnetic devices to advance fundamental understanding and treatment of disorders of the nervous system. Anikeeva’s lab designs probes that are compatible with delicate neural tissue, but match the signaling complexity of neural circuits. In addition, her group develops magnetic nanoparticles for non-invasive neural stimulation. Most recently, Anikeeva is exploring the pathways connecting the brain to other body organ systems with the goal of advancing therapies and predictive diagnostics to achieve healthy minds in healthy bodies.

Ed Boyden

Engineering Matter and Mind

Ed Boyden develops new tools for probing, analyzing, and engineering brain circuits. He uses a range of approaches, including synthetic biology, nanotechnology, chemistry, electrical engineering, and optics to develop tools capable of revealing fundamental mechanisms underlying complex brain processes.

Boyden may be best known for pioneering the development of optogenetics, a powerful method that enables neuronal activity to be controlled with light. He also led the team that invented expansion microscopy, in which a specimen is embedded in a gel that swells as it absorbs water, thereby expanding nanoscale features to a size where they can be seen using conventional microscopes. He is now seeking to systematically integrate these technologies to create detailed maps and models of brain circuitry.

Virtual Tour of Boyden Lab

Is it worth the risk?

During the Klondike Gold Rush, thousands of prospectors climbed Alaska’s dangerous Chilkoot Pass in search of riches. McGovern scientists are exploring how a once-overlooked part of the brain might be at the root of cost-benefit decisions like these. McGovern researchers are studying how the brain balances risk and reward to make decisions.

Is it worth speeding up on the highway to save a few minutes’ time? How about accepting a job that pays more, but requires longer hours in the office?

Scientists call these types of real-life situations cost-benefit conflicts. Choosing well is an essential survival ability—consider the animal that must decide when to expose itself to predation to gather more food.

Now, McGovern researchers are discovering that this fundamental capacity to make decisions may originate in the basal ganglia—a brain region once considered unimportant to the human
experience—and that circuits associated with this structure may play a critical role in determining our state of mind.

Anatomy of decision-making

A few years back, McGovern investigator Ann Graybiel noticed that in the brain imaging literature, a specific part of the cortex called the pregenual anterior cingulate cortex or pACC, was implicated in certain psychiatric disorders as well as tasks involving cost-benefit decisions. Thanks to her now classic neuroanatomical work defining the complex anatomy and function of the basal ganglia, Graybiel knew that the pACC projected back into the basal ganglia—including its largest cluster of neurons, the striatum.

The striatum sits beneath the cortex, with a mouse-like main body and curving tail. It seems to serve as a critical way-station, communicating with both the brain’s sensory and motor areas above, and the limbic system (linked to emotion and memory) below. Running through the striatum are striosomes, column-like neurochemical compartments. They wire down to a small, but important part of the brain called the substantia nigra, which houses the huge majority of the brain’s dopamine neurons—a key neurochemical heavily involved, much like the basal ganglia as a whole, in reward, learning, and movement. The pACC region related to mood control targeted these striosomes, setting up a communication line from the neocortex to the dopamine neurons.

Graybiel discovered these striosomes early in her career, and understood them to have distinct wiring from other compartments in the striatum, but picking out these small, hard-to-find striosomes posed a technological challenge—so it was exciting to have this intriguing link to the pACC and mood disorders.

Working with Ken-ichi Amemori, then a research scientist in her lab, she adapted a common human cost-benefit conflict test for macaque monkeys. The monkeys could elect to receive a food treat, but the treat would always be accompanied by an annoying puff of air to the eyes. Before they decided, a visual cue told them exactly how much treat they could get, and exactly how strong the air puff would be, so they could choose if the treat was worth it.

Normal monkeys varied their choices in a fairly rational manner, rejecting the treat whenever it seemed like the air puff was too strong, or the treat too small to be worth it—and this corresponded with activity in the pACC neurons. Interestingly, they found that some pACC neurons respond more when animals approach the combined offers, while other pACC neurons
fire more when the animals avoid the offers. “It is as though there are two opposing armies. And the one that wins, controls the state of the animal.” Moreover, when Graybiel’s team electrically stimulated these pACC neurons, the animals begin to avoid the offers, even offers that they normally would approach. “It is as though when the stimulation is on, they think the future is worse than it really is,” Graybiel says.

