A new way to see the activity inside a living cell

Living cells are bombarded with many kinds of incoming molecular signal that influence their behavior. Being able to measure those signals and how cells respond to them through downstream molecular signaling networks could help scientists learn much more about how cells work, including what happens as they age or become diseased.

Right now, this kind of comprehensive study is not possible because current techniques for imaging cells are limited to just a handful of different molecule types within a cell at one time. However, MIT researchers have developed an alternative method that allows them to observe up to seven different molecules at a time, and potentially even more than that.

“There are many examples in biology where an event triggers a long downstream cascade of events, which then causes a specific cellular function,” says Edward Boyden, the Y. Eva Tan Professor in Neurotechnology. “How does that occur? It’s arguably one of the fundamental problems of biology, and so we wondered, could you simply watch it happen?”

It’s arguably one of the fundamental problems of biology, and so we wondered, could you simply watch it happen? – Ed Boyden

The new approach makes use of green or red fluorescent molecules that flicker on and off at different rates. By imaging a cell over several seconds, minutes, or hours, and then extracting each of the fluorescent signals using a computational algorithm, the amount of each target protein can be tracked as it changes over time.

Boyden, who is also a professor of biological engineering and of 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, as well as the co-director of the K. Lisa Yang Center for Bionics, is the senior author of the study, which appears today in Cell. MIT postdoc Yong Qian is the lead author of the paper.

Fluorescent signals

Labeling molecules inside cells with fluorescent proteins has allowed researchers to learn a great deal about the functions of many cellular molecules. This type of study is often done with green fluorescent protein (GFP), which was first deployed for imaging in the 1990s. Since then, several fluorescent proteins that glow in other colors have been developed for experimental use.

However, a typical light microscope can only distinguish two or three of these colors, allowing researchers only a tiny glimpse of the overall activity that is happening inside a cell. If they could track a greater number of labeled molecules, researchers could measure a brain cell’s response to different neurotransmitters during learning, for example, or investigate the signals that prompt a cancer cell to metastasize.

“Ideally, you would be able to watch the signals in a cell as they fluctuate in real time, and then you could understand how they relate to each other. That would tell you how the cell computes,” Boyden says. “The problem is that you can’t watch very many things at the same time.”

In 2020, Boyden’s lab developed a way to simultaneously image up to five different molecules within a cell, by targeting glowing reporters to distinct locations inside the cell. This approach, known as “spatial multiplexing,” allows researchers to distinguish signals for different molecules even though they may all be fluorescing the same color.

In the new study, the researchers took a different approach: Instead of distinguishing signals based on their physical location, they created fluorescent signals that vary over time. The technique relies on “switchable fluorophores” — fluorescent proteins that turn on and off at a specific rate. For this study, Boyden and his group members identified four green switchable fluorophores, and then engineered two more, all of which turn on and off at different rates. They also identified two red fluorescent proteins that switch at different rates, and engineered one additional red fluorophore.

Using four switchable fluorophores, MIT researchers were able to label and image four different kinases inside these cells (top four rows). In the bottom row, the cell nuclei are labeled in blue.
Image: Courtesy of the researchers

Each of these switchable fluorophores can be used to label a different type of molecule within a living cell, such an enzyme, signaling protein, or part of the cell cytoskeleton. After imaging the cell for several minutes, hours, or even days, the researchers use a computational algorithm to pick out the specific signal from each fluorophore, analogous to how the human ear can pick out different frequencies of sound.

“In a symphony orchestra, you have high-pitched instruments, like the flute, and low-pitched instruments, like a tuba. And in the middle are instruments like the trumpet. They all have different sounds, and our ear sorts them out,” Boyden says.

The mathematical technique that the researchers used to analyze the fluorophore signals is known as linear unmixing. This method can extract different fluorophore signals, similar to how the human ear uses a mathematical model known as a Fourier transform to extract different pitches from a piece of music.

Once this analysis is complete, the researchers can see when and where each of the fluorescently labeled molecules were found in the cell during the entire imaging period. The imaging itself can be done with a simple light microscope, with no specialized equipment required.

Biological phenomena

In this study, the researchers demonstrated their approach by labeling six different molecules involved in the cell division cycle, in mammalian cells. This allowed them to identify patterns in how the levels of enzymes called cyclin-dependent kinases change as a cell progresses through the cell cycle.

