Monitoring electromagnetic signals in the brain with MRI

Researchers commonly study brain function by monitoring two types of electromagnetism — electric fields and light. However, most methods for measuring these phenomena in the brain are very invasive.

MIT engineers have now devised a new technique to detect either electrical activity or optical signals in the brain using a minimally invasive sensor for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

MRI is often used to measure changes in blood flow that indirectly represent brain activity, but the MIT team has devised a new type of MRI sensor that can detect tiny electrical currents, as well as light produced by luminescent proteins. (Electrical impulses arise from the brain’s internal communications, and optical signals can be produced by a variety of molecules developed by chemists and bioengineers.)

“MRI offers a way to sense things from the outside of the body in a minimally invasive fashion,” says Aviad Hai, an MIT postdoc and the lead author of the study. “It does not require a wired connection into the brain. We can implant the sensor and just leave it there.”

This kind of sensor could give neuroscientists a spatially accurate way to pinpoint electrical activity in the brain. It can also be used to measure light, and could be adapted to measure chemicals such as glucose, the researchers say.

Alan Jasanoff, an MIT professor of biological engineering, brain and cognitive sciences, and nuclear science and engineering, and an associate member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, is the senior author of the paper, which appears in the Oct. 22 issue of Nature Biomedical Engineering. Postdocs Virginia Spanoudaki and Benjamin Bartelle are also authors of the paper.

Detecting electric fields

Jasanoff’s lab has previously developed MRI sensors that can detect calcium and neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. In this paper, they wanted to expand their approach to detecting biophysical phenomena such as electricity and light. Currently, the most accurate way to monitor electrical activity in the brain is by inserting an electrode, which is very invasive and can cause tissue damage. Electroencephalography (EEG) is a noninvasive way to measure electrical activity in the brain, but this method cannot pinpoint the origin of the activity.

To create a sensor that could detect electromagnetic fields with spatial precision, the researchers realized they could use an electronic device — specifically, a tiny radio antenna.

MRI works by detecting radio waves emitted by the nuclei of hydrogen atoms in water. These signals are usually detected by a large radio antenna within an MRI scanner. For this study, the MIT team shrank the radio antenna down to just a few millimeters in size so that it could be implanted directly into the brain to receive the radio waves generated by water in the brain tissue.

The sensor is initially tuned to the same frequency as the radio waves emitted by the hydrogen atoms. When the sensor picks up an electromagnetic signal from the tissue, its tuning changes and the sensor no longer matches the frequency of the hydrogen atoms. When this happens, a weaker image arises when the sensor is scanned by an external MRI machine.

The researchers demonstrated that the sensors can pick up electrical signals similar to those produced by action potentials (the electrical impulses fired by single neurons), or local field potentials (the sum of electrical currents produced by a group of neurons).

“We showed that these devices are sensitive to biological-scale potentials, on the order of millivolts, which are comparable to what biological tissue generates, especially in the brain,” Jasanoff says.

The researchers performed additional tests in rats to study whether the sensors could pick up signals in living brain tissue. For those experiments, they designed the sensors to detect light emitted by cells engineered to express the protein luciferase.

Normally, luciferase’s exact location cannot be determined when it is deep within the brain or other tissues, so the new sensor offers a way to expand the usefulness of luciferase and more precisely pinpoint the cells that are emitting light, the researchers say. Luciferase is commonly engineered into cells along with another gene of interest, allowing researchers to determine whether the genes have been successfully incorporated by measuring the light produced.

Smaller sensors

One major advantage of this sensor is that it does not need to carry any kind of power supply, because the radio signals that the external MRI scanner emits are enough to power the sensor.

Hai, who will be joining the faculty at the University of Wisconsin at Madison in January, plans to further miniaturize the sensors so that more of them can be injected, enabling the imaging of light or electrical fields over a larger brain area. In this paper, the researchers performed modeling that showed that a 250-micron sensor (a few tenths of a millimeter) should be able to detect electrical activity on the order of 100 millivolts, similar to the amount of current in a neural action potential.

