Neuroscientists reverse some behavioral symptoms of Williams Syndrome

Williams Syndrome, a rare neurodevelopmental disorder that affects about 1 in 10,000 babies born in the United States, produces a range of symptoms including cognitive impairments, cardiovascular problems, and extreme friendliness, or hypersociability.

In a study of mice, MIT neuroscientists have garnered new insight into the molecular mechanisms that underlie this hypersociability. They found that loss of one of the genes linked to Williams Syndrome leads to a thinning of the fatty layer that insulates neurons and helps them conduct electrical signals in the brain.

The researchers also showed that they could reverse the symptoms by boosting production of this coating, known as myelin. This is significant, because while Williams Syndrome is rare, many other neurodevelopmental disorders and neurological conditions have been linked to myelination deficits, says Guoping Feng, the James W. and Patricia Poitras Professor of Neuroscience and a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research.

“The importance is not only for Williams Syndrome,” says Feng, who is one of the senior authors of the study. “In other neurodevelopmental disorders, especially in some of the autism spectrum disorders, this could be potentially a new direction to look into, not only the pathology but also potential treatments.”

Zhigang He, a professor of neurology and ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School, is also a senior author of the paper, which appears in the April 22 issue of Nature Neuroscience. Former MIT postdoc Boaz Barak, currently a principal investigator at Tel Aviv University in Israel, is the lead author and a senior author of the paper.

Impaired myelination

Williams Syndrome, which is caused by the loss of one of the two copies of a segment of chromosome 7, can produce learning impairments, especially for tasks that require visual and motor skills, such as solving a jigsaw puzzle. Some people with the disorder also exhibit poor concentration and hyperactivity, and they are more likely to experience phobias.

In this study, the researchers decided to focus on one of the 25 genes in that segment, known as Gtf2i. Based on studies of patients with a smaller subset of the genes deleted, scientists have linked the Gtf2i gene to the hypersociability seen in Williams Syndrome.

Working with a mouse model, the researchers devised a way to knock out the gene specifically from excitatory neurons in the forebrain, which includes the cortex, the hippocampus, and the amygdala (a region important for processing emotions). They found that these mice did show increased levels of social behavior, measured by how much time they spent interacting with other mice. The mice also showed deficits in fine motor skills and increased nonsocial related anxiety, which are also symptoms of Williams Syndrome.

Next, the researchers sequenced the messenger RNA from the cortex of the mice to see which genes were affected by loss of Gtf2i. Gtf2i encodes a transcription factor, so it controls the expression of many other genes. The researchers found that about 70 percent of the genes with significantly reduced expression levels were involved in the process of myelination.

“Myelin is the insulation layer that wraps the axons that extend from the cell bodies of neurons,” Barak says. “When they don’t have the right properties, it will lead to faster or slower electrical signal transduction, which affects the synchronicity of brain activity.”

Further studies revealed that the mice had only about half the normal number of mature oligodendrocytes — the brain cells that produce myelin. However, the number of oligodendrocyte precursor cells was normal, so the researchers suspect that the maturation and differentiation processes of these cells are somehow impaired when Gtf2i is missing in the neurons.

This was surprising because Gtf2i was not knocked out in oligodendrocytes or their precursors. Thus, knocking out the gene in neurons may somehow influence the maturation process of oligodendrocytes, the researchers suggest. It is still unknown how this interaction might work.

“That’s a question we are interested in, but we don’t know whether it’s a secreted factor, or another kind of signal or activity,” Feng says.

In addition, the researchers found that the myelin surrounding axons of the forebrain was significantly thinner than in normal mice. Furthermore, electrical signals were smaller, and took more time to cross the brain in mice with Gtf2i missing.

The study is an example of pioneering research into the contribution of glial cells, which include oligodendrocytes, to neuropsychiatric disorders, says Doug Fields, chief of the nervous system development and plasticity section of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

“Traditionally myelin was only considered in the context of diseases that destroy myelin, such as multiple sclerosis, which prevents transmission of neural impulses. More recently it has become apparent that more subtle defects in myelin can impair neural circuit function, by causing delays in communication between neurons,” says Fields, who was not involved in the research.

Symptom reversal

It remains to be discovered precisely how this reduction in myelination leads to hypersociability. The researchers suspect that the lack of myelin affects brain circuits that normally inhibit social behaviors, making the mice more eager to interact with others.

“That’s probably the explanation, but exactly which circuits and how does it work, we still don’t know,” Feng says.

The researchers also found that they could reverse the symptoms by treating the mice with drugs that improve myelination. One of these drugs, an FDA-approved antihistamine called clemastine fumarate, is now in clinical trials to treat multiple sclerosis, which affects myelination of neurons in the brain and spinal cord. The researchers believe it would be worthwhile to test these drugs in Williams Syndrome patients because they found thinner myelin and reduced numbers of mature oligodendrocytes in brain samples from human subjects who had Williams Syndrome, compared to typical human brain samples.

“Mice are not humans, but the pathology is similar in this case, which means this could be translatable,” Feng says. “It could be that in these patients, if you improve their myelination early on, it could at least improve some of the conditions. That’s our hope.”

Such drugs would likely help mainly the social and fine-motor issues caused by Williams Syndrome, not the symptoms that are produced by deletion of other genes, the researchers say. They may also help treat other disorders, such as autism spectrum disorders, in which myelination is impaired in some cases, Feng says.

“We think this can be expanded into autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders. For these conditions, improved myelination may be a major factor in treatment,” he says. “We are now checking other animal models of neurodevelopmental disorders to see whether they have myelination defects, and whether improved myelination can improve some of the pathology of the defects.”

The research was funded by the Simons Foundation, the Poitras Center for Affective Disorders Research at MIT, the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and the Simons Center for the Social Brain at MIT.

Guoping Feng elected to American Academy of Arts and Sciences

Four MIT faculty members are among more than 200 leaders from academia, business, public affairs, the humanities, and the arts elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the academy announced today.