The researchers also showed that they could label other types of kinases, which are involved in nearly every aspect of cell signaling, as well as cell structures and organelles such as the cytoskeleton and mitochondria. In addition to their experiments using mammalian cells grown in a lab dish, the researchers showed that this technique could work in the brains of zebrafish larvae.

This method could be useful for observing how cells respond to any kind of input, such as nutrients, immune system factors, hormones, or neurotransmitters, according to the researchers. It could also be used to study how cells respond to changes in gene expression or genetic mutations. All of these factors play important roles in biological phenomena such as growth, aging, cancer, neurodegeneration, and memory formation.

“You could consider all of these phenomena to represent a general class of biological problem, where some short-term event — like eating a nutrient, learning something, or getting an infection — generates a long-term change,” Boyden says.

In addition to pursuing those types of studies, Boyden’s lab is also working on expanding the repertoire of switchable fluorophores so that they can study even more signals within a cell. They also hope to adapt the system so that it could be used in mouse models.

The research was funded by an Alana Fellowship, K. Lisa Yang, John Doerr, Jed McCaleb, James Fickel, Ashar Aziz, the K. Lisa Yang and Hock E. Tan Center for Molecular Therapeutics at MIT, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the National Institutes of Health.

Ariel Furst and Fan Wang receive 2023 National Institutes of Health awards

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded grants to MIT’s Ariel Furst and Fan Wang, through its High-Risk, High-Reward Research program. The NIH High-Risk, High-Reward Research program awarded 85 new research grants to support exceptionally creative scientists pursuing highly innovative behavioral and biomedical research projects.

Ariel Furst was selected as the recipient of the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, which has supported unusually innovative research since 2007. Recipients are early-career investigators who are within 10 years of their final degree or clinical residency and have not yet received a research project grant or equivalent NIH grant.

Furst, the Paul M. Cook Career Development Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT, invents technologies to improve human and environmental health by increasing equitable access to resources. Her lab develops transformative technologies to solve problems related to health care and sustainability by harnessing the inherent capabilities of biological molecules and cells. She is passionate about STEM outreach and increasing the participation of underrepresented groups in engineering.

After completing her PhD at Caltech, where she developed noninvasive diagnostics for colorectal cancer, Furst became an A. O. Beckman Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California at Berkeley. There she developed sensors to monitor environmental pollutants. In 2022, Furst was awarded the MIT UROP Outstanding Faculty Mentor Award for her work with undergraduate researchers. She is a now a 2023 Marion Milligan Mason Awardee, a CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholar for Bio-Inspired Solar Energy, and an ARO Early Career Grantee. She is also a co-founder of the regenerative agriculture company, Seia Bio.

Fan Wang received the Pioneer Award, which has been challenging researchers at all career levels to pursue new directions and develop groundbreaking, high impact approaches to a broad area of biomedical and behavioral sciences since 2004.

Wang, a professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and an investigator in the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, is uncovering the neural circuit mechanisms that govern bodily sensations, like touch, pain, and posture, as well as the mechanisms that control sensorimotor behaviors. Researchers in the Wang lab aim to generate an integrated understanding of the sensation-perception-action process, hoping to find better treatments for diseases like chronic pain, addiction, and movement disorders. Wang’s lab uses genetic, viral, in vivo large-scale electrophysiology and imaging techniques to gain traction in these pursuits.

Wang obtained her PhD at Columbia University, working with Professor Richard Axel. She conducted her postdoctoral work at Stanford University with Mark Tessier-Lavigne, and then subsequently joined Duke University as faculty in 2003. Wang was later appointed as the Morris N. Broad Distinguished Professor of Neurobiology at the Duke University School of Medicine. In January 2023, she joined the faculty of the MIT School of Science and the McGovern Institute.

The High-Risk, High-Reward Research program is funded through the NIH Common Fund, which supports a series of exceptionally high-impact programs that cross NIH Institutes and Centers.

“The HRHR program is a pillar for innovation here at NIH, providing support to transformational research, with advances in biomedical and behavioral science,” says Robert W. Eisinger, acting director of the Division of Program Coordination, Planning, and Strategic Initiatives, which oversees the NIH Common Fund. “These awards align with the Common Fund’s mandate to support science expected to have exceptionally high and broadly applicable impact.”

