How do neurons communicate (so quickly)?

Neurons are the most fundamental unit of the nervous system, and yet, researchers are just beginning to understand how they perform the complex computations that underlie our behavior. We asked Boaz Barak, previously a postdoc in Guoping Feng’s lab at the McGovern Institute and now Senior Lecturer at the School of Psychological Sciences and Sagol School of Neuroscience at Tel Aviv University, to unpack the basics of neuron communication for us.

“Neurons communicate with each other through electrical and chemical signals,” explains Barak. “The electrical signal, or action potential, runs from the cell body area to the axon terminals, through a thin fiber called axon. Some of these axons can be very long and most of them are very short. The electrical signal that runs along the axon is based on ion movement. The speed of the signal transmission is influenced by an insulating layer called myelin,” he explains.

Myelin is a fatty layer formed, in the vertebrate central nervous system, by concentric wrapping of oligodendrocyte cell processes around axons. The term “myelin” was coined in 1854 by Virchow (whose penchant for Greek and for naming new structures also led to the terms amyloid, leukemia, and chromatin). In more modern images, the myelin sheath is beautifully visible as concentric spirals surrounding the “tube” of the axon itself. Neurons in the peripheral nervous system are also myelinated, but the cells responsible for myelination are Schwann cells, rather than oligodendrocytes.

“Neurons communicate with each other through electrical and chemical signals,” explains Boaz Barak.

“Myelin’s main purpose is to insulate the neuron’s axon,” Barak says. “It speeds up conductivity and the transmission of electrical impulses. Myelin promotes fast transmission of electrical signals mainly by affecting two factors: 1) increasing electrical resistance, or reducing leakage of the electrical signal and ions along the axon, “trapping” them inside the axon and 2) decreasing membrane capacitance by increasing the distance between conducting materials inside the axon (intracellular fluids) and outside of it (extracellular fluids).”

Adjacent sections of axon in a given neuron are each surrounded by a distinct myelin sheath. Unmyelinated gaps between adjacent ensheathed regions of the axon are called Nodes of Ranvier, and are critical to fast transmission of action potentials, in what is termed “saltatory conduction.” A useful analogy is that if the axon itself is like an electrical wire, myelin is like insulation that surrounds it, speeding up impulse propagation, and overcoming the decrease in action potential size that would occur during transmission along a naked axon due to electrical signal leakage, how the myelin sheath promotes fast transmission that allows neurons to transmit information long distances in a timely fashion in the vertebrate nervous system.

Myelin seems to be critical to healthy functioning of the nervous system; in fact, disruptions in the myelin sheath have been linked to a variety of disorders.

Former McGovern postdoc, Boaz Barak. Photo: Justin Knight

“Abnormal myelination can arise from abnormal development caused by genetic alterations,” Barak explains further. “Demyelination can even occur, due to an autoimmune response, trauma, and other causes. In neurological conditions in which myelin properties are abnormal, as in the case of lesions or plaques, signal transmission can be affected. For example, defects in myelin can lead to lack of neuronal communication, as there may be a delay or reduction in transmission of electrical and chemical signals. Also, in cases of abnormal myelination, it is possible that the synchronicity of brain region activity might be affected, for example, leading to improper actions and behaviors.”

Researchers are still working to fully understand the role of myelin in disorders. Myelin has a long history of being evasive though, with its origins in the central nervous system being unclear for many years. For a period of time, the origin of myelin was thought to be the axon itself, and it was only after initial discovery (by Robertson, 1899), re-discovery (Del Rio-Hortega, 1919), and skepticism followed by eventual confirmation, that the role of oligodendrocytes in forming myelin became clear. With modern imaging and genetic tools, we should be able to increasingly understand its role in the healthy, as well as a compromised, nervous system.

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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.

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Can the brain recover after paralysis?

Why is it that motor skills can be gained after paralysis but vision cannot recover in similar ways? – Ajay, Puppala

Thank you so much for this very important question, Ajay. To answer, I asked two local experts in the field, Pawan Sinha who runs the vision research lab at MIT, and Xavier Guell, a postdoc in John Gabrieli’s lab at the McGovern Institute who also works in the ataxia unit at Massachusetts General Hospital.

“Simply stated, the prospects of improvement, whether in movement or in vision, depend on the cause of the impairment,” explains Sinha. “Often, the cause of paralysis is stroke, a reduction in blood supply to a localized part of the brain, resulting in tissue damage. Fortunately, the brain has some ability to rewire itself, allowing regions near the damaged one to take on some of the lost functionality. This rewiring manifests itself as improvements in movement abilities after an initial period of paralysis. However, if the paralysis is due to spinal-cord transection (as was the case following Christopher Reeve’s tragic injury in 1995), then prospects for improvement are diminished.”

“Turning to the domain of sight,” continues Sinha, “stroke can indeed cause vision loss. As with movement control, these losses can dissipate over time as the cortex reorganizes via rewiring. However, if the blindness is due to optic nerve transection, then the condition is likely to be permanent. It is also worth noting that many cases of blindness are due to problems in the eye itself. These include corneal opacities, cataracts and retinal damage. Some of these conditions (corneal opacities and cataracts) are eminently treatable while others (typically those associated with the retina and optic nerve) still pose challenges to medical science.”

