Alan Jasanoff

Next Generation Brain Imaging

One of the greatest challenges of modern neuroscience is to relate high-level operations of the brain and mind to well-defined biological processes that arise from molecules and cells. The Jasanoff lab is creating a suite of experimental approaches designed to achieve this by permitting brain-wide dynamics of neural signaling and plasticity to be imaged for the first time, with molecular specificity. These potentially transformative approaches use novel probes detectable by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and other noninvasive readouts. The probes afford qualitatively new ways to study healthy and pathological aspects of integrated brain function in mechanistically-informative detail, in animals and possibly also people.

Michale Fee

Song Circuits

Michale Fee studies how the brain learns and generates complex sequential behaviors, focusing on the songbird as a model system. Birdsong is a complex behavior that young birds learn from their fathers and it provides an ideal system to study the neural basis of learned behavior. Because the parts of the bird’s brain that control song learning are closely related to human circuits that are disrupted in brain disorders such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease, Fee hopes the lessons learned from birdsong will provide new clues to the causes and possible treatment of these conditions.

Ann Graybiel

Probing the Deep Brain

Ann Graybiel studies the basal ganglia, forebrain structures that are profoundly important for normal brain function. Dysfunction in these regions is implicated in neurologic and neuropsychiatric disorders ranging from Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease to obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety and depression, and addiction. Graybiel’s laboratory is uncovering circuits underlying both the neural deficits related to these disorders, as well as the role that the basal ganglia play in guiding normal learning, motivation, and behavior.

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.

What is CRISPR?

CRISPR (which stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is not actually a single entity, but shorthand for a set of bacterial systems that are found with a hallmarked arrangement in the bacterial genome.

When CRISPR is mentioned, most people are likely thinking of CRISPR-Cas9, now widely known for its capacity to be re-deployed to target sequences of interest in eukaryotic cells, including human cells. Cas9 can be programmed to target specific stretches of DNA, but other enzymes have since been discovered that are able to edit DNA, including Cpf1 and Cas12b. Other CRISPR enzymes, Cas13 family members, can be programmed to target RNA and even edit and change its sequence.

The common theme that makes CRISPR enzymes so powerful, is that scientists can supply them with a guide RNA for a chosen sequence. Since the guide RNA can pair very specifically with DNA, or for Cas13 family members, RNA, researchers can basically provide a given CRISPR enzyme with a way of homing in on any sequence of interest. Once a CRISPR protein finds its target, it can be used to edit that sequence, perhaps removing a disease-associated mutation.

In addition, CRISPR proteins have been engineered to modulate gene expression and even signal the presence of particular sequences, as in the case of the Cas13-based diagnostic, SHERLOCK.

Do you have a question for The Brain? Ask it here.

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

Chronic neural implants modulate microstructures in the brain with pinpoint accuracy

Post by Windy Pham

The diversity of structures and functions of the brain is becoming increasingly realized in research today. Key structures exist in the brain that regulate emotion, anxiety, happiness, memory, and mobility. These structures can come in a huge variety of shapes and sizes and can all be physically near one another. Dysfunction of these structures and circuits linking them are common causes of many neurologic and neuropsychiatric diseases. For example, the substantia nigra is only a few millimeters in size yet is crucial for movement and coordination. Destruction of substantia nigra neurons is what causes motor symptoms in Parkinson’s disease.

New technologies such as optogenetics have allowed us to identify similar microstructures in the brain. However, these techniques rely on liquid infusions into the brain, which prepare the regions to be studied to respond to light. These infusions are done with large needles, which do not have the fine control to target specific regions. Clinical therapy has also lagged behind. New drug therapies aimed at treating these conditions are delivered orally, which results in drug distribution throughout the brain, or through large needle-cannulas, which do not have the fine control to accurately dose specific regions. As a result, patients of neurologic and psychiatric disorders frequently fail to respond to therapies due to poor drug delivery to diseased regions.

A new study addressing this problem has been published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The lead author is Khalil Ramadi, a medical engineering and medical physics (MEMP) PhD candidate in the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology (HST). For this study, Khalil and his thesis advisor, Michael Cima, the David H. Koch Professor of Engineering within the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, and associate dean of innovation in the School of Engineering, collaborated with Institute Professors Robert Langer and Ann Graybiel, an Investigator at the McGovern Institute of Brain Research to tackle this issue.

