Tag Archives: brains

Are plants and brains alike?

The answer to the question about whether brains and plants are alike is the standard ‘yes and no’. That said, there are some startling similarities from a statistical perspective (from a July 6, 2017 Salk Institute news release (also received via email; Note: Links have been removed),

Plants and brains are more alike than you might think: Salk scientists discovered that the mathematical rules governing how plants grow are similar to how brain cells sprout connections. The new work, published in Current Biology on July 6, 2017, and based on data from 3D laser scanning of plants, suggests there may be universal rules of logic governing branching growth across many biological systems.

“Our project was motivated by the question of whether, despite all the diversity we see in plant forms, there is some form or structure they all share,” says Saket Navlakha, assistant professor in Salk’s Center for Integrative Biology and senior author of the paper. “We discovered that there is—and, surprisingly, the variation in how branches are distributed in space can be described mathematically by something called a Gaussian function, which is also known as a bell curve.”

Being immobile, plants have to find creative strategies for adjusting their architecture to address environmental challenges, like being shaded by a neighbor. The diversity in plant forms, from towering redwoods to creeping thyme, is a visible sign of these strategies, but Navlakha wondered if there was some unseen organizing principle at work. To find out, his team used high-precision 3D scanning technology to measure the architecture of young plants over time and quantify their growth in ways that could be analyzed mathematically.

“This collaboration arose from a conversation that Saket and I had shortly after his arrival at Salk,” says Professor and Director of the Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology Laboratory Joanne Chory, who, along with being the Howard H. and Maryam R. Newman Chair in Plant Biology, is also a Howard Hughes Medical Investigator and one of the paper’s coauthors. “We were able to fund our studies thanks to Salk’s innovation grant program and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.”

The team began with three agriculturally valuable crops: sorghum, tomato and tobacco. The researchers grew the plants from seeds under conditions the plants might experience naturally (shade, ambient light, high light, high heat and drought). Every few days for a month, first author Adam Conn scanned each plant to digitally capture its growth. In all, Conn scanned almost 600 plants.

“We basically scanned the plants like you would scan a piece of paper,” says Conn, a Salk research assistant. “But in this case the technology is 3D and allows us to capture a complete form—the full architecture of how the plant grows and distributes branches in space.”

From left: Adam Conn and Saket Navlakha
From left: Adam Conn and Saket Navlakha Credit: Salk Institute

Each plant’s digital representation is called a point cloud, a set of 3D coordinates in space that can be analyzed computationally. With the new data, the team built a statistical description of theoretically possible plant shapes by studying the plant’s branch density function. The branch density function depicts the likelihood of finding a branch at any point in the space surrounding a plant.

This model revealed three properties of growth: separability, self-similarity and a Gaussian branch density function. Separability means that growth in one spatial direction is independent of growth in other directions. According to Navlakha, this property means that growth is very simple and modular, which may let plants be more resilient to changes in their environment. Self-similarity means that all the plants have the same underlying shape, even though some plants may be stretched a little more in one direction, or squeezed in another direction. In other words, plants don’t use different statistical rules to grow in shade than they do to grow in bright light. Lastly, the team found that, regardless of plant species or growth conditions, branch density data followed a Gaussian distribution that is truncated at the boundary of the plant. Basically, this says that branch growth is densest near the plant’s center and gets less dense farther out following a bell curve.

The high level of evolutionary efficiency suggested by these properties is surprising. Even though it would be inefficient for plants to evolve different growth rules for every type of environmental condition, the researchers did not expect to find that plants would be so efficient as to develop only a single functional form. The properties they identified in this work may help researchers evaluate new strategies for genetically engineering crops.

Previous work by one of the paper’s authors, Charles Stevens, a professor in Salk’s Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory, found the same three mathematical properties at work in brain neurons. “The similarity between neuronal arbors and plant shoots is quite striking, and it seems like there must be an underlying reason,” says Stevens. “Probably, they both need to cover a territory as completely as possible but in a very sparse way so they don’t interfere with each other.”

