Three distinct brain circuits in the thalamus contribute to Parkinson’s symptoms

Parkinson’s disease is best-known as a disorder of movement. Patients often experience tremors, loss of balance, and difficulty initiating movement. The disease also has lesser-known symptoms that are nonmotor, including depression.

In a study of a small region of the thalamus, MIT neuroscientists have now identified three distinct circuits that influence the development of both motor and nonmotor symptoms of Parkinson’s. Furthermore, they found that by manipulating these circuits, they could reverse Parkinson’s symptoms in mice.

The findings suggest that those circuits could be good targets for new drugs that could help combat many of the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, the researchers say.

“We know that the thalamus is important in Parkinson’s disease, but a key question is how can you put together a circuit that that can explain many different things happening in Parkinson’s disease. Understanding different symptoms at a circuit level can help guide us in the development of better therapeutics,” says Guoping Feng, the James W. and Patricia T. Poitras Professor in Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, a member of the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, and the associate director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT.

Feng is the senior author of the study, which appears today in Nature. Ying Zhang, a J. Douglas Tan Postdoctoral Fellow at the McGovern Institute, and Dheeraj Roy, a NIH K99 Awardee and a McGovern Fellow at the Broad Institute, are the lead authors of the paper.

Tracing circuits

The thalamus consists of several different regions that perform a variety of functions. Many of these, including the parafascicular (PF) thalamus, help to control movement. Degeneration of these structures is often seen in patients with Parkinson’s disease, which is thought to contribute to their motor symptoms.

In this study, the MIT team set out to try to trace how the PF thalamus is connected to other brain regions, in hopes of learning more about its functions. They found that neurons of the PF thalamus project to three different parts of the basal ganglia, a cluster of structures involved in motor control and other functions: the caudate putamen (CPu), the subthalamic nucleus (STN), and the nucleus accumbens (NAc).

“We started with showing these different circuits, and we demonstrated that they’re mostly nonoverlapping, which strongly suggests that they have distinct functions,” Roy says.

Further studies revealed those functions. The circuit that projects to the CPu appears to be involved in general locomotion, and functions to dampen movement. When the researchers inhibited this circuit, mice spent more time moving around the cage they were in.

The circuit that extends into the STN, on the other hand, is important for motor learning — the ability to learn a new motor skill through practice. The researchers found that this circuit is necessary for a task in which the mice learn to balance on a rod that spins with increasing speed.

Lastly, the researchers found that, unlike the others, the circuit that connects the PF thalamus to the NAc is not involved in motor activity. Instead, it appears to be linked to motivation. Inhibiting this circuit generates depression-like behaviors in healthy mice, and they will no longer seek a reward such as sugar water.

Druggable targets

Once the researchers established the functions of these three circuits, they decided to explore how they might be affected in Parkinson’s disease. To do that, they used a mouse model of Parkinson’s, in which dopamine-producing neurons in the midbrain are lost.

They found that in this Parkinson’s model, the connection between the PF thalamus and the CPu was enhanced, and that this led to a decrease in overall movement. Additionally, the connections from the PF thalamus to the STN were weakened, which made it more difficult for the mice to learn the accelerating rod task.

Lastly, the researchers showed that in the Parkinson’s model, connections from the PF thalamus to the NAc were also interrupted, and that this led to depression-like symptoms in the mice, including loss of motivation.

Using chemogenetics or optogenetics, which allows them to control neuronal activity with a drug or light, the researchers found that they could manipulate each of these three circuits and in doing so, reverse each set of Parkinson’s symptoms. Then, they decided to look for molecular targets that might be “druggable,” and found that each of the three PF thalamus regions have cells that express different types of cholinergic receptors, which are activated by the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. By blocking or activating those receptors, depending on the circuit, they were also able to reverse the Parkinson’s symptoms.

“We found three distinct cholinergic receptors that can be expressed in these three different PF circuits, and if we use antagonists or agonists to modulate these three different PF populations, we can rescue movement, motor learning, and also depression-like behavior in PD mice,” Zhang says.

Parkinson’s patients are usually treated with L-dopa, a precursor of dopamine. While this drug helps patients regain motor control, it doesn’t help with motor learning or any nonmotor symptoms, and over time, patients become resistant to it.

The researchers hope that the circuits they characterized in this study could be targets for new Parkinson’s therapies. The types of neurons that they identified in the circuits of the mouse brain are also found in the nonhuman primate brain, and the researchers are now using RNA sequencing to find genes that are expressed specifically in those cells.

“RNA-sequencing technology will allow us to do a much more detailed molecular analysis in a cell-type specific way,” Feng says. “There may be better druggable targets in these cells, and once you know the specific cell types you want to modulate, you can identify all kinds of potential targets in them.”

The research was funded, in part, by the K. Lisa Yang and Hock E. Tan Center for Molecular Therapeutics in Neuroscience at MIT, the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute, the James and Patricia Poitras Center for Psychiatric Disorders Research at MIT, the National Institutes of Health BRAIN Initiative, and the National Institute of Mental Health.