Jasanoff’s lab is interested in using this type of sensor to detect neural signals in the brain, and they envision that it could also be used to monitor electromagnetic phenomena elsewhere in the body, including muscle contractions or cardiac activity.

“If the sensors were on the order of hundreds of microns, which is what the modeling suggests is in the future for this technology, then you could imagine taking a syringe and distributing a whole bunch of them and just leaving them there,” Jasanoff says. “What this would do is provide many local readouts by having sensors distributed all over the tissue.”

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Calcium-based MRI sensor enables more sensitive brain imaging

MIT neuroscientists have developed a new magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) sensor that allows them to monitor neural activity deep within the brain by tracking calcium ions.

Because calcium ions are directly linked to neuronal firing — unlike the changes in blood flow detected by other types of MRI, which provide an indirect signal — this new type of sensing could allow researchers to link specific brain functions to their pattern of neuron activity, and to determine how distant brain regions communicate with each other during particular tasks.

“Concentrations of calcium ions are closely correlated with signaling events in the nervous system,” says Alan Jasanoff, an MIT professor of biological engineering, brain and cognitive sciences, and nuclear science and engineering, an associate member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and the senior author of the study. “We designed a probe with a molecular architecture that can sense relatively subtle changes in extracellular calcium that are correlated with neural activity.”

In tests in rats, the researchers showed that their calcium sensor can accurately detect changes in neural activity induced by chemical or electrical stimulation, deep within a part of the brain called the striatum.

MIT research associates Satoshi Okada and Benjamin Bartelle are the lead authors of the study, which appears in the April 30 issue of Nature Nanotechnology. Other authors include professor of brain and cognitive sciences and Picower Institute for Learning and Memory member Mriganka Sur, Research Associate Nan Li, postdoc Vincent Breton-Provencher, former postdoc Elisenda Rodriguez, Wellesley College undergraduate Jiyoung Lee, and high school student James Melican.

Tracking calcium

A mainstay of neuroscience research, MRI allows scientists to identify parts of the brain that are active during particular tasks. The most commonly used type, known as functional MRI, measures blood flow in the brain as an indirect marker of neural activity. Jasanoff and his colleagues wanted to devise a way to map patterns of neural activity with specificity and resolution that blood-flow-based MRI techniques can’t achieve.

“Methods that are able to map brain activity in deep tissue rely on changes in blood flow, and those are coupled to neural activity through many different physiological pathways,” Jasanoff says. “As a result, the signal you see in the end is often difficult to attribute to any particular underlying cause.”

Calcium ion flow, on the other hand, can be directly linked with neuron activity. When a neuron fires an electrical impulse, calcium ions rush into the cell. For about a decade, neuroscientists have been using fluorescent molecules to label calcium in the brain and image it with traditional microscopy. This technique allows them to precisely track neuron activity, but its use is limited to small areas of the brain.

The MIT team set out to find a way to image calcium using MRI, which enables much larger tissue volumes to be analyzed. To do that, they designed a new sensor that can detect subtle changes in calcium concentrations outside of cells and respond in a way that can be detected with MRI.

The new sensor consists of two types of particles that cluster together in the presence of calcium. One is a naturally occurring calcium-binding protein called synaptotagmin, and the other is a magnetic iron oxide nanoparticle coated in a lipid that can also bind to synaptotagmin, but only when calcium is present.

Calcium binding induces these particles to clump together, making them appear darker in an MRI image. High levels of calcium outside the neurons correlate with low neuron activity; when calcium concentrations drop, it means neurons in that area are firing electrical impulses.

Detecting brain activity

To test the sensors, the researchers injected them into the striatum of rats, a region that is involved in planning movement and learning new behaviors. They then gave the rats a chemical stimulus that induces short bouts of neural activity, and found that the calcium sensor reflected this activity.

They also found that the sensor picked up activity induced by electrical stimulation in a part of the brain involved in reward.