The next challenge for the team is to identify what might be some of the mechanisms at the molecular level driving these changes. Navlakha adds, “We could see whether these principles deviate in other agricultural species and maybe use that knowledge in selecting plants to improve crop yields.”

Should you not be able to access the news release, you can find the information in a July 6, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily.

For the paper, here’s a link and a citation,

A Statistical Description of Plant Shoot Architecture by Adam Conn, Ullas V. Pedmale4, Joanne Chory, Charles F. Stevens, Saket Navlakha. Current Biology DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2017.06.009 Publication stage: In Press Corrected Proof July 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.

Here’s an image that illustrates the principles the researchers are attempting to establish,

This illustration represents how plants use the same rules to grow under widely different conditions (for example, cloudy versus sunny), and that the density of branches in space follows a Gaussian (“bell curve”) distribution, which is also true of neuronal branches in the brain. Credit: Salk Institute

Carbon nanotubes to repair nerve fibres (cyborg brains?)

Can cyborg brains be far behind now that researchers are looking at ways to repair nerve fibers with carbon nanotubes (CNTs)? A June 26, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily describes the scheme using carbon nanotubes as a material for repairing nerve fibers,

Carbon nanotubes exhibit interesting characteristics rendering them particularly suited to the construction of special hybrid devices — consisting of biological issue and synthetic material — planned to re-establish connections between nerve cells, for instance at spinal level, lost on account of lesions or trauma. This is the result of a piece of research published on the scientific journal Nanomedicine: Nanotechnology, Biology, and Medicine conducted by a multi-disciplinary team comprising SISSA (International School for Advanced Studies), the University of Trieste, ELETTRA Sincrotrone and two Spanish institutions, Basque Foundation for Science and CIC BiomaGUNE. More specifically, researchers have investigated the possible effects on neurons of the interaction with carbon nanotubes. Scientists have proven that these nanomaterials may regulate the formation of synapses, specialized structures through which the nerve cells communicate, and modulate biological mechanisms, such as the growth of neurons, as part of a self-regulating process. This result, which shows the extent to which the integration between nerve cells and these synthetic structures is stable and efficient, highlights the great potentialities of carbon nanotubes as innovative materials capable of facilitating neuronal regeneration or in order to create a kind of artificial bridge between groups of neurons whose connection has been interrupted. In vivo testing has actually already begun.

The researchers have included a gorgeous image to illustrate their work,

Caption: Scientists have proven that these nanomaterials may regulate the formation of synapses, specialized structures through which the nerve cells communicate, and modulate biological mechanisms, such as the growth of neurons, as part of a self-regulating process. Credit: Pixabay

A June 26, 2017 SISSA press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the work in more detail while explaining future research needs,

“Interface systems, or, more in general, neuronal prostheses, that enable an effective re-establishment of these connections are under active investigation” explain Laura Ballerini (SISSA) and Maurizio Prato (UniTS-CIC BiomaGUNE), coordinating the research project. “The perfect material to build these neural interfaces does not exist, yet the carbon nanotubes we are working on have already proved to have great potentialities. After all, nanomaterials currently represent our best hope for developing innovative strategies in the treatment of spinal cord injuries”. These nanomaterials are used both as scaffolds, a supportive framework for nerve cells, and as means of interfaces releasing those signals that empower nerve cells to communicate with each other.

Many aspects, however, still need to be addressed. Among them, the impact on neuronal physiology of the integration of these nanometric structures with the cell membrane. “Studying the interaction between these two elements is crucial, as it might also lead to some undesired effects, which we ought to exclude”. Laura Ballerini explains: “If, for example, the mere contact provoked a vertiginous rise in the number of synapses, these materials would be essentially unusable”. “This”, Maurizio Prato adds, “is precisely what we have investigated in this study where we used pure carbon nanotubes”.

The results of the research are extremely encouraging: “First of all we have proved that nanotubes do not interfere with the composition of lipids, of cholesterol in particular, which make up the cellular membrane in neurons. Membrane lipids play a very important role in the transmission of signals through the synapses. Nanotubes do not seem to influence this process, which is very important”.

