A “golden era” to study the brain

As an undergraduate, Mitch Murdock was a rare science-humanities double major, specializing in both English and molecular, cellular, and developmental biology at Yale University. Today, as a doctoral student in the MIT Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, he sees obvious ways that his English education expanded his horizons as a neuroscientist.

“One of my favorite parts of English was trying to explore interiority, and how people have really complicated experiences inside their heads,” Murdock explains. “I was excited about trying to bridge that gap between internal experiences of the world and that actual biological substrate of the brain.”

Though he can see those connections now, it wasn’t until after Yale that Murdock became interested in brain sciences. As an undergraduate, he was in a traditional molecular biology lab. He even planned to stay there after graduation as a research technician; fortunately, though, he says his advisor Ron Breaker encouraged him to explore the field. That’s how Murdock ended up in a new lab run by Conor Liston, an associate professor at Weill Cornell Medicine, who studies how factors such as stress and sleep regulate the modeling of brain circuits.

It was in Liston’s lab that Murdock was first exposed to neuroscience and began to see the brain as the biological basis of the philosophical questions about experience and emotion that interested him. “It was really in his lab where I thought, ‘Wow, this is so cool. I have to do a PhD studying neuroscience,’” Murdock laughs.

During his time as a research technician, Murdock examined the impact of chronic stress on brain activity in mice. Specifically, he was interested in ketamine, a fast-acting antidepressant prone to being abused, with the hope that better understanding how ketamine works will help scientists find safer alternatives. He focused on dendritic spines, small organelles attached to neurons that help transmit electrical signals between neurons and provide the physical substrate for memory storage. His findings, Murdock explains, suggested that ketamine works by recovering dendritic spines that can be lost after periods of chronic stress.

After three years at Weill Cornell, Murdock decided to pursue doctoral studies in neuroscience, hoping to continue some of the work he started with Liston. He chose MIT because of the research being done on dendritic spines in the lab of Elly Nedivi, the William R. (1964) and Linda R. Young Professor of Neuroscience in The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory.

Once again, though, the opportunity to explore a wider set of interests fortuitously led Murdock to a new passion. During lab rotations at the beginning of his PhD program, Murdock spent time shadowing a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital who was working with Alzheimer’s disease patients.

“Everyone knows that Alzheimer’s doesn’t have a cure. But I realized that, really, if you have Alzheimer’s disease, there’s very little that can be done,” he says. “That was a big wake-up call for me.”

After that experience, Murdock strategically planned his remaining lab rotations, eventually settling into the lab of Li-Huei Tsai, the Picower Professor of Neuroscience and the director of the Picower Institute. For the past five years, Murdock has worked with Tsai on various strands of Alzheimer’s research.

In one project, for example, members of the Tsai lab have shown how certain kinds of non-invasive light and sound stimulation induce brain activity that can improve memory loss in mouse models of Alzheimer’s. Scientists think that, during sleep, small movements in blood vessels drive spinal fluid into the brain, which, in turn, flushes out toxic metabolic waste. Murdock’s research suggests that certain kinds of stimulation might drive a similar process, flushing out waste that can exacerbate memory loss.

Much of his work is focused on the activity of single cells in the brain. Are certain neurons or types of neurons genetically predisposed to degenerate, or do they break down randomly? Why do certain subtypes of cells appear to be dysfunctional earlier on in the course of Alzheimer’s disease? How do changes in blood flow in vascular cells affect degeneration? All of these questions, Murdock believes, will help scientists better understand the causes of Alzheimer’s, which will translate eventually into developing cures and therapies.

To answer these questions, Murdock relies on new single-cell sequencing techniques that he says have changed the way we think about the brain. “This has been a big advance for the field, because we know there are a lot of different cell types in the brain, and we think that they might contribute differentially to Alzheimer’s disease risk,” says Murdock. “We can’t think of the brain as only about neurons.”

Murdock says that that kind of “big-picture” approach — thinking about the brain as a compilation of many different cell types that are all interacting — is the central tenet of his research. To look at the brain in the kind of detail that approach requires, Murdock works with Ed Boyden, the Y. Eva Tan Professor in Neurotechnology, a professor of biological engineering and brain and cognitive sciences at MIT, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, and a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research and Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. Working with Boyden has allowed Murdock to use new technologies such as expansion microscopy and genetically encoded sensors to aid his research.

That kind of new technology, he adds, has helped blow the field wide open. “This is such a cool time to be a neuroscientist because the tools available now make this a golden era to study the brain.” That rapid intellectual expansion applies to the study of Alzheimer’s as well, including newly understood connections between the immune system and Alzheimer’s — an area in which Murdock says he hopes to continue after graduation.

Right now, though, Murdock is focused on a review paper synthesizing some of the latest research. Given the mountains of new Alzheimer’s work coming out each year, he admits that synthesizing all the data is a bit “crazy,” but he couldn’t be happier to be in the middle of it. “There’s just so much that we are learning about the brain from these new techniques, and it’s just so exciting.”

