Gene changes linked to severe repetitive behaviors

Extreme repetitive behaviors such as hand-flapping, body-rocking, skin-picking and sniffing are common to a number of brain disorders including autism, schizophrenia, Huntington’s disease, and drug addiction. These behaviors, termed stereotypies, are also apparent in animal models of drug addiction and autism.

In a new study published in the European Journal of Neuroscience, researchers at the McGovern Institute have identified genes that are activated in the brain prior to the initiation of these severe repetitive behaviors.

“Our lab has found a small set of genes that are regulated in relation to the development of stereotypic behaviors in an animal model of drug addiction,” says MIT Institute Professor Ann Graybiel, who is the senior author of the paper. “We were surprised and interested to see that one of these genes is a susceptibility gene for schizophrenia. This finding might help to understand the biological basis of repetitive, stereotypic behaviors as seen in a range of neurologic and neuropsychiatric disorders, and in otherwise ‘typical’ people under stress.”

A shared molecular pathway

In work led by research scientist Jill Crittenden, researchers in the Graybiel lab exposed mice to amphetamine, a psychomotor stimulant that drives hyperactivity and confined stereotypies in humans and in laboratory animals and that is used to model symptoms of schizophrenia.

They found that stimulant exposure that drives the most prolonged repetitive behaviors lead to activation of genes regulated by Neuregulin 1, a signaling molecule that is important for a variety of cellular functions including neuronal development and plasticity. Neuregulin 1 gene mutations are risk factors for schizophrenia.

The new findings highlight a shared molecular and circuit pathway for stereotypies that are caused by drugs of abuse and in brain disorders, and have implications for why stimulant intoxication is a risk factor for the onset of schizophrenia.

“Experimental treatment with amphetamine has long been used in studies on rodents and other animals in tests to find better treatments for schizophrenia in humans, because there are some behavioral similarities across the two otherwise very different contexts,” explains Graybiel, who is also an investigator at the McGovern Institute and a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT. “It was striking to find Neuregulin 1 — potentially one hint to shared mechanisms underlying some of these similarities.”

Drug exposure linked to repetitive behaviors

Although many studies have measured gene expression changes in animal models of drug addiction, this study is the first to evaluate genome-wide changes specifically associated with restricted repetitive behaviors.

Stereotypies are difficult to measure without labor-intensive, direct observation, because they consist of fine movements and idiosyncratic behaviors. In this study, the authors administered amphetamine (or saline control) to mice and then measured with photobeam-breaks how much they ran around. The researchers identified prolonged periods when the mice were not running around (e.g. were potentially engaged in confined stereotypies), and then they videotaped the mice during these periods to observationally score the severity of restricted repetitive behaviors (e.g. sniffing or licking stereotypies).

They gave amphetamine to each mouse once a day for 21 days and found that, on average, mice showed very little stereotypy on the first day of drug exposure but that, by the seventh day of exposure, all of the mice showed a prolonged period of stereotypy that gradually became shorter and shorter over the subsequent two weeks.

Graphical abstract
The authors compared gene expression changes in the brains of mice treated with amphetamine for one day, seven days or 21 days. By the twenty-first day of treatment, the stereotypy behaviors were less intense as was the gene upregulation – fewer genes were strongly activated, and more were repressed, relative to the other treatments.

“We were surprised to see the stereotypy diminishing after one week of treatment. We had actually planned a study based on our expectation that the repetitive behaviors would become more intense, but then we realized that this was an opportunity to look at what gene changes were unique to that day of high stereotypy,” says first author Jill Crittenden.

The authors compared gene expression changes in the brains of mice treated with amphetamine for one day, seven days or 21 days. They hypothesized that the gene changes associated specifically with high-stereotypy-associated seven days of drug treatment were the most likely to underlie extreme repetitive behaviors and could identify risk-factor genes for such symptoms in disease.

A shared anatomical pathway

Previous work from the Graybiel lab has shown that stereotypy is directly correlated to circumscribed gene activation in the striatum, a forebrain region that is key for habit formation. In animals with the most intense stereotypy, most of the striatum does not show gene activation, but immediate early gene induction remains high in clusters of cells called striosomes. Striosomes have recently been shown to have powerful control over cells that release dopamine, a neuromodulator that is severely disrupted in drug addiction and in schizophrenia. Strikingly, striosomes contain high levels of Neuregulin 1.

“Our new data suggest that the upregulation of Neuregulin-responsive genes in animals with severely repetitive behaviors reflects gene changes in the striosomal neurons that control the release of dopamine,” Crittenden explains. “Dopamine can directly impact whether an animal repeats an action or explores new actions, so our study highlights a potential role for a striosomal circuit in controlling action-selection in health and in neuropsychiatric disease.”

Patterns of behavior and gene expression

Striatal gene expression levels were measured by sequencing messenger RNAs (mRNAs) in dissected brain tissue. mRNAs are read out from “active” genes to instruct protein-synthesis machinery in how to make the protein that corresponds to the gene’s sequence. Proteins are the main constituents of a cell, thereby controlling each cell’s function. The number of times a particular mRNA sequence is found reflects the frequency at which the gene was being read out at the time that the cellular material was collected.

To identify genes that were read out into mRNA before the period of prolonged stereotypy, the researchers collected brain tissue 20 minutes after amphetamine injection, which is about 30 minutes before peak stereotypy. They then identified which genes had significantly different levels of corresponding mRNAs in drug-treated mice than in mice treated with saline.

A wide variety of genes showed modest mRNA increases after the first amphetamine exposure, which induced mild hyperactivity and a range of behaviors such as walking, sniffing and rearing in the mice.

By the seventh day of treatment, all of the mice were engaged for prolonged periods in one specific repetitive behavior, such as sniffing the wall. Likewise, there were fewer genes that were activated by the seventh day relative to the first treatment day, but they were strongly activated in all mice that received the stereotypy-inducing amphetamine treatment.

By the twenty-first day of treatment, the stereotypy behaviors were less intense as was the gene upregulation – fewer genes were strongly activated, and more were repressed, relative to the other treatments. “It seemed that the mice had developed tolerance to the drug, both in terms of their behavioral response and in terms of their gene activation response,” says Crittenden.