There is more, however. The research has also highlighted the fact that the nerve cells growing on the substratum of nanotubes, thanks to this interaction, develop and reach maturity very quickly, eventually reaching a condition of biological homeostasis. “Nanotubes facilitate the full growth of neurons and the formation of new synapses. This growth, however, is not indiscriminate and unlimited since, as we proved, after a few weeks a physiological balance is attained. Having established the fact that this interaction is stable and efficient is an aspect of fundamental importance”. Maurizio Prato and Laura Ballerini conclude as follows: “We are proving that carbon nanotubes perform excellently in terms of duration, adaptability and mechanical compatibility with the tissue. Now we know that their interaction with the biological material, too, is efficient. Based on this evidence, we are already studying the in vivo application, and preliminary results appear to be quite promising also in terms of recovery of the lost neurological functions”.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Sculpting neurotransmission during synaptic development by 2D nanostructured interfaces by Niccolò Paolo Pampaloni, Denis Scaini, Fabio Perissinotto, Susanna Bosi, Maurizio Prato, Laura Ballerini. Nanomedicine: Nanotechnology, Biology and Medicine, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.nano.2017.01.020 Published online: May 25, 2017

This paper is open access.

Nuclear magnetic resonance microscope breaks records

Dutch researchers have found a way to apply the principles underlying magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to a microscope designed *for* examining matter and life at the nanoscale. From a July 15, 2016 news item on phys.org,

A new nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) microscope gives researchers an improved instrument to study fundamental physical processes. It also offers new possibilities for medical science—for example, to better study proteins in Alzheimer’s patients’ brains. …

A Leiden Institute of Physics press release, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

If you get a knee injury, physicians use an MRI machine to look right through the skin and see what exactly is the problem. For this trick, doctors make use of the fact that our body’s atomic nuclei are electrically charged and spin around their axis. Just like small electromagnets they induce their own magnetic field. By placing the knee in a uniform magnetic field, the nuclei line up with their axis pointing in the same direction. The MRI machine then sends a specific type of radio waves through the knee, causing some axes to flip. After turning off this signal, those nuclei flip back after some time, under excitation of a small radio wave. Those waves give away the atoms’ location, and provide physicians with an accurate image of the knee.


MRI is the medical application of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR), which is based on the same principle and was invented by physicists to conduct fundamental research on materials. One of the things they study with NMR is the so-called relaxation time. This is the time scale at which the nuclei flip back and it gives a lot of information about a material’s properties.


To study materials on the smallest of scales as well, physicists go one step further and develop NMR microscopes, with which they study the mechanics behind physical processes at the level of a group of atoms. Now Leiden PhD students Jelmer Wagenaar and Arthur de Haan have built an NMR microscope, together with principal investigator Tjerk Oosterkamp, that operates at a record temperature of 42 milliKelvin—close to absolute zero. In their article in Physical Review Applied they prove it works by measuring the relaxation time of copper. They achieved a thousand times higher sensitivity than existing NMR microscopes—also a world record.


With their microscope, they give physicists an instrument to conduct fundamental research on many physical phenomena, like systems displaying strange behavior in extreme cold. And like NMR eventually led to MRI machines in hospitals, NMR microscopes have great potential too. Wagenaar: ‘One example is that you might be able to use our technique to study Alzheimer patients’ brains at the molecular level, in order to find out how iron is locked up in proteins.’

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Probing the Nuclear Spin-Lattice Relaxation Time at the Nanoscale by J. J. T. Wagenaar, A. M. J. den Haan, J. M. de Voogd, L. Bossoni, T. A. de Jong, M. de Wit, K. M. Bastiaans, D. J. Thoen, A. Endo, T. M. Klapwijk, J. Zaanen, and T. H. Oosterkamp. Phys. Rev. Applied 6, 014007 DOI:http://dx.doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevApplied.6.014007 Published 15 July 2016

This paper is open access.

*’fro’ changed to ‘for’ on Aug. 3, 2016.