Personal pursuits

This story originally appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of BrainScan.

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Many neuroscientists were drawn to their careers out of curiosity and wonder. Their deep desire to understand how the brain works drew them into the lab and keeps them coming back, digging deeper and exploring more each day. But for some, the work is more personal.

Several McGovern faculty say they entered their field because someone in their lives was dealing with a brain disorder that they wanted to better understand. They are committed to unraveling the basic biology of those conditions, knowing that knowledge is essential to guide the development of better treatments.

The distance from basic research to clinical progress is shortening, and many young neuroscientists hope not just to deepen scientific understanding of the brain, but to have direct impact on the lives of patients. Some want to know why people they love are suffering from neurological disorders or mental illness; others seek to understand the ways in which their own brains work differently than others. But above all, they want better treatments for people affected by such disorders.

Seeking answers

That’s true for Kian Caplan, a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences who was diagnosed with Tourette syndrome around age 13. At the time, learning that the repetitive, uncontrollable movements and vocal tics he had been making for most of his life were caused by a neurological disorder was something of a relief. But it didn’t take long for Caplan to realize his diagnosis came with few answers.

Graduate student Kian Caplan studies the brain circuits associated with Tourette syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder in Guoping Feng and Fan Wang’s labs at the McGovern Institute. Photo: Steph Stevens

Tourette syndrome has been estimated to occur in about six of every 1,000 children, but its neurobiology remains poorly understood.

“The doctors couldn’t really explain why I can’t control the movements and sounds I make,” he says. “They couldn’t really explain why my symptoms wax and wane, or why the tics I have aren’t always the same.”

That lack of understanding is not just frustrating for curious kids like Caplan. It means that researchers have been unable to develop treatments that target the root cause of Tourette syndrome. Drugs that dampen signaling in parts of the brain that control movement can help suppress tics, but not without significant side effects. Caplan has tried those drugs. For him, he says, “they’re not worth the suppression.”

Advised by Fan Wang and McGovern Associate Director Guoping Feng, Caplan is looking for answers. A mouse model of obsessive-compulsive disorder developed in Feng’s lab was recently found to exhibit repetitive movements similar to those of people with Tourette syndrome, and Caplan is working to characterize those tic-like movements. He will use the mouse model to examine the brain circuits underlying the two conditions, which often co-occur in people. Broadly, researchers think Tourette syndrome arises due to dysregulation of cortico-striatal-thalamo-cortical circuits, which connect distant parts of the brain to control movement. Caplan and Wang suspect that the brainstem — a structure found where the brain connects to the spinal cord, known for organizing motor movement into different modules — is probably involved, too.

Wang’s research group studies the brainstem’s role in movement, but she says that like most researchers, she hadn’t considered its role in Tourette syndrome until Caplan joined her lab. That’s one reason Caplan, who has long been a mentor and advocate for students with neurodevelopmental disorders, thinks neuroscience needs more neurodiversity.

“I think we need more representation in basic science research by the people who actually live with those conditions,” he says. Their experiences can lead to insights that may be inaccessible to others, he says, but significant barriers in academia often prevent this kind of representation. Caplan wants to see institutions make systemic changes to ensure that neurodiverse and otherwise minority individuals are able to thrive in academia. “I’m not an exception,” he says, “there should be more people like me here, but the present system makes that incredibly difficult.”

Overcoming adversity

Like Caplan, Lace Riggs faced significant challenges in her pursuit to study the brain. She grew up in Southern California’s Inland Empire, where issues of social disparity, chronic stress, drug addiction, and mental illness were a part of everyday life.

Postdoctoral fellow Lace Riggs studies the origins of neurodevelopmental conditions in Guoping Feng’s lab at the McGovern Institute. Photo: Lace Riggs

“Living in severe poverty and relying on government assistance without access to adequate education and resources led everyone I know and love to suffer tremendously, myself included,” says Riggs, a postdoctoral fellow in the Feng lab.

“There are not a lot of people like me who make it to this stage,” says Riggs, who has lost friends and family members to addiction, mental illness, and suicide. “There’s a reason for that,” she adds. “It’s really, really difficult to get through the educational system and to overcome socioeconomic barriers.”

Today, Riggs is investigating the origins of neurodevelopmental conditions, hoping to pave the way to better treatments for brain disorders by uncovering the molecular changes that alter the structure and function of neural circuits.

Riggs says that the adversities she faced early in life offered valuable insights in the pursuit of these goals. She first became interested in the brain because she wanted to understand how our experiences have a lasting impact on who we are — including in ways that leave people vulnerable to psychiatric problems.

“While the need for more effective treatments led me to become interested in psychiatry, my fascination with the brain’s unique ability to adapt is what led me to neuroscience,” says Riggs.