The team developed tools to enable targeted delivery of nanoliters of drugs to deep brain structures through chronically implanted microprobes. They also developed nuclear imaging techniques using positron emission tomography (PET) to measure the volume of the brain region targeted with each infusion. “Drugs for disorders of the central nervous system are nonspecific and get distributed throughout the brain,” Cima says. “Our animal studies show that volume is a critical factor when delivering drugs to the brain, as important as the total dose delivered. Using microcannulas and microPET imaging, we can control the area of brain exposed to these drugs, improving targeting accuracy double time comparing to the traditional methods used today.”

The researchers were also able to design cannulas that are MRI-compatible and implanted up to one year in rats. Implanting these cannulas with micropumps allowed the researchers to remotely control the behavior of animals. Significantly, they found that varying the volume infused alone had a profound effect on behavior induced, even if the total drug dose delivered stayed constant. These results show that regulation of volume delivery to brain region is extremely important in influencing brain activity. This technology could potentially enable precise investigation of neurological disease pathology in preclinical models, and more effective treatment in human patients.



Ann Graybiel wins 2018 Gruber Neuroscience Prize

Institute Professor Ann Graybiel, a professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, is being recognized by the Gruber Foundation for her work on the structure, organization, and function of the once-mysterious basal ganglia. She was awarded the prize alongside Okihide Hikosaka of the National Institute of Health’s National Eye Institute and Wolfram Schultz of the University of Cambridge in the U.K.

The basal ganglia have long been known to play a role in movement, and the work of Graybiel and others helped to extend their roles to cognition and emotion. Dysfunction in the basal ganglia has been linked to a host of disorders including Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, obsessive-compulsive disorder and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and to depression and anxiety disorders. Graybiel’s research focuses on the circuits thought to underlie these disorders, and on how these circuits act to help us form habits in everyday life.

“We are delighted that Ann has been honored with the Gruber Neuroscience Prize,” says Robert Desimone, director of the McGovern Institute. “Ann’s work has truly elucidated the complexity and functional importance of these forebrain structures. Her work has driven the field forward in a fundamental fashion, and continues to do so.’

Graybiel’s research focuses broadly on the striatum, a hub in basal ganglia-based circuits that is linked to goal-directed actions and habits. Prior to her work, the striatum was considered to be a primitive forebrain region. Graybiel found that the striatum instead has a complex architecture consisting of specialized zones: striosomes and the surrounding matrix. Her group went on to relate these zones to function, finding that striosomes and matrix differentially influence behavior. Among other important findings, Graybiel has shown that striosomes are focal points in circuits that link mood-related cortical regions with the dopamine-containing neurons of the midbrain, which are implicated in learning and motivation and which undergo degeneration in Parkinson’s disorder and other clinical conditions. She and her group have shown that these regions are activated by drugs of abuse, and that they influence decision-making, including decisions that require weighing of costs and benefits.

Graybiel continues to drive the field forward, finding that striatal neurons spike in an accentuated fashion and ‘bookend’ the beginning and end of behavioral sequences in rodents and primates. This activity pattern suggests that the striatum demarcates useful behavioral sequences such, in the case of rodents, pressing levers or running down mazes to receive a reward. Additionally, she and her group worked on miniaturized tools for chemical sensing and delivery as part of a continued drive toward therapeutic intervention in collaboration with the laboratories of Robert Langer in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Michael Cima, in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

“My first thought was of our lab, and how fortunate I am to work with such talented and wonderful people,” says Graybiel.  “I am deeply honored to be recognized by this prestigious award on behalf of our lab.”

The Gruber Foundation’s international prize program recognizes researchers in the areas of cosmology, neuroscience and genetics, and includes a cash award of $500,000 in each field. The medal given to award recipients also outlines the general mission of the foundation, “for the fundamental expansion of human knowledge,” and the prizes specifically honor those whose groundbreaking work fits into this paradigm.

Graybiel, a member of the MIT Class of 1971, has also previously been honored with the National Medal of Science, the Kavli Award, the James R. Killian Faculty Achievement Award at MIT, Woman Leader of Parkinson’s Science award from the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, and has been recognized by the National Parkinson Foundation for her contributions to the understanding and treatment of Parkinson’s disease. Graybiel is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

The Gruber Neuroscience Prize will be presented in a ceremony at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in San Diego this coming November.

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.