Blue Brain Project builds a digital piece of brain

Caption: This is a photo of a virtual brain slice. Credit: Makram et al./Cell 2015

Caption: This is a photo of a virtual brain slice. Credit: Makram et al./Cell 2015

Here’s more *about this virtual brain slice* from an Oct. 8, 2015 Cell (magazine) news release on EurekAlert,

If you want to learn how something works, one strategy is to take it apart and put it back together again [also known as reverse engineering]. For 10 years, a global initiative called the Blue Brain Project–hosted at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL)–has been attempting to do this digitally with a section of juvenile rat brain. The project presents a first draft of this reconstruction, which contains over 31,000 neurons, 55 layers of cells, and 207 different neuron subtypes, on October 8 [2015] in Cell.

Heroic efforts are currently being made to define all the different types of neurons in the brain, to measure their electrical firing properties, and to map out the circuits that connect them to one another. These painstaking efforts are giving us a glimpse into the building blocks and logic of brain wiring. However, getting a full, high-resolution picture of all the features and activity of the neurons within a brain region and the circuit-level behaviors of these neurons is a major challenge.

Henry Markram and colleagues have taken an engineering approach to this question by digitally reconstructing a slice of the neocortex, an area of the brain that has benefitted from extensive characterization. Using this wealth of data, they built a virtual brain slice representing the different neuron types present in this region and the key features controlling their firing and, most notably, modeling their connectivity, including nearly 40 million synapses and 2,000 connections between each brain cell type.

“The reconstruction required an enormous number of experiments,” says Markram, of the EPFL. “It paves the way for predicting the location, numbers, and even the amount of ion currents flowing through all 40 million synapses.”

Once the reconstruction was complete, the investigators used powerful supercomputers to simulate the behavior of neurons under different conditions. Remarkably, the researchers found that, by slightly adjusting just one parameter, the level of calcium ions, they could produce broader patterns of circuit-level activity that could not be predicted based on features of the individual neurons. For instance, slow synchronous waves of neuronal activity, which have been observed in the brain during sleep, were triggered in their simulations, suggesting that neural circuits may be able to switch into different “states” that could underlie important behaviors.

“An analogy would be a computer processor that can reconfigure to focus on certain tasks,” Markram says. “The experiments suggest the existence of a spectrum of states, so this raises new types of questions, such as ‘what if you’re stuck in the wrong state?'” For instance, Markram suggests that the findings may open up new avenues for explaining how initiating the fight-or-flight response through the adrenocorticotropic hormone yields tunnel vision and aggression.

The Blue Brain Project researchers plan to continue exploring the state-dependent computational theory while improving the model they’ve built. All of the results to date are now freely available to the scientific community at https://bbp.epfl.ch/nmc-portal.

An Oct. 8, 2015 Hebrew University of Jerusalem press release on the Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem website provides more detail,

Published by the renowned journal Cell, the paper is the result of a massive effort by 82 scientists and engineers at EPFL and at institutions in Israel, Spain, Hungary, USA, China, Sweden, and the UK. It represents the culmination of 20 years of biological experimentation that generated the core dataset, and 10 years of computational science work that developed the algorithms and built the software ecosystem required to digitally reconstruct and simulate the tissue.

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Prof. Idan Segev, a senior author of the research paper, said: “With the Blue Brain Project, we are creating a digital reconstruction of the brain and using supercomputer simulations of its electrical behavior to reveal a variety of brain states. This allows us to examine brain phenomena within a purely digital environment and conduct experiments previously only possible using biological tissue. The insights we gather from these experiments will help us to understand normal and abnormal brain states, and in the future may have the potential to help us develop new avenues for treating brain disorders.”

Segev, a member of the Hebrew University’s Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences and director of the university’s Department of Neurobiology, sees the paper as building on the pioneering work of the Spanish anatomist Ramon y Cajal from more than 100 years ago: “Ramon y Cajal began drawing every type of neuron in the brain by hand. He even drew in arrows to describe how he thought the information was flowing from one neuron to the next. Today, we are doing what Cajal would be doing with the tools of the day: building a digital representation of the neurons and synapses, and simulating the flow of information between neurons on supercomputers. Furthermore, the digitization of the tissue is open to the community and allows the data and the models to be preserved and reused for future generations.”

