McGovern Institute Director receives highest honor from the Society for Neuroscience

The Society for Neuroscience will present its highest honor, the Ralph W. Gerard Prize in Neuroscience, to McGovern Institute Director Robert Desimone at its annual meeting today.

The Gerard Prize is named for neuroscientist Ralph W. Gerard who helped establish the Society for Neuroscience, and honors “outstanding scientists who have made significant contributions to neuroscience throughout their careers.” Desimone will share the $30,000 prize with Vanderbilt University neuroscientist Jon Kaas.

Desimone is being recognized for his career contributions to understanding cortical function in the visual system. His seminal work on attention spans decades, including the discovery of a neural basis for covert attention in the temporal cortex and the creation of the biased competition model, suggesting that attention is biased towards material relevant to the task. More recent work revealed how synchronized brain rhythms help enhance visual processing. Desimone also helped discover both face cells and neural populations that identify objects even when the size or location of the object changes. His long list of contributions includes mapping the extrastriate visual cortex, publishing the first report of columns for motion processing outside the primary visual cortex, and discovering how the temporal cortex retains memories. Desimone’s work has moved the field from broad strokes of input and output to a more nuanced understanding of cortical function that allows the brain to make sense of the environment.

At its annual meeting, beginning today, the Society will honor Desimone and other leading researchers who have made significant contributions to neuroscience — including the understanding of cognitive processes, drug addiction, neuropharmacology, and theoretical models — with this year’s Outstanding Achievement Awards.

“The Society is honored to recognize this year’s awardees, whose groundbreaking research has revolutionized our understanding of the brain, from the level of the synapse to the structure and function of the cortex, shedding light on how vision, memory, perception of touch and pain, and drug
addiction are organized in the brain,” SfN President Barry Everitt, said. “This exceptional group of neuroscientists has made fundamental discoveries, paved the way for new therapeutic approaches, and introduced new tools that will lay the foundation for decades of research to come.”

A connectome for cognition

The lateral prefrontal cortex is a particularly well-connected part of the brain. Neurons there communicate with processing centers throughout the rest of the brain, gathering information and sending commands to implement executive control over behavior. Now, scientists at MIT’s McGovern Institute have mapped these connections and revealed an unexpected order within them: The lateral prefrontal cortex, they’ve found, contains maps of other major parts of the brain’s cortex.

The researchers, led by postdoctoral researcher Rui Xu and McGovern Institute Director Robert Desimone, report that the lateral prefrontal cortex contains a set of maps that represent the major processing centers in the other parts of the cortex, including the temporal and parietal lobes. Their organization likely supports the lateral prefrontal cortex’s roles managing complex functions such as attention and working memory, which require integrating information from multiple sources and coordinating activity elsewhere in the brain. The findings are published November 4, 2021, in the journal Neuron.

Topographic maps

The layout of the maps, which allows certain regions of the lateral prefrontal cortex to directly interact with multiple areas across the brain, indicates that this part of the brain is particularly well positioned for its role. “This function of integrating and then sending back control signals to appropriate levels in the processing hierarchies of the brain is clearly one of the reasons that prefrontal cortex is so important for cognition and executive control,” says Desimone.

In many parts of the brain, neurons’ physical organization has been found to reflect the information represented there. For example, individual neurons’ positions within the visual cortex mirror the layout of the cells in the retina from which they receive input, such that the spatial pattern of neuronal activity in this part of the brain provides an approximate view of the image seen by the eyes. For example, if you fixate on the first letter of a word, the next letters in the word will map to sequential locations in the visual cortex. Likewise, the arm and hand are mapped to adjacent locations in the somatic cortex, where the brain receives sensory information from the skin.

Topographic maps such as these, which have been found primarily in brain regions involved in sensory and motor processing, offer clues about how information is stored and processed in the brain. Neuroscientists have hoped that topographic maps within the lateral prefrontal cortex will provide insight into the complex cognitive processes that are carried out there—but such maps have been elusive.

