Dealing with uncertainty

As we interact with the world, we are constantly presented with information that is unreliable or incomplete – from jumbled voices in a crowded room to solicitous strangers with unknown motivations. Fortunately, our brains are well equipped to evaluate the quality of the evidence we use to make decisions, usually allowing us to act deliberately, without jumping to conclusions.

Now, neuroscientists at MIT’s McGovern Institute have homed in on key brain circuits that help guide decision-making under conditions of uncertainty. By studying how mice interpret ambiguous sensory cues, they’ve found neurons that stop the brain from using unreliable information.

“One area cares about the content of the message—that’s the prefrontal cortex—and the thalamus seems to care about how certain the input is.” – Michael Halassa

The findings, published October 6, 2021, in the journal Nature, could help researchers develop treatments for schizophrenia and related conditions, whose symptoms may be at least partly due to affected individuals’ inability to effectively gauge uncertainty.

Decoding ambiguity

“A lot of cognition is really about handling different types of uncertainty,” says McGovern Associate Investigator Michael Halassa, explaining that we all must use ambiguous information to make inferences about what’s happening in the world. Part of dealing with this ambiguity involves recognizing how confident we can be in our conclusions. And when this process fails, it can dramatically skew our interpretation of the world around us.

“In my mind, schizophrenia spectrum disorders are really disorders of appropriately inferring the causes of events in the world and what other people think,” says Halassa, who is a practicing psychiatrist. Patients with these disorders often develop strong beliefs based on events or signals most people would dismiss as meaningless or irrelevant, he says. They may assume hidden messages are embedded in a garbled audio recording, or worry that laughing strangers are plotting against them. Such things are not impossible—but delusions arise when patients fail to recognize that they are highly unlikely.

Halassa and postdoctoral researcher Arghya Mukherjee wanted to know how healthy brains handle uncertainty, and recent research from other labs provided some clues. Functional brain imaging had shown that when people are asked to study a scene but they aren’t sure what to pay attention to, a part of the brain called the mediodorsal thalamus becomes active. The less guidance people are given for this task, the harder the mediodorsal thalamus works.

The thalamus is a sort of crossroads within the brain, made up of cells that connect distant brain regions to one another. Its mediodorsal region sends signals to the prefrontal cortex, where sensory information is integrated with our goals, desires, and knowledge to guide behavior. Previous work in the Halassa lab showed that the mediodorsal thalamus helps the prefrontal cortex tune in to the right signals during decision-making, adjusting signaling as needed when circumstances change. Intriguingly, this brain region has been found to be less active in people with schizophrenia than it is in others.

group photo of study authors
Study authors (from left to right) Michael Halassa, Arghya Mukherjee, Norman Lam and Ralf Wimmer.

Working with postdoctoral researcher Norman Lam and research scientist Ralf Wimmer, Halassa and Mukherjee designed a set of animal experiments to examine the mediodorsal thalamus’s role in handling uncertainty. Mice were trained to respond to sensory signals according to audio cues that alerted them whether to focus on either light or sound. When the animals were given conflicting cues, it was up to them animal to figure out which one was represented most prominently and act accordingly. The experimenters varied the uncertainty of this task by manipulating the numbers and ratio of the cues.

Division of labor

By manipulating and recording activity in the animals’ brains, the researchers found that the prefrontal cortex got involved every time mice completed this task, but the mediodorsal thalamus was only needed when the animals were given signals that left them uncertain how to behave. There was a simple division of labor within the brain, Halassa says. “One area cares about the content of the message—that’s the prefrontal cortex—and the thalamus seems to care about how certain the input is.”

Within the mediodorsal thalamus, Halassa and Mukherjee found a subset of cells that were especially active when the animals were presented with conflicting sound cues. These neurons, which connect directly to the prefrontal cortex, are inhibitory neurons, capable of dampening downstream signaling. So when they fire, Halassa says, they effectively stop the brain from acting on unreliable information. Cells of a different type were focused on the uncertainty that arises when signaling is sparse. “There’s a dedicated circuitry to integrate evidence across time to extract meaning out of this kind of assessment,” Mukherjee explains.