Intriguingly, this effect only worked in situations where the animal had to weigh the value of a cost against a benefit. It had no effect on a decision between two negatives or two positives, like two different sizes of treats. The anxiety drug diazepam also reversed the stimulatory effect, but again, only on cost-benefit choices. “This particular kind of mood-influenced cost-benefit
decision-making occurs not only under conflict conditions but in our regular day to day lives. For example: I know that if I eat too much chocolate, I might get fat, but I love it, I want it.”

Glass half empty

Over the next few years, Graybiel, with another research scientist in her lab, Alexander Friedman, unraveled the circuit behind the macaques’ choices. They adapted the test for rats and mice,
so that they could more easily combine the cellular and molecular technologies needed to study striosomes, such as optogenetics and mouse engineering.

They found that the cortex (specifically, the pre-limbic region of the prefrontal cortex in rodents) wires onto both striosomes and fast-acting interneurons that also target the striosomes. In a
healthy circuit, these interneurons keep the striosomes in check by firing off fast inhibitory signals, hitting the brakes before the striosome can get started. But if the researchers broke that corticalstriatal connection with optogenetics or chronic stress, the animals became reckless, going for the high-risk, high-reward arm of the maze like a gambler throwing caution to the wind. If they amplified this inhibitory interneuron activity, they saw the opposite effect. With these techniques, they could block the effects of prior chronic stress.

This summer, Graybiel and Amemori published another paper furthering the story and returning to macaques. It was still too difficult to hit striosomes, and the researchers could only stimulate the striatum more generally. However, they replicated the effects in past studies.

Many electrodes had no effect, a small number made the monkeys choose the reward more often. Nearly a quarter though made the monkeys more avoidant—and this effect correlated with a change in the macaques’ brainwaves in a manner reminiscent of patients with depression.

But the surprise came when the avoidant-producing stimulation was turned off, the effects lasted unexpectedly long, only returning to normal on the third day.

Graybiel was stunned. “This is very important, because changes in the brain can get set off and have a life of their own,” she says. “This is true for some individuals who have had a terrible experience, and then live with the aftermath, even to the point of suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.”

She suspects that this persistent state may actually be a form of affect, or mood. “When we change this decision boundary, we’re changing the mood, such that the animal overestimates cost, relative to benefit,” she explains. “This might be like a proxy state for pessimistic decision-making experienced during anxiety and depression, but may also occur, in a milder form, in you and me.”

Graybiel theorizes that this may tie back into the dopamine neurons that the striosomes project to: if this avoidance behavior is akin to avoidance observed in rodents, then they are stimulating a circuit that ultimately projects to dopamine neurons of the substantia nigra. There, she believes, they could act to suppress these dopamine neurons, which in turn project to the rest of the brain, creating some sort of long-term change in their neural activity. Or, put more simply, stimulation of these circuits creates a depressive funk.

Bottom up

Three floors below the Graybiel lab, postdoc Will Menegas is in the early stages of his own work untangling the role of dopamine and the striatum in decision-making. He joined Guoping Feng’s lab this summer after exploring the understudied “tail of the striatum” at Harvard University.

While dopamine pathways influence many parts of the brain, examination of connections to the striatum have largely focused on the frontmost part of the striatum, associated with valuations.

But as Menegas showed while at Harvard, dopamine neurons that project to the rear of the striatum are different. Those neurons get their input from parts of the brain associated with general arousal and sensation—and instead of responding to rewards, they respond to novelty and intense stimuli, like air puffs and loud noises.