“Trying to seek patterns of gene regulation starting with behavior is correlative work, and we did not prove ‘causality’ in this first small study,” explains Graybiel. “But we hope that the striking parallels between the scope and selectivity of the mRNA and behavioral changes that we detected will help in further work on the tremendously challenging goal of treating addiction.”

This work was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the Saks-Kavanaugh Foundation, the Broderick Fund for Phytocannabinoid Research at MIT, the James and Pat Poitras Research Fund, The Simons Foundation and The Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute.

The pursuit of reward

View the interactive version of this story in our Spring 2021 issue of BrainScan.

The brain circuits that influence our decisions, cognitive functions, and ultimately, our actions are intimately connected with the circuits that give rise to our motivations. By exploring these relationships, scientists at McGovern are seeking knowledge that might suggest new strategies for changing our habits or treating motivation-disrupting conditions such as depression and addiction.

Risky decisions

MIT Institute Professor Ann Graybiel. Photo: Justin Knight

In Ann Graybiel’s lab, researchers have been examining how the brain makes choices that carry both positive and negative consequences — deciding to take on a higher-paying but more demanding job, for example. Psychologists call these dilemmas approach-avoidance conflicts, and resolving them not only requires weighing the good versus the bad, but also motivation to engage with the decision.

Emily Hueske, a research scientist in the Graybiel lab, explains that everyone has their own risk tolerance when it comes to such decisions, and certain psychiatric conditions, including depression and anxiety disorders, can shift the tipping point at which a person chooses to “approach” or “avoid.”

Studies have shown that neurons in the striatum (see image below), a region deep in the brain involved in both motivation and movement, activate as we grapple with these decisions. Graybiel traced this activity even further, to tiny compartments within the striatum called striosomes.

(She discovered striosomes many years ago and has been studying their function for decades.)

A motivational switch

In 2015, Graybiel’s team manipulated striosome signaling within genetically engineered mice and changed the way animals behave in approach-avoidance conflict situations. Taking cues from an assessment used to evaluate approach-avoidance behavior in patients, they presented mice with opportunities to obtain chocolate while experiencing unwelcome exposure in a brightly lit area.

Experimentally activating neurons in striosomes had a dramatic effect, causing mice to venture into brightly lit areas that they would normally avoid. With striosomal circuits switched on, “this animal all of a sudden is like a different creature,” Graybiel says.

Two years later, they found that chronic stress and other factors can also disrupt this signaling and change the choices animals make.

An image of the mouse striatum showing clusters of striosomes (red and yellow). Image: Graybiel lab

Age of ennui

This November, Alexander Friedman, who worked as a research scientist in the Graybiel lab, and Hueske reported in Cell that they found an age-related decline in motivation-modulated learning in mice and rats. Neurons within striosomes became more active than the cells that surround them as animals learned to assign positive and negative values to potential choices. And older mice were less engaged than their younger counterparts in the type of learning required to make these cost-benefit analyses. A similar lack of motivation was observed in a mouse model of Huntington’s disease, a neurodegenerative disorder that is often associated with mood
disturbances in patients.

“This coincides with our previous findings that striosomes are critically important for decisions that involve a conflict.”

“This coincides with our previous findings that striosomes are critically important for decisions that involve a conflict,” says Friedman, who is now an assistant professor at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Graybiel’s team is continuing to investigate these uniquely positioned compartments in the brain, expecting to shed light on the mechanisms that underlie both learning and motivation.

“There’s no learning without motivation, and in fact, motivation can be influenced by learning,” Hueske says. “The more you learn, the more excited you might be to engage in the task. So the two are intertwined.”

The aging brain

Researchers in John Gabrieli’s lab are also seeking to understand the circuits that link motivation to learning, and recently, his team reported that they, too, had found an age-related decline in motivation-modulated learning.

Studies in young adults have shown that memory improves when the brain circuits that process motivation and memory interact. Gabrieli and neurologist Maiya Geddes, who worked in Gabrieli’s lab as a postdoctoral fellow, wondered whether this holds true in older adults, particularly as memory declines.

To find out, the team recruited 40 people to participate in a brain imaging study. About half of the participants were between the ages of 18 and 30, while the others were between the ages of 49 and 84. While inside an fMRI scanner, each participant was asked to commit certain words to memory and told their success would determine how much money they received for participating in the experiment.

Diminished drive

MRI scan
Younger adults show greater activation in the reward-related regions of the brain during incentivized memory tasks compared to older adults. Image: Maiya Geddes

Not surprisingly, when participants were asked 24 hours later to recall the words, the younger group performed better overall than the older group. In young people, incentivized memory tasks triggered activity in parts of the brain involved in both memory and motivation. But in older adults, while these two parts of the brain could be activated independently, they did not seem to be communicating with one another.

“It seemed that the older adults, at least in terms of their brain response, did care about the kind of incentives that we were offering,” says Geddes, who is now an assistant professor at McGill University. “But for whatever reason, that wasn’t allowing them to benefit in terms of improved memory performance.”

Since the study indicates the brain still can anticipate potential rewards, Geddes is now exploring whether other sources of motivation, such as social rewards, might more effectively increase healthful decisions and behaviors in older adults.

Circuit control

Understanding how the brain generates and responds to motivation is not only important for improving learning strategies. Lifestyle choices such as exercise and social engagement can help people preserve cognitive function and improve their quality of life as they age, and Gabrieli says activating the right motivational circuits could help encourage people to implement healthy changes.

By pinpointing these motivational circuits in mice, Graybiel hopes that her research will lead to better treatment strategies for people struggling with motivational challenges, including Parkinson’s disease. Her team is now exploring whether striosomes serve as part of a value-sensitive switch, linking our intentions to dopamine-containing neurons in the midbrain that can modulate our actions.

“Perhaps this motivation is critical for the conflict resolution, and striosomes combine two worlds, dopaminergic motivation and cortical knowledge, resulting in motivation to learn,” Friedman says.

“Now we know that these challenges have a biological basis, and that there are neural circuits that can promote or reduce our feeling of motivational energy,” explains Graybiel. “This realization in itself is a major step toward learning how we can control these circuits both behaviorally and by highly selective therapeutic targeting.”