After finishing high school, Riggs attended California State University in San Bernardino and became the only member of her family to attend university or attempt a four-year degree. Today, she spends her days working with mice that carry mutations linked to autism or ADHD in humans, studying the animals’ behavior and monitoring their neural activity. She expects that aberrant neural circuit activity in these conditions may also contribute to mood disorders, whose origins are harder to tease apart because they often arise when genetic and environmental factors intersect. Ultimately, Riggs says, she wants to understand how our genes dictate whether an experience will alter neural signaling and impact mental health in a long-lasting way.

Riggs uses patch clamp electrophysiology to record the strength of inhibitory and excitatory synaptic input onto individual neurons (white arrow) in an animal model of autism. Image: Lace Riggs

“If we understand how these long-lasting synaptic changes come about, then we might be able to leverage these mechanisms to develop new and more effective treatments.”

While the turmoil of her childhood is in the past, Riggs says it is not forgotten — in part, because of its lasting effects on her own mental health.  She talks openly about her ongoing struggle with social anxiety and complex post-traumatic stress disorder because she is passionate about dismantling the stigma surrounding these conditions. “It’s something I have to deal with every day,” Riggs says. That means coping with symptoms like difficulty concentrating, hypervigilance, and heightened sensitivity to stress. “It’s like a constant hum in the background of my life, it never stops,” she says.

“I urge all of us to strive, not only to make scientific discoveries to move the field forward,” says Riggs, “but to improve the accessibility of this career to those whose lived experiences are required to truly accomplish that goal.”

Making and breaking habits

As part of our Ask the Brain series, science writer Shafaq Zia explores the question, “How are habits formed in the brain?”

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Have you ever wondered why it is so hard to break free of bad habits like nail biting or obsessive social networking?

When we repeat an action over and over again, the behavioral pattern becomes automated in our brain, according to Jill R. Crittenden, molecular biologist and scientific advisor at McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT. For over a decade, Crittenden worked as a research scientist in the lab of Ann Graybiel, where one of the key questions scientists are working to answer is, how are habits formed?

Making habits

To understand how certain actions get wired in our neural pathways, this team of McGovern researchers experimented with rats, who were trained to run down a maze to receive a reward. If they turned left, they would get rich chocolate milk and for turning right, only sugar water. With this, the scientists wanted to see whether these animals could “learn to associate a cue with which direction they should turn in the maze in order to get the chocolate milk reward.”

Over time, the rats grew extremely habitual in their behavior; “they always turned the the correct direction and the places where their paws touched, in a fairly long maze, were exactly the same every time,” said Crittenden.

This isn’t a coincidence. When we’re first learning to do something, the frontal lobe and basal ganglia of the brain are highly active and doing a lot of calculations. These brain regions work together to associate behaviors with thoughts, emotions, and, most importantly, motor movements. But when we repeat an action over and over again, like the rats running down the maze, our brains become more efficient and fewer neurons are required to achieve the goal. This means, the more you do something, the easier it gets to carry it out because the behavior becomes literally etched in our brain as our motor movements.

But habits are complicated and they come in many different flavors, according to Crittenden. “I think we don’t have a great handle on how the differences [in our many habits] are separable neurobiologically, and so people argue a lot about how do you know that something’s a habit.”

The easiest way for scientists to test this in rodents is to see if the animal engages in the behavior even in the absence of reward. In this particular experiment, the researchers take away the reward, chocolate milk, to see whether the rats continue to run down the maze correctly. And to take it even a step further, they mix the chocolate milk with lithium chloride, which would upset the rat’s stomach. Despite all this, the rats continue to run down the maze and turn left towards the chocolate milk, as they had learnt to do over and over again.

Breaking habits

So does that mean once a habit is formed, it is impossible to shake it? Not quite. But it is tough. Rewards are a key building block to forming habits because our dopamine levels surge when we learn that an action is unexpectedly rewarded. For example, when the rats first learn to run down the maze, they’re motivated to receive the chocolate milk.

But things get complicated once the habit is formed. Researchers have found that this dopamine surge in response to reward ceases after a behavior becomes a habit. Instead the brain begins to release dopamine at the first cue or action that was previously learned to lead to the reward, so we are motivated to engage in the full behavioral sequence anyway, even if the reward isn’t there anymore.

This means we don’t have as much self-control as we think we do, which may also be the reason why it’s so hard to break the cycle of addiction. “People will report that they know this is bad for them. They don’t want it. And nevertheless, they select that action,” said Crittenden.

One common method to break the behavior, in this case, is called extinction. This is where psychologists try to weaken the association between the cue and the reward that led to habit formation in the first place. For example, if the rat no longer associates the cue to run down the maze with a reward, it will stop engaging in that behavior.

So the next time you beat yourself up over being unable to stick to a diet or sleep at a certain time, give yourself some grace and know that with consistency, a new, healthier habit can be born.

How the brain generates rhythmic behavior

Many of our bodily functions, such as walking, breathing, and chewing, are controlled by brain circuits called central oscillators, which generate rhythmic firing patterns that regulate these behaviors.

