CRISPR: From toolkit to therapy

Think of the human body as a community of cells with specialized roles. Each cell carries the same blueprint, an array of genes comprising the genome, but different cell types have unique functions — immune cells fight invading bacteria, while neurons transmit information.

But when something goes awry, the specialization of these cells becomes a challenge for treatment. For example, neurons lack active cell repair systems required for promising gene editing techniques like CRISPR.

Can current gene editing tools be modified to work in neurons? Can we reach neurons without impacting healthy cells nearby? McGovern Institute researchers are trying to answer these questions by developing gene editing tools and delivery systems that can target — and repair — faulty brain cells.

Expanding the toolkit

Feng Zhang with folded arms in lab
McGovern Investigator Feng Zhang in his lab.

Natural CRISPR systems help bacteria fend off would-be attackers. Our first glimpse of the impact of such systems was the use of CRISPR-Cas9 to edit human cells.

“Harnessing Cas9 was a major game-changer in the life sciences,” explains Feng Zhang, an investigator at the McGovern Institute and the James and Patricia Poitras Professor of Neuroscience at MIT. “But Cas9 is just one flavor of one kind of bacterial defense system — there is a treasure trove of natural systems that may have enormous potential, just waiting to be unlocked.”

By finding and optimizing new molecular tools, the Zhang lab and others have developed CRISPR tools that can now potentially target neurons and fix diverse mutation types, bringing gene therapy within reach.

Precise in space and time

A single letter change to a gene can be devastating. These genes may function only briefly during development, so a temporary “fix” during this window could be beneficial. For such cases, the Zhang lab and others have engineered tools that target short-lived RNAs. These molecules act as messengers, carrying information from DNA to be converted into functional factors in the cell.

“RNA editing is powerful from an ethical and safety standpoint,” explains Soumya Kannan, a graduate student in the Zhang lab working on these tools. “By targeting RNA molecules, which are only present for a short time, we can avoid permanent changes to the genetic material, and we can make these changes in any type of cell.”

Soumya Kannan in the lab
Graduate student Soumya Kannan is developing smaller CRISPR tools that can be more easily packaged into viral vectors for delivery. Photo: Caitlin Cunningham

Zhang’s team has developed twin RNA-editing tools, REPAIR and RESCUE, which can fix single RNA bases by bringing together a base editor with the CRISPR protein Cas13. These RNA-editing tools can be used in neurons because they do not rely on cellular machinery to make the targeted changes. They also have the potential to tackle a wide array of diseases in other tissue types.

CAST addition

If a gene is severely disrupted, more radical help may be needed: insertion of a normal gene. For this situation, Zhang’s lab recently identified CRISPR-associated transposases (CASTs) from cyanobacteria. CASTs combine Cas12k, which is targeted by a guide RNA to a precise genome location, with an enzyme that can insert gene-sized pieces of DNA.

“With traditional CRISPR you can make simple changes, similar to changing a few letters or words in a Word document. The new system can ‘copy and paste’ entire genes.” – Alim Ladha

Transposases were originally identified as enzymes that help rogue genes “jump” from one place to another in the genome. CAST uses a similar activity to insert entire genes self-sufficiently without help from the target cell so, like REPAIR and RESCUE, it can potentially be used in neurons.

“Our initial work was to fully characterize how this new system works, and test whether it can actually insert genes,” explains Alim Ladha, a graduate fellow in the Tan-Yang Center for Autism Research, who worked on CAST with Jonathan Strecker, a postdoctoral fellow in the Zhang lab.

The goal is now to use CAST to precisely target neurons and other specific cell types affected by disease.

Toward delivery

As the gene-editing toolbox expands, McGovern labs are working on precise delivery systems.Adeno-associated virus (AAV) is an FDA-approved virus for delivering genes, but has limited room to carry the necessary cargo — CRISPR machinery plus templates — to fix genes.

To tackle this problem, McGovern Investigators Guoping Feng and Feng Zhang are working on reducing the cargo needed for therapy. In addition, the Zhang, Gootenberg and Abudayyeh labs are working on methods to precisely deliver the therapeutic packages to neurons, such as new tissue-specific viruses that can carry bigger payloads. Finally, entirely new modalities for delivery are being explored in the effort to develop gene therapy to a point where it can be safely delivered to patients.

“Cas9 has been a very useful tool for the life sciences,” says Zhang. “And it’ll be exciting to see continued progress with the broadening toolkit and delivery systems, as we make further progress toward safe gene therapies.

Brain region linked to altered social interactions in autism model

Although psychiatric disorders can be linked to particular genes, the brain regions and mechanisms underlying particular disorders are not well-understood. Mutations or deletions of the SHANK3 gene are strongly associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and a related rare disorder called Phelan-McDermid syndrome. Mice with SHANK3 mutations also display some of the traits associated with autism, including avoidance of social interactions, but the brain regions responsible for this behavior have not been identified.