Single gene linked to repetitive behaviors, drug addiction

Making and breaking habits is a prime function of the striatum, a large forebrain region that underlies the cerebral cortex. McGovern researchers have identified a particular gene that controls striatal function as well as repetitive behaviors that are linked to drug addiction vulnerability.

To identify genes involved specifically in striatal functions, MIT Institute Professor Ann Graybiel previously identified genes that are preferentially expressed in striatal neurons. One identified gene encodes CalDAG-GEFI (CDGI), a signaling molecule that effects changes inside of cells in response to extracellular signals that are received by receptors on the cell surface. In a paper to be published in the October issue of Neurobiology of Disease and now available online, Graybiel, along with former Research Scientist Jill Crittenden and collaborators James Surmeier and Shenyu Zhai at the Feinman School of Medicine at Northwestern University, show that CDGI is key for controlling behavioral responses to drugs of abuse and underlying neuronal plasticity (cellular changes induced by experience) in the striatum.

“This paper represents years of intensive research, which paid off in the end by identifying a specific cellular signaling cascade for controlling repetitive behaviors and neuronal plasticity,” says Graybiel, who is also an investigator at the McGovern Institute and a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT.

McGovern Investigator Ann Graybiel (right) with former Research Scientist Jill Crittenden. Photo: Justin Knight

Surprise discovery

To understand the essential roles of CDGI, Crittenden first engineered “knockout” mice that lack the gene encoding CDGI. Then the Graybiel team began looking for abnormalities in the CDGI knockout mice that could be tied to the loss of CDGI’s function.

Initially, they noticed that the rodent ear-tag IDs often fell off in the knockout mice, an observation that ultimately led to the surprise discovery by the Graybiel team and others that CDGI is expressed in blood platelets and is responsible for a bleeding disorder in humans, dogs, and other animals. The CDGI knockout mice were otherwise healthy and seemed just like their “wildtype” brothers and sisters, which did not carry the gene mutation. To figure out the role of CDGI in the brain, the Graybiel team would have to scrutinize the mice more closely.

Challenging the striatum

Both the CDGI knockout and wildtype mice were given an extensive set of behavioral and neurological tests and the CDGI mice showed deficits in two tests designed to challenge the striatum.

In one test, mice must find their way through a maze by relying on egocentric (i.e. self-referential) cues, such as their turning right or turning left, and not competing allocentric (i.e. external) cues, such as going toward a bright poster on the wall. Egocentric cues are thought to be processed by the striatum whereas allocentric cues are thought to rely on the hippocampus.

In a second test of striatal function, mice learned various gait patterns to match different patterns of rungs on their running wheel, a task designed to test the mouse’s ability to learn and remember a motor sequence.

The CDGI mice learned both of these striatal tasks more slowly than their wildtype siblings, suggesting that the CDGI mice might perform normally in general tests of behavior because they are able to compensate for striatal deficits by using other brain regions such as the hippocampus to solve standard tasks.

The team then decided to give the mice a completely different type of test that relies on the striatum. Because the striatum is strongly activated by drugs of abuse, which elevate dopamine and drive motor habits, Crittenden and collaborator Morgane Thomsen (now at the University of Copenhagen) looked to see whether the CDGI knockout mice respond normally to amphetamine and cocaine.

Psychomotor stimulants like cocaine and amphetamine normally induce a mixture of hyperactive behaviors such as pacing and focused repetitive behaviors like skin-picking (also called stereotypy or punding in humans). The researchers found however, that the drug-induced behaviors in the CDGI knockout mice were less varied than the normal mice and consisted of abnormally prolonged stereotypy, as though the mice were unable to switch between behaviors. The researchers were able to map the abnormal behavior to CDGI function in the striatum by showing that the same vulnerability to drug-induced stereotypy was observed in mice that were engineered to delete CDGI in the striatum after birth (“conditional knockouts”), but to otherwise have normal CDGI throughout the body.

Controlling cravings

In addition to exhibiting prolonged, repetitive behaviors, the CDGI knockout mice had a vulnerability to self-administer drugs. Although previous research had shown that treatments that activate the M1 acetylcholine receptor can block cocaine self-administration, the team found that this therapy was ineffective in CDGI knockout mice. Knockouts continued to self-administer cocaine (suggesting increased craving for the drug) at the same rate before and after M1 receptor activation treatment, even though the treatment succeeded with their sibling control mice. The researchers concluded that CDGI is critically important for controlling repetitive behaviors and the ability to stop self-administration of addictive stimulants.

mouse brain images
Brain sections from control mice (left) and mice engineered for deletion of the CDGI gene after birth. The expression of CDGI in the striatum (arrows) grows stronger as mice grow from pups to adulthood in control mice, but is gradually lost in the CDGI engineered mice (“conditional knockouts”). Image courtesy of the researchers

To better understand how CDGI is linked to the M1 receptor at the cellular level, the team turned to slice physiologists, scientists who record the electrical activity of neurons in brain slices. Their recordings showed that striatal neurons from CDGI knockouts fail to undergo the normal, expected electrophysiological changes after receiving treatments that target the M1 receptor. In particular, the neurons of the striatum that function broadly to stop ongoing behaviors, did not integrate cellular signals properly and failed to undergo “long-term potentiation,” a type of neuronal plasticity thought to underlie learning.