New clues to brain changes in Huntington’s disease

Huntington’s disease is a fatal inherited disorder that strikes most often in middle age with mood disturbances, uncontrollable limb movements, and cognitive decline. Years before symptom onset, brain imaging shows degeneration of the striatum, a brain region important for the rapid selection of behavioral actions. As the striatal neurons degenerate, their “identity” proteins, the building blocks that give particular cell types their unique function, are gradually turned off.

A new study from the lab of Institute Professor Ann Graybiel has found a surprising exception to this rule. The researchers discovered that in mouse models of Huntington’s disease, the cell identity protein MOR1, named as the Mu type Opioid Receptor, actually becomes more abundant as the striatal neurons degenerate.

“This is one of the most striking immunohistochemical change that I have ever seen in the literature of Huntington’s disease model animals,” says Ryoma Morigaki, a research scientist in the Graybiel laboratory and lead author of the report, who worked with Tomoko Yoshida and others in the Graybiel lab.

Immunohistochemical stainings using anti-mu-opioid receptor antibody. Wild type mouse striatum (left) and Q175 Huntington’s disease model mouse striatum (right) at 19 months old. Image: Ryoma Morigaki

More opioid receptors

MOR1 is a receptor on the surface of neurons that binds to opioids that are produced by the body or those taken for pain relief, such as morphine. The natural opioid in the brain is a small molecule called enkephalin, and it is normally produced by the same striatal neurons that degenerate in the earliest stages of Huntington’s disease.

The research team speculates that the striatum increases the quantity of MOR1 receptors in Huntington’s disease models to compensate for plummeting levels of enkephalin, but they also believe this upregulation may play a role in the perception of reward.

Previous work suggests that MOR1 has distinct signaling mechanisms related to its function in pain perception and its function in drug-seeking. These distinct mechanisms might be related to the fact that MOR1 is produced as multiple “isoforms,” slight variations of a protein that can be read out from the same gene. The MOR1 isoform that is found in the striatum is thought to be more important for drug-seeking behaviors than for pain perception. This in turn means that MOR1 might play a role in a key striatal function, which is to learn what actions are most likely to lead to reward.

“It is now recognized that mood disturbances can pre-date the overt motor abnormalities of Huntington’s patients by many years. These can even be the most disturbing symptoms for patients and their families. The finding that this receptor for opioids becomes so elevated in mood-related sites of the striatum, at least in a mouse model of the disorder, may give a hint to the underlying circuit dysfunction leading to these problems,” says Ann Graybiel.

Clues for treatment

MOR1 is used as a standard to identify subsets of neurons that are located within small clusters of neurons in the striatum that were previously discovered by Ann Graybiel and named striosomes.

“The most exciting point for me is the involvement of striatal compartments [striosomes] in the pathogenesis of Huntington’s disease,” says Morigaki, who has now moved to the University of Fukoshima in Japan and is a practicing neurosurgeon who treats movement disorders.

MOR1-positive striosomal neurons are of high interest in part because they have direct connections to the same dopamine-producing neurons that are thought to degenerate in Parkinson’s disease. Whereas Parkinson’s disease is characterized by a loss of dopamine and loss of movement, Huntington’s disease is characterized by ups and downs in dopamine and excessive movements. In fact, the only drugs that are FDA-approved to treat Huntington’s disease are drugs that minimize dopamine release, thereby working to dampen the abnormal movements. But these treatments come with potentially severe side-effects such as depression and suicide.

This latest discovery might provide mechanistic clues to dopamine fluctuations in Huntington’s disease and provide avenues for more specific treatments.

This research was funded by the CHDI Foundation (A-5552), Broderick Fund for Phytocannabinoid Research at MIT, NIH/NIMH R01 MH060379, the Saks Kavanaugh Foundation, JSPS KAKENHI Grants #16KK0182, 17K10899 and 20K17932 , Dr. Tenley Albright, Kathleen Huber, and Dr. Stephan and Mrs. Anne Kott.

Storytelling brings MIT neuroscience community together

When the coronavirus pandemic shut down offices, labs, and classrooms across the MIT campus last spring, many members of the MIT community found it challenging to remain connected to one another in meaningful ways. Motivated by a desire to bring the neuroscience community back together, the McGovern Institute hosted a virtual storytelling competition featuring a selection of postdocs, grad students, and staff from across the institute.

“This has been an unprecedented year for us all,” says McGovern Institute Director Robert Desimone. “It has been twenty years since Pat and Lore McGovern founded the McGovern Institute, and despite the challenges this anniversary year has brought to our community, I have been inspired by the strength and perseverance demonstrated by our faculty, postdocs, students and staff. The resilience of this neuroscience community – and MIT as a whole – is indeed something to celebrate.”

The McGovern Institute had initially planned to hold a large 20th anniversary celebration in the atrium of Building 46 in the fall of 2020, but the pandemic made a gathering of this size impossible. The institute instead held a series of virtual events, including the November 12 story slam on the theme of resilience.

Study helps explain why motivation to learn declines with age

As people age, they often lose their motivation to learn new things or engage in everyday activities. In a study of mice, MIT neuroscientists have now identified a brain circuit that is critical for maintaining this kind of motivation.

This circuit is particularly important for learning to make decisions that require evaluating the cost and reward that come with a particular action. The researchers showed that they could boost older mice’s motivation to engage in this type of learning by reactivating this circuit, and they could also decrease motivation by suppressing the circuit.

“As we age, it’s harder to have a get-up-and-go attitude toward things,” says Ann Graybiel, an Institute Professor at MIT and member of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research. “This get-up-and-go, or engagement, is important for our social well-being and for learning — it’s tough to learn if you aren’t attending and engaged.”

Graybiel is the senior author of the study, which appears today in Cell. The paper’s lead authors are Alexander Friedman, a former MIT research scientist who is now an assistant professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, and Emily Hueske, an MIT research scientist.