While a long way from digitizing the whole brain, the study demonstrates that it is feasible to digitally reconstruct and simulate brain tissue, and most importantly, to reveal novel insights into the brain’s functioning. Simulating the emergent electrical behavior of this virtual tissue on supercomputers reproduced a range of previous observations made in experiments on the brain, validating its biological accuracy and providing new insights into the functioning of the neocortex. This is a first step and a significant contribution to Europe’s Human Brain Project, which Henry Markram founded, and where EPFL is the coordinating partner.

Cell has made a video abstract available (it can be found with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem press release)

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Reconstruction and Simulation of Neocortical Microcircuitry by Henry Markram, Eilif Muller, Srikanth Ramaswamy, Michael W. Reimann, Marwan Abdellah, Carlos Aguado Sanchez, Anastasia Ailamaki, Lidia Alonso-Nanclares, Nicolas Antille, Selim Arsever, Guy Antoine Atenekeng Kahou, Thomas K. Berger, Ahmet Bilgili, Nenad Buncic, Athanassia Chalimourda, Giuseppe Chindemi, Jean-Denis Courcol, Fabien Delalondre, Vincent Delattre, Shaul Druckmann, Raphael Dumusc, James Dynes, Stefan Eilemann, Eyal Gal, Michael Emiel Gevaert, Jean-Pierre Ghobril, Albert Gidon, Joe W. Graham, Anirudh Gupta, Valentin Haenel, Etay Hay, Thomas Heinis, Juan B. Hernando, Michael Hines, Lida Kanari, Daniel Keller, John Kenyon, Georges Khazen, Yihwa Kim, James G. King, Zoltan Kisvarday, Pramod Kumbhar, Sébastien Lasserre, Jean-Vincent Le Bé, Bruno R.C. Magalhães, Angel Merchán-Pérez, Julie Meystre, Benjamin Roy Morrice, Jeffrey Muller, Alberto Muñoz-Céspedes, Shruti Muralidhar, Keerthan Muthurasa, Daniel Nachbaur, Taylor H. Newton, Max Nolte, Aleksandr Ovcharenko, Juan Palacios, Luis Pastor, Rodrigo Perin, Rajnish Ranjan, Imad Riachi, José-Rodrigo Rodríguez, Juan Luis Riquelme, Christian Rössert, Konstantinos Sfyrakis, Ying Shi, Julian C. Shillcock, Gilad Silberberg, Ricardo Silva, Farhan Tauheed, Martin Telefont, Maria Toledo-Rodriguez, Thomas Tränkler, Werner Van Geit, Jafet Villafranca Díaz, Richard Walker, Yun Wang, Stefano M. Zaninetta, Javier DeFelipe, Sean L. Hill, Idan Segev, Felix Schürmann. Cell, Volume 163, Issue 2, p456–492, 8 October 2015 DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2015.09.029

This paper appears to be open access.

My most substantive description of the Blue Brain Project , previous to this, was in a Jan. 29, 2013 posting featuring the European Union’s (EU) Human Brain project and involvement from countries that are not members.

* I edited a redundant lede (That’s a virtual slice of a rat brain.), moved the second sentence to the lede while adding this:  *about this virtual brain slice* on Oct. 16, 2015 at 0955 hours PST.

On the verge of controlling neurons by wireless?

Scientists have controlled a mouse’s neurons with a wireless device (and unleashed some paranoid fantasies? well, mine if no one else’s) according to a July 16, 2015 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

A study showed that scientists can wirelessly determine the path a mouse walks with a press of a button. Researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis, and University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, created a remote controlled, next-generation tissue implant that allows neuroscientists to inject drugs and shine lights on neurons deep inside the brains of mice. The revolutionary device is described online in the journal Cell (“Wireless Optofluidic Systems for Programmable In Vivo Pharmacology and Optogenetics”). Its development was partially funded by the [US] National Institutes of Health [NIH].