One of the nation’s most prestigious honorary societies, the academy is also a leading center for independent policy research. Members contribute to academy publications, as well as studies of science and technology policy, energy and global security, social policy and American institutions, the humanities and culture, and education.

Those elected from MIT this year are:

  • Dimitri A. Antoniadis, Ray and Maria Stata Professor of Electrical Engineering;
  • Anantha P. Chandrakasan, dean of the School of Engineering and the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science;
  • Guoping Feng, the James W. (1963) and Patricia T. Poitras Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences; and
  • David R. Karger, professor of electrical engineering.

“We are pleased to recognize the excellence of our new members, celebrate their compelling accomplishments, and invite them to join the academy and contribute to its work,” said David W. Oxtoby, president of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. “With the election of these members, the academy upholds the ideals of research and scholarship, creativity and imagination, intellectual exchange and civil discourse, and the relentless pursuit of knowledge in all its forms.”

The new class will be inducted at a ceremony in October in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Since its founding in 1780, the academy has elected leading “thinkers and doers” from each generation, including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin in the 18th century, Maria Mitchell and Daniel Webster in the 19th century, and Toni Morrison and Albert Einstein in the 20th century. The current membership includes more than 200 Nobel laureates and 100 Pulitzer Prize winners.

How do neurons communicate (so quickly)?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Former McGovern postdoc, Boaz Barak. Photo: Justin Knight

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

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

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Guoping Feng

Listening to Synapses

Guoping Feng studies the development and function of synapses – the interconnections between neurons – and their disruption in brain disorders. He uses molecular genetics combined with behavioral and electrophysiological methods to study the molecular components of the synapse and to understand how disruptions in these components can lead to neurodevelopmental and psychiatric disease. By understanding the molecular, cellular, and circuit changes underlying brain disorders, the Feng lab hopes one day to help develop new and effective treatments for brain disorders.

Virtual Tour of Feng Lab


Plugging into the brain

Driven by curiosity and therapeutic goals, Anikeeva leaves no scientific stone unturned in her drive to invent neurotechnology.

The audience sits utterly riveted as Polina Anikeeva highlights the gaps she sees in the landscape of neural tools. With a background in optoelectronics, she has a decidedly unique take on the brain.

“In neuroscience,” says Anikeeva, “we are currently applying silicon-based neural probes with the elastic properties of a knife to a delicate material with the consistency of chocolate pudding—the brain.”

A key problem, summarized by Anikeeva, is that these sharp probes damage tissue, making such interfaces unreliable and thwarting long term brain studies of processes including development and aging. The state of the art is even grimmer in the clinic. An avid climber, Anikeeva recalls a friend sustaining a spinal cord injury. “She made a remarkable recovery,” explains Anikeeva, “but seeing the technology being used to help her was shocking. Not even the simplest electronic tools were used, it was basically lots of screws and physical therapy.” This crude approach, compared to the elegant optoelectronic tools familiar to Anikeeva, sparked a drive to bring advanced materials technology to biological systems.

Outside the box

As the group breaks up after the seminar, the chatter includes boxes, more precisely, thinking outside of them. An associate professor in material sciences and engineering at MIT, Anikeeva’s interest in neuroscience recently led to a McGovern Institute appointment. She sees her journey to neurobiology as serendipitous, having earned her doctorate designing light-emitting devices at MIT.

“I wanted to work on tools that don’t exist, and neuroscience seemed like an obvious choice. Neurons communicate in part through membrane voltage changes and as an electronics designer, I felt that I should be able to use voltage.”

Comfort at the intersection of sciences requires, according to Anikeeva, clarity and focus, also important in her chief athletic pursuits, running and climbing. Through long distant running, Anikeeva finds solitary time (“assuming that no one can chase me”) and the clarity to consider complicated technical questions. Climbing hones something different, absolute focus in the face of the often-tangled information that comes with working at scientific intersections.

“When climbing, you can only think about one thing, your next move. Only the most important thoughts float up.”

This became particularly important when, in Yosemite National Park, she made the decision to go up, instead of down, during an impending thunderstorm. Getting out depended on clear focus, despite imminent hypothermia and being exposed “on one of the tallest features in the area, holding large quantities of metal.” Polina and her climbing partner made it out, but her summary of events echoes her research philosophy: “What you learn and develop is a strong mindset where you don’t do the comfortable thing, the easy thing. Instead you always find, and execute, the most logical strategy.”

In this vein, Anikeeva’s research pursues two very novel, but exceptionally logical, paths to brain research and therapeutics: fiber development and magnetic nanomaterials.

Drawing new fibers

Walking into Anikeeva’s lab, the eye is immediately drawn to a robust metal frame containing, upon closer scrutiny, recognizable parts: a large drill bit, a motor, a heating element. This custom-built machine applies principles from telecommunications to draw multifunctional fibers using more “brain-friendly” materials.

“We start out with a macroscopic model, a preform, of the device that we ultimately want,” explains Anikeeva.

This “preform” is a transparent block of polymers, composites, and soft low-melting temperature metals with optical and electrical properties needed in the final fiber. “So, this could include
electrodes for recording, optical channels for optogenetics, microfluidics for drug delivery, and one day even components that allow chemical or mechanical sensing.” After sitting in a vacuum to remove gases and impurities, the two-inch by one-inch preform arrives at the fiber-drawing tower.

“Then we heat it and pull it, and the macroscopic model becomes a kilometer-long fiber with a lateral dimension of microns, even nanometers,” explains Anikeeva. “Take one of your hairs, and imagine that inside there are electrodes for recording, there are microfluidic channels to infuse drugs, optical channels for stimulation. All of this is combined in a single miniature form
factor, and it can be quite flexible and even stretchable.”

Construction crew

Anikeeva’s lab comprises an eclectic mix of 21 researchers from over 13 different countries, and a range of expertises, including materials science, chemistry, electrical and mechanical engineering, and neuroscience. In 2011, Andres Canales, a materials scientist from Mexico, was the second person to join Anikeeva’s lab.

“There was only an idea, a diagram,” explains Canales. “I didn’t want to work on biology when I arrived at MIT, but talking to Polina, seeing the pictures, thinking about what it would entail, I became very excited by the methods and the potential applications she was thinking of.”