NIH issued eight Pioneer Awards, 58 New Innovator Awards, six Transformative Research Awards, and 13 Early Independence Awards in 2023. Funding for the awards comes from the NIH Common Fund; the National Institute of General Medical Sciences; the National Institute of Mental Health; the National Library of Medicine; the National Institute on Aging; the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; and the Office of Dietary Supplements.

One scientist’s journey from the Middle East to MIT

Smiling man holidng paper in a room.
Ubadah Sabbagh, soon after receiving his US citizenship papers, in April 2023. Photo: Ubadah Sabbagh

“I recently exhaled a breath I’ve been holding in for nearly half my life. After applying over a decade ago, I’m finally an American. This means so many things to me. Foremost, it means I can go back to the the Middle East, and see my mama and the family, for the first time in 14 years.” — McGovern Institute Postdoctoral Associate Ubadah Sabbagh, X (formerly Twitter) post, April 27, 2023

The words sit atop a photo of Ubadah Sabbagh, who joined the lab of Guoping Feng, James W. (1963) and Patricia T. Poitras Professor at MIT, as a postdoctoral associate in 2021. Sabbagh, a Syrian national, is dressed in a charcoal grey jacket, a keffiyeh loose around his neck, and holding his US citizenship papers, which he began applying for when he was 19 and an undergraduate at the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) studying biology and bioinformatics.

In the photo he is 29.

A clarity of vision

Sabbagh’s journey from the Middle East to his research position at MIT has been marked by determination and courage, a multifaceted curiosity, and a role as a scientist-writer/scientist-advocate.  He is particularly committed to the importance of humanity in science.

“For me, a scientist is a person who is not only in the lab but also has a unique perspective to contribute to society,” he says. “The scientific method is an idea, and that can be objective. But the process of doing science is a human endeavor, and like all human endeavors, it is inherently both social and political.”

At just 30 years of age, some of Sabbagh’s ideas have disrupted conventional thinking about how science is done in the United States. He believes nations should do science not primarily to compete, for example, but to be aspirational.

“It is our job to make our work accessible to the public, to educate and inform, and to help ground policy,” he says. “In our technologically advanced society, we need to raise the baseline for public scientific intuition so that people are empowered and better equipped to separate truth from myth.”

Two men sitting at a booth wearing headphones.
Ubadah Sabbagh is interviewed for Max Planck Forida’s Neurotransmissions podcast at the 2023 Society for Neuroscience conference in San Diego. Photo: Max Planck Florida

His research and advocacy work have won him accolades, including the 2023 Young Arab Pioneers Award from the Arab Youth Center and the 2020 Young Investigator Award from the American Society of Neurochemistry. He was also named to the 2021 Forbes “30 under 30” list, the first Syrian to be selected in the Science category.

A path to knowledge

Sabbagh’s path to that knowledge began when, living on his own at age 16, he attended Longview Community College, in Kansas City, often juggling multiple jobs. It continued at UMKC, where he fell in love with biology and had his first research experience with bioinformatician Gerald Wyckoff at the same time the civil war in Syria escalated, with his family still in the Middle East. “That was a rough time for me,” he says. “I had a lot of survivor’s guilt: I am here, I have all of this stability and security compared to what they have, and while they had suffocation, I had opportunity. I need to make this mean something positive, not just for me, but in as broad a way as possible for other people.”

Child smiles in front of scientific poster.
Ubadah Sabbagh, age 9, presents his first scientific poster. Photo: Ubadah Sabbagh

The war also sparked Sabbagh’s interest in human behavior—“where it originates, what motivates people to do things, but in a biological, not a psychological way,” he says. “What circuitry is engaged? What is the infrastructure of the brain that leads to X, Y, Z?”

His passion for neuroscience blossomed as a graduate student at Virginia Tech, where he earned his PhD in translational biology, medicine, and health. There, he received a six-year NIH F99/K00 Award, and under the mentorship of neuroscientist at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute he researched the connections between the eye and the brain, specifically, mapping the architecture of the principle neurons in a region of the thalamus essential to visual processing.

“The retina, and the entire visual system, struck me as elegant, with beautiful layers of diverse cells found at every node,” says Sabbagh, his own eyes lighting up.

His research earned him a coveted spot on the Forbes “30 under 30” list, generating enormous visibility, including in the Arab world, adding visitors to his already robust X (formerly Twitter) account, which has more than 9,200 followers. “The increased visibility lets me use my voice to advocate for the things I care about,” he says.