A new study by neuroscientists at MIT and colleagues in China provides clues to the neural circuits underlying social deficits associated with ASD. The paper, published in Nature Neuroscience, found that structural and functional impairments in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) of SHANK3 mutant mice are linked to altered social interactions.

“Neurobiological mechanisms of social deficits are very complex and involve many brain regions, even in a mouse model,” explains Guoping Feng, the James W. and Patricia T. Poitras Professor at MIT and one of the senior authors of the study. “These findings add another piece of the puzzle to mapping the neural circuits responsible for this social deficit in ASD models.”

The Nature Neuroscience paper is the result of a collaboration between Feng, who is also an investigator at MIT’s McGovern Institute and a senior scientist in the Broad Institute’s Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research, and Wenting Wang and Shengxi Wu at the Fourth Military Medical University, Xi’an, China.

A number of brain regions have been implicated in social interactions, including the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and its projections to brain regions including the nucleus accumbens and habenula, but these studies failed to definitively link the PFC to altered social interactions seen in SHANK3 knockout mice.

In the new study, the authors instead focused on the ACC, a brain region noted for its role in social functions in humans and animal models. The ACC is also known to play a role in fundamental cognitive processes, including cost-benefit calculation, motivation, and decision making.

In mice lacking SHANK3, the researchers found structural and functional disruptions at the synapses, or connections, between excitatory neurons in the ACC. The researchers went on to show that the loss of SHANK3 in excitatory ACC neurons alone was enough to disrupt communication between these neurons and led to unusually reduced activity of these neurons during behavioral tasks reflecting social interaction.

Having implicated these ACC neurons in social preferences and interactions in SHANK3 knockout mice, the authors then tested whether activating these same neurons could rescue these behaviors. Using optogenetics and specfic drugs, the researchers activated the ACC neurons and found improved social behavior in the SHANK3 mutant mice.

“Next, we are planning to explore brain regions downstream of the ACC that modulate social behavior in normal mice and models of autism,” explains Wenting Wang, co-corresponding author on the study. “This will help us to better understand the neural mechanisms of social behavior, as well as social deficits in neurodevelopmental disorders.”

Previous clinical studies reported that anatomical structures in the ACC were altered and/or dysfunctional in people with ASD, an initial indication that the findings from SHANK3 mice may also hold true in these individuals.

The research was funded, in part, by the Natural Science Foundation of China. Guoping Feng was supported by NIMH grant no. MH097104, the  Poitras Center for Psychiatric Disorders Research at the McGovern Institute at MIT, and the Hock E. Tan and K. Lisa Yang Center for Autism Research at the McGovern Institute at MIT.

McGovern neuroscientists develop a new model for autism

Using the genome-editing system CRISPR, researchers at MIT and in China have engineered macaque monkeys to express a gene mutation linked to autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders in humans. These monkeys show some behavioral traits and brain connectivity patterns similar to those seen in humans with these conditions.

Mouse studies of autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders have yielded drug candidates that have been tested in clinical trials, but none of them have succeeded. Many pharmaceutical companies have given up on testing such drugs because of the poor track record so far.

The new type of model, however, could help scientists to develop better treatment options for some neurodevelopmental disorders, says Guoping Feng, who is the James W. and Patricia Poitras Professor of Neuroscience, a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and one of the senior authors of the study.

“Our goal is to generate a model to help us better understand the neural biological mechanism of autism, and ultimately to discover treatment options that will be much more translatable to humans,” says Feng, who is also an institute member of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and a senior scientist in the Broad’s Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research.

“We urgently need new treatment options for autism spectrum disorder, and treatments developed in mice have so far been disappointing. While the mouse research remains very important, we believe that primate genetic models will help us to develop better medicines and possibly even gene therapies for some severe forms of autism,” says Robert Desimone, the director of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, the Doris and Don Berkey Professor of Neuroscience, and an author of the paper.

Huihui Zhou of the Shenzhen Institutes of Advanced Technology, Andy Peng Xiang of Sun Yat-Sen University, and Shihua Yang of South China Agricultural University are also senior authors of the study, which appears in the June 12 online edition of Nature. The paper’s lead authors are former MIT postdoc Yang Zhou, MIT research scientist Jitendra Sharma, Broad Institute group leader Rogier Landman, and Qiong Ke of Sun Yat-Sen University. The research team also includes Mriganka Sur, the Paul and Lilah E. Newton Professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and a member of MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory.

Gene variants

Scientists have identified hundreds of genetic variants associated with autism spectrum disorder, many of which individually confer only a small degree of risk. In this study, the researchers focused on one gene with a strong association, known as SHANK3. In addition to its link with autism, mutations or deletions of SHANK3 can also cause a related rare disorder called Phelan-McDermid Syndrome, whose most common characteristics include intellectual disability, impaired speech and sleep, and repetitive behaviors. The majority of these individuals are also diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, as many of the symptoms overlap.