Previous anatomical studies had given little indication how different parts of the brain communicate preferentially to specific locations within the prefrontal cortex to give rise to regional specialization of cognitive functions. Recently, however, the Desimone lab identified two areas within the lateral prefrontal cortex of monkeys with specific roles in focusing an animal’s visual attention. Knowing that some spots within the lateral prefrontal cortex were wired for specific functions, they wondered if others were, too. They decided they needed a detailed map of the connections emanating from this part of the brain, and devised a plan to plot connectivity from hundreds of points within the lateral prefrontal cortex.

Cortical connectome

To generate a wiring diagram, or connectome, Xu used functional MRI to monitor activity throughout a monkey’s brain as he stimulated specific points within its lateral prefrontal cortex. He moved systematically through the brain region, stimulating points spaced as close as one millimeter apart, and noting which parts of the brain lit up in response. Ultimately, the team collected data from about 100 sites for each of two monkeys.

As the data accumulated, clear patterns emerged. Different regions within the lateral prefrontal cortex formed orderly connections with each of five processing centers throughout the brain. Points within each of these maps connected to sites with the same relative positions in the distant processing centers. Because some parts of the lateral prefrontal cortex are wired to interact with more than one processing centers, these maps overlap, positioning the prefrontal cortex to integrate information from different sources.

The team found significant overlap, for example, between the maps of the temporal cortex, a part of the brain that uses visual information to recognize objects, and the parietal cortex, which computes the spatial relationships between objects. “It is mapping objects and space together in a way that would integrate the two systems,” explains Desimone. “And then on top of that, it has other maps of other brain systems that are partially overlapping with that—so they’re all sort of coming together.”

Desimone and Xu say the new connectome will help guide further investigations of how the prefrontal cortex orchestrates complex cognitive processes. “I think this really gives us a direction for the future, because we now need to understand the cognitive concepts that are mapped there,” Desimone says.

Already, they say, the connectome offers encouragement that a deeper understanding of complex cognition is within reach. “This topographic connectivity gives the lateral prefrontal some specific advantage to serve its function,” says Xu. “This suggests that lateral prefrontal cortex has a fine organization, just like the more studied parts of the brain, so the approaches that have been used to study these other regions may also benefit the studies of high-level cognition.”

Robert Desimone to receive the Fred Kavli Distinguished Career Contributions Award

Robert Desimone, the Doris and Don Berkey Professor in Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, has been recognized by the Cognitive Neuroscience Society as this year’s winner of the Fred Kavli Distinguished Career Contributions (DCC) award. Supported annually by the Kavli Foundation, the award honors senior cognitive neuroscientists for their distinguished career, leadership and mentoring in the field of cognitive neuroscience.

Desimone, who is also the director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, studies the brain mechanisms underlying attention, and most recently, has been studying animal models for brain disorders.

Desimone will deliver his prize lecture at the annual meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society in March 2021.

20 Years of Discovery


McGovern Institute Director Robert Desimone.

Pat and Lore McGovern founded the McGovern Institute 20 years ago with a dual mission – to understand the brain, and to apply that knowledge to help the many people affected by brain disorders. Some of the amazing developments of the past 20 years, such as CRISPR, may seem entirely unexpected and “out of the blue.” But they were all built on a foundation of basic research spanning many years. With the incredible foundation we are building right now, I feel we are poised for many more “unexpected” discoveries in the years ahead.

I predict that in 20 years, we will have quantitative models of brain function that will not only explain how the brain gives rise to at least some aspects of our mind, but will also give us a new mechanistic understanding of brain disorders. This, in turn, will lead to new types of therapies, in what I imagine to be a post-pharmaceutical era of the future. I have no doubt that these same brain models will inspire new educational approaches for our children, and will be incorporated into whatever replaces my automobile, and iPhone, in 2040. I encourage you to read some other predictions from our faculty.

Our cutting-edge work depends not only on our stellar line up of faculty, but the more than 400 postdocs, graduate students, undergraduates, summer students, and staff who make up our community.