“I need to make this mean something positive, not just for me, but in as broad a way as possible for other people.” — Ubadah Sabbagh

Those causes range from promoting equity and inclusion in science to transforming the American system of doing science for the betterment of science and the scientists themselves. He cofounded the nonprofit Black in Neuro to celebrate and empower Black scholars in neuroscience, and he continues to serve on the board. He is the chair of an advisory committee for the Society for Neuroscience (SfN), recommending ways SfN can better address the needs of its young members, and a member of the Advisory Committee to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director working group charged with re-envisioning postdoctoral training. He serves on the advisory board of Community for Rigor, a new NIH initiative that aims to teach scientific rigor at national scale and, in his spare time, he writes articles about the relationship of science and policy for publications including Scientific American and the Washington Post.

Still, there have been obstacles. The same year Sabbagh received the NIH F99/K00 Award, he faced major setbacks in his application to become a citizen. He would not try again until 2021, when he had his PhD in hand and had joined the McGovern Institute.

An MIT postdoc and citizenship

Sabbagh dove into his research in Guoping Feng’s lab with the same vigor and outside-the-box thinking that characterized his previous work. He continues to investigate the thalamus, but in a region that is less involved in processing pure sensory signals, such as light and sound, and more focused on cognitive functions of the brain. He aims to understand how thalamic brain areas orchestrate complex functions we carry out every day, including working memory and cognitive flexibility.

“This is important to understand because when this orchestra goes out of tune it can lead to a range of neurological disorders, including autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia,” he says. He is also developing new tools for studying the brain using genome editing and viral engineering to expand the toolkit available to neuroscientists.

Microscopic image of mouse brain
Neurons in a transgenic mouse brain labeled by Sabbagh using genome editing technology in the Feng lab. Image: Ubadah Sabbagh

The environment at the McGovern Institute is also a source of inspiration for Sabbagh’s research. “The scale and scope of work being done at McGovern is remarkable. It’s an exciting place for me to be as a neuroscientist,” said Sabbagh. “Besides being intellectually enriching, I’ve found great community here – something that’s important to me wherever I work.”

Returning to the Middle East

Profile of scientist Ubadah Sabbagh speaking at a table.
McGovern postdoc Ubadah Sabbagh at the 2023 Young Arab Pioneers Award ceremony in Abu Dhabi. Photo: Arab Youth Center

While at an advisory meeting at the NIH, Sabbagh learned he had been selected as a Young Arab Pioneer by the Arab Youth Center and was flown the next day to Abu Dhabi for a ceremony overseen by Her Excellency Shamma Al Mazrui, Cabinet Member and Minister of Community Development in the United Arab Emirates. The ceremony recognized 20 Arab youth from around the world in sectors ranging from scientific research to entrepreneurship and community development. Sabbagh’s research “presented a unique portrayal of creative Arab youth and an admirable representation of the values of youth beyond the Arab world,” said Sadeq Jarrar, executive director of the center.

“There I was, among other young Arab leaders, learning firsthand about their efforts, aspirations, and their outlook for the future,” says Sabbagh, who was deeply inspired by the experience.

Just a month earlier, his passport finally secured, Sabbagh had reunited with his family in the Middle East after more than a decade in the United States. “I had been away for so long,” he said, describing the experience as a “cultural reawakening.”

Woman hands man an award on stage.
Ubadah Sabbagh receives a Young Arab Pioneer Award by Her Excellency Shamma Al Mazrui, Cabinet Member and Minister of Community Development in the United Arab Emirates. Photo: Arab Youth Center

Sabbagh saw a gaping need he had not been aware of when he left 14 years earlier, as a teen. “The Middle East had such a glorious intellectual past,” he says. “But for years people have been leaving to get their advanced scientific training, and there is no adequate infrastructure to support them if they want to go back.” He wondered: What if there were a scientific renaissance in the region? How would we build infrastructure to cultivate local minds and local talent? What if the next chapter of the Middle East included being a new nexus of global scientific advancements?

“I felt so inspired,” he says. “I have a longing, someday, to meaningfully give back.”

Season’s Greetings from the McGovern Institute

This year’s holiday video (shown above) was inspired by Ev Fedorenko’s July 2022 Nature Neuroscience paper, which found similar patterns of brain activation and language selectivity across speakers of 45 different languages.