The researchers have made an image/illustration of the probe available,

Mind Bending Probe Scientists used soft materials to create a brain implant a tenth the width of a human hair that can wirelessly control neurons with lights and drugs. Courtesy of Jeong lab, University of Colorado Boulder.

A July 16, 2015 US NIH National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke news release, which originated the news item, describes the study and notes that instructions for building the implant are included in the published study,

“It unplugs a world of possibilities for scientists to learn how brain circuits work in a more natural setting.” said Michael R. Bruchas, Ph.D., associate professor of anesthesiology and neurobiology at Washington University School of Medicine and a senior author of the study.

The Bruchas lab studies circuits that control a variety of disorders including stress, depression, addiction, and pain. Typically, scientists who study these circuits have to choose between injecting drugs through bulky metal tubes and delivering lights through fiber optic cables. Both options require surgery that can damage parts of the brain and introduce experimental conditions that hinder animals’ natural movements.

To address these issues, Jae-Woong Jeong, Ph.D., a bioengineer formerly at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, worked with Jordan G. McCall, Ph.D., a graduate student in the Bruchas lab, to construct a remote controlled, optofluidic implant. The device is made out of soft materials that are a tenth the diameter of a human hair and can simultaneously deliver drugs and lights.

“We used powerful nano-manufacturing strategies to fabricate an implant that lets us penetrate deep inside the brain with minimal damage,” said John A. Rogers, Ph.D., professor of materials science and engineering, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a senior author. “Ultra-miniaturized devices like this have tremendous potential for science and medicine.”

With a thickness of 80 micrometers and a width of 500 micrometers, the optofluidic implant is thinner than the metal tubes, or cannulas, scientists typically use to inject drugs. When the scientists compared the implant with a typical cannula they found that the implant damaged and displaced much less brain tissue.

The scientists tested the device’s drug delivery potential by surgically placing it into the brains of mice. In some experiments, they showed that they could precisely map circuits by using the implant to inject viruses that label cells with genetic dyes. In other experiments, they made mice walk in circles by injecting a drug that mimics morphine into the ventral tegmental area (VTA), a region that controls motivation and addiction.

The researchers also tested the device’s combined light and drug delivery potential when they made mice that have light-sensitive VTA neurons stay on one side of a cage by commanding the implant to shine laser pulses on the cells. The mice lost the preference when the scientists directed the device to simultaneously inject a drug that blocks neuronal communication. In all of the experiments, the mice were about three feet away from the command antenna.

“This is the kind of revolutionary tool development that neuroscientists need to map out brain circuit activity,” said James Gnadt, Ph.D., program director at the NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).  “It’s in line with the goals of the NIH’s BRAIN Initiative.”

The researchers fabricated the implant using semi-conductor computer chip manufacturing techniques. It has room for up to four drugs and has four microscale inorganic light-emitting diodes. They installed an expandable material at the bottom of the drug reservoirs to control delivery. When the temperature on an electric heater beneath the reservoir rose then the bottom rapidly expanded and pushed the drug out into the brain.

“We tried at least 30 different prototypes before one finally worked,” said Dr. McCall.

“This was truly an interdisciplinary effort,” said Dr. Jeong, who is now an assistant professor of electrical, computer, and energy engineering at University of Colorado Boulder. “We tried to engineer the implant to meet some of neurosciences greatest unmet needs.”

In the study, the scientists provide detailed instructions for manufacturing the implant.

“A tool is only good if it’s used,” said Dr. Bruchas. “We believe an open, crowdsourcing approach to neuroscience is a great way to understand normal and healthy brain circuitry.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Wireless Optofluidic Systems for Programmable In Vivo Pharmacology and Optogenetics by Jae-Woong Jeong, Jordan G. McCall, Gunchul Shin, Yihui Zhang, Ream Al-Hasani, Minku Kim, Shuo Li, Joo Yong Sim, Kyung-In Jang, Yan Shi, Daniel Y. Hong, Yuhao Liu, Gavin P. Schmitz, Li Xia, Zhubin He, Paul Gamble, Wilson Z. Ray, Yonggang Huang, Michael R. Bruchas, and John A. Rogers.  Cell, July 16, 2015. DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2015.06.058

This paper is behind a paywall.