Evaluating cost and benefit

The striatum is part of the basal ganglia — a collection of brain centers linked to habit formation, control of voluntary movement, emotion, and addiction. For several decades, Graybiel’s lab has been studying clusters of cells called striosomes, which are distributed throughout the striatum. Graybiel discovered striosomes many years ago, but their function had remained mysterious, in part because they are so small and deep within the brain that it is difficult to image them with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

In recent years, Friedman, Graybiel, and colleagues including MIT research fellow Ken-ichi Amemori have discovered that striosomes play an important role in a type of decision-making known as approach-avoidance conflict. These decisions involve choosing whether to take the good with the bad — or to avoid both — when given options that have both positive and negative elements. An example of this kind of decision is having to choose whether to take a job that pays more but forces a move away from family and friends. Such decisions often provoke great anxiety.

In a related study, Graybiel’s lab found that striosomes connect to cells of the substantia nigra, one of the brain’s major dopamine-producing centers. These studies led the researchers to hypothesize that striosomes may be acting as a gatekeeper that absorbs sensory and emotional information coming from the cortex and integrates it to produce a decision on how to act. These actions can then be invigorated by the dopamine-producing cells.

The researchers later discovered that chronic stress has a major impact on this circuit and on this kind of emotional decision-making. In a 2017 study performed in rats and mice, they showed that stressed animals were far more likely to choose high-risk, high-payoff options, but that they could block this effect by manipulating the circuit.

In the new Cell study, the researchers set out to investigate what happens in striosomes as mice learn how to make these kinds of decisions. To do that, they measured and analyzed the activity of striosomes as mice learned to choose between positive and negative outcomes.

During the experiments, the mice heard two different tones, one of which was accompanied by a reward (sugar water), and another that was paired with a mildly aversive stimulus (bright light). The mice gradually learned that if they licked a spout more when they heard the first tone, they would get more of the sugar water, and if they licked less during the second, the light would not be as bright.

Learning to perform this kind of task requires assigning value to each cost and each reward. The researchers found that as the mice learned the task, striosomes showed higher activity than other parts of the striatum, and that this activity correlated with the mice’s behavioral responses to both of the tones. This suggests that striosomes could be critical for assigning subjective value to a particular outcome.

“In order to survive, in order to do whatever you are doing, you constantly need to be able to learn. You need to learn what is good for you, and what is bad for you,” Friedman says.

“A person, or this case a mouse, may value a reward so highly that the risk of experiencing a possible cost is overwhelmed, while another may wish to avoid the cost to the exclusion of all rewards. And these may result in reward-driven learning in some and cost-driven learning in others,” Hueske says.

The researchers found that inhibitory neurons that relay signals from the prefrontal cortex help striosomes to enhance their signal-to-noise ratio, which helps to generate the strong signals that are seen when the mice evaluate a high-cost or high-reward option.

Loss of motivation

Next, the researchers found that in older mice (between 13 and 21 months, roughly equivalent to people in their 60s and older), the mice’s engagement in learning this type of cost-benefit analysis went down. At the same time, their striosomal activity declined compared to that of younger mice. The researchers found a similar loss of motivation in a mouse model of Huntington’s disease, a neurodegenerative disorder that affects the striatum and its striosomes.

When the researchers used genetically targeted drugs to boost activity in the striosomes, they found that the mice became more engaged in performance of the task. Conversely, suppressing striosomal activity led to disengagement.

In addition to normal age-related decline, many mental health disorders can skew the ability to evaluate the costs and rewards of an action, from anxiety and depression to conditions such as PTSD. For example, a depressed person may undervalue potentially rewarding experiences, while someone suffering from addiction may overvalue drugs but undervalue things like their job or their family.

The researchers are now working on possible drug treatments that could stimulate this circuit, and they suggest that training patients to enhance activity in this circuit through biofeedback could offer another potential way to improve their cost-benefit evaluations.

“If you could pinpoint a mechanism which is underlying the subjective evaluation of reward and cost, and use a modern technique that could manipulate it, either psychiatrically or with biofeedback, patients may be able to activate their circuits correctly,” Friedman says.

The research was funded by the CHDI Foundation, the Saks Kavanaugh Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Nancy Lurie Marks Family Foundation, the Bachmann-Strauss Dystonia and Parkinson’s Foundation, the William N. and Bernice E. Bumpus Foundation, the Simons Center for the Social Brain, the Kristin R. Pressman and Jessica J. Pourian ’13 Fund, Michael Stiefel, and Robert Buxton.

Tool developed in Graybiel lab reveals new clues about Parkinson’s disease

As the brain processes information, electrical charges zip through its circuits and neurotransmitters pass molecular messages from cell to cell. Both forms of communication are vital, but because they are usually studied separately, little is known about how they work together to control our actions, regulate mood, and perform the other functions of a healthy brain.

Neuroscientists in Ann Graybiel’s laboratory at MIT’s McGovern Institute are taking a closer look at the relationship between these electrical and chemical signals. “Considering electrical signals side by side with chemical signals is really important to understand how the brain works,” says Helen Schwerdt, a postdoctoral researcher in Graybiel’s lab. Understanding that relationship is also crucial for developing better ways to diagnose and treat nervous system disorders and mental illness, she says, noting that the drugs used to treat these conditions typically aim to modulate the brain’s chemical signaling, yet studies of brain activity are more likely to focus on electrical signals, which are easier to measure.

Schwerdt and colleagues in Graybiel’s lab have developed new tools so that chemical and electrical signals can, for the first time, be measured simultaneously in the brains of primates. In a study published September 25, 2020, in Science Advances, they used those tools to reveal an unexpectedly complex relationship between two types of signals that are disrupted in patients with Parkinson’s disease—dopamine signaling and coordinated waves of electrical activity known as beta-band oscillations.

Complicated relationship

Graybiel’s team focused its attention on beta-band activity and dopamine signaling because studies of patients with Parkinson’s disease had suggested a straightforward inverse relationship between the two. The tremors, slowness of movement, and other symptoms associated with the disease develop and progress as the brain’s production of the neurotransmitter dopamine declines, and at the same time, beta-band oscillations surge to abnormal levels. Beta-band oscillations are normally observed in parts of the brain that control movement when a person is paying attention or planning to move. It’s not clear what they do or why they are disrupted in patients with Parkinson’s disease. But because patients’ symptoms tend to be worst when beta activity is high—and because beta activity can be measured in real time with sensors placed on the scalp or with a deep-brain stimulation device that has been implanted for treatment, researchers have been hopeful that it might be useful for monitoring the disease’s progression and patients’ response to treatment. In fact, clinical trials are already underway to explore the effectiveness of modulating deep-brain stimulation treatment based on beta activity.