Despite the lack of preliminary models, Anikeeva’s ideas were compelling. Elegant as the fibers are, the road involved painstaking, iterative refinement. From a materials perspective, drawing a fiber containing a continuous conductive element was challenging, as was validation of its properties. But the resulting fiber can deliver optogenetics vectors, monitor expression, and then stimulate neuronal activity in a single surgery, removing the spatial and temporal guesswork usually involved in such an experiment.

Seongjun Park, an electrical engineering graduate student in the lab, explains one biological challenge. “For long term recording in the spinal cord, there was even an additional challenge as the fiber needed to be stretchable to respond to the spine’s movement. For this we developed a drawing process compatible with an elastomer.”

The resulting fibers can be deployed chronically without the scar tissue accumulation that usually prevents long-term optical manipulation and drug delivery, making them good candidates for the treatment of brain disorders. The lab’s current papers find that these implanted fibers are useful for three months, and material innovations make them confident that longer time periods are possible.

Magnetic moments

Another wing of Anikeeva’s research aims to develop entirely non-invasive modalities, and use magnetic nanoparticles to stimulate the brain and deliver therapeutics.

“Magnetic fields are probably the best modality for getting any kind of stimulus to deep tissues,” explains Anikeeva, “because biological systems, except for very specialized systems, do not perceive magnetic fields. They go through us unattenuated, and they don’t couple to our physiology.”

In other words, magnetic fields can safely reach deep tissues, including the brain. Upon reaching their tissue targets these fields can be used to stimulate magnetic nanoparticles, which might one day, for example, be used to deliver dopamine to the brains of Parkinson’s disease patients. The alternating magnetic fields being used in these experiments are tiny, 100-1000 times smaller than fields clinically approved for MRI-based brain imaging.

Tiny fields, but they can be used to powerful effect. By manipulating magnetic moments in these nanoparticles, the magnetic field can cause heat dissipation by the particle that can stimulate thermal receptors in the nervous system. These receptors naturally detect heat, chili peppers and vanilla, but Anikeeva’s magnetic nanoparticles act as tiny heaters that activate these receptors, and, in turn, local neurons. This principle has already been used to activate the brain’s reward center in freely moving mice.

Siyuan Rao, a postdoc who works on the magnetic nanoparticles in collaboration with McGovern Investigator Guoping Feng, is unhesitating when asked what most inspires her.

“As a materials scientist, it is really rewarding to see my materials at work. We can remotely modulate mouse behavior, even turn hopeless behavior into motivation.”

Pushing the boundaries

Such collaborations are valued by Anikeeva. Early on she worked with McGovern Investigator Emilio Bizzi to use the above fiber technology in the spinal cord. “It is important to us to not just make these devices,” explains Anikeeva, “but to use them and show ourselves, and our colleagues, the types of experiments that they can enable.”

Far from an assembly line, the researchers in Anikeeva’s lab follow projects from ideation to deployment. “The student that designs a fiber, performs their own behavioral experiments, and data analysis,” says Anikeeva. “Biology is unforgiving. You can trivially design the most brilliant electrophysiological recording probe, but unless you are directly working in the system, it is easy to miss important design considerations.”

Inspired by this, Anikeeva’s students even started a project with Gloria Choi’s group on their own initiative. This collaborative, can-do ethos spreads beyond the walls of the lab, inspiring people around MIT.

“We often work with a teaching instructor, David Bono, who is an expert on electronics and magnetic instruments,” explains Alex Senko, a senior graduate student in the lab. “In his spare time, he helps those of us who work on electrical engineering flavored projects to hunt down components needed to build our devices.”

These components extend to whatever is needed. When a low frequency source was needed, the Anikeeva lab drafted a guitar amplifier.

Queried about difficulties that she faces having chosen to navigate such a broad swath of fields, Anikeeva is focused, as ever, on the unknown, the boundaries of knowledge.

“Honestly, I really, really enjoy it. It keeps me engaged and not bored. Even when thinking about complicated physics and chemistry, I always have eyes on the prize, that this will allow us to address really interesting neuroscience questions.”

With such thinking, and by relentlessly seeking the tools needed to accomplish scientific goals, Anikeeva and her lab continue to avoid the comfortable route, instead using logical routes toward new technologies.

What is CRISPR?

CRISPR (which stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is not actually a single entity, but shorthand for a set of bacterial systems that are found with a hallmarked arrangement in the bacterial genome.

When CRISPR is mentioned, most people are likely thinking of CRISPR-Cas9, now widely known for its capacity to be re-deployed to target sequences of interest in eukaryotic cells, including human cells. Cas9 can be programmed to target specific stretches of DNA, but other enzymes have since been discovered that are able to edit DNA, including Cpf1 and Cas12b. Other CRISPR enzymes, Cas13 family members, can be programmed to target RNA and even edit and change its sequence.

The common theme that makes CRISPR enzymes so powerful, is that scientists can supply them with a guide RNA for a chosen sequence. Since the guide RNA can pair very specifically with DNA, or for Cas13 family members, RNA, researchers can basically provide a given CRISPR enzyme with a way of homing in on any sequence of interest. Once a CRISPR protein finds its target, it can be used to edit that sequence, perhaps removing a disease-associated mutation.

In addition, CRISPR proteins have been engineered to modulate gene expression and even signal the presence of particular sequences, as in the case of the Cas13-based diagnostic, SHERLOCK.

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Is it worth the risk?

During the Klondike Gold Rush, thousands of prospectors climbed Alaska’s dangerous Chilkoot Pass in search of riches. McGovern scientists are exploring how a once-overlooked part of the brain might be at the root of cost-benefit decisions like these. McGovern researchers are studying how the brain balances risk and reward to make decisions.

Is it worth speeding up on the highway to save a few minutes’ time? How about accepting a job that pays more, but requires longer hours in the office?

Scientists call these types of real-life situations cost-benefit conflicts. Choosing well is an essential survival ability—consider the animal that must decide when to expose itself to predation to gather more food.