The new findings suggest that excessive repetitive movements are controlled by M1 receptor signaling through CDGI in indirect pathway neurons of the striatum, a neuronal subtype that degenerates in Huntington’s disease and is affected by dopamine loss and l-DOPA replacement therapy in Parkinson’s disease.

“The M1 acetylcholine receptor is a target for therapeutic drug development in treating cognitive and behavioral problems in multiple disorders, but progress has been severely hampered by off-target side-effects related to the wide-spread expression of the M1 receptor,” Graybiel explains. “Our findings suggest that CDGI offers the possibility for forebrain-specific targeting of M1 receptor signaling cascades that are of interest for blocking pathologically repetitive and unwanted behaviors that are common to numerous brain disorders including Huntington’s disease, drug addiction, autism, and schizophrenia as well as drug-induced dyskinesias. We hope that this work can help therapeutic development for these major health problems.”

This work was funded by the James W. (1963) and Patricia T. Poitras Fund, the William N. & Bernice E. Bumpus Foundation, the Saks Kavanaugh Foundation, the Simons Foundation, and the National Institute of Health.

The pursuit of reward

View the interactive version of this story in our Spring 2021 issue of BrainScan.

The brain circuits that influence our decisions, cognitive functions, and ultimately, our actions are intimately connected with the circuits that give rise to our motivations. By exploring these relationships, scientists at McGovern are seeking knowledge that might suggest new strategies for changing our habits or treating motivation-disrupting conditions such as depression and addiction.

Risky decisions

MIT Institute Professor Ann Graybiel. Photo: Justin Knight

In Ann Graybiel’s lab, researchers have been examining how the brain makes choices that carry both positive and negative consequences — deciding to take on a higher-paying but more demanding job, for example. Psychologists call these dilemmas approach-avoidance conflicts, and resolving them not only requires weighing the good versus the bad, but also motivation to engage with the decision.

Emily Hueske, a research scientist in the Graybiel lab, explains that everyone has their own risk tolerance when it comes to such decisions, and certain psychiatric conditions, including depression and anxiety disorders, can shift the tipping point at which a person chooses to “approach” or “avoid.”

Studies have shown that neurons in the striatum (see image below), a region deep in the brain involved in both motivation and movement, activate as we grapple with these decisions. Graybiel traced this activity even further, to tiny compartments within the striatum called striosomes.

(She discovered striosomes many years ago and has been studying their function for decades.)

A motivational switch

In 2015, Graybiel’s team manipulated striosome signaling within genetically engineered mice and changed the way animals behave in approach-avoidance conflict situations. Taking cues from an assessment used to evaluate approach-avoidance behavior in patients, they presented mice with opportunities to obtain chocolate while experiencing unwelcome exposure in a brightly lit area.

Experimentally activating neurons in striosomes had a dramatic effect, causing mice to venture into brightly lit areas that they would normally avoid. With striosomal circuits switched on, “this animal all of a sudden is like a different creature,” Graybiel says.

Two years later, they found that chronic stress and other factors can also disrupt this signaling and change the choices animals make.

An image of the mouse striatum showing clusters of striosomes (red and yellow). Image: Graybiel lab

Age of ennui

This November, Alexander Friedman, who worked as a research scientist in the Graybiel lab, and Hueske reported in Cell that they found an age-related decline in motivation-modulated learning in mice and rats. Neurons within striosomes became more active than the cells that surround them as animals learned to assign positive and negative values to potential choices. And older mice were less engaged than their younger counterparts in the type of learning required to make these cost-benefit analyses. A similar lack of motivation was observed in a mouse model of Huntington’s disease, a neurodegenerative disorder that is often associated with mood
disturbances in patients.

“This coincides with our previous findings that striosomes are critically important for decisions that involve a conflict.”

“This coincides with our previous findings that striosomes are critically important for decisions that involve a conflict,” says Friedman, who is now an assistant professor at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Graybiel’s team is continuing to investigate these uniquely positioned compartments in the brain, expecting to shed light on the mechanisms that underlie both learning and motivation.

“There’s no learning without motivation, and in fact, motivation can be influenced by learning,” Hueske says. “The more you learn, the more excited you might be to engage in the task. So the two are intertwined.”

The aging brain

Researchers in John Gabrieli’s lab are also seeking to understand the circuits that link motivation to learning, and recently, his team reported that they, too, had found an age-related decline in motivation-modulated learning.

Studies in young adults have shown that memory improves when the brain circuits that process motivation and memory interact. Gabrieli and neurologist Maiya Geddes, who worked in Gabrieli’s lab as a postdoctoral fellow, wondered whether this holds true in older adults, particularly as memory declines.

To find out, the team recruited 40 people to participate in a brain imaging study. About half of the participants were between the ages of 18 and 30, while the others were between the ages of 49 and 84. While inside an fMRI scanner, each participant was asked to commit certain words to memory and told their success would determine how much money they received for participating in the experiment.