MIT neuroscientists have now discovered the neuronal identity and mechanism underlying one of these circuits: an oscillator that controls the rhythmic back-and-forth sweeping of tactile whiskers, or whisking, in mice. This is the first time that any such oscillator has been fully characterized in mammals.

The MIT team found that the whisking oscillator consists of a population of inhibitory neurons in the brainstem that fires rhythmic bursts during whisking. As each neuron fires, it also inhibits some of the other neurons in the network, allowing the overall population to generate a synchronous rhythm that retracts the whiskers from their protracted positions.

“We have defined a mammalian oscillator molecularly, electrophysiologically, functionally, and mechanistically,” says Fan Wang, an MIT professor of brain and cognitive sciences and a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research. “It’s very exciting to see a clearly defined circuit and mechanism of how rhythm is generated in a mammal.”

Wang is the senior author of the study, which appears today in Nature. The lead authors of the paper are MIT research scientists Jun Takatoh and Vincent Prevosto.

Rhythmic behavior

Most of the research that clearly identified central oscillator circuits has been done in invertebrates. For example, Eve Marder’s lab at Brandeis University found cells in the stomatogastric ganglion in lobsters and crabs that generate oscillatory activity to control rhythmic motion of the digestive tract.

Characterizing oscillators in mammals, especially in awake behaving animals, has proven to be highly challenging. The oscillator that controls walking is believed to be distributed throughout the spinal cord, making it difficult to precisely identify the neurons and circuits involved. The oscillator that generates rhythmic breathing is located in a part of the brain stem called the pre-Bötzinger complex, but the exact identity of the oscillator neurons is not fully understood.

“There haven’t been detailed studies in awake behaving animals, where one can record from molecularly identified oscillator cells and manipulate them in a precise way,” Wang says.

Whisking is a prominent rhythmic exploratory behavior in many mammals, which use their tactile whiskers to detect objects and sense textures. In mice, whiskers extend and retract at a frequency of about 12 cycles per second. Several years ago, Wang’s lab set out try to identify the cells and the mechanism that control this oscillation.

To find the location of the whisking oscillator, the researchers traced back from the motor neurons that innervate whisker muscles. Using a modified rabies virus that infects axons, the researchers were able to label a group of cells presynaptic to these motor neurons in a part of the brainstem called the vibrissa intermediate reticular nucleus (vIRt). This finding was consistent with previous studies showing that damage to this part of the brain eliminates whisking.

The researchers then found that about half of these vIRt neurons express a protein called parvalbumin, and that this subpopulation of cells drives the rhythmic motion of the whiskers. When these neurons are silenced, whisking activity is abolished.

Next, the researchers recorded electrical activity from these parvalbumin-expressing vIRt neurons in brainstem in awake mice, a technically challenging task, and found that these neurons indeed have bursts of activity only during the whisker retraction period. Because these neurons provide inhibitory synaptic inputs to whisker motor neurons, it follows that rhythmic whisking is generated by a constant motor neuron protraction signal interrupted by the rhythmic retraction signal from these oscillator cells.

“That was a super satisfying and rewarding moment, to see that these cells are indeed the oscillator cells, because they fire rhythmically, they fire in the retraction phase, and they’re inhibitory neurons,” Wang says.

A maximum projection image showing tracked whiskers on the mouse muzzle. The right (control) side shows the back-and-forth rhythmic sweeping of the whiskers, while the experimental side where the whisking oscillator neurons are silenced, the whiskers move very little. Image: Wang Lab

“New principles”

The oscillatory bursting pattern of vIRt cells is initiated at the start of whisking. When the whiskers are not moving, these neurons fire continuously. When the researchers blocked vIRt neurons from inhibiting each other, the rhythm disappeared, and instead the oscillator neurons simply increased their rate of continuous firing.

This type of network, known as recurrent inhibitory network, differs from the types of oscillators that have been seen in the stomatogastric neurons in lobsters, in which neurons intrinsically generate their own rhythm.

“Now we have found a mammalian network oscillator that is formed by all inhibitory neurons,” Wang says.

The MIT scientists also collaborated with a team of theorists led by David Golomb at Ben-Gurion University, Israel, and David Kleinfeld at the University of California at San Diego. The theorists created a detailed computational model outlining how whisking is controlled, which fits well with all experimental data. A paper describing that model is appearing in an upcoming issue of Neuron.

Wang’s lab now plans to investigate other types of oscillatory circuits in mice, including those that control chewing and licking.

“We are very excited to find oscillators of these feeding behaviors and compare and contrast to the whisking oscillator, because they are all in the brain stem, and we want to know whether there’s some common theme or if there are many different ways to generate oscillators,” she says.

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Microscopy technique reveals hidden nanostructures in cells and tissues

Press Mentions

Inside a living cell, proteins and other molecules are often tightly packed together. These dense clusters can be difficult to image because the fluorescent labels used to make them visible can’t wedge themselves in between the molecules.