As Halassa and Mukherjee investigate these circuits more deeply, a priority will be determining whether they are disrupted in people with schizophrenia. To that end, they are now exploring the circuitry in animal models of the disorder. The hope, Mukherjee says, is to eventually target dysfunctional circuits in patients, using noninvasive, focused drug delivery methods currently under development. “We have the genetic identity of these circuits. We know they express specific types of receptors, so we can find drugs that target these receptors,” he says. “Then you can specifically release these drugs in the mediodorsal thalamus to modulate the circuits as a potential therapeutic strategy.”

This work was funded by grants from the National Institute of Mental Health (R01MH107680-05 and R01MH120118-02).

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.

Some brain disorders exhibit similar circuit malfunctions

Many neurodevelopmental disorders share similar symptoms, such as learning disabilities or attention deficits. A new study from MIT has uncovered a common neural mechanism for a type of cognitive impairment seen in some people with autism and schizophrenia, even though the genetic variations that produce the impairments are different for each condition.

In a study of mice, the researchers found that certain genes that are mutated or missing in some people with those disorders cause similar dysfunctions in a neural circuit in the thalamus. If scientists could develop drugs that target this circuit, they could be used to treat people who have different disorders with common behavioral symptoms, the researchers say.

“This study reveals a new circuit mechanism for cognitive impairment and points to a future direction for developing new therapeutics, by dividing patients into specific groups not by their behavioral profile, but by the underlying neurobiological mechanisms,” 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, the associate director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, and the senior author of the new study.

Dheeraj Roy, a Warren Alpert Distinguished Scholar and a McGovern Fellow at the Broad Institute, and Ying Zhang, a postdoc at the McGovern Institute, are the lead authors of the paper, which appears today in Neuron.

Thalamic connections

The thalamus plays a key role in cognitive tasks such as memory formation and learning. Previous studies have shown that many of the gene variants linked to brain disorders such as autism and schizophrenia are highly expressed in the thalamus, suggesting that it may play a role in those disorders.

One such gene is called Ptchd1, which Feng has studied extensively. In boys, loss of this gene, which is carried on the X chromosome, can lead to attention deficits, hyperactivity, aggression, intellectual disability, and autism spectrum disorders.

In a study published in 2016, Feng and his colleagues showed that Ptchd1 exerts many of its effects in a part of the thalamus called the thalamic reticular nucleus (TRN). When the gene is knocked out in the TRN of mice, the mice show attention deficits and hyperactivity. However, that study did not find any role for the TRN in the learning disabilities also seen in people with mutations in Ptchd1.

In the new study, the researchers decided to look elsewhere in the thalamus to try to figure out how Ptchd1 loss might affect learning and memory. Another area they identified that highly expresses Ptchd1 is called the anterodorsal (AD) thalamus, a tiny region that is involved in spatial learning and communicates closely with the hippocampus.

Using novel techniques that allowed them to trace the connections between the AD thalamus and another brain region called the retrosplenial cortex (RSC), the researchers determined a key function of this circuit. They found that in mice, the AD-to-RSC circuit is essential for encoding fearful memories of a chamber in which they received a mild foot shock. It is also necessary for working memory, such as creating mental maps of physical spaces to help in decision-making.

The researchers found that a nearby part of the thalamus called the anteroventral (AV) thalamus also plays a role in this memory formation process: AV-to-RSC communication regulates the specificity of the encoded memory, which helps us distinguish this memory from others of similar nature.

“These experiments showed that two neighboring subdivisions in the thalamus contribute differentially to memory formation, which is not what we expected,” Roy says.

Circuit malfunction

Once the researchers discovered the roles of the AV and AD thalamic regions in memory formation, they began to investigate how this circuit is affected by loss of Ptchd1. When they knocked down expression of Ptchd1 in neurons of the AD thalamus, they found a striking deficit in memory encoding, for both fearful memories and working memory.

The researchers then did the same experiments with a series of four other genes — one that is linked with autism and three linked with schizophrenia. In all of these mice, they found that knocking down gene expression produced the same memory impairments. They also found that each of these knockdowns produced hyperexcitability in neurons of the AD thalamus.

These results are consistent with existing theories that learning occurs through the strengthening of synapses that occurs as a memory is formed, the researchers say.

“The dominant theory in the field is that when an animal is learning, these neurons have to fire more, and that increase correlates with how well you learn,” Zhang says. “Our simple idea was if a neuron fires too high at baseline, you may lack a learning-induced increase.”

The researchers demonstrated that each of the genes they studied affects different ion channels that influence neurons’ firing rates. The overall effect of each mutation is an increase in neuron excitability, which leads to the same circuit-level dysfunction and behavioral symptoms.