This approach provides a novel way to examine brain function, says Xin Yu, a research group leader at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tuebingen, Germany, who was not involved in the research.

“Although we have accumulated sufficient knowledge on intracellular calcium signaling in the past half-century, it has seldom been studied exactly how the dynamic changes in extracellular calcium contribute to brain function, or serve as an indicator of brain function,” Yu says. “When we are deciphering such a complicated and self-adapted system like the brain, every piece of information matters.”

The current version of the sensor responds within a few seconds of the initial brain stimulation, but the researchers are working on speeding that up. They are also trying to modify the sensor so that it can spread throughout a larger region of the brain and pass through the blood-brain barrier, which would make it possible to deliver the particles without injecting them directly to the test site.

With this kind of sensor, Jasanoff hopes to map patterns of neural activity with greater precision than is now possible. “You could imagine measuring calcium activity in different parts of the brain and trying to determine, for instance, how different types of sensory stimuli are encoded in different ways by the spatial pattern of neural activity that they induce,” he says.

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the MIT Simons Center for the Social Brain.

A radiation-free approach to imaging molecules in the brain

Scientists hoping to get a glimpse of molecules that control brain activity have devised a new probe that allows them to image these molecules without using any chemical or radioactive labels.

Currently the gold standard approach to imaging molecules in the brain is to tag them with radioactive probes. However, these probes offer low resolution and they can’t easily be used to watch dynamic events, says Alan Jasanoff, an MIT professor of biological engineering.

Jasanoff and his colleagues have developed new sensors consisting of proteins designed to detect a particular target, which causes them to dilate blood vessels in the immediate area. This produces a change in blood flow that can be imaged with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or other imaging techniques.

“This is an idea that enables us to detect molecules that are in the brain at biologically low levels, and to do that with these imaging agents or contrast agents that can ultimately be used in humans,” Jasanoff says. “We can also turn them on and off, and that’s really key to trying to detect dynamic processes in the brain.”

In a paper appearing in the Dec. 2 issue of Nature Communications, Jasanoff and his colleagues used these probes to detect enzymes called proteases, but their ultimate goal is to use them to monitor the activity of neurotransmitters, which act as chemical messengers between brain cells.

The paper’s lead authors are postdoc Mitul Desai and former MIT graduate student Adrian Slusarczyk. Recent MIT graduate Ashley Chapin and postdoc Mariya Barch are also authors of the paper.

Indirect imaging

To make their probes, the researchers modified a naturally occurring peptide called calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP), which is active primarily during migraines or inflammation. The researchers engineered the peptides so that they are trapped within a protein cage that keeps them from interacting with blood vessels. When the peptides encounter proteases in the brain, the proteases cut the cages open and the CGRP causes nearby blood vessels to dilate. Imaging this dilation with MRI allows the researchers to determine where the proteases were detected.

“These are molecules that aren’t visualized directly, but instead produce changes in the body that can then be visualized very effectively by imaging,” Jasanoff says.

Proteases are sometimes used as biomarkers to diagnose diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. However, Jasanoff’s lab used them in this study mainly to demonstrate the validity their approach. Now, they are working on adapting these imaging agents to monitor neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and serotonin, that are critical to cognition and processing emotions.

To do that, the researchers plan to modify the cages surrounding the CGRP so that they can be removed by interaction with a particular neurotransmitter.

“What we want to be able to do is detect levels of neurotransmitter that are 100-fold lower than what we’ve seen so far. We also want to be able to use far less of these molecular imaging agents in organisms. That’s one of the key hurdles to trying to bring this approach into people,” Jasanoff says.

Jeff Bulte, a professor of radiology and radiological science at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, described the technique as “original and innovative,” while adding that its safety and long-term physiological effects will require more study.

“It’s interesting that they have designed a reporter without using any kind of metal probe or contrast agent,” says Bulte, who was not involved in the research. “An MRI reporter that works really well is the holy grail in the field of molecular and cellular imaging.”