MIT researchers have now developed a novel way to overcome this limitation and make those “invisible” molecules visible. Their technique allows them to “de-crowd” the molecules by expanding a cell or tissue sample before labeling the molecules, which makes the molecules more accessible to fluorescent tags.

This method, which builds on a widely used technique known as expansion microscopy previously developed at MIT, should allow scientists to visualize molecules and cellular structures that have never been seen before.

“It’s becoming clear that the expansion process will reveal many new biological discoveries. If biologists and clinicians have been studying a protein in the brain or another biological specimen, and they’re labeling it the regular way, they might be missing entire categories of phenomena,” says Edward Boyden, the Y. Eva Tan Professor in Neurotechnology, a professor of biological engineering and brain and cognitive sciences at MIT, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, and a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research and Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research.

Using this technique, Boyden and his colleagues showed that they could image a nanostructure found in the synapses of neurons. They also imaged the structure of Alzheimer’s-linked amyloid beta plaques in greater detail than has been possible before.

“Our technology, which we named expansion revealing, enables visualization of these nanostructures, which previously remained hidden, using hardware easily available in academic labs,” says Deblina Sarkar, an assistant professor in the Media Lab and one of the lead authors of the study.

The senior authors of the study are Boyden; Li-Huei Tsai, director of MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory; and Thomas Blanpied, a professor of physiology at the University of Maryland. Other lead authors include Jinyoung Kang, an MIT postdoc, and Asmamaw Wassie, a recent MIT PhD recipient. The study appears today in Nature Biomedical Engineering.

De-crowding

Imaging a specific protein or other molecule inside a cell requires labeling it with a fluorescent tag carried by an antibody that binds to the target. Antibodies are about 10 nanometers long, while typical cellular proteins are usually about 2 to 5 nanometers in diameter, so if the target proteins are too densely packed, the antibodies can’t get to them.

This has been an obstacle to traditional imaging and also to the original version of expansion microscopy, which Boyden first developed in 2015. In the original version of expansion microscopy, researchers attached fluorescent labels to molecules of interest before they expanded the tissue. The labeling was done first, in part because the researchers had to use an enzyme to chop up proteins in the sample so the tissue could be expanded. This meant that the proteins couldn’t be labeled after the tissue was expanded.

To overcome that obstacle, the researchers had to find a way to expand the tissue while leaving the proteins intact. They used heat instead of enzymes to soften the tissue, allowing the tissue to expand 20-fold without being destroyed. Then, the separated proteins could be labeled with fluorescent tags after expansion.

With so many more proteins accessible for labeling, the researchers were able to identify tiny cellular structures within synapses, the connections between neurons that are densely packed with proteins. They labeled and imaged seven different synaptic proteins, which allowed them to visualize, in detail, “nanocolumns” consisting of calcium channels aligned with other synaptic proteins. These nanocolumns, which are believed to help make synaptic communication more efficient, were first discovered by Blanpied’s lab in 2016.

“This technology can be used to answer a lot of biological questions about dysfunction in synaptic proteins, which are involved in neurodegenerative diseases,” Kang says. “Until now there has been no tool to visualize synapses very well.”

New patterns

The researchers also used their new technique to image beta amyloid, a peptide that forms plaques in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. Using brain tissue from mice, the researchers found that amyloid beta forms periodic nanoclusters, which had not been seen before. These clusters of amyloid beta also include potassium channels. The researchers also found amyloid beta molecules that formed helical structures along axons.

“In this paper, we don’t speculate as to what that biology might mean, but we show that it exists. That is just one example of the new patterns that we can see,” says Margaret Schroeder, an MIT graduate student who is also an author of the paper.

Sarkar says that she is fascinated by the nanoscale biomolecular patterns that this technology unveils. “With a background in nanoelectronics, I have developed electronic chips that require extremely precise alignment, in the nanofab. But when I see that in our brain Mother Nature has arranged biomolecules with such nanoscale precision, that really blows my mind,” she says.

Boyden and his group members are now working with other labs to study cellular structures such as protein aggregates linked to Parkinson’s and other diseases. In other projects, they are studying pathogens that infect cells and molecules that are involved in aging in the brain. Preliminary results from these studies have also revealed novel structures, Boyden says.

“Time and time again, you see things that are truly shocking,” he says. “It shows us how much we are missing with classical unexpanded staining.”

The researchers are also working on modifying the technique so they can image up to 20 proteins at a time. They are also working on adapting their process so that it can be used on human tissue samples.

Sarkar and her team, on the other hand, are developing tiny wirelessly powered nanoelectronic devices which could be distributed in the brain. They plan to integrate these devices with expansion revealing. “This can combine the intelligence of nanoelectronics with the nanoscopy prowess of expansion technology, for an integrated functional and structural understanding of the brain,” Sarkar says.