Now, McGovern researchers are discovering that this fundamental capacity to make decisions may originate in the basal ganglia—a brain region once considered unimportant to the human
experience—and that circuits associated with this structure may play a critical role in determining our state of mind.

Anatomy of decision-making

A few years back, McGovern investigator Ann Graybiel noticed that in the brain imaging literature, a specific part of the cortex called the pregenual anterior cingulate cortex or pACC, was implicated in certain psychiatric disorders as well as tasks involving cost-benefit decisions. Thanks to her now classic neuroanatomical work defining the complex anatomy and function of the basal ganglia, Graybiel knew that the pACC projected back into the basal ganglia—including its largest cluster of neurons, the striatum.

The striatum sits beneath the cortex, with a mouse-like main body and curving tail. It seems to serve as a critical way-station, communicating with both the brain’s sensory and motor areas above, and the limbic system (linked to emotion and memory) below. Running through the striatum are striosomes, column-like neurochemical compartments. They wire down to a small, but important part of the brain called the substantia nigra, which houses the huge majority of the brain’s dopamine neurons—a key neurochemical heavily involved, much like the basal ganglia as a whole, in reward, learning, and movement. The pACC region related to mood control targeted these striosomes, setting up a communication line from the neocortex to the dopamine neurons.

Graybiel discovered these striosomes early in her career, and understood them to have distinct wiring from other compartments in the striatum, but picking out these small, hard-to-find striosomes posed a technological challenge—so it was exciting to have this intriguing link to the pACC and mood disorders.

Working with Ken-ichi Amemori, then a research scientist in her lab, she adapted a common human cost-benefit conflict test for macaque monkeys. The monkeys could elect to receive a food treat, but the treat would always be accompanied by an annoying puff of air to the eyes. Before they decided, a visual cue told them exactly how much treat they could get, and exactly how strong the air puff would be, so they could choose if the treat was worth it.

Normal monkeys varied their choices in a fairly rational manner, rejecting the treat whenever it seemed like the air puff was too strong, or the treat too small to be worth it—and this corresponded with activity in the pACC neurons. Interestingly, they found that some pACC neurons respond more when animals approach the combined offers, while other pACC neurons
fire more when the animals avoid the offers. “It is as though there are two opposing armies. And the one that wins, controls the state of the animal.” Moreover, when Graybiel’s team electrically stimulated these pACC neurons, the animals begin to avoid the offers, even offers that they normally would approach. “It is as though when the stimulation is on, they think the future is worse than it really is,” Graybiel says.

Intriguingly, this effect only worked in situations where the animal had to weigh the value of a cost against a benefit. It had no effect on a decision between two negatives or two positives, like two different sizes of treats. The anxiety drug diazepam also reversed the stimulatory effect, but again, only on cost-benefit choices. “This particular kind of mood-influenced cost-benefit
decision-making occurs not only under conflict conditions but in our regular day to day lives. For example: I know that if I eat too much chocolate, I might get fat, but I love it, I want it.”

Glass half empty

Over the next few years, Graybiel, with another research scientist in her lab, Alexander Friedman, unraveled the circuit behind the macaques’ choices. They adapted the test for rats and mice,
so that they could more easily combine the cellular and molecular technologies needed to study striosomes, such as optogenetics and mouse engineering.

They found that the cortex (specifically, the pre-limbic region of the prefrontal cortex in rodents) wires onto both striosomes and fast-acting interneurons that also target the striosomes. In a
healthy circuit, these interneurons keep the striosomes in check by firing off fast inhibitory signals, hitting the brakes before the striosome can get started. But if the researchers broke that corticalstriatal connection with optogenetics or chronic stress, the animals became reckless, going for the high-risk, high-reward arm of the maze like a gambler throwing caution to the wind. If they amplified this inhibitory interneuron activity, they saw the opposite effect. With these techniques, they could block the effects of prior chronic stress.

This summer, Graybiel and Amemori published another paper furthering the story and returning to macaques. It was still too difficult to hit striosomes, and the researchers could only stimulate the striatum more generally. However, they replicated the effects in past studies.

Many electrodes had no effect, a small number made the monkeys choose the reward more often. Nearly a quarter though made the monkeys more avoidant—and this effect correlated with a change in the macaques’ brainwaves in a manner reminiscent of patients with depression.

But the surprise came when the avoidant-producing stimulation was turned off, the effects lasted unexpectedly long, only returning to normal on the third day.

Graybiel was stunned. “This is very important, because changes in the brain can get set off and have a life of their own,” she says. “This is true for some individuals who have had a terrible experience, and then live with the aftermath, even to the point of suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.”

She suspects that this persistent state may actually be a form of affect, or mood. “When we change this decision boundary, we’re changing the mood, such that the animal overestimates cost, relative to benefit,” she explains. “This might be like a proxy state for pessimistic decision-making experienced during anxiety and depression, but may also occur, in a milder form, in you and me.”

Graybiel theorizes that this may tie back into the dopamine neurons that the striosomes project to: if this avoidance behavior is akin to avoidance observed in rodents, then they are stimulating a circuit that ultimately projects to dopamine neurons of the substantia nigra. There, she believes, they could act to suppress these dopamine neurons, which in turn project to the rest of the brain, creating some sort of long-term change in their neural activity. Or, put more simply, stimulation of these circuits creates a depressive funk.

Bottom up

Three floors below the Graybiel lab, postdoc Will Menegas is in the early stages of his own work untangling the role of dopamine and the striatum in decision-making. He joined Guoping Feng’s lab this summer after exploring the understudied “tail of the striatum” at Harvard University.

While dopamine pathways influence many parts of the brain, examination of connections to the striatum have largely focused on the frontmost part of the striatum, associated with valuations.

But as Menegas showed while at Harvard, dopamine neurons that project to the rear of the striatum are different. Those neurons get their input from parts of the brain associated with general arousal and sensation—and instead of responding to rewards, they respond to novelty and intense stimuli, like air puffs and loud noises.