I last wrote about wireless activation of neurons in a May 28, 2014 posting which featured research at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Centralized depot (Wikipedia style) for data on neurons

The decades worth of data that has been collected about the billions of neurons in the brain is astounding. To help scientists make sense of this “brain big data,” researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have used data mining to create http://www.neuroelectro.org, a publicly available website that acts like Wikipedia, indexing physiological information about neurons.

opens a March 30, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily (Note: A link has been removed),

The site will help to accelerate the advance of neuroscience research by providing a centralized resource for collecting and comparing data on neuronal function. A description of the data available and some of the analyses that can be performed using the site are published online by the Journal of Neurophysiology

A March 30, 2015 Carnegie Mellon University news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, describes, in more detail,  the endeavour and what the scientists hope to achieve,

The neurons in the brain can be divided into approximately 300 different types based on their physical and functional properties. Researchers have been studying the function and properties of many different types of neurons for decades. The resulting data is scattered across tens of thousands of papers in the scientific literature. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon turned to data mining to collect and organize these data in a way that will make possible, for the first time, new methods of analysis.

“If we want to think about building a brain or re-engineering the brain, we need to know what parts we’re working with,” said Nathan Urban, interim provost and director of Carnegie Mellon’s BrainHubSM neuroscience initiative. “We know a lot about neurons in some areas of the brain, but very little about neurons in others. To accelerate our understanding of neurons and their functions, we need to be able to easily determine whether what we already know about some neurons can be applied to others we know less about.”

Shreejoy J. Tripathy, who worked in Urban’s lab when he was a graduate student in the joint Carnegie Mellon/University of Pittsburgh Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition (CNBC) Program in Neural Computation, selected more than 10,000 published papers that contained physiological data describing how neurons responded to various inputs. He used text mining algorithms to “read” each of the papers. The text mining software found the portions of each paper that identified the type of neuron studied and then isolated the electrophysiological data related to the properties of that neuronal type. It also retrieved information about how each of the experiments in the literature was completed, and corrected the data to account for any differences that might be caused by the format of the experiment. Overall, Tripathy, who is now a postdoc at the University of British Columbia, was able to collect and standardize data for approximately 100 different types of neurons, which he published on the website http://www.neuroelectro.org.

Since the data on the website was collected using text mining, the researchers realized that it was likely to contain errors related to extraction and standardization. Urban and his group validated much of the data, but they also created a mechanism that allows site users to flag data for further evaluation. Users also can contribute new data with minimal intervention from site administrators, similar to Wikipedia.

“It’s a dynamic environment in which people can collect, refine and add data,” said Urban, who is the Dr. Frederick A. Schwertz Distinguished Professor of Life Sciences and a member of the CNBC. “It will be a useful resource to people doing neuroscience research all over the world.”

Ultimately, the website will help researchers find groups of neurons that share the same physiological properties, which could provide a better understanding of how a neuron functions. For example, if a researcher finds that a type of neuron in the brain’s neocortex fires spontaneously, they can look up other neurons that fire spontaneously and access research papers that address this type of neuron. Using that information, they can quickly form hypotheses about whether or not the same mechanisms are at play in both the newly discovered and previously studied neurons.

To demonstrate how neuroelectro.org could be used, the researchers compared the electrophysiological data from more than 30 neuron types that had been most heavily studied in the literature. These included pyramidal neurons in the hippocampus, which are responsible for memory, and dopamine neurons in the midbrain, thought to be responsible for reward-seeking behaviors and addiction, among others. The site was able to find many expected similarities between the different types of neurons, and some similarities that were a surprise to researchers. Those surprises represent promising areas for future research.

In ongoing work, the Carnegie Mellon researchers are comparing the data on neuroelectro.org with other kinds of data, including data on neurons’ patterns of gene expression. For example, Urban’s group is using another publicly available resource, the Allen Brain Atlas, to find whether groups of neurons with similar electrical function have similar gene expression.