Tracking genes

Another possible application for this type of imaging is to engineer cells so that the gene for CGRP is turned on at the same time that a gene of interest is turned on. That way, scientists could use the CGRP-induced changes in blood flow to track which cells are expressing the target gene, which could help them determine the roles of those cells and genes in different behaviors. Jasanoff’s team demonstrated the feasibility of this approach by showing that implanted cells expressing CGRP could be recognized by imaging.

“Many behaviors involve turning on genes, and you could use this kind of approach to measure where and when the genes are turned on in different parts of the brain,” Jasanoff says.

His lab is also working on ways to deliver the peptides without injecting them, which would require finding a way to get them to pass through the blood-brain barrier. This barrier separates the brain from circulating blood and prevents large molecules from entering the brain.

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health BRAIN Initiative, the MIT Simons Center for the Social Brain, and fellowships from the Boehringer Ingelheim Fonds and the Friends of the McGovern Institute.

Engineers design magnetic cell sensors

MIT engineers have designed magnetic protein nanoparticles that can be used to track cells or to monitor interactions within cells. The particles, described today in Nature Communications, are an enhanced version of a naturally occurring, weakly magnetic protein called ferritin.

“Ferritin, which is as close as biology has given us to a naturally magnetic protein nanoparticle, is really not that magnetic. That’s what this paper is addressing,” says Alan Jasanoff, an MIT professor of biological engineering and the paper’s senior author. “We used the tools of protein engineering to try to boost the magnetic characteristics of this protein.”

The new “hypermagnetic” protein nanoparticles can be produced within cells, allowing the cells to be imaged or sorted using magnetic techniques. This eliminates the need to tag cells with synthetic particles and allows the particles to sense other molecules inside cells.

The paper’s lead author is former MIT graduate student Yuri Matsumoto. Other authors are graduate student Ritchie Chen and Polina Anikeeva, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering.

Magnetic pull

Previous research has yielded synthetic magnetic particles for imaging or tracking cells, but it can be difficult to deliver these particles into the target cells.

In the new study, Jasanoff and colleagues set out to create magnetic particles that are genetically encoded. With this approach, the researchers deliver a gene for a magnetic protein into the target cells, prompting them to start producing the protein on their own.

“Rather than actually making a nanoparticle in the lab and attaching it to cells or injecting it into cells, all we have to do is introduce a gene that encodes this protein,” says Jasanoff, who is also an associate member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research.

As a starting point, the researchers used ferritin, which carries a supply of iron atoms that every cell needs as components of metabolic enzymes. In hopes of creating a more magnetic version of ferritin, the researchers created about 10 million variants and tested them in yeast cells.

After repeated rounds of screening, the researchers used one of the most promising candidates to create a magnetic sensor consisting of enhanced ferritin modified with a protein tag that binds with another protein called streptavidin. This allowed them to detect whether streptavidin was present in yeast cells; however, this approach could also be tailored to target other interactions.

The mutated protein appears to successfully overcome one of the key shortcomings of natural ferritin, which is that it is difficult to load with iron, says Alan Koretsky, a senior investigator at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

“To be able to make more magnetic indicators for MRI would be fabulous, and this is an important step toward making that type of indicator more robust,” says Koretsky, who was not part of the research team.

Sensing cell signals

Because the engineered ferritins are genetically encoded, they can be manufactured within cells that are programmed to make them respond only under certain circumstances, such as when the cell receives some kind of external signal, when it divides, or when it differentiates into another type of cell. Researchers could track this activity using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), potentially allowing them to observe communication between neurons, activation of immune cells, or stem cell differentiation, among other phenomena.

Such sensors could also be used to monitor the effectiveness of stem cell therapies, Jasanoff says.

“As stem cell therapies are developed, it’s going to be necessary to have noninvasive tools that enable you to measure them,” he says. Without this kind of monitoring, it would be difficult to determine what effect the treatment is having, or why it might not be working.

The researchers are now working on adapting the magnetic sensors to work in mammalian cells. They are also trying to make the engineered ferritin even more strongly magnetic.