In a new study published in Nature Neuroscience, Menegas used a neurotoxin to disrupt the dopamine projection from the substantia nigra to the posterior striatum to see how this circuit influences behavior. Normal mice approach novel items cautiously and back away after sniffing at them, but the mice in Menegas’ study failed to back away. They stopped avoiding a port that gave an air puff to the face and they didn’t behave like normal mice when Menegas dropped a strange or new object—say, a lego—into their cage. Disrupting the nigral-posterior striatum
seemed to turn off their avoidance habit.

“These neurons reinforce avoidance the same way that canonical dopamine neurons reinforce approach,” Menegas explains. It’s a new role for dopamine, suggesting that there may be two different and distinct systems of reinforcement, led by the same neuromodulator in different parts of the striatum.

This research, and Graybiel’s discoveries on cost-benefit decision circuits, share clear parallels, though the precise links between the two phenomena are yet to be fully determined. Menegas plans to extend this line of research into social behavior and related disorders like autism in marmoset monkeys.

“Will wants to learn the methods that we use in our lab to work on marmosets,” Graybiel says. “I think that working together, this could become a wonderful story, because it would involve social interactions.”

“This a very new angle, and it could really change our views of how the reward system works,” Feng says. “And we have very little understanding of social circuits so far and especially in higher organisms, so I think this would be very exciting. Whatever we learn, it’s going to be new.”

Human choices

Based on their preexisting work, Graybiel’s and Menegas’ projects are well-developed—but they are far from the only McGovern-based explorations into ways this brain region taps into our behaviors. Maiya Geddes, a visiting scientist in John Gabrieli’s lab, has recently published a paper exploring the little-known ways that aging affects the dopamine-based nigral-striatum-hippocampus learning and memory systems.

In Rebecca Saxe’s lab, postdoc Livia Tomova just kicked off a new pilot project using brain imaging to uncover dopamine-striatal circuitry behind social craving in humans and the urge to rejoin peers. “Could there be a craving response similar to hunger?” Tomova wonders. “No one has looked yet at the neural mechanisms of this.”

Graybiel also hopes to translate her findings into humans, beginning with collaborations at the Pizzagalli lab at McLean Hospital in Belmont. They are using fMRI to study whether patients
with anxiety and depression show some of the same dysfunctions in the cortico-striatal circuitry that she discovered in her macaques.

If she’s right about tapping into mood states and affect, it would be an expanded role for the striatum—and one with significant potential therapeutic benefits. “Affect state” colors many psychological functions and disorders, from memory and perception, to depression, chronic stress, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and PTSD.

For a region of the brain once dismissed as inconsequential, McGovern researchers have shown the basal ganglia to influence not only our choices but our state of mind—suggesting that this “primitive” brain region may actually be at the heart of the human experience.



A Google map of the brain

At the start of the twentieth century, Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s drawings of brain cells under the microscope revealed a remarkable diversity of cell types within the brain. Through sketch after sketch, Cajal showed that the brain was not, as many believed, a web of self-similar material, but rather that it is composed of billions of cells of many different sizes, shapes, and interconnections.

Yet more than a hundred years later, we still do not know how many cell types make up the human brain. Despite decades of study, the challenge remains daunting, as the brain’s complexity has overwhelmed attempts to describe it systematically or to catalog its parts.

Now, however, this appears about to change, thanks to an explosion of new technical advances in areas ranging from DNA sequencing to microfluidics to computing and microscopy. For the first time, a parts list for the human brain appears to be within reach.

Why is this important? “Until we know all the cell types, we won’t fully understand how they are connected together,” explains McGovern Investigator Guoping Feng. “We know that the brain’s wiring is incredibly complicated, and that the connections are key to understanding how it works, but we don’t yet have the full picture. That’s what we are aiming for. It’s like making a Google map of the brain.”

Identifying the cell types is also important for understanding disease. As genetic risk factors for different disorders are identified, researchers need to know where they act within the brain, and which cell types and connections are disrupted as a result. “Once we know that, we can start to think about new therapeutic approaches,” says Feng, who is also an institute member of the Broad Institute, where he leads the neurobiology program at the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Disorders Research.

Drop by drop

In 2012, computational biologist Naomi Habib arrived from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to join the labs of McGovern Investigator Feng Zhang and his collaborator Aviv Regev at the Broad Institute. Habib’s plan was to learn new RNA methods as they were emerging. “I wanted to use these powerful tools to understand this fascinating system that is our brain,” she says.

Her rationale was simple, at least in theory. All cells of an organism carry the same DNA instructions, but the instructions are read out differently in each cell type. Stretches of DNA corresponding to individual genes are copied, sometimes thousands of times, into RNA molecules that in turn direct the synthesis of proteins. Differences in which sequences get copied are what give cells their identities: brain cells express RNAs that encode brain proteins, while blood cells express different RNAs, and so on. A given cell can express thousands of genes, providing a molecular “fingerprint” for each cell type.

Analyzing these RNAs can provide a great deal of information about the brain, including potentially the identities of its constituent cell types. But doing this is not easy, because the different cell types are mixed together like salt and pepper within the brain. For many years, studying brain RNA meant grinding up the tissue—an approach that has been compared to studying smoothies to learn about fruit salad.

As methods improved, it became possible to study the tiny quantities of RNA contained within single cells. This opened the door to studying the difference between individual cells, but this required painstaking manipulation of many samples, a slow and laborious process.

A breakthrough came in 2015, with the development of automated methods based on microfluidics. One of these, known as dropseq (droplet-based sequencing), was pioneered by Steve McCarroll at Harvard, in collaboration with Regev’s lab at Broad. In this method, individual cells are captured in tiny water droplets suspended in oil. Vast numbers of droplets are automatically pumped through tiny channels, where each undergoes its own separate sequencing reactions. By running multiple samples in parallel, the machines can process tens of thousands of cells and billions of sequences, within hours rather than weeks or months. The power of the method became clear when in an experiment on mouse retina, the researchers were able to identify almost every cell type that had ever been described in the retina, effectively recapitulating decades of work in a single experiment.