When Schwerdt and colleagues examined these two types of signals in the brains of rhesus macaques, they discovered that the relationship between beta activity and dopamine is more complicated than previously thought.

Their new tools allowed them to simultaneously monitor both signals with extraordinary precision, targeting specific parts of the striatum—a region deep within the brain involved in controlling movement, where dopamine is particularly abundant—and taking measurements on the millisecond time scale to capture neurons’ rapid-fire communications.

They took these measurements as the monkeys performed a simple task, directing their gaze in a particular direction in anticipation of a reward. This allowed the researchers to track chemical and electrical signaling during the active, motivated movement of the animals’ eyes. They found that beta activity did increase as dopamine signaling declined—but only in certain parts of the striatum and during certain tasks. The reward value of a task, an animal’s past experiences, and the particular movement the animal performed all impacted the relationship between the two types of signals.

Multi-modal systems allow subsecond recording of chemical and electrical neural signals in the form of dopamine molecular concentrations and beta-band local field potentials (beta LFPs), respectively. Online measurements of dopamine and beta LFP (time-dependent traces displayed in box on right) were made in the primate striatum (caudate nucleus and putamen colored in green and purple, respectively, in the left brain image) as the animal was performing a task in which eye movements were made to cues displayed on the left (purple event marker line) and right (green event) of a screen in order to receive large or small amounts of food reward (red and blue events). Dopamine and beta LFP neural signals are centrally implicated in Parkinson’s disease and other brain disorders. Image: Helen Schwerdt

“What we expected is there in the overall view, but if we just look at a different level of resolution, all of a sudden the rules don’t hold,” says Graybiel, who is also an MIT Institute Professor. “It doesn’t destroy the likelihood that one would want to have a treatment related to this presumed opposite relationship, but it does say there’s something more here that we haven’t known about.”

The researchers say it’s important to investigate this more nuanced relationship between dopamine signaling and beta activity, and that understanding it more deeply might lead to better treatments for patients with Parkinson’s disease and related disorders. While they plan to continue to examine how the two types of signals relate to one another across different parts of the brain and under different behavioral conditions, they hope that other teams will also take advantage of the tools they have developed. “As these methods in neuroscience become more and more precise and dazzling in their power, we’re bound to discover new things,” says Graybiel.

This study was supported by the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the Army Research Office, the Saks Kavanaugh Foundation, the National Science Foundation, Kristin R. Pressman and Jessica J. Pourian ’13 Fund, and Robert Buxton.

COMMANDing drug delivery

While we are starting to get a handle on drugs and therapeutics that might to help alleviate brain disorders, efficient delivery remains a roadblock to tackling these devastating diseases. Research from the Graybiel, Cima, and Langer labs now uses a computational approach, one that accounts for the irregular shape of the target brain region, to deliver drugs effectively and specifically.

“Identifying therapeutic molecules that can treat neural disorders is just the first step,” says McGovern Investigator Ann Graybiel.

“There is still a formidable challenge when it comes to precisely delivering the therapeutic to the cells most affected in the disorder,” explains Graybiel, an MIT Institute Professor and a senior author on the paper. “Because the brain is so structurally complex, and subregions are irregular in shape, new delivery approaches are urgently needed.”

Fine targeting

Brain disorders often arise from dysfunction in specific regions. Parkinson’s disease, for example, arise from loss of neurons in a specific forebrain region, the striatum. Targeting such structures is a major therapeutic goal, and demands both overcoming the blood brain barrier, while also being specific to the structures affected by the disorder.

Such targeted therapy can potentially be achieved using intracerebral catheters. While this is a more specific form of delivery compared to systemic administration of a drug through the bloodstream, many brain regions are irregular in shape. This means that delivery throughout a specific brain region using a single catheter, while also limiting the spread of a given drug beyond the targeted area, is difficult. Indeed, intracerebral delivery of promising therapeutics has not led to the desired long-term alleviation of disorders.

“Accurate delivery of drugs to reach these targets is really important to ensure optimal efficacy and avoid off-target adverse effects. Our new system, called COMMAND, determines how best to dose targets,” says Michael Cima, senior author on the study and the David H. Koch Professor of Engineering in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research.

3D renderings of simulated multi-bolus delivery to various brain structures (striatum, amygdala, substantia nigra, and hippocampus) with one to four boluses.

COMMAND response

In the case of Parkinson’s disease, implants are available that limit symptoms, but these are only effective in a subset of patients. There are, however, a number of promising potential therapeutic treatments, such as GDNF administration, where long-term, precise delivery is needed to move the therapy forward.

The Graybiel, Cima, and Langer labs developed COMMAND (computational mapping algorithms for neural drug delivery) that helps to target a drug to a specific brain region at multiple sites (multi-bolus delivery).

“Many clinical trials are believed to have failed due to poor drug distribution following intracerebral injection,” explained Khalil Ramadi, PhD ’19, one of the lead researchers on the paper, and a postdoctoral fellow at the Koch and McGovern Institute. “We rationalized that both research experiments and clinical therapies would benefit from computationally optimized infusion, to enable greater consistency across groups and studies, as well as more efficacious therapeutic delivery.”

The COMMAND system finds balance between the twin challenges of drug delivery by maximizing on-target and minimizing off-target delivery. COMMAND is essentially an algorithm that minimizes an error that reflects leakage beyond the bounds of a specific target area, in this case the striatum. A second error is also minimized, and this encapsulates the need to target across this irregularly shaped brain region. The strategy to overcome this is to deliver multiple “boluses” to different areas of the striatum to target this region precisely, yet completely.

“COMMAND applies a simple principle when determining where to place the drug: Maximize the amount of drug falling within the target brain structure and minimize tissues exposed beyond the target region,” explains Ashvin Bashyam, PhD ’19, co-lead author and a former graduate student with Michael Cima at MIT. “This balance is specified based drug properties such as minimum effective therapeutic concentration, toxicity, and diffusivity within brain tissue.”