Universal language network

Ev Fedorenko uses the widely translated book “Alice in Wonderland” to test brain responses to different languages. Photo: Caitlin Cunningham

Over several decades, neuroscientists have created a well-defined map of the brain’s “language network,” or the regions of the brain that are specialized for processing language. Found primarily in the left hemisphere, this network includes regions within Broca’s area, as well as in other parts of the frontal and temporal lobes. Although roughly 7,000 languages are currently spoken and signed across the globe, the vast majority of those mapping studies have been done in English speakers as they listened to or read English texts.

To truly understand the cognitive and neural mechanisms that allow us to learn and process such diverse languages, Fedorenko and her team scanned the brains of speakers of 45 different languages while they listened to Alice in Wonderland in their native language. The results show that the speakers’ language networks appear to be essentially the same as those of native English speakers — which suggests that the location and key properties of the language network appear to be universal.

The many languages of McGovern

English may be the primary language used by McGovern researchers, but more than 35 other languages are spoken by scientists and engineers at the McGovern Institute. Our holiday video features 30 of these researchers saying Happy New Year in their native (or learned) language. Below is the complete list of languages included in our video. Expand each accordion to learn more about the speaker of that particular language and the meaning behind their new year’s greeting.

Silent synapses are abundant in the adult brain

MIT neuroscientists have discovered that the adult brain contains millions of “silent synapses” — immature connections between neurons that remain inactive until they’re recruited to help form new memories.

Until now, it was believed that silent synapses were present only during early development, when they help the brain learn the new information that it’s exposed to early in life. However, the new MIT study revealed that in adult mice, about 30 percent of all synapses in the brain’s cortex are silent.

The existence of these silent synapses may help to explain how the adult brain is able to continually form new memories and learn new things without having to modify existing conventional synapses, the researchers say.

“These silent synapses are looking for new connections, and when important new information is presented, connections between the relevant neurons are strengthened. This lets the brain create new memories without overwriting the important memories stored in mature synapses, which are harder to change,” says Dimitra Vardalaki, an MIT graduate student and the lead author of the new study.

Mark Harnett, an associate professor of brain and cognitive sciences and an investigator at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, is the senior author of the paper, which appears today in Nature. Kwanghun Chung, an associate professor of chemical engineering at MIT, is also an author.

A surprising discovery

When scientists first discovered silent synapses decades ago, they were seen primarily in the brains of young mice and other animals. During early development, these synapses are believed to help the brain acquire the massive amounts of information that babies need to learn about their environment and how to interact with it. In mice, these synapses were believed to disappear by about 12 days of age (equivalent to the first months of human life).

However, some neuroscientists have proposed that silent synapses may persist into adulthood and help with the formation of new memories. Evidence for this has been seen in animal models of addiction, which is thought to be largely a disorder of aberrant learning.

Theoretical work in the field from Stefano Fusi and Larry Abbott of Columbia University has also proposed that neurons must display a wide range of different plasticity mechanisms to explain how brains can both efficiently learn new things and retain them in long-term memory. In this scenario, some synapses must be established or modified easily, to form the new memories, while others must remain much more stable, to preserve long-term memories.

In the new study, the MIT team did not set out specifically to look for silent synapses. Instead, they were following up on an intriguing finding from a previous study in Harnett’s lab. In that paper, the researchers showed that within a single neuron, dendrites — antenna-like extensions that protrude from neurons — can process synaptic input in different ways, depending on their location.

As part of that study, the researchers tried to measure neurotransmitter receptors in different dendritic branches, to see if that would help to account for the differences in their behavior. To do that, they used a technique called eMAP (epitope-preserving Magnified Analysis of the Proteome), developed by Chung. Using this technique, researchers can physically expand a tissue sample and then label specific proteins in the sample, making it possible to obtain super-high-resolution images.

The first thing we saw, which was super bizarre and we didn’t expect, was that there were filopodia everywhere.

While they were doing that imaging, they made a surprising discovery. “The first thing we saw, which was super bizarre and we didn’t expect, was that there were filopodia everywhere,” Harnett says.

Filopodia, thin membrane protrusions that extend from dendrites, have been seen before, but neuroscientists didn’t know exactly what they do. That’s partly because filopodia are so tiny that they are difficult to see using traditional imaging techniques.

After making this observation, the MIT team set out to try to find filopodia in other parts of the adult brain, using the eMAP technique. To their surprise, they found filopodia in the mouse visual cortex and other parts of the brain, at a level 10 times higher than previously seen. They also found that filopodia had neurotransmitter receptors called NMDA receptors, but no AMPA receptors.