Fifteen MIT scientists receive NIH BRAIN Initiative grants

Today, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced their first round of BRAIN Initiative award recipients. Six teams and 15 researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were recipients.

Mriganka Sur, principal investigator at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory and the Paul E. Newton Professor of Neuroscience in MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences (BCS) leads a team studying cortical circuits and information flow during memory-guided perceptual decisions. Co-principal investigators include Emery Brown, BCS professor of computational neuroscience and the Edward Hood Taplin Professor of Medical Engineering; Kwanghun Chung, Picower Institute principal investigator and assistant professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering and the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES); and Ian Wickersham, research scientist at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research and head of MIT’s Genetic Neuroengineering Group.

Elly Nedivi, Picower Institute principal investigator and professor in BCS and the Department of Biology, leads a team studying new methods for high-speed monitoring of sensory-driven synaptic activity across all inputs to single living neurons in the context of the intact cerebral cortex. Her co-principal investigator is Peter So, professor of mechanical and biological engineering, and director of the MIT Laser Biomedical Research Center.

Ian Wickersham will lead a team looking at novel technologies for nontoxic transsynaptic tracing. His co-principal investigators include Robert Desimone, director of the McGovern Institute and the Doris and Don Berkey Professor of Neuroscience in BCS; Li-Huei Tsai, director of the Picower Institute and the Picower Professor of Neuroscience in BCS; and Kay Tye, Picower Institute principal investigator and assistant professor of neuroscience in BCS.

Robert Desimone will lead a team studying vascular interfaces for brain imaging and stimulation. Co-principal investigators include Ed Boyden, associate professor at the MIT Media Lab, McGovern Institute, and departments of BCS and Biological Engineering; head of MIT’s Synthetic Neurobiology Group, and co-director of MIT’s Center for Neurobiological Engineering; and Elazer Edelman, the Thomas D. and Virginia W. Cabot Professor of Health Sciences and Technology in IMES and director of the Harvard-MIT Biomedical Engineering Center. Collaborators on this project include: Rodolfo Llinas (New York University), George Church (Harvard University), Jan Rabaey (University of California at Berkeley), Pablo Blinder (Tel Aviv University), Eric Leuthardt (Washington University/St. Louis), Michel Maharbiz (Berkeley), Jose Carmena (Berkeley), Elad Alon (Berkeley), Colin Derdeyn (Washington University in St. Louis), Lowell Wood (Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), Xue Han (Boston University), and Adam Marblestone (MIT).

Ed Boyden will be co-principal investigator with Mark Bathe, associate professor of biological engineering, and Peng Yin of Harvard on a project to study ultra-multiplexed nanoscale in situ proteomics for understanding synapse types.

Alan Jasanoff, associate professor of biological engineering and director of the MIT Center for Neurobiological Engineering, will lead a team looking at calcium sensors for molecular fMRI. Stephen Lippard, the Arthur Amos Noyes Professor of Chemistry, is co-principal investigator.

In addition, Sur and Wickersham also received BRAIN Early Concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER) from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Sur will focus on massive-scale multi-area single neuron recordings to reveal circuits underlying short-term memory. Wickersham, in collaboration with Li-Huei Tsai, Kay Tye, and Robert Desimone, will develop cell-type specific optogenetics in wild-type animals. Additional information about NSF support of the BRAIN initiative can be found at

The BRAIN Initiative, spearheaded by President Obama in April 2013, challenges the nation’s leading scientists to advance our sophisticated understanding of the human mind and discover new ways to treat, prevent, and cure neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, autism, and traumatic brain injury. The scientific community is charged with accelerating the invention of cutting-edge technologies that can produce dynamic images of complex neural circuits and illuminate the interaction of lightning-fast brain cells. The new capabilities are expected to provide greater insights into how brain functionality is linked to behavior, learning, memory, and the underlying mechanisms of debilitating disease. BRAIN was launched with approximately $100 million in initial investments from the NIH, the National Science Foundation, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

BRAIN Initiative scientists are engaged in a challenging and transformative endeavor to explore how our minds instantaneously processes, store, and retrieve vast quantities of information. Their discoveries will unlock many of the remaining mysteries inherent in the brain’s billions of neurons and trillions of connections, leading to a deeper understanding of the underlying causes of many neurological and psychiatric conditions. Their findings will enable scientists and doctors to develop the groundbreaking arsenal of tools and technologies required to more effectively treat those suffering from these devastating disorders.