In a new study published in Nature Neuroscience, Menegas used a neurotoxin to disrupt the dopamine projection from the substantia nigra to the posterior striatum to see how this circuit influences behavior. Normal mice approach novel items cautiously and back away after sniffing at them, but the mice in Menegas’ study failed to back away. They stopped avoiding a port that gave an air puff to the face and they didn’t behave like normal mice when Menegas dropped a strange or new object—say, a lego—into their cage. Disrupting the nigral-posterior striatum
seemed to turn off their avoidance habit.

“These neurons reinforce avoidance the same way that canonical dopamine neurons reinforce approach,” Menegas explains. It’s a new role for dopamine, suggesting that there may be two different and distinct systems of reinforcement, led by the same neuromodulator in different parts of the striatum.

This research, and Graybiel’s discoveries on cost-benefit decision circuits, share clear parallels, though the precise links between the two phenomena are yet to be fully determined. Menegas plans to extend this line of research into social behavior and related disorders like autism in marmoset monkeys.

“Will wants to learn the methods that we use in our lab to work on marmosets,” Graybiel says. “I think that working together, this could become a wonderful story, because it would involve social interactions.”

“This a very new angle, and it could really change our views of how the reward system works,” Feng says. “And we have very little understanding of social circuits so far and especially in higher organisms, so I think this would be very exciting. Whatever we learn, it’s going to be new.”

Human choices

Based on their preexisting work, Graybiel’s and Menegas’ projects are well-developed—but they are far from the only McGovern-based explorations into ways this brain region taps into our behaviors. Maiya Geddes, a visiting scientist in John Gabrieli’s lab, has recently published a paper exploring the little-known ways that aging affects the dopamine-based nigral-striatum-hippocampus learning and memory systems.

In Rebecca Saxe’s lab, postdoc Livia Tomova just kicked off a new pilot project using brain imaging to uncover dopamine-striatal circuitry behind social craving in humans and the urge to rejoin peers. “Could there be a craving response similar to hunger?” Tomova wonders. “No one has looked yet at the neural mechanisms of this.”

Graybiel also hopes to translate her findings into humans, beginning with collaborations at the Pizzagalli lab at McLean Hospital in Belmont. They are using fMRI to study whether patients
with anxiety and depression show some of the same dysfunctions in the cortico-striatal circuitry that she discovered in her macaques.

If she’s right about tapping into mood states and affect, it would be an expanded role for the striatum—and one with significant potential therapeutic benefits. “Affect state” colors many psychological functions and disorders, from memory and perception, to depression, chronic stress, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and PTSD.

For a region of the brain once dismissed as inconsequential, McGovern researchers have shown the basal ganglia to influence not only our choices but our state of mind—suggesting that this “primitive” brain region may actually be at the heart of the human experience.



Ultrathin needle can deliver drugs directly to the brain

MIT researchers have devised a miniaturized system that can deliver tiny quantities of medicine to brain regions as small as 1 cubic millimeter. This type of targeted dosing could make it possible to treat diseases that affect very specific brain circuits, without interfering with the normal function of the rest of the brain, the researchers say.

Using this device, which consists of several tubes contained within a needle about as thin as a human hair, the researchers can deliver one or more drugs deep within the brain, with very precise control over how much drug is given and where it goes. In a study of rats, they found that they could deliver targeted doses of a drug that affects the animals’ motor function.

“We can infuse very small amounts of multiple drugs compared to what we can do intravenously or orally, and also manipulate behavioral changes through drug infusion,” says Canan Dagdeviren, the LG Electronics Career Development Assistant Professor of Media Arts and Sciences and the lead author of the paper, which appears in the Jan. 24 issue of Science Translational Medicine.

“We believe this tiny microfabricated device could have tremendous impact in understanding brain diseases, as well as providing new ways of delivering biopharmaceuticals and performing biosensing in the brain,” says Robert Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor at MIT and one of the paper’s senior authors.

Michael Cima, the David H. Koch Professor of Engineering in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, is also a senior author of the paper.