Diminished drive

MRI scan
Younger adults show greater activation in the reward-related regions of the brain during incentivized memory tasks compared to older adults. Image: Maiya Geddes

Not surprisingly, when participants were asked 24 hours later to recall the words, the younger group performed better overall than the older group. In young people, incentivized memory tasks triggered activity in parts of the brain involved in both memory and motivation. But in older adults, while these two parts of the brain could be activated independently, they did not seem to be communicating with one another.

“It seemed that the older adults, at least in terms of their brain response, did care about the kind of incentives that we were offering,” says Geddes, who is now an assistant professor at McGill University. “But for whatever reason, that wasn’t allowing them to benefit in terms of improved memory performance.”

Since the study indicates the brain still can anticipate potential rewards, Geddes is now exploring whether other sources of motivation, such as social rewards, might more effectively increase healthful decisions and behaviors in older adults.

Circuit control

Understanding how the brain generates and responds to motivation is not only important for improving learning strategies. Lifestyle choices such as exercise and social engagement can help people preserve cognitive function and improve their quality of life as they age, and Gabrieli says activating the right motivational circuits could help encourage people to implement healthy changes.

By pinpointing these motivational circuits in mice, Graybiel hopes that her research will lead to better treatment strategies for people struggling with motivational challenges, including Parkinson’s disease. Her team is now exploring whether striosomes serve as part of a value-sensitive switch, linking our intentions to dopamine-containing neurons in the midbrain that can modulate our actions.

“Perhaps this motivation is critical for the conflict resolution, and striosomes combine two worlds, dopaminergic motivation and cortical knowledge, resulting in motivation to learn,” Friedman says.

“Now we know that these challenges have a biological basis, and that there are neural circuits that can promote or reduce our feeling of motivational energy,” explains Graybiel. “This realization in itself is a major step toward learning how we can control these circuits both behaviorally and by highly selective therapeutic targeting.”

Tool developed in Graybiel lab reveals new clues about Parkinson’s disease

As the brain processes information, electrical charges zip through its circuits and neurotransmitters pass molecular messages from cell to cell. Both forms of communication are vital, but because they are usually studied separately, little is known about how they work together to control our actions, regulate mood, and perform the other functions of a healthy brain.

Neuroscientists in Ann Graybiel’s laboratory at MIT’s McGovern Institute are taking a closer look at the relationship between these electrical and chemical signals. “Considering electrical signals side by side with chemical signals is really important to understand how the brain works,” says Helen Schwerdt, a postdoctoral researcher in Graybiel’s lab. Understanding that relationship is also crucial for developing better ways to diagnose and treat nervous system disorders and mental illness, she says, noting that the drugs used to treat these conditions typically aim to modulate the brain’s chemical signaling, yet studies of brain activity are more likely to focus on electrical signals, which are easier to measure.

Schwerdt and colleagues in Graybiel’s lab have developed new tools so that chemical and electrical signals can, for the first time, be measured simultaneously in the brains of primates. In a study published September 25, 2020, in Science Advances, they used those tools to reveal an unexpectedly complex relationship between two types of signals that are disrupted in patients with Parkinson’s disease—dopamine signaling and coordinated waves of electrical activity known as beta-band oscillations.

Complicated relationship

Graybiel’s team focused its attention on beta-band activity and dopamine signaling because studies of patients with Parkinson’s disease had suggested a straightforward inverse relationship between the two. The tremors, slowness of movement, and other symptoms associated with the disease develop and progress as the brain’s production of the neurotransmitter dopamine declines, and at the same time, beta-band oscillations surge to abnormal levels. Beta-band oscillations are normally observed in parts of the brain that control movement when a person is paying attention or planning to move. It’s not clear what they do or why they are disrupted in patients with Parkinson’s disease. But because patients’ symptoms tend to be worst when beta activity is high—and because beta activity can be measured in real time with sensors placed on the scalp or with a deep-brain stimulation device that has been implanted for treatment, researchers have been hopeful that it might be useful for monitoring the disease’s progression and patients’ response to treatment. In fact, clinical trials are already underway to explore the effectiveness of modulating deep-brain stimulation treatment based on beta activity.

When Schwerdt and colleagues examined these two types of signals in the brains of rhesus macaques, they discovered that the relationship between beta activity and dopamine is more complicated than previously thought.

Their new tools allowed them to simultaneously monitor both signals with extraordinary precision, targeting specific parts of the striatum—a region deep within the brain involved in controlling movement, where dopamine is particularly abundant—and taking measurements on the millisecond time scale to capture neurons’ rapid-fire communications.

They took these measurements as the monkeys performed a simple task, directing their gaze in a particular direction in anticipation of a reward. This allowed the researchers to track chemical and electrical signaling during the active, motivated movement of the animals’ eyes. They found that beta activity did increase as dopamine signaling declined—but only in certain parts of the striatum and during certain tasks. The reward value of a task, an animal’s past experiences, and the particular movement the animal performed all impacted the relationship between the two types of signals.