Delving deep into the brain

Launched in 2013, the national BRAIN Initiative aims to revolutionize our understanding of cognition by mapping the activity of every neuron in the human brain, revealing how brain circuits interact to create memories, learn new skills, and interpret the world around us.

Before that can happen, neuroscientists need new tools that will let them probe the brain more deeply and in greater detail, says Alan Jasanoff, an MIT associate professor of biological engineering. “There’s a general recognition that in order to understand the brain’s processes in comprehensive detail, we need ways to monitor neural function deep in the brain with spatial, temporal, and functional precision,” he says.

Jasanoff and colleagues have now taken a step toward that goal: They have established a technique that allows them to track neural communication in the brain over time, using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) along with a specialized molecular sensor. This is the first time anyone has been able to map neural signals with high precision over large brain regions in living animals, offering a new window on brain function, says Jasanoff, who is also an associate member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research.

His team used this molecular imaging approach, described in the May 1 online edition of Science, to study the neurotransmitter dopamine in a region called the ventral striatum, which is involved in motivation, reward, and reinforcement of behavior. In future studies, Jasanoff plans to combine dopamine imaging with functional MRI techniques that measure overall brain activity to gain a better understanding of how dopamine levels influence neural circuitry.

“We want to be able to relate dopamine signaling to other neural processes that are going on,” Jasanoff says. “We can look at different types of stimuli and try to understand what dopamine is doing in different brain regions and relate it to other measures of brain function.”

Tracking dopamine

Dopamine is one of many neurotransmitters that help neurons to communicate with each other over short distances. Much of the brain’s dopamine is produced by a structure called the ventral tegmental area (VTA). This dopamine travels through the mesolimbic pathway to the ventral striatum, where it combines with sensory information from other parts of the brain to reinforce behavior and help the brain learn new tasks and motor functions. This circuit also plays a major role in addiction.
To track dopamine’s role in neural communication, the researchers used an MRI sensor they had previously designed, consisting of an iron-containing protein that acts as a weak magnet. When the sensor binds to dopamine, its magnetic interactions with the surrounding tissue weaken, which dims the tissue’s MRI signal. This allows the researchers to see where in the brain dopamine is being released. The researchers also developed an algorithm that lets them calculate the precise amount of dopamine present in each fraction of a cubic millimeter of the ventral striatum.

After delivering the MRI sensor to the ventral striatum of rats, Jasanoff’s team electrically stimulated the mesolimbic pathway and was able to detect exactly where in the ventral striatum dopamine was released. An area known as the nucleus accumbens core, known to be one of the main targets of dopamine from the VTA, showed the highest levels. The researchers also saw that some dopamine is released in neighboring regions such as the ventral pallidum, which regulates motivation and emotions, and parts of the thalamus, which relays sensory and motor signals in the brain.

Each dopamine stimulation lasted for 16 seconds and the researchers took an MRI image every eight seconds, allowing them to track how dopamine levels changed as the neurotransmitter was released from cells and then disappeared. “We could divide up the map into different regions of interest and determine dynamics separately for each of those regions,” Jasanoff says.

He and his colleagues plan to build on this work by expanding their studies to other parts of the brain, including the areas most affected by Parkinson’s disease, which is caused by the death of dopamine-generating cells. Jasanoff’s lab is also working on sensors to track other neurotransmitters, allowing them to study interactions between neurotransmitters during different tasks.