A typical active synapse has both of these types of receptors, which bind the neurotransmitter glutamate. NMDA receptors normally require cooperation with AMPA receptors to pass signals because NMDA receptors are blocked by magnesium ions at the normal resting potential of neurons. Thus, when AMPA receptors are not present, synapses that have only NMDA receptors cannot pass along an electric current and are referred to as “silent.”

Unsilencing synapses

To investigate whether these filopodia might be silent synapses, the researchers used a modified version of an experimental technique known as patch clamping. This allowed them to monitor the electrical activity generated at individual filopodia as they tried to stimulate them by mimicking the release of the neurotransmitter glutamate from a neighboring neuron.

Using this technique, the researchers found that glutamate would not generate any electrical signal in the filopodium receiving the input, unless the NMDA receptors were experimentally unblocked. This offers strong support for the theory the filopodia represent silent synapses within the brain, the researchers say.

The researchers also showed that they could “unsilence” these synapses by combining glutamate release with an electrical current coming from the body of the neuron. This combined stimulation leads to accumulation of AMPA receptors in the silent synapse, allowing it to form a strong connection with the nearby axon that is releasing glutamate.

The researchers found that converting silent synapses into active synapses was much easier than altering mature synapses.

“If you start with an already functional synapse, that plasticity protocol doesn’t work,” Harnett says. “The synapses in the adult brain have a much higher threshold, presumably because you want those memories to be pretty resilient. You don’t want them constantly being overwritten. Filopodia, on the other hand, can be captured to form new memories.”

“Flexible and robust”

The findings offer support for the theory proposed by Abbott and Fusi that the adult brain includes highly plastic synapses that can be recruited to form new memories, the researchers say.

“This paper is, as far as I know, the first real evidence that this is how it actually works in a mammalian brain,” Harnett says. “Filopodia allow a memory system to be both flexible and robust. You need flexibility to acquire new information, but you also need stability to retain the important information.”

The researchers are now looking for evidence of these silent synapses in human brain tissue. They also hope to study whether the number or function of these synapses is affected by factors such as aging or neurodegenerative disease.

“It’s entirely possible that by changing the amount of flexibility you’ve got in a memory system, it could become much harder to change your behaviors and habits or incorporate new information,” Harnett says. “You could also imagine finding some of the molecular players that are involved in filopodia and trying to manipulate some of those things to try to restore flexible memory as we age.”

The research was funded by the Boehringer Ingelheim Fonds, the National Institutes of Health, the James W. and Patricia T. Poitras Fund at MIT, a Klingenstein-Simons Fellowship, and Vallee Foundation Scholarship, and a McKnight Scholarship.

How touch dampens the brain’s response to painful stimuli

McGovern Investigator Fan Wang. Photo: Caitliin Cunningham

When we press our temples to soothe an aching head or rub an elbow after an unexpected blow, it often brings some relief. It is believed that pain-responsive cells in the brain quiet down when these neurons also receive touch inputs, say scientists at MIT’s McGovern Institute, who for the first time have watched this phenomenon play out in the brains of mice.

The team’s discovery, reported November 16, 2022, in the journal Science Advances, offers researchers a deeper understanding of the complicated relationship between pain and touch and could offer some insights into chronic pain in humans. “We’re interested in this because it’s a common human experience,” says McGovern Investigator Fan Wang. “When some part of your body hurts, you rub it, right? We know touch can alleviate pain in this way.” But, she says, the phenomenon has been very difficult for neuroscientists to study.

Modeling pain relief

Touch-mediated pain relief may begin in the spinal cord, where prior studies have found pain-responsive neurons whose signals are dampened in response to touch. But there have been hints that the brain was involved too. Wang says this aspect of the response has been largely unexplored, because it can be hard to monitor the brain’s response to painful stimuli amidst all the other neural activity happening there—particularly when an animal moves.

So while her team knew that mice respond to a potentially painful stimulus on the cheek by wiping their faces with their paws, they couldn’t follow the specific pain response in the animals’ brains to see if that rubbing helped settle it down. “If you look at the brain when an animal is rubbing the face, movement and touch signals completely overwhelm any possible pain signal,” Wang explains.