The researchers also showed that they could restore normal cognitive function in mice with these genetic mutations by artificially turning down hyperactivity in neurons of the AD thalamus. The approach they used, chemogenetics, is not yet approved for use in humans. However, it may be possible to target this circuit in other ways, the researchers say.

The findings lend support to the idea that grouping diseases by the circuit malfunctions that underlie them may help to identify potential drug targets that could help many patients, Feng says.

“There are so many genetic factors and environmental factors that can contribute to a particular disease, but in the end, it has to cause some type of neuronal change that affects a circuit or a few circuits involved in this behavior,” he says. “From a therapeutic point of view, in such cases you may not want to go after individual molecules because they may be unique to a very small percentage of patients, but at a higher level, at the cellular or circuit level, patients may have more commonalities.”

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

Individual neurons responsible for complex social reasoning in humans identified

This story is adapted from a January 27, 2021 press release from Massachusetts General Hospital.

The ability to understand others’ hidden thoughts and beliefs is an essential component of human social behavior. Now, neuroscientists have for the first time identified specific neurons critical for social reasoning, a cognitive process that requires individuals to acknowledge and predict others’ hidden beliefs and thoughts.

The findings, published in Nature, open new avenues of study into disorders that affect social behavior, according to the authors.

In the study, a team of Harvard Medical School investigators based at Massachusetts General Hospital and colleagues from MIT took a rare look at how individual neurons represent the beliefs of others. They did so by recording neuron activity in patients undergoing neurosurgery to alleviate symptoms of motor disorders such as Parkinson’s disease.

Theory of mind

The researcher team, which included McGovern scientists Ev Fedorenko and Rebecca Saxe, focused on a complex social cognitive process called “theory of mind.” To illustrate this, let’s say a friend appears to be sad on her birthday. One may infer she is sad because she didn’t get a present or she is upset at growing older.

“When we interact, we must be able to form predictions about another person’s unstated intentions and thoughts,” said senior author Ziv Williams, HMS associate professor of neurosurgery at Mass General. “This ability requires us to paint a mental picture of someone’s beliefs, which involves acknowledging that those beliefs may be different from our own and assessing whether they are true or false.”

This social reasoning process develops during early childhood and is fundamental to successful social behavior. Individuals with autism, schizophrenia, bipolar affective disorder, and traumatic brain injuries are believed to have a deficit of theory-of-mind ability.

For the study, 15 patients agreed to perform brief behavioral tasks before undergoing neurosurgery for placement of deep-brain stimulation for motor disorders. Microelectrodes inserted into the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex recorded the behavior of individual neurons as patients listened to short narratives and answered questions about them.

For example, participants were presented with the following scenario to evaluate how they considered another’s belief of reality: “You and Tom see a jar on the table. After Tom leaves, you move the jar to a cabinet. Where does Tom believe the jar to be?”

Social computation

The participants had to make inferences about another’s beliefs after hearing each story. The experiment did not change the planned surgical approach or alter clinical care.

“Our study provides evidence to support theory of mind by individual neurons,” said study first author Mohsen Jamali, HMS instructor in neurosurgery at Mass General. “Until now, it wasn’t clear whether or how neurons were able to perform these social cognitive computations.”

The investigators found that some neurons are specialized and respond only when assessing another’s belief as false, for example. Other neurons encode information to distinguish one person’s beliefs from another’s. Still other neurons create a representation of a specific item, such as a cup or food item, mentioned in the story. Some neurons may multitask and aren’t dedicated solely to social reasoning.

“Each neuron is encoding different bits of information,” Jamali said. “By combining the computations of all the neurons, you get a very detailed representation of the contents of another’s beliefs and an accurate prediction of whether they are true or false.”

Now that scientists understand the basic cellular mechanism that underlies human theory of mind, they have an operational framework to begin investigating disorders in which social behavior is affected, according to Williams.

“Understanding social reasoning is also important to many different fields, such as child development, economics, and sociology, and could help in the development of more effective treatments for conditions such as autism spectrum disorder,” Williams said.

Previous research on the cognitive processes that underlie theory of mind has involved functional MRI studies, where scientists watch which parts of the brain are active as volunteers perform cognitive tasks.

But the imaging studies capture the activity of many thousands of neurons all at once. In contrast, Williams and colleagues recorded the computations of individual neurons. This provided a detailed picture of how neurons encode social information.