The number of drug sites applied is kept as low as possible, keeping surgery simple while still providing enough flexibility to cover the target region. In computational simulations, the researchers were able to deliver drugs to compact brain structures, such as the striatum and amygdala, but also broader and more irregular regions, such as hippocampus.

To examine the spatiotemporal dynamics of actual delivery, the researchers used positron emission tomography (PET) and a ‘labeled’ solution, Cu-64, that allowed them to image and follow an infused bolus after delivery with a microprobe. Using this system, the researchers successfully used PET to validate the accuracy of multi-bolus delivery to the rat striatum and its coverage as guided by COMMAND.

“We anticipate that COMMAND can improve researchers’ ability to precisely target brain structures to better understand their function, and become a platform to standardize methods across neuroscience experiments,” explains Graybiel. “Beyond the lab, we hope COMMAND will lay the foundation to help bring multifocal, chronic drug delivery to patients.”

Explaining repetitive behavior linked to amphetamine use

Repetitive movements such as nail-biting and pacing are very often seen in humans and animals under the influence of habit-forming drugs. Studies at the McGovern Institute have found that these repetitive behaviors may be due to a breakdown in communication between neurons in the striatum – a deep brain region linked to habit and movement, among other functions.

The Graybiel lab has a long-standing interest in habit formation and the effects of addiction on brain circuits related to the striatum, a key part of the basal ganglia. The Graybiel lab previously found remarkably strong correlations between gene expression levels in specific parts of the striatum and exposure to psychomotor stimulants such as amphetamine and cocaine. The longer the exposure to stimulant, the more repetitive behavior in models, and the more brain circuits changed. These findings held across animal models.

The lab has found that if they train animals to develop habits, they can completely block these repetitive behaviors using targeted inhibition or excitation of the circuits. They even could block repetitive movement patterns in a mouse model of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). These experiments mimicked situations in humans in which drugs or anxiety-inducing experiences can lead to habits and repetitive movement patterns—from nail-biting to much more dangerous habitual actions.

Ann Graybiel (right) at work in the lab with research scientist Jill Crittenden. Photo: Justin Knight

Why would these circuits exist in the brain if they so often produce “bad” habits and destructive behaviors, as seen in compulsive use of drugs such as opioids or even marijuana? One answer is that we have to be flexible and ready to switch our behavior if something dangerous occurs in the environment. Habits and addictions are, in a way, the extreme pushing of this flexible system in the other direction, toward the rigid and repetitive.

“One important clue is that for many of these habits and repetitive and addictive behaviors, the person isn’t even aware that they are doing the same thing again and again. And if they are not aware, they can’t control themselves and stop,” explains Ann Graybiel, an Institute Professor at MIT. “It is as though the ‘rational brain’ has great difficulty in controlling the ‘habit circuits’ of the brain.” Understanding loss of communication is a central theme in much of the Graybiel lab’s work.

Graybiel, who is also a founding member of the McGovern Institute, is now trying to understand the underlying circuits at the cellular level. The lab is examining the individual components of the striatal circuits linked to selecting actions and motivating movement, circuits that seem to be directly controlled by drugs of abuse.

In groundbreaking early work, Graybiel discovered that the striatum has distinct compartments, striosomes and matrix. These regions are spatially and functionally distinct and separately connect, through striatal projection neurons (SPNs), to motor-control centers or to neurons that release dopamine, a neurotransmitter linked to all drugs of abuse. It is in these components that Graybiel and colleagues have more recently found strong effects of drugs. Indeed opposite changes in gene expression in the striosome SPNs versus the matrix SPNs, raises the possibility that an imbalance in gene regulation leads to abnormally inflexible behaviors caused by drug use.

“It was known that cholinergic interneurons tend to reside along the borders of the two striatal compartments, but whether this cell type mediates communication between the compartments was unknown,” explains first author Jill Crittenden, a research scientist in the Graybiel lab. “We wanted to know whether cholinergic signaling to the two compartments is disrupted by drugs that induce abnormally repetitive behaviors.”

Amphetamine drives gene transcription in striosomes. The top panel shows striosomes (red) are disticnt from matrix (green). Amphetamine treatment activates lead to markers of activation (the immediate early gene c-Fos, red in 2 lower panels) in drug-treated animals (bottom panel), but not controls (middle panel). Image: Jill Crittenden

It was known that cholinergic interneurons are activated by important environmental cues and promote flexible rather than repetitive behavior, how this is related to interaction with SPNs in the striatum was unclear. “Using high-resolution microscopy,” explains Crittenden, “we could see for the first time that cholinergic interneurons send many connections to both striosome and matrix SPNs, well-placed to coordinate signaling directly across the two striatal compartments that appear otherwise isolated.”

Using a technique known as optogenetics, the Graybiel group stimulated mouse cholinergic interneurons and monitored the effects on striatal SPNs in brain tissue. They found that stimulating the interneurons inhibited the ongoing signaling activity that was induced by current injection in matrix and striatal SPNs. However, when examining the brains of animals on high doses of amphetamine and that were displaying repetitive behavior, stimulating the relevant interneurons failed to interrupt evoked activity in SPNs.

Using an inhibitor, the authors were able to show that these neural pathways depend on the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor. Inhibiting this cell-surface signaling receptor had a similar effect to drug intoxication on intercommunication among striatal neurons. Since break down of cholinergic interneuron signaling across striosome and matrix compartments under drug intoxication may reduce behavioral flexibility and cue responsiveness, the work suggests one mechanism for how drugs of abuse hijack action-selection systems of the brain and drive pathological habit-formation.

The Graybiel lab is excited that they can now manipulate these behaviors by manipulating very particular circuits components in the habit circuits. Most recently they have discovered that they can even fully block the effects of stress by manipulating cellular components of these circuits. They now hope to dive deep into these circuits to find out the mystery of how to control them.

“We hope that by pinpointing these circuit elements—which seem to have overlapping effects on habit formation, addiction and stress, we help to guide the development of better therapies for addiction,” explains Graybiel. “We hope to learn about what the use of drugs does to brain circuits with both short term use and long term use. This is an urgent need.”

Alumnus gives MIT $4.5 million to study effects of cannabis on the brain

The following news is adapted from a press release issued in conjunction with Harvard Medical School.