Multi-modal systems allow subsecond recording of chemical and electrical neural signals in the form of dopamine molecular concentrations and beta-band local field potentials (beta LFPs), respectively. Online measurements of dopamine and beta LFP (time-dependent traces displayed in box on right) were made in the primate striatum (caudate nucleus and putamen colored in green and purple, respectively, in the left brain image) as the animal was performing a task in which eye movements were made to cues displayed on the left (purple event marker line) and right (green event) of a screen in order to receive large or small amounts of food reward (red and blue events). Dopamine and beta LFP neural signals are centrally implicated in Parkinson’s disease and other brain disorders. Image: Helen Schwerdt

“What we expected is there in the overall view, but if we just look at a different level of resolution, all of a sudden the rules don’t hold,” says Graybiel, who is also an MIT Institute Professor. “It doesn’t destroy the likelihood that one would want to have a treatment related to this presumed opposite relationship, but it does say there’s something more here that we haven’t known about.”

The researchers say it’s important to investigate this more nuanced relationship between dopamine signaling and beta activity, and that understanding it more deeply might lead to better treatments for patients with Parkinson’s disease and related disorders. While they plan to continue to examine how the two types of signals relate to one another across different parts of the brain and under different behavioral conditions, they hope that other teams will also take advantage of the tools they have developed. “As these methods in neuroscience become more and more precise and dazzling in their power, we’re bound to discover new things,” says Graybiel.

This study was supported by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the Army Research Office, the Saks Kavanaugh Foundation, the National Science Foundation, Kristin R. Pressman and Jessica J. Pourian ’13 Fund, and Robert Buxton.

A mechanical way to stimulate neurons

In addition to responding to electrical and chemical stimuli, many of the body’s neural cells can also respond to mechanical effects, such as pressure or vibration. But these responses have been more difficult for researchers to study, because there has been no easily controllable method for inducing such mechanical stimulation of the cells. Now, researchers at MIT and elsewhere have found a new method for doing just that.

The finding might offer a step toward new kinds of therapeutic treatments, similar to electrically based neurostimulation that has been used to treat Parkinson’s disease and other conditions. Unlike those systems, which require an external wire connection, the new system would be completely contact-free after an initial injection of particles, and could be reactivated at will through an externally applied magnetic field.

The finding is reported in the journal ACS Nano, in a paper by former MIT postdoc Danijela Gregurec, Alexander Senko PhD ’19, Associate Professor Polina Anikeeva, and nine others at MIT, at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and in Spain.

The new method opens a new pathway for the stimulation of nerve cells within the body, which has so far almost entirely relied on either chemical pathways, through the use of pharmaceuticals, or on electrical pathways, which require invasive wires to deliver voltage into the body. This mechanical stimulation, which activates entirely different signaling pathways within the neurons themselves, could provide a significant area of study, the researchers say.

“An interesting thing about the nervous system is that neurons can actually detect forces,” Senko says. “That’s how your sense of touch works, and also your sense of hearing and balance.” The team targeted a particular group of neurons within a structure known as the dorsal root ganglion, which forms an interface between the central and peripheral nervous systems, because these cells are particularly sensitive to mechanical forces.

The applications of the technique could be similar to those being developed in the field of bioelectronic medicines, Senko says, but those require electrodes that are typically much bigger and stiffer than the neurons being stimulated, limiting their precision and sometimes damaging cells.

The key to the new process was developing minuscule discs with an unusual magnetic property, which can cause them to start fluttering when subjected to a certain kind of varying magnetic field. Though the particles themselves are only 100 or so nanometers across, roughly a hundredth of the size of the neurons they are trying to stimulate, they can be made and injected in great quantities, so that collectively their effect is strong enough to activate the cell’s pressure receptors. “We made nanoparticles that actually produce forces that cells can detect and respond to,” Senko says.

Anikeeva says that conventional magnetic nanoparticles would have required impractically large magnetic fields to be activated, so finding materials that could provide sufficient force with just moderate magnetic activation was “a very hard problem.” The solution proved to be a new kind of magnetic nanodiscs.

These discs, which are hundreds of nanometers in diameter, contain a vortex configuration of atomic spins when there are no external magnetic fields applied. This makes the particles behave as if they were not magnetic at all, making them exceptionally stable in solutions. When these discs are subjected to a very weak varying magnetic field of a few millitesla, with a low frequency of just several hertz, they switch to a state where the internal spins are all aligned in the disc plane. This allows these nanodiscs to act as levers — wiggling up and down with the direction of the field.

Anikeeva, who is an associate professor in the departments of Materials Science and Engineering and Brain and Cognitive Sciences, says this work combines several disciplines, including new chemistry that led to development of these nanodiscs, along with electromagnetic effects and work on the biology of neurostimulation.

The team first considered using particles of a magnetic metal alloy that could provide the necessary forces, but these were not biocompatible materials, and they were prohibitively expensive. The researchers found a way to use particles made from hematite, a benign iron oxide, which can form the required disc shapes. The hematite was then converted into magnetite, which has the magnetic properties they needed and is known to be benign in the body. This chemical transformation from hematite to magnetite dramatically turns a blood-red tube of particles to jet black.