For this reason, I am particularly delighted to share with you McGovern’s rising stars — 20 young scientists from each of our labs — who represent the next generation of neuroscience.

And finally, we remain deeply indebted to our supporters for funding our research, including ongoing support from the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation. In recent years, more than 40% of our annual research funding has come from private individuals and foundations. This support enables critical seed funding for new research projects, the development of new technologies, our new research into autism and psychiatric disorders, and fellowships for young scientists just starting their careers. Our annual fund supporters have made possible more than 42 graduate fellowships, and you can read about some of these fellows on our website.

I hope that as you visit our website and read the pages of our special anniversary issue of Brain Scan, you will feel as optimistic as I do about our future.

Robert Desimone
Director, McGovern Institute
Doris and Don Berkey Professor of Neuroscience

Robert Desimone to receive Goldman-Rakic Prize

Robert Desimone, the Doris and Don Berkey Professor in Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, has been named a winner of this year’s Goldman-Rakic Prize for Outstanding Achievement in Cognitive Neuroscience Research. The award, given annually by the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, is named in recognition of former Yale University neuroscientist Patricia Goldman-Rakic.

Desimone, who is also the director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, studies the brain mechanisms underlying attention, and most recently he has been studying animal models for brain disorders.

Desimone will deliver his prize lecture at the 2020 Annual International Mental Health Research Virtual Symposium on October 30, 2020.

Optogenetics with SOUL

Optogenetics has revolutionized neurobiology, allowing researchers to use light to activate or deactivate neurons that are genetically modified to express a light-sensitive channel. This ability to manipulate neuron activity has allowed causal testing of the function of specific neurons, and also has therapeutic potential to reduce symptoms in brain disorders. However, activating neurons deep within a given brain, especially a large primate brain but even a small mouse brain, is challenging and currently requires implanting fibers that could cause damage or inflammation.

McGovern Investigator Guoping Feng and colleagues have now overcome this challenge, developing optogenetic tools that allow non-invasive stimulation of neurons in the deep brain.

“Neuroscientists have dreamed of methods to turn neurons on and off, to understand the function of different neurons, but also to repair brain malfunctions that lead to psychiatric disorders, and optogenetics made this possible” explained Feng, the James W. (1963) and Patricia T. Poitras Professor in Brain and Cognitive Sciences. “We were trying to improve the light sensitivity of optogenetic tools to broaden applications.”

Engineering with light

In order to stimulate neurons with minimal invasiveness, Feng and colleagues engineered a new type of opsin. The original breakthrough optogenetics protocol used channelrhodopsin, a light-sensitive channel discovered in algae. By expressing this channel in neurons, light of the right wavelength can be used to activate the neuron in a dish or in vivo. However, in vivo application requires the implantation of optical fibers to deliver the light close to the specific brain region being stimulated, especially if the target region is in the deep brain. In addition, if the neuron being targeted is in the deep brain, it is hard for light to reach the region in the absence of invasive tools that can damage tissue and impact the behavior of the animal.

Our study creates a method that can activate any mouse brain region, independent of its location, non-invasively.

“Prior to our study, a few studies have contributed in various ways to the development of optogenetic stimulation methods that would be minimally invasive to the brain. However, all of these studies had various limitations in the extent of brain regions they could activate,” said co-senior study author Robert Desimone, director of the McGovern Institute and the Doris and Don Berkey Professor of Neuroscience at MIT.

Probing the brain with SOUL

Feng and colleagues turned instead to new opsins, in particular SOUL, a new type of opsin that is very sensitive to even low-level light. The Feng group engineered this opsin, based on SSFO a second generation optogenetics tool, to have increased light sensitivity, and took advantage of a second property: that SOUL is activated in multiple steps, and once activated, it stays active for longer than other commonly used opsins. This means that a burst of a few seconds of low-level light can cause neurons to stay active for 10-30 minutes.

In order to put SOUL through its paces, the Feng lab expressed this channel in the lateral hypothalamus of the mouse brain. This is a deep region, challenging to reach with light, but with neurons that have clear functions that will lead to changes in behavior. Feng’s group was able to turn on this region non-invasively with light from outside the skull, and cause changes in feeding behavior.