Dropseq works well for many tissues, but Habib wanted to apply it to the adult brain, which posed a unique challenge. Mature neurons often bear elaborate branches that become intertwined like tree roots in a forest, making it impossible to separate individual cells without damage.

Nuclear option

So Habib turned to another idea. RNA is made in the nucleus before moving to the cytoplasm, and because nuclei are compact and robust it is easy to recover them intact in large numbers, even from difficult tissues such as brain. The amount of RNA contained in a single nucleus is tiny, and Habib didn’t know if it would be enough to be informative, but Zhang and Regev encouraged her to keep going. “You have to be optimistic,” she says. “You have to try.”

Fortunately, the experiment worked. In a paper with Zhang and Regev, she was able to isolate nuclei from newly formed neurons in the adult mouse hippocampus (a brain structure involved in memory), and by analyzing their RNA profiles individually she could order them in a series according to their age, revealing their developmental history from birth to maturity.

Now, after much further experimentation, Habib and her colleagues have managed to apply the droplet method to nuclei, making it possible for the first time to analyze huge numbers of cells from adult brain—at least ten times more than with previous methods.

This opens up many new avenues, including the study of human postmortem tissue, given that RNA in nuclei can survive for years in frozen samples. Habib is already starting to examine tissue taken at autopsy from patients with Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. “The neurons are degenerating, but the other cells around them could also be contributing to the degenerative process,” she says. “Now we have these tools, we can look at what happens during the progression of the disease.”

Computing cells

Once the sequencing is completed, the results are analyzed using sophisticated computational methods. When the results emerge, data from individual cells are visualized as colored dots, clustered on a graph according to their statistical similarities. But because the cells were dissociated at the start of the experiment, information about their appearance and origin within the brain is lost.

To find out how these abstract displays correspond to the visible cells of the brain, Habib teamed up with Yinqing Li, a former graduate student with Zhang who is now a postdoc in the lab of Guoping Feng. Li began with existing maps from the Allen Institute, a public repository with thousands of images showing expression patterns for individual genes within mouse brain. By comparing these maps with the molecular fingerprints from Habib’s nuclear RNA sequencing experiments, Li was able to make a map of where in the brain each cell was likely to have come from.

It was a good first step, but still not perfect. “What we really need,” he says, “is a method that allows us to see every RNA in individual cells. If we are studying a brain disease, we want to know which neurons are involved in the disease process, where they are, what they are connected to, and which special genes might be involved so that we can start thinking about how to design a drug that could alter the disease.”

Expanding horizons

So Li partnered with Asmamaw (Oz) Wassie, a graduate student in the lab of McGovern Investigator Ed Boyden, to tackle the problem. Wassie had previously studied bioengineering as an MIT undergraduate, where he had helped build an electronic “artificial nose” for detecting trace chemicals in air. With support from a prestigious Hertz Fellowship, he joined Boyden’s lab, where he is now working on the development of a method known as expansion microscopy.

In this method, a sample of tissue is embedded with a polymer that swells when water is added. The entire sample expands in all directions, allowing scientists to see fine details such as connections between neurons, using an ordinary microscope. Wassie recently helped develop a way to anchor RNA molecules to the polymer matrix, allowing them to be physically secured during the expansion process. Now, within the expanded samples he can see the individual molecules using a method called fluorescent in situ hybridization (FISH), in which each RNA appears as a glowing dot under the microscope. Currently, he can label only a handful of RNA types at once, but by using special sets of probes, applied sequentially, he thinks it will soon be possible to distinguish thousands of different RNA sequences.

“That will help us to see what each cell looks like, how they are connected to each other, and what RNAs they contain,” says Wassie. By combining this information with the RNA expression data generated by Li and Habib, it will be possible to reveal the organization and fine structure of complex brain areas and perhaps to identify new cell types that have not yet been recognized.

Looking ahead

Li plans to apply these methods to a brain structure known as the thalamic reticular nucleus (TRN) – a sheet of tissue, about ten neurons thick in mice, that sits on top of the thalamus and close to the cortex. The TRN is not well understood, but it is important for controlling sleep, attention and sensory processing, and it has caught the interest of Feng and other neuroscientists because it expresses a disproportionate number of genes implicated in disorders such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and intelligence deficits. Together with Joshua Levin’s group at Broad, Li has already used nuclear RNA sequencing to identify the cell types in the TRN, and he has begun to examine them within intact brain using the expansion techniques. “When you map these precise cell types back to the tissue, you can integrate the gene expression information with everything else, like electrophysiology, connectivity, morphology,” says Li. “Then we can start to ask what’s going wrong in disease.”

Meanwhile, Feng is already looking beyond the TRN, and planning how to scale the approach to other structures and eventually to the entire brain. He returns to the metaphor of a Google map. “Microscopic images are like satellite photos,” he says. “Now with expansion microscopy we can add another layer of information, like property boundaries and individual buildings. And knowing which RNAs are in each cell will be like seeing who lives in those buildings. I think this will completely change how we view the brain.”

A new player in appetite control

MIT neuroscientists have discovered that brain cells called glial cells play a critical role in controlling appetite and feeding behavior. In a study of mice, the researchers found that activating these cells stimulates overeating, and that when the cells are suppressed, appetite is also suppressed.

The findings could offer scientists a new target for developing drugs against obesity and other appetite-related disorders, the researchers say. The study is also the latest in recent years to implicate glial cells in important brain functions. Until about 10 years ago, glial cells were believed to play more of a supporting role for neurons.

“In the last few years, abnormal glial cell activities have been strongly implicated in neurodegenerative disorders. There is more and more evidence to point to the importance of glial cells in modulating neuronal function and in mediating brain disorders,” says Guoping Feng, the James W. and Patricia Poitras Professor of Neuroscience. Feng is also a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research and the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute.

Feng is one of the senior authors of the study, which appears in the Oct. 18 edition of the journal eLife. The other senior author is Weiping Han, head of the Laboratory of Metabolic Medicine at the Singapore Bioimaging Consortium in Singapore. Naiyan Chen, a postdoc at the Singapore Bioimaging Consortium and the McGovern Institute, is the lead author.