“We had to confirm that these particles indeed supported this really unusual spin state, this vortex,” Gregurec says. They first tried out the newly developed nanoparticles and proved, using holographic imaging systems provided by colleagues in Spain, that the particles really did react as expected, providing the necessary forces to elicit responses from neurons. The results came in late December and “everyone thought that was a Christmas present,” Anikeeva recalls, “when we got our first holograms, and we could really see that what we have theoretically predicted and chemically suspected actually was physically true.”

The work is still in its infancy, she says. “This is a very first demonstration that it is possible to use these particles to transduce large forces to membranes of neurons in order to stimulate them.”

She adds “that opens an entire field of possibilities. … This means that anywhere in the nervous system where cells are sensitive to mechanical forces, and that’s essentially any organ, we can now modulate the function of that organ.” That brings science a step closer, she says, to the goal of bioelectronic medicine that can provide stimulation at the level of individual organs or parts of the body, without the need for drugs or electrodes.

The work was supported by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Institute of Mental Health, the Department of Defense, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, and the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship.

Full paper at ACS Nano

COMMANDing drug delivery

While we are starting to get a handle on drugs and therapeutics that might to help alleviate brain disorders, efficient delivery remains a roadblock to tackling these devastating diseases. Research from the Graybiel, Cima, and Langer labs now uses a computational approach, one that accounts for the irregular shape of the target brain region, to deliver drugs effectively and specifically.

“Identifying therapeutic molecules that can treat neural disorders is just the first step,” says McGovern Investigator Ann Graybiel.

“There is still a formidable challenge when it comes to precisely delivering the therapeutic to the cells most affected in the disorder,” explains Graybiel, an MIT Institute Professor and a senior author on the paper. “Because the brain is so structurally complex, and subregions are irregular in shape, new delivery approaches are urgently needed.”

Fine targeting

Brain disorders often arise from dysfunction in specific regions. Parkinson’s disease, for example, arise from loss of neurons in a specific forebrain region, the striatum. Targeting such structures is a major therapeutic goal, and demands both overcoming the blood brain barrier, while also being specific to the structures affected by the disorder.

Such targeted therapy can potentially be achieved using intracerebral catheters. While this is a more specific form of delivery compared to systemic administration of a drug through the bloodstream, many brain regions are irregular in shape. This means that delivery throughout a specific brain region using a single catheter, while also limiting the spread of a given drug beyond the targeted area, is difficult. Indeed, intracerebral delivery of promising therapeutics has not led to the desired long-term alleviation of disorders.

“Accurate delivery of drugs to reach these targets is really important to ensure optimal efficacy and avoid off-target adverse effects. Our new system, called COMMAND, determines how best to dose targets,” says Michael Cima, senior author on the study and 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.

3D renderings of simulated multi-bolus delivery to various brain structures (striatum, amygdala, substantia nigra, and hippocampus) with one to four boluses.

COMMAND response

In the case of Parkinson’s disease, implants are available that limit symptoms, but these are only effective in a subset of patients. There are, however, a number of promising potential therapeutic treatments, such as GDNF administration, where long-term, precise delivery is needed to move the therapy forward.

The Graybiel, Cima, and Langer labs developed COMMAND (computational mapping algorithms for neural drug delivery) that helps to target a drug to a specific brain region at multiple sites (multi-bolus delivery).

“Many clinical trials are believed to have failed due to poor drug distribution following intracerebral injection,” explained Khalil Ramadi, PhD ’19, one of the lead researchers on the paper, and a postdoctoral fellow at the Koch and McGovern Institute. “We rationalized that both research experiments and clinical therapies would benefit from computationally optimized infusion, to enable greater consistency across groups and studies, as well as more efficacious therapeutic delivery.”

The COMMAND system finds balance between the twin challenges of drug delivery by maximizing on-target and minimizing off-target delivery. COMMAND is essentially an algorithm that minimizes an error that reflects leakage beyond the bounds of a specific target area, in this case the striatum. A second error is also minimized, and this encapsulates the need to target across this irregularly shaped brain region. The strategy to overcome this is to deliver multiple “boluses” to different areas of the striatum to target this region precisely, yet completely.

“COMMAND applies a simple principle when determining where to place the drug: Maximize the amount of drug falling within the target brain structure and minimize tissues exposed beyond the target region,” explains Ashvin Bashyam, PhD ’19, co-lead author and a former graduate student with Michael Cima at MIT. “This balance is specified based drug properties such as minimum effective therapeutic concentration, toxicity, and diffusivity within brain tissue.”

The number of drug sites applied is kept as low as possible, keeping surgery simple while still providing enough flexibility to cover the target region. In computational simulations, the researchers were able to deliver drugs to compact brain structures, such as the striatum and amygdala, but also broader and more irregular regions, such as hippocampus.

To examine the spatiotemporal dynamics of actual delivery, the researchers used positron emission tomography (PET) and a ‘labeled’ solution, Cu-64, that allowed them to image and follow an infused bolus after delivery with a microprobe. Using this system, the researchers successfully used PET to validate the accuracy of multi-bolus delivery to the rat striatum and its coverage as guided by COMMAND.