“Individual neurons, even within a small area of the brain, are doing very different things, not all of which are involved in social reasoning,” Williams said. “Without delving into the computations of single cells, it’s very hard to build an understanding of the complex cognitive processes underlying human social behavior and how they go awry in mental disorders.”

Adapted from a Mass General news release.

New neuron type discovered only in primate brains

Neuropsychiatric illnesses like schizophrenia and autism are a complex interplay of brain chemicals, environment, and genetics that requires careful study to understand the root causes. Scientists have traditionally relied on samples taken from mice and non-human primates to study how these diseases develop. But the question has lingered: are the brains of these subjects similar enough to humans to yield useful insights?

Now work from the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and the McGovern Institute for Brain Research is pointing towards an answer. In a study published in Nature, researchers from the Broad’s Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research report several key differences in the brains of ferrets, mice, nonhuman primates, and humans, all focused on a type of neuron called interneurons. Most surprisingly, the team found a new type of interneuron only in primates, located in a part of the brain called the striatum, which is associated with Huntington’s disease and potentially schizophrenia.

The findings could help accelerate research into causes of and treatments for neuropsychiatric illnesses, by helping scientists choose the lab model that best mimics features of the human brain that may be involved in these diseases.

“The data from this work will inform the study of human brain disorders because it helps us think about which features of the human brain can be studied in mice, which features require higher organisms such as marmosets, and why mouse models often don’t reflect the effects of the corresponding mutations in human,” said Steven McCarroll, senior author of the study, director of genetics at the Stanley Center, and a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School.

“Dysfunctions of interneurons have been strongly linked to several brain disorders including autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia,” said Guoping Feng, co-author of the study, director of model systems and neurobiology at the Stanley Center, and professor of neuroscience at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research. “These data further demonstrate the unique importance of non-human primate models in understanding neurobiological mechanisms of brain disorders and in developing and testing therapeutic approaches.”

Enter the interneuron

Interneurons form key nodes within neural circuitry in the brain, and help regulate neuronal activity by releasing the neurotransmitter GABA, which inhibits the firing of other neurons.

Fenna Krienen, a postdoctoral fellow in the McCarroll Lab and first author on the Nature paper, and her colleagues wanted to track the natural history of interneurons.

“We wanted to gain an understanding of the evolutionary trajectory of the cell types that make up the brain,” said Krienen. “And then we went about acquiring samples from species that could inform this understanding of evolutionary divergence between humans and the models that so often stand in for humans in neuroscience studies.”

One of the tools the researchers used was Drop-seq, a high-throughput single nucleus RNA sequencing technique developed by McCarroll’s lab, to classify the roles and locations of more than 184,000 telencephalic interneurons in the brains of ferrets, humans, macaques, marmosets, and mice. Using tissue from frozen samples, the team isolated the nuclei of interneurons from the cortex, the hippocampus, and the striatum, and profiled the RNA from the cells.

The researchers thought that because interneurons are found in all vertebrates, the cells would be relatively static from species to species.

“But with these sensitive measurements and a lot of data from the various species, we got a different picture about how lively interneurons are, in terms of the ways that evolution has tweaked their programs or their populations from one species to the next,” said Krienen.

She and her collaborators identified four main differences in interneurons between the species they studied: the cells change their proportions across brain regions, alter the programs they use to link up with other neurons, and can migrate to different regions of the brain.

But most strikingly, the scientists discovered that primates have a novel interneuron not found in other species. The interneuron is located in the striatum—the brain structure responsible for cognition, reward, and coordinated movements that has existed as far back on the evolutionary tree as ancient primitive fish. The researchers were amazed to find the new neuron type made up a third of all interneurons in the striatum.

“Although we expected the big innovations in human and primate brains to be in the cerebral cortex, which we tend to associate with human intelligence, it was in fact in the venerable striatum that Fenna uncovered the most dramatic cellular innovation in the primate brain,” said McCarroll. “This cell type had never been discovered before, because mice have nothing like it.”

“The question of what provides the “human advantage” in cognitive abilities is one of the fundamental issues neurobiologists have endeavored to answer,” said Gordon Fishell, group leader at the Stanley Center, a professor of neurobiology at Harvard Medical School, and a collaborator on the study. “These findings turn on end the question of ‘how do we build better brains?’. It seems at least part of the answer stems from creating a new list of parts.”