“We were really surprised that SOUL was able to activate one of the deepest areas in the mouse brain, the lateral hypothalamus, which is 6 mm deep,” explains Feng.

But there were more surprises. When the authors activated a region of the primate brain using SOUL, they saw oscillations, waves of synchronized neuronal activity coming together like a choir. Such waves are believed to be important for many brain functions, and this result suggests that the new opsin can manipulate these brain waves, allowing scientists to study their role in the brain.

The authors are planning to move the study in several directions, studying models of brain disorders to identify circuits that may be suitable targets for therapy, as well as moving the methodology so that it can be used beyond the superficial cortex in larger animals. While it is too early to discuss applying the system to humans, the research brings us one step closer to future treatment of neurological disorders.

Rising to the challenge

Dear members and friends of the McGovern Institute,

I am writing to you under unprecedented circumstances. Rather than walking through the vast atrium of our building, stopping to talk with researchers about their work, I am at home, as are many of you. The last couple of weeks have been a whirlwind as we downsized personnel within the institute from 100% to 10% capacity. Thank you tremendously to everybody that helped this huge transition to go smoothly.

As the dust settles, what is striking is how we are all still finding ways to connect. Faculty meetings have resumed, and have included vibrant discussions. Grants are still being written, and processed by the excellent finance team, and papers are being published. In addition, some of our researchers have turned their attention to COVID-19. To name a few, Feng Zhang is not only continuing to develop SHERLOCK, his CRISPR-based diagnostic, to rapidly detect the novel coronavirus. He also just released the How We Feel app with Ben Silbermann, CEO of Pinterest, and a team of global researchers. This app will allow symptom tracking and researchers to ask pressing questions about the symptoms and progression of the virus. McGovern Fellows, Omar Abudayyeh and Jonathan Gootenberg, are also working on rapid COVID-19 diagnostics.

Other researchers are mobilizing to bring their knowledge and skills to mitigate some of the unexpected shortages. Jill Crittenden, a research scientist in the Graybiel lab, has been working with a consortium to gather and curate information about the three main approaches for decontaminating N95 face masks. Shortages of these masks are causing health workers to resort to reusing these masks. The consortium has put together a website and a document that help hospitals and other frontline organizations to quickly, easily examine the effectiveness of, and use, different decontamination protocols. Michael Wells, a former graduate student in Guoping Feng‘s lab has been collaborating to set up a database where researchers that want to volunteer to help can offer up their skills.

Labs are also look at the effects of the response to COVID-19. Rebecca Saxe is working to understand some of the effects of social isolation. Her lab recently posted their findings indicating that loneliness in social isolation leads to neural craving responses similar to hunger. Also from the Saxe lab, Heather Kosakowski and Michelle Hung are also examining the effects of social isolation.

We also have a new page on our website that features stories from members of the McGovern community who have risen to the challenge during this pandemic. I have been so heartened to read about the ways in which our members are supporting one another during this unprecedented time.

But those not working directly on COVID-19 have also greatly impressed me. The diligent, efficient, and calm way in which everybody responded to help to wind down research will help us to ramp up quickly when the time comes, and it will come. In the meantime, please be assured that my team and I are here to help however is needed. If you are a researcher, we are still here to support your communications, grant submissions, and resolve logistical issues that may come up.

If you are interested in following our research, continue to stay tuned as excellent research continues to emerge. And if you are one of the Friends and donors that has come forward to support our research, thank you. Indeed, thank you to all readers for everything that you do to support the research missions of the McGovern Institute. Wishing all the best to you and your families at this difficult time,


Bob Desimone

Controlling attention with brain waves

Having trouble paying attention? MIT neuroscientists may have a solution for you: Turn down your alpha brain waves. In a new study, the researchers found that people can enhance their attention by controlling their own alpha brain waves based on neurofeedback they receive as they perform a particular task.