The paper’s lead author is postdoc Taekwan Lee. Technical assistant Lili Cai and postdocs Victor Lelyveld and Aviad Hai also contributed to the research, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

MRI reveals genetic activity

Doctors commonly use magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to diagnose tumors, damage from stroke, and many other medical conditions. Neuroscientists also rely on it as a research tool for identifying parts of the brain that carry out different cognitive functions.

Now, a team of biological engineers at MIT is trying to adapt MRI to a much smaller scale, allowing researchers to visualize gene activity inside the brains of living animals. Tracking these genes with MRI would enable scientists to learn more about how the genes control processes such as forming memories and learning new skills, says Alan Jasanoff, an MIT associate professor of biological engineering and leader of the research team.

“The dream of molecular imaging is to provide information about the biology of intact organisms, at the molecule level,” says Jasanoff, who is also an associate member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research. “The goal is to not have to chop up the brain, but instead to actually see things that are happening inside.”

To help reach that goal, Jasanoff and colleagues have developed a new way to image a “reporter gene” — an artificial gene that turns on or off to signal events in the body, much like an indicator light on a car’s dashboard. In the new study, the reporter gene encodes an enzyme that interacts with a magnetic contrast agent injected into the brain, making the agent visible with MRI. This approach, described in a recent issue of the journal Chemical Biology, allows researchers to determine when and where that reporter gene is turned on.

An on/off switch

MRI uses magnetic fields and radio waves that interact with protons in the body to produce detailed images of the body’s interior. In brain studies, neuroscientists commonly use functional MRI to measure blood flow, which reveals which parts of the brain are active during a particular task. When scanning other organs, doctors sometimes use magnetic “contrast agents” to boost the visibility of certain tissues.

The new MIT approach includes a contrast agent called a manganese porphyrin and the new reporter gene, which codes for a genetically engineered enzyme that alters the electric charge on the contrast agent. Jasanoff and colleagues designed the contrast agent so that it is soluble in water and readily eliminated from the body, making it difficult to detect by MRI. However, when the engineered enzyme, known as SEAP, slices phosphate molecules from the manganese porphyrin, the contrast agent becomes insoluble and starts to accumulate in brain tissues, allowing it to be seen.

The natural version of SEAP is found in the placenta, but not in other tissues. By injecting a virus carrying the SEAP gene into the brain cells of mice, the researchers were able to incorporate the gene into the cells’ own genome. Brain cells then started producing the SEAP protein, which is secreted from the cells and can be anchored to their outer surfaces. That’s important, Jasanoff says, because it means that the contrast agent doesn’t have to penetrate the cells to interact with the enzyme.

Researchers can then find out where SEAP is active by injecting the MRI contrast agent, which spreads throughout the brain but accumulates only near cells producing the SEAP protein.

Exploring brain function

In this study, which was designed to test this general approach, the detection system revealed only whether the SEAP gene had been successfully incorporated into brain cells. However, in future studies, the researchers intend to engineer the SEAP gene so it is only active when a particular gene of interest is turned on.

Jasanoff first plans to link the SEAP gene with so-called “early immediate genes,” which are necessary for brain plasticity — the weakening and strengthening of connections between neurons, which is essential to learning and memory.

“As people who are interested in brain function, the top questions we want to address are about how brain function changes patterns of gene expression in the brain,” Jasanoff says. “We also imagine a future where we might turn the reporter enzyme on and off when it binds to neurotransmitters, so we can detect changes in neurotransmitter levels as well.”

Assaf Gilad, an assistant professor of radiology at Johns Hopkins University, says the MIT team has taken a “very creative approach” to developing noninvasive, real-time imaging of gene activity. “These kinds of genetically engineered reporters have the potential to revolutionize our understanding of many biological processes,” says Gilad, who was not involved in the study.

The research was funded by the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and an MIT-Germany Seed Fund grant. The paper’s lead author is former MIT postdoc Gil Westmeyer; other authors are former MIT technical assistant Yelena Emer and Jutta Lintelmann of the German Research Center for Environmental Health.