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Ludwig Family Foundation, the JPB Foundation, the Open Philanthropy Project, John Doerr, Lisa Yang and the Tan-Yang Center for Autism Research at MIT, the U.S. Army Research Office, Charles Hieken, Tom Stocky, Kathleen Octavio, Lore McGovern, Good Ventures, and HHMI.

McGovern Fellows recognized with life sciences innovation award

McGovern Institute Fellows Omar Abudayyeh and Jonathan Gootenberg have been named the inaugural recipients of the Termeer Scholars Awards, which recognize “emerging biomedical researchers that represent the future of the biotechnology industry.” The Termeer Foundation is a nonprofit organization focused on connecting life science innovators and catalyzing the creation of new medicines.

“The Termeer Foundation is committed to championing emerging biotechnology leaders and finding people who want to solve the biggest problems in human health,” said Belinda Termeer, president of the Termeer Foundation. “By supporting researchers like Omar and Jonathan, we plant the seeds for future success in individuals who are preparing to make significant contributions in academia and industry.”

The Abudayyeh-Gootenberg lab is developing a suite of new tools to enable next-generation cellular engineering, with uses in basic research, therapeutics and diagnostics. Building off the revolutionary biology of natural biological systems, including mobile genetic elements and CRISPR systems, the team develops new approaches for understanding and manipulating genomes, transcriptomes and cellular fate. The technologies have broad applications, including in oncology, aging and genetic disease.

These tools have been adopted by researchers over the world and formed the basis for four companies that Abudayyeh and Gootenberg have co-founded. They will receive a $50,000 grant to support professional development, knowledge advancement and/or stakeholder engagement and will become part of The Termeer Foundation’s signature Network of Termeer Fellows (first-time CEOs and entrepreneurs) and Mentors (experienced industry leaders).

“The Termeer Foundation is working to improve the long odds of biotechnology by identifying and supporting future biotech leaders; if we help them succeed as leaders, we can help their innovations reach patients,” said Alan Waltws, co-founder of the Termeer Foundation. “While our Termeer Fellows program has supported first time CEOs and entrepreneurs for the past five years, our new Termeer Scholars program will provide much needed support to the researchers whose innovative ideas represent the future of the biotechnology industry – researchers like Omar and Jonathan.”

Abudayyeh and Gootenberg were honored at the Termeer Foundation’s annual dinner in Boston on June 16, 2022.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tracing circuits

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

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

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

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

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

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

Druggable targets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New research center focused on brain-body relationship established at MIT

The inextricable link between our brains and our bodies has been gaining increasing recognition among researchers and clinicians over recent years. Studies have shown that the brain-body pathway is bidirectional — meaning that our mental state can influence our physical health and vice versa. But exactly how the two interact is less clear.

A new research center at MIT, funded by a $38 million gift to the McGovern Institute for Brain Research from philanthropist K. Lisa Yang, aims to unlock this mystery by creating and applying novel tools to explore the multidirectional, multilevel interplay between the brain and other body organ systems. This gift expands Yang’s exceptional philanthropic support of human health and basic science research at MIT over the past five years.

“Lisa Yang’s visionary gift enables MIT scientists and engineers to pioneer revolutionary technologies and undertake rigorous investigations into the brain’s complex relationship with other organ systems,” says MIT President L. Rafael Reif.  “Lisa’s tremendous generosity empowers MIT scientists to make pivotal breakthroughs in brain and biomedical research and, collectively, improve human health on a grand scale.”

The K. Lisa Yang Brain-Body Center will be directed by Polina Anikeeva, professor of materials science and engineering and brain and cognitive sciences at MIT and an associate investigator at the McGovern Institute. The center will harness the power of MIT’s collaborative, interdisciplinary life sciences research and engineering community to focus on complex conditions and diseases affecting both the body and brain, with a goal of unearthing knowledge of biological mechanisms that will lead to promising therapeutic options.

“Under Professor Anikeeva’s brilliant leadership, this wellspring of resources will encourage the very best work of MIT faculty, graduate fellows, and research — and ultimately make a real impact on the lives of many,” Reif adds.

microscope image of gut
Mouse small intestine stained to reveal cell nucleii (blue) and peripheral nerve fibers (red).
Image: Polina Anikeeva, Marie Manthey, Kareena Villalobos

Center goals  

Initial projects in the center will focus on four major lines of research:

  • Gut-Brain: Anikeeva’s group will expand a toolbox of new technologies and apply these tools to examine major neurobiological questions about gut-brain pathways and connections in the context of autism spectrum disorders, Parkinson’s disease, and affective disorders.
  • Aging: CRISPR pioneer Feng Zhang, the James and Patricia Poitras Professor of Neuroscience at MIT and investigator at the McGovern Institute, will lead a group in developing molecular tools for precision epigenomic editing and erasing accumulated “errors” of time, injury, or disease in various types of cells and tissues.
  • Pain: The lab of Fan Wang, investigator at the McGovern Institute and professor of brain and cognitive sciences, will design new tools and imaging methods to study autonomic responses, sympathetic-parasympathetic system balance, and brain-autonomic nervous system interactions, including how pain influences these interactions.
  • Acupuncture: Wang will also collaborate with Hilda (“Scooter”) Holcombe, a veterinarian in MIT’s Division of Comparative Medicine, to advance techniques for documenting changes in brain and peripheral tissues induced by acupuncture in mouse models. If successful, these techniques could lay the groundwork for deeper understandings of the mechanisms of acupuncture, specifically how the treatment stimulates the nervous system and restores function.