The study found that when subjects learned to suppress alpha waves in one hemisphere of their parietal cortex, they were able to pay better attention to objects that appeared on the opposite side of their visual field. This is the first time that this cause-and-effect relationship has been seen, and it suggests that it may be possible for people to learn to improve their attention through neurofeedback.

Desimone lab study shows that people can boost attention by manipulating their own alpha brain waves with neurofeedback training.

“There’s a lot of interest in using neurofeedback to try to help people with various brain disorders and behavioral problems,” says Robert Desimone, director of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research. “It’s a completely noninvasive way of controlling and testing the role of different types of brain activity.”

It’s unknown how long these effects might last and whether this kind of control could be achieved with other types of brain waves, such as beta waves, which are linked to Parkinson’s disease. The researchers are now planning additional studies of whether this type of neurofeedback training might help people suffering from attentional or other neurological disorders.

Desimone is the senior author of the paper, which appears in Neuron on Dec. 4. McGovern Institute postdoc Yasaman Bagherzadeh is the lead author of the study. Daniel Baldauf, a former McGovern Institute research scientist, and Dimitrios Pantazis, a McGovern Institute principal research scientist, are also authors of the paper.

Alpha and attention

There are billions of neurons in the brain, and their combined electrical signals generate oscillations known as brain waves. Alpha waves, which oscillate in the frequency of 8 to 12 hertz, are believed to play a role in filtering out distracting sensory information.

Previous studies have shown a strong correlation between attention and alpha brain waves, particularly in the parietal cortex. In humans and in animal studies, a decrease in alpha waves has been linked to enhanced attention. However, it was unclear if alpha waves control attention or are just a byproduct of some other process that governs attention, Desimone says.

To test whether alpha waves actually regulate attention, the researchers designed an experiment in which people were given real-time feedback on their alpha waves as they performed a task. Subjects were asked to look at a grating pattern in the center of a screen, and told to use mental effort to increase the contrast of the pattern as they looked at it, making it more visible.

During the task, subjects were scanned using magnetoencephalography (MEG), which reveals brain activity with millisecond precision. The researchers measured alpha levels in both the left and right hemispheres of the parietal cortex and calculated the degree of asymmetry between the two levels. As the asymmetry between the two hemispheres grew, the grating pattern became more visible, offering the participants real-time feedback.

McGovern postdoc Yasaman sits in a magnetoencephalography (MEG) scanner. Photo: Justin Knight

Although subjects were not told anything about what was happening, after about 20 trials (which took about 10 minutes), they were able to increase the contrast of the pattern. The MEG results indicated they had done so by controlling the asymmetry of their alpha waves.

“After the experiment, the subjects said they knew that they were controlling the contrast, but they didn’t know how they did it,” Bagherzadeh says. “We think the basis is conditional learning — whenever you do a behavior and you receive a reward, you’re reinforcing that behavior. People usually don’t have any feedback on their brain activity, but when we provide it to them and reward them, they learn by practicing.”

Although the subjects were not consciously aware of how they were manipulating their brain waves, they were able to do it, and this success translated into enhanced attention on the opposite side of the visual field. As the subjects looked at the pattern in the center of the screen, the researchers flashed dots of light on either side of the screen. The participants had been told to ignore these flashes, but the researchers measured how their visual cortex responded to them.

One group of participants was trained to suppress alpha waves in the left side of the brain, while the other was trained to suppress the right side. In those who had reduced alpha on the left side, their visual cortex showed a larger response to flashes of light on the right side of the screen, while those with reduced alpha on the right side responded more to flashes seen on the left side.

“Alpha manipulation really was controlling people’s attention, even though they didn’t have any clear understanding of how they were doing it,” Desimone says.

Persistent effect

After the neurofeedback training session ended, the researchers asked subjects to perform two additional tasks that involve attention, and found that the enhanced attention persisted. In one experiment, subjects were asked to watch for a grating pattern, similar to what they had seen during the neurofeedback task, to appear. In some of the trials, they were told in advance to pay attention to one side of the visual field, but in others, they were not given any direction.