You might be wondering what makes lesions in the eye and spinal cord hard to overcome. Some systems (the blood, skin, and intestine are good examples) contain a continuously active stem cell population in adults. These cells can divide and replenish lost cells in damaged regions. While “adult-born” neurons can arise, elements of a degenerating or damaged retina, optic nerve, or spinal cord cannot be replaced as easily lost skin cells can. There is currently a very active effort in the stem cell community to understand how we might be able to replace neurons in all cases of neuronal degeneration and injury using stem cell technologies. To further explore lesions that specifically affect the brain, and how these might lead to a different outcome in the two systems, I turned to Xavier Guell.

“It might be true that visual deficits in the population are less likely to recover when compared to motor deficits in the population. However, the scientific literature seems to indicate that our body has a similar capacity to recover from both motor and visual injuries,” explains Guell. “The reason for this apparent contradiction is that visual lesions are usually not in the cerebral cortex (but instead in other places such as the retina or the lens), while motor lesions in the cerebral cortex are more common. In fact, a large proportion of people who suffer a stroke will have damage in the motor aspects of the cerebral cortex, but no damage in the visual aspects of the cerebral cortex. Crucially, recovery of neurological functions is usually seen when lesions are in the cerebral cortex or in other parts of the cerebrum or cerebellum. In this way, while our body has a similar capacity to recover from both motor and visual injuries, motor injuries are more frequently located in the parts of our body that have a better capacity to regain function (specifically, the cerebral cortex).”

In short, some cells cannot be replaced in either system, but stem cell research provides hope there. That said, there is remarkable plasticity in the brain, so when the lesion is located there, we can see recovery with training.

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Why do I talk with my hands?

This is a very interesting question sent to us by Gabriel Castellanos (thank you!) Many of us gesture with our hands when we speak (and even when we do not) as a form of non-verbal communication. How hand gestures are coordinated with speech remains unclear. In part, it is difficult to monitor natural hand gestures in fMRI-based brain imaging studies as you have to stay still.

“Performing hand movements when stuck in the bore of a scanner is really tough beyond simple signing and keypresses,” explains McGovern Principal Research Scientist Satrajit Ghosh. “Thus ecological experiments of co-speech with motor gestures have not been carried out in the context of a magnetic resonance scanner, and therefore little is known about language and motor integration within this context.”

There have been studies that use proxies such as co-verbal pushing of buttons, and also studies using other imaging techniques, such as electroencephalography (EEG) and magnetoencephalography (MEG), to monitor brain activity during gesturing, but it would be difficult to precisely spatially localize the regions involved in natural co-speech hand gesticulation using such approaches. Another possible avenue for addressing this question would be to look at patients with conditions that might implicate particular brain regions in coordinating hand gestures, but such approaches have not really pinpointed a pathway for coordinating speech and hand movements.

That said, co-speech hand gesturing plays an important role in communication. “More generally co-speech hand gestures are seen as a mechanism for emphasis and disambiguation of the semantics of a sentence, in addition to prosody and facial queues,” says Ghosh. “In fact, one may consider the act of speaking as one large orchestral score involving vocal tract movement, respiration, voicing, facial expression, hand gestures, and even whole body postures acting as different instruments coordinated dynamically by the brain. Based on our current understanding of language production, co-speech or gestural events would likely be planned at a higher level than articulation and therefore would likely activate inferior frontal gyrus, SMA, and others.”

How this orchestra is coordinated and conducted thus remains to be unraveled, but certainly the question is one that gets to the heart of human social interactions.

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Does our ability to learn new things stop at a certain age?

This is actually a neuromyth, but it has some basis in scientific research. People’s endorsement of this statement is likely due to research indicating that there is a high level of synaptogenesis (formation of connections between neurons) between ages 0-3, that some skills (learning a new language, for example) do diminish with age, and some events in brain development, such as connections in the visual system, are tied to exposure to a stimulus, such as light. That said, it is clear that a new language can be learned later in life, and at the level of synaptogenesis, we now know that synaptic connections are plastic.

If you thought this statement was true, you’re not alone. Indeed, a 2017 study by McGrath and colleagues found that 18% of the public (N = 3,045) and 19% of educators (N = 598) believed this statement was correct.

Learn more about how teachers and McGovern researchers are working to target learning interventions well past so-called “critical periods” for learning.

Yanny or Laurel?

“Yanny” or “Laurel?” Discussion around this auditory version of “The Dress” has divided the internet this week.

In this video, brain and cognitive science PhD students Dana Boebinger and Kevin Sitek, both members of the McGovern Institute, unpack the science — and settle the debate. The upshot? Our brain is faced with a myriad of sensory cues that it must process and make sense of simultaneously. Hearing is no exception, and two brains can sometimes “translate” soundwaves in very different ways.