Charles R. Broderick, an alumnus of MIT and Harvard University, has made gifts to both alma maters to support fundamental research into the effects of cannabis on the brain and behavior.

The gifts, totaling $9 million, represent the largest donation to date to support independent research on the science of cannabinoids. The donation will allow experts in the fields of neuroscience and biomedicine at MIT and Harvard Medical School to conduct research that may ultimately help unravel the biology of cannabinoids, illuminate their effects on the human brain, catalyze treatments, and inform evidence-based clinical guidelines, societal policies, and regulation of cannabis.

Lagging behind legislation

With the increasing use of cannabis both for medicinal and recreational purposes, there is a growing concern about critical gaps in knowledge.

In 2017, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine issued a report calling upon philanthropic organizations, private companies, public agencies and others to develop a “comprehensive evidence base” on the short- and long-term health effects — both beneficial and harmful — of cannabis use.

“Our desire is to fill the research void that currently exists in the science of cannabis,” says Broderick, who was an early investor in Canada’s medical marijuana market.

Broderick is the founder of Uji Capital LLC, a family office focused on quantitative opportunities in global equity capital markets. Identifying the growth of the Canadian legal cannabis market as a strategic investment opportunity, Broderick took equity positions in Tweed Marijuana Inc. and Aphria Inc., which have since grown into two of North America’s most successful cannabis companies. Subsequently, Broderick made a private investment in and served as a board member for Tokyo Smoke, a cannabis brand portfolio, which merged in 2017 to create Hiku Brands, where he served as chairman. Hiku Brands was acquired by Canopy Growth Corp. in 2018.

Through the Broderick gifts to Harvard Medical School and MIT’s School of Science through the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory and the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, the Broderick funds will support independent studies of the neurobiology of cannabis; its effects on brain development, various organ systems and overall health, including treatment and therapeutic contexts; and cognitive, behavioral and social ramifications.

“I want to destigmatize the conversation around cannabis — and, in part, that means providing facts to the medical community, as well as the general public,” says Broderick, who argues that independent research needs to form the basis for policy discussions, regardless of whether it is good for business. “Then we’re all working from the same information. We need to replace rhetoric with research.”

MIT: Focused on brain health and function

The gift to MIT from Broderick will provide $4.5 million over three years to support independent research for four scientists at the McGovern and Picower institutes.

Two of these researchers — John Gabrieli, the Grover Hermann Professor of Health Sciences and Technology, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences, and a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research; and Myriam Heiman, the Latham Family Associate Professor of Neuroscience at the Picower Institute — will separately explore the relationship between cannabis and schizophrenia.

Gabrieli, who directs the Martinos Imaging Center at MIT, will monitor any potential therapeutic value of cannabis for adults with schizophrenia using fMRI scans and behavioral studies.

“The ultimate goal is to improve brain health and wellbeing,” says Gabrieli. “And we have to make informed decisions on the way to this goal, wherever the science leads us. We need more data.”

Heiman, who is a molecular neuroscientist, will study how chronic exposure to phytocannabinoid molecules THC and CBD may alter the developmental molecular trajectories of cell types implicated in schizophrenia.

“Our lab’s research may provide insight into why several emerging lines of evidence suggest that adolescent cannabis use can be associated with adverse outcomes not seen in adults,” says Heiman.

In addition to these studies, Gabrieli also hopes to investigate whether cannabis can have therapeutic value for autism spectrum disorders, and Heiman plans to look at whether cannabis can have therapeutic value for Huntington’s disease.

MIT Institute Professor Ann Graybiel has proposed to study the cannabinoid 1 (CB1) receptor, which mediates many of the effects of cannabinoids. Her team recently found that CB1 receptors are tightly linked to dopamine — a neurotransmitter that affects both mood and motivation. Graybiel, who is also a member of the McGovern Institute, will examine how CB1 receptors in the striatum, a deep brain structure implicated in learning and habit formation, may influence dopamine release in the brain. These findings will be important for understanding the effects of cannabis on casual users, as well as its relationship to addictive states and neuropsychiatric disorders.

Earl Miller, Picower Professor of Neuroscience at the Picower Institute, will study effects of cannabinoids on both attention and working memory. His lab has recently formulated a model of working memory and unlocked how anesthetics reduce consciousness, showing in both cases a key role in the brain’s frontal cortex for brain rhythms, or the synchronous firing of neurons. He will observe how these rhythms may be affected by cannabis use — findings that may be able to shed light on tasks like driving where maintenance of attention is especially crucial.

Harvard Medical School: Mobilizing basic scientists and clinicians to solve an acute biomedical challenge 

The Broderick gift provides $4.5 million to establish the Charles R. Broderick Phytocannabinoid Research Initiative at Harvard Medical School, funding basic, translational and clinical research across the HMS community to generate fundamental insights about the effects of cannabinoids on brain function, various organ systems, and overall health.

The research initiative will span basic science and clinical disciplines, ranging from neurobiology and immunology to psychiatry and neurology, taking advantage of the combined expertise of some 30 basic scientists and clinicians across the school and its affiliated hospitals.

The epicenter of these research efforts will be the Department of Neurobiology under the leadership of Bruce Bean and Wade Regehr.

“I am excited by Bob’s commitment to cannabinoid science,” says Regehr, professor of neurobiology in the Blavatnik Institute at Harvard Medical School. “The research efforts enabled by Bob’s vision set the stage for unraveling some of the most confounding mysteries of cannabinoids and their effects on the brain and various organ systems.”

Bean, Regehr, and fellow neurobiologists Rachel Wilson and Bernardo Sabatini, for example, focus on understanding the basic biology of the cannabinoid system, which includes hundreds of plant and synthetic compounds as well as naturally occurring cannabinoids made in the brain.

Cannabinoid compounds activate a variety of brain receptors, and the downstream biological effects of this activation are astoundingly complex, varying by age and sex, and complicated by a person’s physiologic condition and overall health. This complexity and high degree of variability in individual biology has hampered scientific understanding of the positive and negative effects of cannabis on the human body. Bean, Regehr, and colleagues have already made critical insights showing how cannabinoids influence cell-to-cell communication in the brain.