Turning on appetite

It has long been known that the hypothalamus, an almond-sized structure located deep within the brain, controls appetite as well as energy expenditure, body temperature, and circadian rhythms including sleep cycles. While performing studies on glial cells in other parts of the brain, Chen noticed that the hypothalamus also appeared to have a lot of glial cell activity.

“I was very curious at that point what glial cells would be doing in the hypothalamus, since glial cells have been shown in other brain areas to have an influence on regulation of neuronal function,” she says.

Within the hypothalamus, scientists have identified two key groups of neurons that regulate appetite, known as AgRP neurons and POMC neurons. AgRP neurons stimulate feeding, while POMC neurons suppress appetite.

Until recently it has been difficult to study the role of glial cells in controlling appetite or any other brain function, because scientists haven’t developed many techniques for silencing or stimulating these cells, as they have for neurons. Glial cells, which make up about half of the cells in the brain, have many supporting roles, including cushioning neurons and helping them form connections with one another.

In this study, the research team used a new technique developed at the University of North Carolina to study a type of glial cell known as an astrocyte. Using this strategy, researchers can engineer specific cells to produce a surface receptor that binds to a chemical compound known as CNO, a derivative of clozapine. Then, when CNO is given, it activates the glial cells.

The MIT team found that turning on astrocyte activity with just a single dose of CNO had a significant effect on feeding behavior.

“When we gave the compound that specifically activated the receptors, we saw a robust increase in feeding,” Chen says. “Mice are not known to eat very much in the daytime, but when we gave drugs to these animals that express a particular receptor, they were eating a lot.”

The researchers also found that in the short term (three days), the mice did not gain extra weight, even though they were eating more.

“This raises the possibility that glial cells may also be modulating neurons that control energy expenditures, to compensate for the increased food intake,” Chen says. “They might have multiple neuronal partners and modulate multiple energy homeostasis functions all at the same time.”

When the researchers silenced activity in the astrocytes, they found that the mice ate less than normal.

Suzanne Dickson, a professor of neuroendocrinology at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden described the study as part of a “paradigm shift” toward the idea that glial cells have a less passive role than previously believed.

“We tend to think of glial cells as providing a support network for neuronal processes and that their activation is also important in certain forms of brain trauma or inflammation,” says Dickson, who was not involved in the research. “This study adds to the emerging evidence base that glial cells may also exert specific effects to control nerve cell function in normal physiology.”

Unknown interactions

Still unknown is how the astrocytes exert their effects on neurons. Some recent studies have suggested that glial cells can secrete chemical messengers such as glutamate and ATP; if so, these “gliotransmitters” could influence neuron activity.

Another hypothesis is that instead of secreting chemicals, astrocytes exert their effects by controlling the uptake of neurotransmitters from the space surrounding neurons, thereby affecting neuron activity indirectly.

Feng now plans to develop new research tools that could help scientists learn more about astrocyte-neuron interactions and how astrocytes contribute to modulation of appetite and feeding. He also hopes to learn more about whether there are different types of astrocytes that may contribute differently to feeding behavior, especially abnormal behavior.

“We really know very little about how astrocytes contribute to the modulation of appetite, eating, and metabolism,” he says. “In the future, dissecting out these functional difference will be critical for our understanding of these disorders.”

Finding a way in

Our perception of the world arises within the brain, based on sensory information that is sometimes ambiguous, allowing more than one interpretation. Familiar demonstrations of this point include the famous Necker cube and the “duck-rabbit” drawing (right) in which two different interpretations flip back and forth over time.

Another example is binocular rivalry, in which the two eyes are presented with different images that are perceived in alternation. Several years ago, this phenomenon caught the eye of Caroline Robertson, who is now a Harvard Fellow working in the lab of McGovern Investigator Nancy Kanwisher. Back when she was a graduate student at Cambridge University, Robertson realized that binocular rivalry might be used to probe the basis of autism, among the most mysterious of all brain disorders.

Robertson’s idea was based on the hypothesis that autism involves an imbalance between excitation and inhibition within the brain. Although widely supported by indirect evidence, this has been very difficult to test directly in human patients. Robertson realized that binocular rivalry might provide a way to perform such a test. The perceptual switches that occur during rivalry are thought to involve competition between different groups of neurons in the visual cortex, each group reinforcing its own interpretation via excitatory connections while suppressing the alternative interpretation through inhibitory connections. Thus, if the balance is altered in the brains of people with autism, the frequency of switching might also be different, providing a simple and easily measurable marker of the disease state.

To test this idea, Robertson recruited adults with and without autism, and presented them with two distinct and differently colored images in each eye. As expected, their perceptions switched back and forth between the two images, with short periods of mixed perception in between. This was true for both groups, but when she measured the timing of these switches, Robertson found that individuals with autism do indeed see the world in a measurably different way than people without the disorder. Individuals with autism cycle between the left and right images more slowly, with the intervening periods of mixed perception lasting longer than in people without autism. The more severe their autistic symptoms, as determined by a standard clinical behavioral evaluation, the greater the difference.

Robertson had found a marker for autism that is more objective than current methods that involve one person assessing the behavior of another. The measure is immediate and relies on brain activity that happens automatically, without people thinking about it. “Sensation is a very simple place to probe,” she says.

A top-down approach

When she arrived in Kanwisher’s lab, Robertson wanted to use brain imaging to probe the basis for the perceptual phenomenon that she had discovered. With Kanwisher’s encouragement, she began by repeating the behavioral experiment with a new group of subjects, to check that her previous results were not a fluke. Having confirmed that the finding was real, she then scanned the subjects using an imaging method called Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy (MRS), in which an MRI scanner is reprogrammed to measure concentrations of neurotransmitters and other chemicals in the brain. Kanwisher had never used MRS before, but when Robertson proposed the experiment, she was happy to try it. “Nancy’s the kind of mentor who could support the idea of using a new technique and guide me to approach it rigorously,” says Robertson.