A better understanding of how these inhibitory neurons vary between humans and lab models will provide researchers with new tools for investigating various brain disorders. Next, the researchers will build on this work to determine the specific functions of each type of interneuron.

“In studying neurodevelopmental disorders, you would like to be convinced that your model is an appropriate one for really complex social behaviors,” Krienen said. “And the major overarching theme of the study was that primates in general seem to be very similar to one another in all of those interneuron innovations.”

Support for this work was provided in part by the Broad Institute’s Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research and the NIH Brain Initiative, the Dean’s Innovation Award (Harvard Medical School), the Hock E. Tan and K. Lisa Yang Center for Autism Research at MIT, the Poitras Center for Psychiatric Disorders Research at MIT, the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

Optogenetics with SOUL

Optogenetics has revolutionized neurobiology, allowing researchers to use light to activate or deactivate neurons that are genetically modified to express a light-sensitive channel. This ability to manipulate neuron activity has allowed causal testing of the function of specific neurons, and also has therapeutic potential to reduce symptoms in brain disorders. However, activating neurons deep within a given brain, especially a large primate brain but even a small mouse brain, is challenging and currently requires implanting fibers that could cause damage or inflammation.

McGovern Investigator Guoping Feng and colleagues have now overcome this challenge, developing optogenetic tools that allow non-invasive stimulation of neurons in the deep brain.

“Neuroscientists have dreamed of methods to turn neurons on and off, to understand the function of different neurons, but also to repair brain malfunctions that lead to psychiatric disorders, and optogenetics made this possible” explained Feng, the James W. (1963) and Patricia T. Poitras Professor in Brain and Cognitive Sciences. “We were trying to improve the light sensitivity of optogenetic tools to broaden applications.”

Engineering with light

In order to stimulate neurons with minimal invasiveness, Feng and colleagues engineered a new type of opsin. The original breakthrough optogenetics protocol used channelrhodopsin, a light-sensitive channel discovered in algae. By expressing this channel in neurons, light of the right wavelength can be used to activate the neuron in a dish or in vivo. However, in vivo application requires the implantation of optical fibers to deliver the light close to the specific brain region being stimulated, especially if the target region is in the deep brain. In addition, if the neuron being targeted is in the deep brain, it is hard for light to reach the region in the absence of invasive tools that can damage tissue and impact the behavior of the animal.

Our study creates a method that can activate any mouse brain region, independent of its location, non-invasively.

“Prior to our study, a few studies have contributed in various ways to the development of optogenetic stimulation methods that would be minimally invasive to the brain. However, all of these studies had various limitations in the extent of brain regions they could activate,” said co-senior study author Robert Desimone, director of the McGovern Institute and the Doris and Don Berkey Professor of Neuroscience at MIT.

Probing the brain with SOUL

Feng and colleagues turned instead to new opsins, in particular SOUL, a new type of opsin that is very sensitive to even low-level light. The Feng group engineered this opsin, based on SSFO a second generation optogenetics tool, to have increased light sensitivity, and took advantage of a second property: that SOUL is activated in multiple steps, and once activated, it stays active for longer than other commonly used opsins. This means that a burst of a few seconds of low-level light can cause neurons to stay active for 10-30 minutes.

In order to put SOUL through its paces, the Feng lab expressed this channel in the lateral hypothalamus of the mouse brain. This is a deep region, challenging to reach with light, but with neurons that have clear functions that will lead to changes in behavior. Feng’s group was able to turn on this region non-invasively with light from outside the skull, and cause changes in feeding behavior.

“We were really surprised that SOUL was able to activate one of the deepest areas in the mouse brain, the lateral hypothalamus, which is 6 mm deep,” explains Feng.

But there were more surprises. When the authors activated a region of the primate brain using SOUL, they saw oscillations, waves of synchronized neuronal activity coming together like a choir. Such waves are believed to be important for many brain functions, and this result suggests that the new opsin can manipulate these brain waves, allowing scientists to study their role in the brain.

The authors are planning to move the study in several directions, studying models of brain disorders to identify circuits that may be suitable targets for therapy, as well as moving the methodology so that it can be used beyond the superficial cortex in larger animals. While it is too early to discuss applying the system to humans, the research brings us one step closer to future treatment of neurological disorders.

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.