“Even though cannabis products are now widely available, and some used clinically, we still understand remarkably little about how they influence brain function and neuronal circuits in the brain,” says Bean, the Robert Winthrop Professor of Neurobiology in the Blavatnik Institute at HMS. “This gift will allow us to conduct critical research into the neurobiology of cannabinoids, which may ultimately inform new approaches for the treatment of pain, epilepsy, sleep and mood disorders, and more.”

To propel research findings from lab to clinic, basic scientists from HMS will partner with clinicians from Harvard-affiliated hospitals, bringing together clinicians and scientists from disciplines including cardiology, vascular medicine, neurology, and immunology in an effort to glean a deeper and more nuanced understanding of cannabinoids’ effects on various organ systems and the body as a whole, rather than just on isolated organs.

For example, Bean and colleague Gary Yellen, who are studying the mechanisms of action of antiepileptic drugs, have become interested in the effects of cannabinoids on epilepsy, an interest they share with Elizabeth Thiele, director of the pediatric epilepsy program at Massachusetts General Hospital. Thiele is a pioneer in the use of cannabidiol for the treatment of drug-resistant forms of epilepsy. Despite proven clinical efficacy and recent FDA approval for rare childhood epilepsies, researchers still do not know exactly how cannabidiol quiets the misfiring brain cells of patients with the seizure disorder. Understanding its mechanism of action could help in developing new agents for treating other forms of epilepsy and other neurologic disorders.

How our gray matter tackles gray areas

When Katie O’Nell’s high school biology teacher showed a NOVA video on epigenetics after the AP exam, he was mostly trying to fill time. But for O’Nell, the video sparked a whole new area of curiosity.

She was fascinated by the idea that certain genes could be turned on and off, controlling what traits or processes were expressed without actually editing the genetic code itself. She was further excited about what this process could mean for the human mind.

But upon starting at MIT, she realized that she was less interested in the cellular level of neuroscience and more fascinated by bigger questions, such as, what makes certain people generous toward certain others? What’s the neuroscience behind morality?

“College is a time you can learn about anything you want, and what I want to know is why humans are really, really wacky,” she says. “We’re dumb, we make super irrational decisions, it makes no sense. Sometimes it’s beautiful, sometimes it’s awful.”

O’Nell, a senior majoring in brain and cognitive sciences, is one of five MIT students to have received a Marshall Scholarship this year. Her quest to understand the intricacies of the wacky human brain will not be limited to any one continent. She will be using the funding to earn her master’s in experimental psychology at Oxford University.

Chocolate milk and the mouse brain

O’Nell’s first neuroscience-related research experience at MIT took place during her sophomore and junior year, in the lab of Institute Professor Ann Graybiel at the McGovern Institute.

The research studied the neurological components of risk-vs-reward decision making, using a key ingredient: chocolate milk. In the experiments, mice were given two options — they could go toward the richer, sweeter chocolate milk, but they would also have to endure a brighter light. Or, they could go toward a more watered-down chocolate milk, with the benefit of a softer light. All the while, a fluorescence microscope tracked when certain cell types were being activated.

“I think that’s probably the closest thing I’ve ever had to a spiritual experience … watching this mouse in this maze deciding what to do, and watching the cells light up on the screen. You can see single-cell evidence of cognition going on. That’s just the coolest thing.”

In her junior spring, O’Nell delved even deeper into questions of morality in the lab of Professor Rebecca Saxe. Her research there centers on how the human brain parses people’s identities and emotional states from their faces alone, and how those computations are related to each other. Part of what interests O’Nell is the fact that we are constantly making decisions, about ourselves and others, with limited information.

“We’re always solving under uncertainty,” she says. “And our brain does it so well, in so many ways.”

International intrigue

Outside of class, O’Nell has no shortage of things to do. For starters, she has been serving as an associate advisor for a first-year seminar since the fall of her sophomore year.

“Basically it’s my job to sit in on a seminar and bully them into not taking seven classes at a time, and reminding them that yes, your first 8.01 exam is tomorrow,” she says with a laugh.

She has also continued an activity she was passionate about in high school — Model United Nations. One of the most fun parts for her is serving on the Historical Crisis Committee, in which delegates must try to figure out a way to solve a real historical problem, like the Cuban Missile Crisis or the French and Indian War.

“This year they failed and the world was a nuclear wasteland,” she says. “Last year, I don’t entirely know how this happened, but France decided that they wanted to abandon the North American theater entirely and just took over all of Britain’s holdings in India.”

She’s also part of an MIT program called the Addir Interfaith Fellowship, in which a small group of people meet each week and discuss a topic related to religion and spirituality. Before joining, she didn’t think it was something she’d be interested in — but after being placed in a first-year class about science and spirituality, she has found discussing religion to be really stimulating. She’s been a part of the group ever since.

O’Nell has also been heavily involved in writing and producing a Mystery Dinner Theater for Campus Preview Weekend, on behalf of her living group J Entry, in MacGregor House. The plot, generally, is MIT-themed — a physics professor might get killed by a swarm of CRISPR nanobots, for instance. When she’s not cooking up murder mysteries, she might be running SAT classes for high school students, playing piano, reading, or spending time with friends. Or, when she needs to go grocery shopping, she’ll be stopping by the Trader Joe’s on Boylston Avenue, as an excuse to visit the Boston Public Library across the street.

Quite excited for the future

O’Nell is excited that the Marshall Scholarship will enable her to live in the country that produced so many of the books she cherished as a kid, like “The Hobbit.” She’s also thrilled to further her research there. However, she jokes that she still needs to get some of the lingo down.

“I need to learn how to use the word ‘quite’ correctly. Because I overuse it in the American way,” she says.

Her master’s research will largely expand on the principles she’s been examining in the Saxe lab. Questions of morality, processing, and social interaction are where she aims to focus her attention.

“My master’s project is going to be basically taking a look at whether how difficult it is for you to determine someone else’s facial expression changes how generous you are with people,” she explains.

After that, she hopes to follow the standard research track of earning a PhD, doing postdoctoral research, and then entering academia as a professor and researcher. Teaching and researching, she says, are two of her favorite things — she’s excited to have the chance to do both at the same time. But that’s a few years ahead. Right now, she hopes to use her time in England to learn all she can about the deeper functions of the brain, with or without chocolate milk.