She and her colleagues have found a way around this obstacle. Instead of studying the effects of face-rubbing, they have focused their attention on a subtler form of touch: the gentle vibrations produced by the movement of the animals’ whiskers. Mice use their whiskers to explore, moving them back and forth in a rhythmic motion known as whisking to feel out their environment. This motion activates touch receptors in the face and sends information to the brain in the form of vibrotactile signals. The human brain receives the same kind of touch signals when a person shakes their hand as they pull it back from a painfully hot pan—another way we seek touch-mediate pain relief.

If you look at the brain when an animal is rubbing the face, movement and touch signals completely overwhelm any possible pain signal, says Wang.

Wang and her colleagues found that this whisker movement alters the way mice respond to bothersome heat or a poke on the face—both of which usually lead to face rubbing. “When the unpleasant stimuli were applied in the presence of their self-generated vibrotactile whisking…they respond much less,” she says. Sometimes, she says, whisking animals entirely ignore these painful stimuli.

In the brain’s somatosensory cortex, where touch and pain signals are processed, the team found signaling changes that seem to underlie this effect. “The cells that preferentially respond to heat and poking are less frequently activated when the mice are whisking,” Wang says. “They’re less likely to show responses to painful stimuli.” Even when whisking animals did rub their faces in response to painful stimuli, the team found that neurons in the brain took more time to adopt the firing patterns associated with that rubbing movement. “When there is a pain stimulation, usually the trajectory the population dynamics quickly moved to wiping. But if you already have whisking, that takes much longer,” Wang says.

Wang notes that even in the fraction of a second before provoked mice begin rubbing their faces, when the animals are relatively still, it can be difficult to sort out which brain signals are related to perceiving heat and poking and which are involved in whisker movement. Her team developed computational tools to disentangle these, and are hoping other neuroscientists will use the new algorithms to make sense of their own data.

Whisking’s effects on pain signaling seem to depend on dedicated touch-processing circuitry that sends tactile information to the somatosensory cortex from a brain region called the ventral posterior thalamus. When the researchers blocked that pathway, whisking no longer dampened the animals’ response to painful stimuli. Now, Wang says, she and her team are eager to learn how this circuitry works with other parts of the brain to modulate the perception and response to painful stimuli.

Wang says the new findings might shed light on a condition called thalamic pain syndrome, a chronic pain disorder that can develop in patients after a stroke that affects the brain’s thalamus. “Such strokes may impair the functions of thalamic circuits that normally relay pure touch signals and dampen painful signals to the cortex,” she says.

Personal pursuits

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


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?”


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.

The craving state

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


For people struggling with substance use disorders — and there are about 35 million of them worldwide — treatment options are limited. Even among those who seek help, relapse is common. In the United States, an epidemic of opioid addiction has been declared a public health emergency.

A 2019 survey found that 1.6 million people nationwide had an opioid use disorder, and the crisis has surged since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 100,000 people died of drug overdose between April 2020 and April 2021 — nearly 30 percent more overdose deaths than occurred during the same period the previous year.

In the United States, an epidemic of opioid addiction has been declared a public health emergency.

A deeper understanding of what addiction does to the brain and body is urgently needed to pave the way to interventions that reliably release affected individuals from its grip. At the McGovern Institute, researchers are turning their attention to addiction’s driving force: the deep, recurring craving that makes people prioritize drug use over all other wants and needs.

McGovern Institute co-founder, Lore Harp McGovern.

“When you are in that state, then it seems nothing else matters,” says McGovern Investigator Fan Wang. “At that moment, you can discard everything: your relationship, your house, your job, everything. You only want the drug.”

With a new addiction initiative catalyzed by generous gifts from Institute co-founder Lore Harp McGovern and others, McGovern scientists with diverse expertise have come together to begin clarifying the neurobiology that underlies the craving state. They plan to dissect the neural transformations associated with craving at every level — from the drug-induced chemical changes that alter neuronal connections and activity to how these modifications impact signaling brain-wide. Ultimately, the McGovern team hopes not just to understand the craving state, but to find a way to relieve it — for good.

“If we can understand the craving state and correct it, or at least relieve a little bit of the pressure,” explains Wang, who will help lead the addiction initiative, “then maybe we can at least give people a chance to use their top-down control to not take the drug.”

The craving cycle

For individuals suffering from substance use disorders, craving fuels a cyclical pattern of escalating drug use. Following the euphoria induced by a drug like heroin or cocaine, depression sets in, accompanied by a drug craving motivated by the desire to relieve that suffering. And as addiction progresses, the peaks and valleys of this cycle dip lower: the pleasant feelings evoked by the drug become weaker, while the negative effects a person experiences in its absence worsen. The craving remains, and increasing use of the drug are required to relieve it.