Targeted action

Drugs used to treat brain disorders often interact with brain chemicals called neurotransmitters or the cell receptors that interact with neurotransmitters. Examples include l-dopa, a dopamine precursor used to treat Parkinson’s disease, and Prozac, used to boost serotonin levels in patients with depression. However, these drugs can have side effects because they act throughout the brain.

“One of the problems with central nervous system drugs is that they’re not specific, and if you’re taking them orally they go everywhere. The only way we can limit the exposure is to just deliver to a cubic millimeter of the brain, and in order to do that, you have to have extremely small cannulas,” Cima says.

The MIT team set out to develop a miniaturized cannula (a thin tube used to deliver medicine) that could target very small areas. Using microfabrication techniques, the researchers constructed tubes with diameters of about 30 micrometers and lengths up to 10 centimeters. These tubes are contained within a stainless steel needle with a diameter of about 150 microns. “The device is very stable and robust, and you can place it anywhere that you are interested,” Dagdeviren says.

The researchers connected the cannulas to small pumps that can be implanted under the skin. Using these pumps, the researchers showed that they could deliver tiny doses (hundreds of nanoliters) into the brains of rats. In one experiment, they delivered a drug called muscimol to a brain region called the substantia nigra, which is located deep within the brain and helps to control movement.

Previous studies have shown that muscimol induces symptoms similar to those seen in Parkinson’s disease. The researchers were able to generate those effects, which include stimulating the rats to continually turn in a clockwise direction, using their miniaturized delivery needle. They also showed that they could halt the Parkinsonian behavior by delivering a dose of saline through a different channel, to wash the drug away.

“Since the device can be customizable, in the future we can have different channels for different chemicals, or for light, to target tumors or neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s,” Dagdeviren says.

This device could also make it easier to deliver potential new treatments for behavioral neurological disorders such as addiction or obsessive compulsive disorder, which may be caused by specific disruptions in how different parts of the brain communicate with each other.

“Even if scientists and clinicians can identify a therapeutic molecule to treat neural disorders, there remains the formidable problem of how to delivery the therapy to the right cells — those most affected in the disorder. Because the brain is so structurally complex, new accurate ways to deliver drugs or related therapeutic agents locally are urgently needed,” says Ann Graybiel, an MIT Institute Professor and a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, who is also an author of the paper.

Measuring drug response

The researchers also showed that they could incorporate an electrode into the tip of the cannula, which can be used to monitor how neurons’ electrical activity changes after drug treatment. They are now working on adapting the device so it can also be used to measure chemical or mechanical changes that occur in the brain following drug treatment.

The cannulas can be fabricated in nearly any length or thickness, making it possible to adapt them for use in brains of different sizes, including the human brain, the researchers say.

“This study provides proof-of-concept experiments, in large animal models, that a small, miniaturized device can be safely implanted in the brain and provide miniaturized control of the electrical activity and function of single neurons or small groups of neurons. The impact of this could be significant in focal diseases of the brain, such as Parkinson’s disease,” says Antonio Chiocca, neurosurgeon-in-chief and chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, who was not involved in the research.

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering.

Stress can lead to risky decisions

Making decisions is not always easy, especially when choosing between two options that have both positive and negative elements, such as deciding between a job with a high salary but long hours, and a lower-paying job that allows for more leisure time.

MIT neuroscientists have now discovered that making decisions in this type of situation, known as a cost-benefit conflict, is dramatically affected by chronic stress. In a study of mice, they found that stressed animals were far likelier to choose high-risk, high-payoff options.

The researchers also found that impairments of a specific brain circuit underlie this abnormal decision making, and they showed that they could restore normal behavior by manipulating this circuit. If a method for tuning this circuit in humans were developed, it could help patients with disorders such as depression, addiction, and anxiety, which often feature poor decision-making.

“One exciting thing is that by doing this very basic science, we found a microcircuit of neurons in the striatum that we could manipulate to reverse the effects of stress on this type of decision making. This to us is extremely promising, but we are aware that so far these experiments are in rats and mice,” says Ann Graybiel, an Institute Professor at MIT and member of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research.