A key component of the K. Lisa Yang Brain-Body Center will be a focus on educating and training the brightest young minds who aspire to make true breakthroughs for individuals living with complex and often devastating diseases. A portion of center funding will endow the new K. Lisa Yang Brain-Body Fellows Program, which will support four annual fellowships for MIT graduate students and postdocs working to advance understanding of conditions that affect both the body and brain.

Mens sana in corpore sano

“A phrase I remember reading in secondary school has always stuck with me: ‘mens sana in corpore sano’ ‘a healthy mind in a healthy body,’” says Lisa Yang, a former investment banker committed to advocacy for individuals with visible and invisible disabilities. “When we look at how stress, nutrition, pain, immunity, and other complex factors impact our health, we truly see how inextricably linked our brains and bodies are. I am eager to help MIT scientists and engineers decode these links and make real headway in creating therapeutic strategies that result in longer, healthier lives.”

“This center marks a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for labs like mine to conduct bold and risky studies into the complexities of brain-body connections,” says Anikeeva, who works at the intersection of materials science, electronics, and neurobiology. “The K. Lisa Yang Brain-Body Center will offer a pathbreaking, holistic approach that bridges multiple fields of study. I have no doubt that the center will result in revolutionary strides in our understanding of the inextricable bonds between the brain and the body’s peripheral organ systems, and a bold new way of thinking in how we approach human health overall.”

Circuit that focuses attention brings in wide array of inputs

In a new brain-wide circuit tracing study, scientists at MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory focused selective attention on a circuit that governs, fittingly enough, selective attention. The comprehensive maps they produced illustrate how broadly the mammalian brain incorporates and integrates information to focus its sensory resources on its goals.

Working in mice, the team traced thousands of inputs into the circuit, a communication loop between the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the lateral posterior (LP) thalamus. In primates the LP is called the pulvinar. Studies in humans and nonhuman primates have indicated that the byplay of these two regions is critical for brain functions like being able to focus on an object of interest in a crowded scene, says study co-lead author Yi Ning Leow, a graduate student in the lab of senior author Mriganka Sur, the Newton Professor in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. Research has implicated dysfunction in the circuit in attention-affecting disorders such as autism and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

The new study in the Journal of Comparative Neurology extends what’s known about the circuit by detailing it in mice, Leow says, importantly showing that the mouse circuit is closely analogous to the primate version even if the LP is proportionately smaller and less evolved than the pulvinar.

“In these rodent models we were able to find very similar circuits,” Leow says. “So we can possibly study these higher-order functions in mice as well. We have a lot more genetic tools in mice so we are better able to look at this circuit.”

The study, also co-led by former MIT undergraduate Blake Zhou, therefore provides a detailed roadmap in the experimentally accessible mouse model for understanding how the ACC and LP cooperate to produce selective attention. For instance, now that Leow and Zhou have located all the inputs that are wired into the circuit, Leow is tapping into those feeds to eavesdrop on the information they are carrying. Meanwhile, she is correlating that information flow with behavior.

“This study lays the groundwork for understanding one of the most important, yet most elusive, components of brain function, namely our ability to selectively attend to one thing out of several, as well as switch attention,” Sur says.

Using virally mediated circuit-tracing techniques pioneered by co-author Ian Wickersham, principal research scientist in brain and cognitive sciences and the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, the team found distinct sources of input for the ACC and the LP. Generally speaking, the detailed study finds that the majority of inputs to the ACC were from frontal cortex areas that typically govern goal-directed planning, and from higher visual areas. The bulk of inputs to the LP, meanwhile, were from deeper regions capable of providing context such as the mouse’s needs, location and spatial cues, information about movement, and general information from a mix of senses.

So even though focusing attention might seem like a matter of controlling the senses, Leow says, the circuit pulls in a lot of other information as well.

“We’re seeing that it’s not just sensory — there are so many inputs that are coming from non-sensory areas as well, both sub-cortically and cortically,” she says. “It seems to be integrating a lot of different aspects that might relate to the behavioral state of the animal at a given time. It provides a way to provide a lot of internal and special context for that sensory information.”

Given the distinct sets of inputs to each region, the ACC may be tasked with focusing attention on a desired object, while the LP is modulating how the ACC goes about making those computations, accounting for what’s going on both inside and outside the animal. Decoding just what that incoming contextual information is, and what the LP tells the ACC, are the key next steps, Leow says. Another clear set of questions the study raises are what are the circuit’s outputs. In other words, after it integrates all this information, what does it do with it?