“We anticipate that COMMAND can improve researchers’ ability to precisely target brain structures to better understand their function, and become a platform to standardize methods across neuroscience experiments,” explains Graybiel. “Beyond the lab, we hope COMMAND will lay the foundation to help bring multifocal, chronic drug delivery to patients.”

CRISPR makes several Discovery of the Decade lists

As we reach milestones in time, it’s common to look back and review what we learned. A number of media outlets, including National Geographic, NPR, The Hill, Popular Mechanics, Smithsonian Magazine, Nature, Mental Floss, CNBC, and others, recognized the profound impact of genome editing, adding CRISPR to their discovery of the decade lists.

“In 2013, [CRISPR] was used for genome editing in a eukaryotic cell, forever altering the course of biotechnology and, ultimately our relationship with our DNA.”
— Popular Mechanics

It’s rare for a molecular system to become a household name, but in less than a decade, CRISPR has done just that. McGovern Investigator Feng Zhang played a key role in leveraging CRISPR, an immune system found originally in prokaryotic – bacterial and archaeal – cells, into a broadly customizable toolbox for genomic manipulation in eukaryotic (animal and plant) cells. CRISPR allows scientists to easily and quickly make changes to genomes, has revolutionized the biomedical sciences, and has major implications for control of infectious disease, agriculture, and treatment of genetic disorders.

A new way to deliver drugs with pinpoint targeting

Most pharmaceuticals must either be ingested or injected into the body to do their work. Either way, it takes some time for them to reach their intended targets, and they also tend to spread out to other areas of the body. Now, researchers at the McGovern Institute at MIT and elsewhere have developed a system to deliver medical treatments that can be released at precise times, minimally-invasively, and that ultimately could also deliver those drugs to specifically targeted areas such as a specific group of neurons in the brain.

The new approach is based on the use of tiny magnetic particles enclosed within a tiny hollow bubble of lipids (fatty molecules) filled with water, known as a liposome. The drug of choice is encapsulated within these bubbles, and can be released by applying a magnetic field to heat up the particles, allowing the drug to escape from the liposome and into the surrounding tissue.

The findings are reported today in the journal Nature Nanotechnology in a paper by MIT postdoc Siyuan Rao, Associate Professor Polina Anikeeva, and 14 others at MIT, Stanford University, Harvard University, and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.

“We wanted a system that could deliver a drug with temporal precision, and could eventually target a particular location,” Anikeeva explains. “And if we don’t want it to be invasive, we need to find a non-invasive way to trigger the release.”

Magnetic fields, which can easily penetrate through the body — as demonstrated by detailed internal images produced by magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI — were a natural choice. The hard part was finding materials that could be triggered to heat up by using a very weak magnetic field (about one-hundredth the strength of that used for MRI), in order to prevent damage to the drug or surrounding tissues, Rao says.

Rao came up with the idea of taking magnetic nanoparticles, which had already been shown to be capable of being heated by placing them in a magnetic field, and packing them into these spheres called liposomes. These are like little bubbles of lipids, which naturally form a spherical double layer surrounding a water droplet.

Electron microscope image shows the actual liposome, the white blob at center, with its magnetic particles showing up in black at its center.
Image courtesy of the researchers

When placed inside a high-frequency but low-strength magnetic field, the nanoparticles heat up, warming the lipids and making them undergo a transition from solid to liquid, which makes the layer more porous — just enough to let some of the drug molecules escape into the surrounding areas. When the magnetic field is switched off, the lipids re-solidify, preventing further releases. Over time, this process can be repeated, thus releasing doses of the enclosed drug at precisely controlled intervals.

The drug carriers were engineered to be stable inside the body at the normal body temperature of 37 degrees Celsius, but able to release their payload of drugs at a temperature of 42 degrees. “So we have a magnetic switch for drug delivery,” and that amount of heat is small enough “so that you don’t cause thermal damage to tissues,” says Anikeeva, who also holds appointments in the departments of Materials Science and Engineering and the Brain and Cognitive Sciences.

In principle, this technique could also be used to guide the particles to specific, pinpoint locations in the body, using gradients of magnetic fields to push them along, but that aspect of the work is an ongoing project. For now, the researchers have been injecting the particles directly into the target locations, and using the magnetic fields to control the timing of drug releases. “The technology will allow us to address the spatial aspect,” Anikeeva says, but that has not yet been demonstrated.

This could enable very precise treatments for a wide variety of conditions, she says. “Many brain disorders are characterized by erroneous activity of certain cells. When neurons are too active or not active enough, that manifests as a disorder, such as Parkinson’s, or depression, or epilepsy.” If a medical team wanted to deliver a drug to a specific patch of neurons and at a particular time, such as when an onset of symptoms is detected, without subjecting the rest of the brain to that drug, this system “could give us a very precise way to treat those conditions,” she says.

Rao says that making these nanoparticle-activated liposomes is actually quite a simple process. “We can prepare the liposomes with the particles within minutes in the lab,” she says, and the process should be “very easy to scale up” for manufacturing. And the system is broadly applicable for drug delivery: “we can encapsulate any water-soluble drug,” and with some adaptations, other drugs as well, she says.