The protein encoded by SHANK3 is found in synapses — the junctions between brain cells that allow them to communicate with each other. It is particularly active in a part of the brain called the striatum, which is involved in motor planning, motivation, and habitual behavior. Feng and his colleagues have previously studied mice with Shank3 mutations and found that they show some of the traits associated with autism, including avoidance of social interaction and obsessive, repetitive behavior.

Although mouse studies can provide a great deal of information on the molecular underpinnings of disease, there are drawbacks to using them to study neurodevelopmental disorders, Feng says. In particular, mice lack the highly developed prefrontal cortex that is the seat of many uniquely primate traits, such as making decisions, sustaining focused attention, and interpreting social cues, which are often affected by brain disorders.

The recent development of the CRISPR genome-editing technique offered a way to engineer gene variants into macaque monkeys, which has previously been very difficult to do. CRISPR consists of a DNA-cutting enzyme called Cas9 and a short RNA sequence that guides the enzyme to a specific area of the genome. It can be used to disrupt genes or to introduce new genetic sequences at a particular location.

Members of the research team based in China, where primate reproductive technology is much more advanced than in the United States, injected the CRISPR components into fertilized macaque eggs, producing embryos that carried the Shank3 mutation.

Researchers at MIT, where much of the data was analyzed, found that the macaques with Shank3 mutations showed behavioral patterns similar to those seen in humans with the mutated gene. They tended to wake up frequently during the night, and they showed repetitive behaviors. They also engaged in fewer social interactions than other macaques.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans also revealed similar patterns to humans with autism spectrum disorder. Neurons showed reduced functional connectivity in the striatum as well as the thalamus, which relays sensory and motor signals and is also involved in sleep regulation. Meanwhile, connectivity was strengthened in other regions, including the sensory cortex.

Michael Platt, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, says the macaque models should help to overcome some of the limitations of studying neurological disorders in mice, whose behavioral symptoms and underlying neurobiology are often different from those seen in humans.

“Because the macaque model shows a much more complete recapitulation of the human behavioral phenotype, I think we should stand a much greater chance of identifying the degree to which any particular therapy, whether it’s a drug or any other intervention, addresses the core symptoms,” says Platt, who was not involved in the study.

Drug development

Within the next year, the researchers hope to begin testing treatments that may affect autism-related symptoms. They also hope to identify biomarkers, such as the distinctive functional brain connectivity patterns seen in MRI scans, that would help them to evaluate whether drug treatments are having an effect.

A similar approach could also be useful for studying other types of neurological disorders caused by well-characterized genetic mutations, such as Rett Syndrome and Fragile X Syndrome. Fragile X is the most common inherited form of intellectual disability in the world, affecting about 1 in 4,000 males and 1 in 8,000 females. Rett Syndrome, which is more rare and almost exclusively affects girls, produces severe impairments in language and motor skills and can also cause seizures and breathing problems.

“Given the limitations of mouse models, patients really need this kind of advance to bring them hope,” Feng says. “We don’t know whether this will succeed in developing treatments, but we will see in the next few years how this can help us to translate some of the findings from the lab to the clinic.”

The research was funded, in part, by the Shenzhen Overseas Innovation Team Project, the Guangdong Innovative and Entrepreneurial Research Team Program, the National Key R&D Program of China, the External Cooperation Program of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the Shenzhen Science, Technology Commission, the James and Patricia Poitras Center for Psychiatric Disorders Research at the McGovern Institute at MIT, the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and the Hock E. Tan and K. Lisa Yang Center for Autism Research at the McGovern Institute at MIT. The research facilities in China where the primate work was conducted are accredited by AAALAC International, a private, nonprofit organization that promotes the humane treatment of animals in science through voluntary accreditation and assessment programs.

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.

Do you have a question for The Brain? Ask it here.

Guoping Feng

Listening to Synapses

Guoping Feng seeks to explain how synaptic dysfunctions contribute to neurodevelopmental and psychiatric diseases, including autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and schizophrenia. He leads research that uses molecular genetics combined with behavioral and electrophysiological methods to study the components of the synapse. Additionally, the lab has leveraged genetic technologies to help map the cellular diversity in the brain—a valuable tool in neuroscience research. Through understanding the molecular, cellular, and circuit changes underlying brain diseases and disorders, the Feng lab hopes to eventually inform new and more effective treatments.

In his current work, Feng is pursuing four lines of research: studying the development and function of synapses, understanding the neurocircuit mechanisms of behavior, exploring synapse and circuit dysfunction in brain disorders, and developing genetic tools for neuroscience.

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.

Do you have a question for The Brain? Ask it here.

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.