The paper’s other authors are Heather Sullivan and Alexandria Barlowe.

A National Science Scholarship, the National Institutes of Health, and the JPB Foundation provided support for the study.

Aging Brain Initiative awards fund five new ideas to study, fight neurodegeneration

Neurodegenerative diseases are defined by an increasingly widespread and debilitating death of nervous system cells, but they also share other grim characteristics: Their cause is rarely discernible and they have all eluded cures. To spur fresh, promising approaches and to encourage new experts and expertise to join the field, MIT’s Aging Brain Initiative (ABI) this month awarded five seed grants after a competition among labs across the Institute.

Founded in 2015 by nine MIT faculty members, the ABI promotes research, symposia, and related activities to advance fundamental insights that can lead to clinical progress against neurodegenerative conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease, with an age-related onset. With an emphasis on spurring research at an early stage before it is established enough to earn more traditional funding, the ABI derives support from philanthropic gifts.

“Solving the mysteries of how health declines in the aging brain and turning that knowledge into effective tools, treatments, and technologies is of the utmost urgency given the millions of people around the world who suffer with no meaningful treatment options,” says ABI director and co-founder Li-Huei Tsai, the Picower Professor of Neuroscience in The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory and the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. “We were very pleased that many groups across MIT were eager to contribute their expertise and creativity to that goal. From here, five teams will be able to begin testing their innovative ideas and the impact they could have.”

To address the clinical challenge of accurately assessing cognitive decline during Alzheimer’s disease progression and healthy aging, a team led by Thomas Heldt, associate professor of electrical and biomedical engineering in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) and the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science, proposes to use artificial intelligence tools to bring diagnostics based on eye movements during cognitive tasks to everyday consumer electronics such as smartphones and tablets. By moving these capabilities to common at-home platforms, the team, which also includes EECS Associate Professor Vivian Sze, hopes to increase monitoring beyond what can only be intermittently achieved with high-end specialized equipment and dedicated staffing in specialists’ offices. The team will pilot their technology in a small study at Boston Medical Center in collaboration with neurosurgeon James Holsapple.

Institute Professor Ann Graybiel’s lab in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences (BCS) and the McGovern Institute for Brain Research will test the hypothesis that mutations on a specific gene may lead to the early emergence of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) pathology in the striatum. That’s a a brain region crucial for motivation and movement that is directly and severely impacted by other neurodegenerative disorders including Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases, but that has largely been unstudied in Alzheimer’s. By editing the mutations into normal and AD-modeling mice, Research Scientist Ayano Matsushima and Graybiel hope to determine whether and how pathology, such as the accumulation of amyloid proteins, may result. Determining that could provide new insight into the progression of disease and introduce a new biomarker in a region that virtually all other studies have overlooked.

Numerous recent studies have highlighted a potential role for immune inflammation in Alzheimer’s disease. A team led by Gloria Choi, the Mark Hyman Jr. Associate Professor in BCS and The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, will track one potential source of such activity by determining whether the brain’s meninges, which envelop the brain, becomes a means for immune cells activated by gut bacteria to circulate near the brain, where they may release signaling molecules that promote Alzheimer’s pathology. Working in mice, Choi’s lab will test whether such activity is prone to increase in Alzheimer’s and whether it contributes to disease.

A collaboration led by Peter Dedon, the Singapore Professor in MIT’s Department of Biological Engineering, will explore whether Alzheimer’s pathology is driven by dysregulation of transfer RNAs (tRNAs) and the dozens of natural tRNA modifications in the epitranscriptome, which play a key role in the process by which proteins are assembled based on genetic instructions. With Benjamin Wolozin of Boston University, Sherif Rashad of Tohoku University in Japan, and Thomas Begley of the State University of New York at Albany, Dedon will assess how the tRNA pool and epitranscriptome may differ in Alzheimer’s model mice and whether genetic instructions mistranslated because of tRNA dysregulation play a role in Alzheimer’s disease.

With her seed grant, Ritu Raman, the d’Arbeloff Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering, is launching an investigation of possible disruption of intercellular messages in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a terminal condition in which motor neuron causes loss of muscle control. Equipped with a new tool to finely sample interstitial fluid within tissues, Raman’s team will be able to monitor and compare cell-cell signaling in models of the junction between nerve and muscle. These models will be engineered from stem cells derived from patients with ALS. By studying biochemical signaling at the junction the lab hopes to discover new targets that could be therapeutically modified.

Major support for the seed grants, which provide each lab with $100,000, came from generous gifts by David Emmes SM ’76; Kathleen SM ’77, PhD ’86 and Miguel Octavio; the Estate of Margaret A. Ridge-Pappis, wife of the late James Pappis ScD ’59; the Marc Haas Foundation; and the family of former MIT President Paul Gray ’54, SM ’55, ScD ‘60, with additional funding from many annual fund donors to the Aging Brain Initiative Fund.