One key to developing this system was perfecting and calibrating a way of making liposomes of a highly uniform size and composition. This involves mixing a water base with the fatty acid lipid molecules and magnetic nanoparticles and homogenizing them under precisely controlled conditions. Anikeeva compares it to shaking a bottle of salad dressing to get the oil and vinegar mixed, but controlling the timing, direction and strength of the shaking to ensure a precise mixing.

Anikeeva says that while her team has focused on neurological disorders, as that is their specialty, the drug delivery system is actually quite general and could be applied to almost any part of the body, for example to deliver cancer drugs, or even to deliver painkillers directly to an affected area instead of delivering them systemically and affecting the whole body. “This could deliver it to where it’s needed, and not deliver it continuously,” but only as needed.

Because the magnetic particles themselves are similar to those already in widespread use as contrast agents for MRI scans, the regulatory approval process for their use may be simplified, as their biological compatibility has largely been proven.

The team included researchers in MIT’s departments of Materials Science and Engineering and Brain and Cognitive Sciences, as well as the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, the Simons Center for Social Brain, and the Research Laboratory of Electronics; the Harvard University Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology and the John A. Paulsen School of Engineering and Applied Sciences; Stanford University; and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. The work was supported by the Simons Postdoctoral Fellowship, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Bose Research Grant, and the National Institutes of Health.

Scientists engineer new CRISPR platform for DNA targeting

A team that includes the scientist who first harnessed the revolutionary CRISPR-Cas9 and other systems for genome editing of eukaryotic organisms, including animals and plants, has engineered another CRISPR system, called Cas12b. The new system offers improved capabilities and options when compared to CRISPR-Cas9 systems.

In a study published today in Nature Communications, Feng Zhang and colleagues at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, with co-author Eugene Koonin at the National Institutes of Health, demonstrate that the new enzyme can be engineered to target and precisely nick or edit the genomes of human cells. The high target specificity and small size of Cas12b from Bacillus hisashii (BhCas12b) as compared to Cas9 (SpCas9), makes this new system suitable for in vivo applications. The team is now making CRISPR-Cas12b widely available for research.

The team previously identified Cas12b (then known as C2c1) as one of three promising new CRISPR enzymes in 2015, but faced a hurdle: Because Cas12b comes from thermophilic bacteria — which live in hot environments such as geysers, hot springs, volcanoes, and deep sea hydrothermal vents — the enzyme naturally only works at temperatures higher than human body temperature.

“We searched for inspirations from nature,” Zhang said. “We wanted to create a version of Cas12b that could operate at lower temperatures, so we scanned thousands of bacterial genetic sequences, looking in bacteria that could thrive in the lower temperatures of mammalian environments.”

Through a combination of exploration of natural diversity and rational engineering of promising candidate enzymes, they generated a version of Cas12b capable of efficiently editing genomes in primary human T cells, an important initial step for therapeutics that target or leverage the immune system.

“This is further evidence that there are many useful CRISPR systems waiting to be discovered,” said Jonathan Strecker, a postdoctoral fellow in the Zhang Lab, a Human Frontiers Science program fellow, and the study’s first author.

The field is moving quickly: Since the Cas12b family of enzymes was first described in 2015 and demonstrated to be RNA-guided DNA endonucleases, several groups have have been exploring this family of enzymes. In 2017 a team from Jennifer Doudna’s lab at UC Berkeley reported that Cas12b from Alicyclobacillus acidoterrestris can mediate non-specific collateral cleavage of DNA in vitro. More recently, a team from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing reported that another Cas12b, from Alicyclobacillus acidiphilus, was used to edit mammalian cells.

The Broad Institute and MIT are sharing the Cas12b system widely. As with earlier genome editing tools, these groups will make the technology freely available for academic research via the Zhang lab’s page on the plasmid-sharing website Addgene, through which the Zhang lab has already shared reagents more than 52,000 times with researchers at nearly 2,400 labs in 62 countries to accelerate research.

Zhang is a core institute member of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, as well as an investigator at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, the James and Patricia Poitras Professor of Neuroscience at MIT, and an associate professor at MIT, with joint appointments in the departments of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and Biological Engineering.

Support for this study was provided by the Poitras Center for Psychiatric Disorders Research, the Hock E. Tan and K. Lisa Yang Center for Autism Research, the National Human Genome Research Institute, the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, and other sources. Feng Zhang is an Investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

References:

Strecker J, et al. Engineering of CRISPR-Cas12b for human genome editing. Nature Communications. Online January 22, 2019. DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-08224-4.

H. Robert Horvitz

Learning from Worms

Bob Horvitz studies the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans. Only 1 mm long and containing fewer than 1000 cells, C. elegans has been key to discovering fundamental biological mechanisms that are conserved across species. Horvitz has focused on the genetic control of animal development and behavior, and on the mechanisms that underlie neurodegenerative disease. By identifying mutations that affect C. elegans behavior, Horvitz has revealed much about the genetic control of many aspects of nervous system development and of brain function, including how neural circuits control specific behaviors and how behavior is modulated by experience and by the environment.