Graybiel is the senior author of the paper, which appears in Cell on Nov. 16. The paper’s lead author is Alexander Friedman, a McGovern Institute research scientist.

Hard decisions

In 2015, Graybiel, Friedman, and their colleagues first identified the brain circuit involved in decision making that involves cost-benefit conflict. The circuit begins in the medial prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for mood control, and extends into clusters of neurons called striosomes, which are located in the striatum, a region associated with habit formation, motivation, and reward reinforcement.

In that study, the researchers trained rodents to run a maze in which they had to choose between one option that included highly concentrated chocolate milk, which they like, along with bright light, which they don’t like, and an option with dimmer light but weaker chocolate milk. By inhibiting the connection between cortical neurons and striosomes, using a technique known as optogenetics, they found that they could transform the rodents’ preference for lower-risk, lower-payoff choices to a preference for bigger payoffs despite their bigger costs.

In the new study, the researchers performed a similar experiment without optogenetic manipulations. Instead, they exposed the rodents to a short period of stress every day for two weeks.

Before experiencing stress, normal rats and mice would choose to run toward the maze arm with dimmer light and weaker chocolate milk about half the time. The researchers gradually increased the concentration of chocolate milk found in the dimmer side, and as they did so, the animals began choosing that side more frequently.

However, when chronically stressed rats and mice were put in the same situation, they continued to choose the bright light/better chocolate milk side even as the chocolate milk concentration greatly increased on the dimmer side. This was the same behavior the researchers saw in rodents that had the prefrontal cortex-striosome circuit disrupted optogenetically.

“The result is that the animal ignores the high cost and chooses the high reward,” Friedman says.

The findings help to explain how stress contributes to substance abuse and may worsen mental disorders, says Amy Arnsten, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at the Yale University School of Medicine, who was not involved in the research.

“Stress is ubiquitous, for both humans and animals, and its effects on brain and behavior are of central importance to the understanding of both normal function and neuropsychiatric disease. It is both pernicious and ironic that chronic stress can lead to impulsive action; in many clinical cases, such as drug addiction, impulsivity is likely to worsen patterns of behavior that produce the stress in the first place, inducing a vicious cycle,” Arnsten wrote in a commentary accompanying the Cell paper, co-authored by Daeyeol Lee and Christopher Pittenger of the Yale University School of Medicine.

Circuit dynamics

The researchers believe that this circuit integrates information about the good and bad aspects of possible choices, helping the brain to produce a decision. Normally, when the circuit is turned on, neurons of the prefrontal cortex activate certain neurons called high-firing interneurons, which then suppress striosome activity.

When the animals are stressed, these circuit dynamics shift and the cortical neurons fire too late to inhibit the striosomes, which then become overexcited. This results in abnormal decision making.

“Somehow this prior exposure to chronic stress controls the integration of good and bad,” Graybiel says. “It’s as though the animals had lost their ability to balance excitation and inhibition in order to settle on reasonable behavior.”

Once this shift occurs, it remains in effect for months, the researchers found. However, they were able to restore normal decision making in the stressed mice by using optogenetics to stimulate the high-firing interneurons, thereby suppressing the striosomes. This suggests that the prefronto-striosome circuit remains intact following chronic stress and could potentially be susceptible to manipulations that would restore normal behavior in human patients whose disorders lead to abnormal decision making.

“This state change could be reversible, and it’s possible in the future that you could target these interneurons and restore the excitation-inhibition balance,” Friedman says.

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health/National Institute for Mental Health, the CHDI Foundation, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the U.S. Army Research Office, the Bachmann-Strauss Dystonia and Parkinson Foundation, the William N. and Bernice E. Bumpus Foundation, Michael Stiefel, the Saks Kavanaugh Foundation, and John Wasserlein and Lucille Braun.

Genome Editing with CRISPR – Cas9

This animation depicts the CRISPR-Cas9 method for genome editing – a powerful new technology with many applications in biomedical research, including the potential to treat human genetic disease. Feng Zhang, a leader in the development of this technology, is a faculty member at MIT, an investigator at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and a core member of the Broad Institute.