By the time addiction sets in, the brain has been altered in ways that go beyond a drug’s immediate effects on neural signaling.

These insidious changes leave individuals susceptible to craving — and the vulnerable state endures. Long after the physical effects of withdrawal have subsided, people with substance use disorders can find their craving returns, triggered by exposure to a small amount of the drug, physical or social cues associated with previous drug use, or stress. So researchers will need to determine not only how different parts of the brain interact with one another during craving and how individual cells and the molecules within them are affected by the craving state — but also how things change as addiction develops and progresses.

Circuits, chemistry and connectivity

One clear starting point is the circuitry the brain uses to control motivation. Thanks in part to decades of research in the lab of McGovern Investigator Ann Graybiel, neuroscientists know a great deal about how these circuits learn which actions lead to pleasure and which lead to pain, and how they use that information to establish habits and evaluate the costs and benefits of complex decisions.

Graybiel’s work has shown that drugs of abuse strongly activate dopamine-responsive neurons in a part of the brain called the striatum, whose signals promote habit formation. By increasing the amount of dopamine that neurons release, these drugs motivate users to prioritize repeated drug use over other kinds of rewards, and to choose the drug in spite of pain or other negative effects. Her group continues to investigate the naturally occurring molecules that control these circuits, as well as how they are hijacked by drugs of abuse.

Distribution of opioid receptors targeted by morphine (shown in blue) in two regions in the dorsal striatum and nucleus accumbens of the mouse brain. Image: Ann Graybiel

In Fan Wang’s lab, work investigating the neural circuits that mediate the perception of physical pain has led her team to question the role of emotional pain in craving. As they investigated the source of pain sensations in the brain, they identified neurons in an emotion-regulating center called the central amygdala that appear to suppress physical pain in animals. Now, Wang wants to know whether it might be possible to modulate neurons involved in emotional pain to ameliorate the negative state that provokes drug craving.

These animal studies will be key to identifying the cellular and molecular changes that set the brain up for recurring cravings. And as McGovern scientists begin to investigate what happens in the brains of rodents that have been trained to self-administer addictive drugs like fentanyl or cocaine, they expect to encounter tremendous complexity.

McGovern Associate Investigator Polina Anikeeva, whose lab has pioneered new technologies that will help the team investigate the full spectrum of changes that underlie craving, says it will be important to consider impacts on the brain’s chemistry, firing patterns, and connectivity. To that end, multifunctional research probes developed in her lab will be critical to monitoring and manipulating neural circuits in animal models.

Imaging technology developed by investigator Ed Boyden will also enable nanoscale protein visualization brain-wide. An important goal will be to identify a neural signature of the craving state. With such a signal, researchers can begin to explore how to shut off that craving — possibly by directly modulating neural signaling.

Targeted treatments

“One of the reasons to study craving is because it’s a natural treatment point,” says McGovern Associate Investigator Alan Jasanoff. “And the dominant kind of approaches that people in our team think about are approaches that relate to neural circuits — to the specific connections between brain regions and how those could be changed.” The hope, he explains, is that it might be possible to identify a brain region whose activity is disrupted during the craving state, then use clinical brain stimulation methods to restore normal signaling — within that region, as well as in other connected parts of the brain.

To identify the right targets for such a treatment, it will be crucial to understand how the biology uncovered in laboratory animals reflects what’s happens in people with substance use disorders. Functional imaging in John Gabrieli’s lab can help bridge the gap between clinical and animal research by revealing patterns of brain activity associated with the craving state in both humans and rodents. A new technique developed in Jasanoff’s lab makes it possible to focus on the activity between specific regions of an animal’s brain. “By doing that, we hope to build up integrated models of how information passes around the brain in craving states, and of course also in control states where we’re not experiencing craving,” he explains.

In delving into the biology of the craving state, McGovern scientists are embarking on largely unexplored territory — and they do so with both optimism and urgency. “It’s hard to not appreciate just the size of the problem, and just how devastating addiction is,” says Anikeeva. “At this point, it just seems almost irresponsible to not work on it, especially when we do have the tools and we are interested in the general brain regions that are important for that problem. I would say that there’s almost a civic duty.”