Drug combination reverses hypersensitivity to noise

People with autism often experience hypersensitivity to noise and other sensory input. MIT neuroscientists have now identified two brain circuits that help tune out distracting sensory information, and they have found a way to reverse noise hypersensitivity in mice by boosting the activity of those circuits.

One of the circuits the researchers identified is involved in filtering noise, while the other exerts top-down control by allowing the brain to switch its attention between different sensory inputs.

The researchers showed that restoring the function of both circuits worked much better than treating either circuit alone. This demonstrates the benefits of mapping and targeting multiple circuits involved in neurological disorders, says Michael Halassa, an assistant professor of brain and cognitive sciences and a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research.

“We think this work has the potential to transform how we think about neurological and psychiatric disorders, [so that we see them] as a combination of circuit deficits,” says Halassa, the senior author of the study. “The way we should approach these brain disorders is to map, to the best of our ability, what combination of deficits are there, and then go after that combination.”

MIT postdoc Miho Nakajima and research scientist L. Ian Schmitt are the lead authors of the paper, which appears in Neuron on Oct. 21. Guoping Feng, the James W. and Patricia Poitras Professor of Neuroscience and a member of the McGovern Institute, is also an author of the paper.

Hypersensitivity

Many gene variants have been linked with autism, but most patients have very few, if any, of those variants. One of those genes is ptchd1, which is mutated in about 1 percent of people with autism. In a 2016 study, Halassa and Feng found that during development this gene is primarily expressed in a part of the thalamus called the thalamic reticular nucleus (TRN).

That study revealed that neurons of the TRN help the brain to adjust to changes in sensory input, such as noise level or brightness. In mice with ptchd1 missing, TRN neurons fire too fast, and they can’t adjust when noise levels change. This prevents the TRN from performing its usual sensory filtering function, Halassa says.

“Neurons that are there to filter out noise, or adjust the overall level of activity, are not adapting. Without the ability to fine-tune the overall level of activity, you can get overwhelmed very easily,” he says.

In the 2016 study, the researchers also found that they could restore some of the mice’s noise filtering ability by treating them with a drug called EBIO that activates neurons’ potassium channels. EBIO has harmful cardiac side effects so likely could not be used in human patients, but other drugs that boost TRN activity may have a similar beneficial effect on hypersensitivity, Halassa says.

In the new Neuron paper, the researchers delved more deeply into the effects of ptchd1, which is also expressed in the prefrontal cortex. To explore whether the prefrontal cortex might play a role in the animals’ hypersensitivity, the researchers used a task in which mice have to distinguish between three different tones, presented with varying amounts of background noise.

Normal mice can learn to use a cue that alerts them whenever the noise level is going to be higher, improving their overall performance on the task. A similar phenomenon is seen in humans, who can adjust better to noisier environments when they have some advance warning, Halassa says. However, mice with the ptchd1 mutation were unable to use these cues to improve their performance, even when their TRN deficit was treated with EBIO.

This suggested that another brain circuit must be playing a role in the animals’ ability to filter out distracting noise. To test the possibility that this circuit is located in the prefrontal cortex, the researchers recorded from neurons in that region while mice lacking ptch1 performed the task. They found that neuronal activity died out much faster in these mice than in the prefrontal cortex of normal mice. That led the researchers to test another drug, known as modafinil, which is FDA-approved to treat narcolepsy and is sometimes prescribed to improve memory and attention.

The researchers found that when they treated mice missing ptchd1 with both modafinil and EBIO, their hypersensitivity disappeared, and their performance on the task was the same as that of normal mice.

Targeting circuits

This successful reversal of symptoms suggests that the mice missing ptchd1 experience a combination of circuit deficits that each contribute differently to noise hypersensitivity. One circuit filters noise, while the other helps to control noise filtering based on external cues. Ptch1 mutations affect both circuits, in different ways that can be treated with different drugs.

Both of those circuits could also be affected by other genetic mutations that have been linked to autism and other neurological disorders, Halassa says. Targeting those circuits, rather than specific genetic mutations, may offer a more effective way to treat such disorders, he says.

“These circuits are important for moving things around the brain — sensory information, cognitive information, working memory,” he says. “We’re trying to reverse-engineer circuit operations in the service of figuring out what to do about a real human disease.”

He now plans to study circuit-level disturbances that arise in schizophrenia. That disorder affects circuits involving cognitive processes such as inference — the ability to draw conclusions from available information.