For each of her subjects, Robertson scanned their brains to measure the amounts of two key neurotransmitters, glutamate, which is the main excitatory transmitter in the brain, and GABA, which is the main source of inhibition. When she compared the brain chemistry to the behavioral results in the binocular rivalry task, she saw something intriguing and unexpected. In people without autism, the amount of GABA in the visual cortex was correlated with the strength of the suppression, consistent with the idea that GABA enables signals from one eye to inhibit those from the other eye. But surprisingly, there was no such correlation in the autistic individuals—suggesting that GABA was somehow unable to exert its normal suppressive effect. It isn’t yet clear exactly what is going wrong in the brains of these subjects, but it’s an early flag, says Robertson. “The next step is figuring out which part of the pathway is disrupted.”

A bottom-up approach

Robertson’s approach starts from the top-down, working backward from a measurable behavior to look for brain differences, but it isn’t the only way in. Another approach is to start with genes that are linked to autism in humans, and to understand how they affect neurons and brain circuits. This is the bottom-up approach of McGovern Investigator Guoping Feng, who studies a gene called Shank3 that codes for a protein that helps build synapses, the connections through which neurons send signals to each other. Several years ago Feng knocked out Shank3 in mice, and found that the mice exhibited behaviors reminiscent of human autism, including repetitive grooming, anxiety, and impaired social interaction and motor control.

These earlier studies involved a variety of different mutations that disabled the Shank3 gene. But when postdoc Yang Zhou joined Feng’s lab, he brought a new perspective. Zhou had come from a medical background and wanted to do an experiment more directly connected to human disease. So he suggested making a mouse version of a Shank3 mutation seen in human patients, and testing its effects.

Zhou’s experiment would require precise editing of the mouse Shank3 gene, previously a difficult and time-consuming task. But help was at hand, in the form of a collaboration with McGovern Investigator Feng Zhang, a pioneer in the development of genome-editing methods.

Using Zhang’s techniques, Zhou was able to generate mice with two different mutations: one that had been linked to human autism, and another that had been discovered in a few patients with schizophrenia.

The researchers found that mice with the autism-related mutation exhibited behavioral changes at a young age that paralleled behaviors seen in children with autism. They also found early changes in synapses within a brain region called the striatum. In contrast, mice with the schizophrenia-related gene appeared normal until adolescence, and then began to exhibit changes in behavior and also changes in the prefrontal cortex, a brain region that is implicated in human schizophrenia. “The consequences of the two different Shank3 mutations were quite different in certain aspects, which was very surprising to us,” says Zhou.

The fact that different mutations in just one gene can produce such different results illustrates exactly how complex these neuropsychiatric disorders can be. “Not only do we need to study different genes, but we also have to understand different mutations and which brain regions have what defects,” says Feng, who received funding from the Poitras Center for Affective Disorders research and the Simons Center for the Social Brain. Robertson and Kanwisher were also supported by the Simons Center.

Surprising plasticity

The brain alterations that lead to autism are thought to arise early in development, long before the condition is diagnosed, raising concerns that it may be difficult to reverse the effects once the damage is done. With the Shank3 knockout mice, Feng and his team were able to approach this question in a new way, asking what would happen if the missing gene were to be restored in adulthood.

To find the answer, lab members Yuan Mei and Patricia Monteiro, along with Zhou, studied another strain of mice, in which the Shank3 gene was switched off but could be reactivated at any time by adding a drug to their diet. When adult mice were tested six weeks after the gene was switched back on, they no longer showed repetitive grooming behaviors, and they also showed normal levels of social interaction with other mice, despite having grown up without a functioning Shank3 gene. Examination of their brains confirmed that many of the synaptic alterations were also rescued when the gene was restored.

Not every symptom was reversed by this treatment; even after six weeks or more of restored Shank3 expression, the mice continued to show heightened anxiety and impaired motor control. But even these deficits could be prevented if the Shank3 gene was restored earlier in life, soon after birth.

The results are encouraging because they indicate a surprising degree of brain plasticity, persisting into adulthood. If the results can be extrapolated to human patients, they suggest that even in adulthood, autism may be at least partially reversible if the right treatment can be found. “This shows us the possibility,” says Zhou. “If we could somehow put back the gene in patients who are missing it, it could help improve their life quality.”

Converging paths

Robertson and Feng are approaching the challenge of autism from different starting points, but already there are signs of convergence. Feng is finding early signs that his Shank3 mutant mice may have an altered balance of inhibitory and excitatory circuits, consistent with what Robertson and Kanwisher have found in humans.

Feng is continuing to study these mice, and he also hopes to study the effects of a similar mutation in non-human primates, whose brains and behaviors are more similar to those of humans than rodents. Robertson, meanwhile, is planning to establish a version of the binocular rivalry test in animal models, where it is possible to alter the balance between inhibition and excitation experimentally (for example, via a genetic mutation or a drug treatment). If this leads to changes in binocular rivalry, it would strongly support the link to the perceptual changes seen in humans.

One challenge, says Robertson, will be to develop new methods to measure the perceptions of mice and other animals. “The mice can’t tell us what they are seeing,” she says. “But it would also be useful in humans, because it would allow us to study young children and patients who are non-verbal.”

A multi-pronged approach

The imbalance hypothesis is a promising lead, but no single explanation is likely to encompass all of autism, according to McGovern director Bob Desimone. “Autism is a notoriously heterogeneous condition,” he explains. “We need to try multiple approaches in order to maximize the chance of success.”

McGovern researchers are doing exactly that, with projects underway that range from scanning children to developing new molecular and microscopic methods for examining brain changes in animal disease models. Although genetic studies provide some of the strongest clues, Desimone notes that there is also evidence for environmental contributions to autism and other brain disorders. “One that’s especially interesting to us is a maternal infection and inflammation, which in mice at least can affect brain development in ways we’re only beginning to understand.”

The ultimate goal, says Desimone, is to connect the dots and to understand how these diverse human risk factors affect brain function. “Ultimately, we want to know what these different pathways have in common,” he says. “Then we can come up with rational strategies for the development of new treatments.”