Delving deep into the brain

Launched in 2013, the national BRAIN Initiative aims to revolutionize our understanding of cognition by mapping the activity of every neuron in the human brain, revealing how brain circuits interact to create memories, learn new skills, and interpret the world around us.

Before that can happen, neuroscientists need new tools that will let them probe the brain more deeply and in greater detail, says Alan Jasanoff, an MIT associate professor of biological engineering. “There’s a general recognition that in order to understand the brain’s processes in comprehensive detail, we need ways to monitor neural function deep in the brain with spatial, temporal, and functional precision,” he says.

Jasanoff and colleagues have now taken a step toward that goal: They have established a technique that allows them to track neural communication in the brain over time, using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) along with a specialized molecular sensor. This is the first time anyone has been able to map neural signals with high precision over large brain regions in living animals, offering a new window on brain function, says Jasanoff, who is also an associate member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research.

His team used this molecular imaging approach, described in the May 1 online edition of Science, to study the neurotransmitter dopamine in a region called the ventral striatum, which is involved in motivation, reward, and reinforcement of behavior. In future studies, Jasanoff plans to combine dopamine imaging with functional MRI techniques that measure overall brain activity to gain a better understanding of how dopamine levels influence neural circuitry.

“We want to be able to relate dopamine signaling to other neural processes that are going on,” Jasanoff says. “We can look at different types of stimuli and try to understand what dopamine is doing in different brain regions and relate it to other measures of brain function.”

Tracking dopamine

Dopamine is one of many neurotransmitters that help neurons to communicate with each other over short distances. Much of the brain’s dopamine is produced by a structure called the ventral tegmental area (VTA). This dopamine travels through the mesolimbic pathway to the ventral striatum, where it combines with sensory information from other parts of the brain to reinforce behavior and help the brain learn new tasks and motor functions. This circuit also plays a major role in addiction.
To track dopamine’s role in neural communication, the researchers used an MRI sensor they had previously designed, consisting of an iron-containing protein that acts as a weak magnet. When the sensor binds to dopamine, its magnetic interactions with the surrounding tissue weaken, which dims the tissue’s MRI signal. This allows the researchers to see where in the brain dopamine is being released. The researchers also developed an algorithm that lets them calculate the precise amount of dopamine present in each fraction of a cubic millimeter of the ventral striatum.

After delivering the MRI sensor to the ventral striatum of rats, Jasanoff’s team electrically stimulated the mesolimbic pathway and was able to detect exactly where in the ventral striatum dopamine was released. An area known as the nucleus accumbens core, known to be one of the main targets of dopamine from the VTA, showed the highest levels. The researchers also saw that some dopamine is released in neighboring regions such as the ventral pallidum, which regulates motivation and emotions, and parts of the thalamus, which relays sensory and motor signals in the brain.

Each dopamine stimulation lasted for 16 seconds and the researchers took an MRI image every eight seconds, allowing them to track how dopamine levels changed as the neurotransmitter was released from cells and then disappeared. “We could divide up the map into different regions of interest and determine dynamics separately for each of those regions,” Jasanoff says.

He and his colleagues plan to build on this work by expanding their studies to other parts of the brain, including the areas most affected by Parkinson’s disease, which is caused by the death of dopamine-generating cells. Jasanoff’s lab is also working on sensors to track other neurotransmitters, allowing them to study interactions between neurotransmitters during different tasks.

The paper’s lead author is postdoc Taekwan Lee. Technical assistant Lili Cai and postdocs Victor Lelyveld and Aviad Hai also contributed to the research, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Breaking habits before they start

Our daily routines can become so ingrained that we perform them automatically, such as taking the same route to work every day. Some behaviors, such as smoking or biting your fingernails, become so habitual that we can’t stop even if we want to.