The research was funded by the Simons Center for the Social Brain at MIT, the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute, the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, the Pew Foundation, the Human Frontiers Science Program, the National Institutes of Health, the James and Patricia Poitras Center for Psychiatric Disorders Research at MIT, a Japan Society for the Promotion of Science Fellowship, and a National Alliance for the Research of Schizophrenia and Depression Young Investigator Award.

Controlling our internal world

Olympic skaters can launch, perform multiple aerial turns, and land gracefully, anticipating imperfections and reacting quickly to correct course. To make such elegant movements, the brain must have an internal model of the body to control, predict, and make almost instantaneous adjustments to motor commands. So-called “internal models” are a fundamental concept in engineering and have long been suggested to underlie control of movement by the brain, but what about processes that occur in the absence of movement, such as contemplation, anticipation, planning?

Using a novel combination of task design, data analysis, and modeling, MIT neuroscientist Mehrdad Jazayeri and colleagues now provide compelling evidence that the core elements of an internal model also control purely mental processes.

“During my thesis I realized that I’m interested, not so much in how our senses react to sensory inputs, but instead in how my internal model of the world helps me make sense of those inputs,”says Jazayeri, the Robert A. Swanson Career Development Professor of Life Sciences, a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and the senior author of the study.

Indeed, understanding the building blocks exerting control of such mental processes could help to paint a better picture of disruptions in mental disorders, such as schizophrenia.

Internal models for mental processes

Scientists working on the motor system have long theorized that the brain overcomes noisy and slow signals using an accurate internal model of the body. This internal model serves three critical functions: it provides motor to control movement, simulates upcoming movement to overcome delays, and uses feedback to make real-time adjustments.

“The framework that we currently use to think about how the brain controls our actions is one that we have borrowed from robotics: we use controllers, simulators, and sensory measurements to control machines and train operators,” explains Reza Shadmehr, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine who was not involved with the study. “That framework has largely influenced how we imagine our brain controlling our movements.”

Jazazyeri and colleagues wondered whether the same framework might explain the control principles governing mental states in the absence of any movement.

“When we’re simply sitting, thoughts and images run through our heads and, fundamental to intellect, we can control them,” explains lead author Seth Egger, a former postdoctoral associate in the Jazayeri lab and now at Duke University.

“We wanted to find out what’s happening between our ears when we are engaged in thinking,” says Egger.

Imagine, for example, a sign language interpreter keeping up with a fast speaker. To track speech accurately, the translator continuously anticipates where the speech is going, rapidly adjusting when the actual words deviate from the prediction. The interpreter could be using an internal model to anticipate upcoming words, and use feedback to make adjustments on the fly.

1-2-3…Go

Hypothesizing about how the components of an internal model function in scenarios such as translation is one thing. Cleanly measuring and proving the existence of these elements is much more complicated as the activity of the controller, simulator, and feedback are intertwined. To tackle this problem, Jazayeri and colleagues devised a clever task with primate models in which the controller, simulator, and feedback act at distinct times.

In this task, called “1-2-3-Go,” the animal sees three consecutive flashes (1, 2, and 3) that form a regular beat, and learns to make an eye movement (Go) when they anticipate the 4th flash should occur. During the task, researchers measured neural activity in a region of the frontal cortex they had previously linked to the timing of movement.

Jazayeri and colleagues had clear predictions about when the controller would act (between the third flash and “Go”) and when feedback would be engaged (with each flash of light). The key surprise came when researchers saw evidence for the simulator anticipating the third flash. This unexpected neural activity has dynamics that resemble the controller, but was not associated with a response. In other words, the researchers uncovered a covert plan that functions as the simulator, thus uncovering all three elements of an internal model for a mental process, the planning and anticipation of “Go” in the “1-2-3-Go” sequence.

“Jazayeri’s work is important because it demonstrates how to study mental simulation in animals,” explains Shadmehr, “and where in the brain that simulation is taking place.”

Having found how and where to measure an internal model in action, Jazayeri and colleagues now plan to ask whether these control strategies can explain how primates effortlessly generalize their knowledge from one behavioral context to another. For example, how does an interpreter rapidly adjust when someone with widely different speech habits takes the podium? This line of investigation promises to shed light on high-level mental capacities of the primate brain that simpler animals seem to lack, that go awry in mental disorders, and that designers of artificial intelligence systems so fondly seek.

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.