When the subjects were told to pay attention to one side, that instruction was the dominant factor in where they looked. But if they were not given any cue in advance, they tended to pay more attention to the side that had been favored during their neurofeedback training.

In another task, participants were asked to look at an image such as a natural outdoor scene, urban scene, or computer-generated fractal shape. By tracking subjects’ eye movements, the researchers found that people spent more time looking at the side that their alpha waves had trained them to pay attention to.

“It is promising that the effects did seem to persist afterwards,” says Desimone, though more study is needed to determine how long these effects might last.

The research was funded by the McGovern Institute.

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.

How does the brain focus?

This is a very interesting question, and one that researchers at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research are actively pursuing. It’s also important for understanding what happens in conditions such as ADHD. There are constant distractions in the world, a cacophony of noise and visual stimulation. How and where we focus our attention, and what the brain attends to vs. treating as background information, is a big question in neuroscience. Thanks to work from researchers, including Robert Desimone, we understand quite a bit about how this works in the visual system in particular. What his lab has found is that when we pay attention to something specific, neurons in the visual cortex responding to the object we’re focusing upon fire in synchrony, whereas those responding to irrelevant information become suppressed. It’s almost as if this synchrony “increases the volume” so that the responding neurons rise above general noise.

Synchronized activity of neurons occurs as they oscillate together at a particular frequency, but the frequency of oscillation really matters when it comes to attention and focus vs. inattention and distraction. To find out more about this, I asked a postdoc in the Desimone lab, Yasaman Bagherzadeh about the role of different “brainwaves,” or oscillations at different frequencies, in attention.

“Studies in humans have shown that enhanced synchrony between neurons in the alpha range –8–12 Hz— is actually associated with inattention and distracting information,” explains Bagherzadeh, “whereas enhanced gamma synchrony (about 30-150 Hz) is associated with attention and focus on a target. For example, when a stimulus (through the ears or eyes) or its location (left vs. right) is intentionally ignored, this is preceded by a relative increase in alpha power, while a stimulus you’re attending to is linked to an increase in gamma power.”

Attention in the Desimone lab (no pun intended) has also recently been focused on covert attention. This type of spatial attention was traditionally thought to occur through a mental shift without a glance, but the Desimone lab recently found that even during these mental shifts, animal sneakily glance at objects that attention becomes focused on. Think now of something you know is nearby (a cup of coffee for example), but not in the center of your field of vision. Chances are that you just sneakily glanced at that object.

Previously these sneaky glances/small eye movements, called microsaccades (MS for short), were considered to be involuntary movements without any functional role. However, in the recent Desimone lab study, it was found that a MS significantly modulates neural activity during the attention period. This means that when you glance at something, even sneakily, it is intimately linked to attention. In other words, when it comes to spatial attention, eye movements seem to play a significant role.

Various questions arise about the mechanisms of spatial attention as a result this study, as outlined by Karthik Srinivasan, a postdoctoral associate in the Desimone lab.

“How are eye movement signals and attentional processing coordinated? What’s the role of the different frequencies of oscillation for such coordination? Is there a role for them or are they just the frequency domain representation (i.e., an epiphenomenon) of a temporal/dynamical process? Is attention a sustained process or rhythmic or something more dynamic?” Srinivasan lists some of the questions that come out of his study and goes on to explain the implications of the study further. “It is hard to believe that covert attention is a sustained process (the so-called ‘spotlight theory of attention’), given that neural activity during the attention period can be modulated by covert glances. A few recent studies have supported the idea that attention is a rhythmic process that can be uncoupled from eye movements. While this is an idea made attractive by its simplicity, it’s clear that small glances can affect neural activity related to attention, and MS are not rhythmic. More work is thus needed to get to a more unified theory that accounts for all of the data out there related to eye movements and their close link to attention.”

Answering some of the questions that Bagherzadeh, Srinivasan, and others are pursuing in the Desimone lab, both experimentally and theoretically, will clear up some of the issues above, and improve our understanding of how the brain focuses attention.

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