Although breaking habits can be hard, MIT neuroscientists have now shown that they can prevent them from taking root in the first place, in rats learning to run a maze to earn a reward. The researchers first demonstrated that activity in two distinct brain regions is necessary in order for habits to crystallize. Then, they were able to block habits from forming by interfering with activity in one of the brain regions — the infralimbic (IL) cortex, which is located in the prefrontal cortex.

The MIT researchers, led by Institute Professor Ann Graybiel, used a technique called optogenetics to block activity in the IL cortex. This allowed them to control cells of the IL cortex using light. When the cells were turned off during every maze training run, the rats still learned to run the maze correctly, but when the reward was made to taste bad, they stopped, showing that a habit had not formed. If it had, they would keep going back by habit.

“It’s usually so difficult to break a habit,” Graybiel says. “It’s also difficult to have a habit not form when you get a reward for what you’re doing. But with this manipulation, it’s absolutely easy. You just turn the light on, and bingo.”

Graybiel, a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, is the senior author of a paper describing the findings in the June 27 issue of the journal Neuron. Kyle Smith, a former MIT postdoc who is now an assistant professor at Dartmouth College, is the paper’s lead author.

Patterns of habitual behavior

Previous studies of how habits are formed and controlled have implicated the IL cortex as well as the striatum, a part of the brain related to addiction and repetitive behavioral problems, as well as normal functions such as decision-making, planning and response to reward. It is believed that the motor patterns needed to execute a habitual behavior are stored in the striatum and its circuits.

Recent studies from Graybiel’s lab have shown that disrupting activity in the IL cortex can block the expression of habits that have already been learned and stored in the striatum. Last year, Smith and Graybiel found that the IL cortex appears to decide which of two previously learned habits will be expressed.

“We have evidence that these two areas are important for habits, but they’re not connected at all, and no one has much of an idea of what the cells are doing as a habit is formed, as the habit is lost, and as a new habit takes over,” Smith says.

To investigate that, Smith recorded activity in cells of the IL cortex as rats learned to run a maze. He found activity patterns very similar to those that appear in the striatum during habit formation. Several years ago, Graybiel found that a distinctive “task-bracketing” pattern develops when habits are formed. This means that the cells are very active when the animal begins its run through the maze, are quiet during the run, and then fire up again when the task is finished.

This kind of pattern “chunks” habits into a large unit that the brain can simply turn on when the habitual behavior is triggered, without having to think about each individual action that goes into the habitual behavior.

The researchers found that this pattern took longer to appear in the IL cortex than in the striatum, and it was also less permanent. Unlike the pattern in the striatum, which remains stored even when a habit is broken, the IL cortex pattern appears and disappears as habits are formed and broken. This was the clue that the IL cortex, not the striatum, was tracking the development of the habit.

Multiple layers of control

The researchers’ ability to optogenetically block the formation of new habits suggests that the IL cortex not only exerts real-time control over habits and compulsions, but is also needed for habits to form in the first place.

“The previous idea was that the habits were stored in the sensorimotor system and this cortical area was just selecting the habit to be expressed. Now we think it’s a more fundamental contribution to habits, that the IL cortex is more actively making this happen,” Smith says.

This arrangement offers multiple layers of control over habitual behavior, which could be advantageous in reining in automatic behavior, Graybiel says. It is also possible that the IL cortex is contributing specific pieces of the habitual behavior, in addition to exerting control over whether it occurs, according to the researchers. They are now trying to determine whether the IL cortex and the striatum are communicating with and influencing each other, or simply acting in parallel.

The study suggests a new way to look for abnormal activity that might cause disorders of repetitive behavior, Smith says. Now that the researchers have identified the neural signature of a normal habit, they can look for signs of habitual behavior that is learned too quickly or becomes too rigid. Finding such a signature could allow scientists to develop new ways to treat disorders of repetitive behavior by using deep brain stimulation, which uses electronic impulses delivered by a pacemaker to suppress abnormal brain activity.

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Office of Naval Research, the Stanley H. and Sheila G. Sydney Fund and funding from R. Pourian and Julia Madadi.