“It would take a lot of time, effort and money to determine both the physiological properties of a neuron and its gene expression,” Urban said. “Our website will help guide this research, making it much more efficient.”

The researchers have produced a brief video describing neurons and their project,

Here’s a link to and a citation for the researchers’ paper,

Brain-wide analysis of electrophysiological diversity yields novel categorization of mammalian neuron types by Shreejoy J Tripathy, Shawn D. Burton, Matthew Geramita, Richard C. Gerkin, and Nathaniel N. Urban. Journal of Neurophysiology Published 25 March 2015 DOI: 10.1152/jn.00237.2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

Making 3D patches for the brain

They’re not ready to start patching any brains yet but the research seems promising. From an April 1, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily,

Damage to neural tissue is typically permanent and causes lasting disability in patients, but a new approach has recently been discovered that holds incredible potential to reconstruct neural tissue at high resolution in three dimensions. Research recently published in the Journal of Neural Engineering demonstrated a method for embedding scaffolding of patterned nanofibers within three-dimensional (3D) hydrogel structures, and it was shown that neurite outgrowth from neurons in the hydrogel followed the nanofiber scaffolding by tracking directly along the nanofibers, particularly when the nanofibers were coated with a type of cell adhesion molecule called laminin. It was also shown that the coated nanofibers significantly enhanced the length of growing neurites, and that the type of hydrogel could significantly affect the extent to which the neurites tracked the nanofibers.

A March 31, 2015 Institute of Neural Regeneration & Tissue Engineering press release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, describes the thinking underlying this research and future research plans,

“Neural stem cells hold incredible potential for restoring damaged cells in the nervous system, and 3D reconstruction of neural tissue is essential for replicating the complex anatomical structure and function of the brain and spinal cord,” said Dr. McMurtrey, author of the study and director of the research institute that led this work. “So it was thought that the combination of induced neuronal cells with micropatterned biomaterials might enable unique advantages in 3D cultures, and this research showed that not only can neuronal cells be cultured in 3D conformations, but the direction and pattern of neurite outgrowth can be guided and controlled using relatively simple combinations of structural cues and biochemical signaling factors.”

The next step will be replicating more complex structures using a patient’s own induced stem cells to reconstruct damaged or diseased sites in the nervous system. These 3D reconstructions can then be used to implant into the damaged areas of neural tissue to help reconstruct specific neuroanatomical structures and integrate with the proper neural circuitry in order to restore function. Successful restoration of function would require training of the new neural circuitry over time, but by selecting the proper neurons and forming them into native architecture, implanted neural stem cells would have a much higher chance of providing successful outcomes. The scaffolding and hydrogel materials are biocompatible and biodegradable, and the hydrogels can also help to maintain the microstructure of implanted cells and prevent them from washing away in the cerebrospinal fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord.

McMurtrey also noted that by making these site-specific reconstructions of neural tissue, not only can neural architecture be rebuilt, but researchers can also make models for studying disease mechanisms and developmental processes just by using skin cells that are induced into pluripotent stem cells and into neurons from patients with a variety of diseases and conditions. “The 3D constructs enable a realistic replication of the innate cellular environment and also enable study of diseased human neurons without needing to biopsy neurons from affected patients and without needing to make animal models that can fail to replicate the full array of features seen in humans,” said McMurtrey.

The ability to engineer neural tissue from stem cells and biomaterials holds great potential for regenerative medicine. The combination of stem cells, functionalized hydrogel architecture, and patterned and functionalized nanofiber scaffolding enables the formation of unique 3D tissue constructs, and these engineered constructs offer important applications in brain and spinal cord tissue that has been damaged by trauma, stroke, or degeneration. In particular, this work may one day help in the restoration of functional neuroanatomical pathways and structures at sites of spinal cord injury, traumatic brain injury, tumor resection, stroke, or neurodegenerative diseases of Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, Alzheimer’s, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Patterned and functionalized nanofiber scaffolds in three-dimensional hydrogel constructs enhance neurite outgrowth and directional control by Richard McMurtrey (Journal of Neural Engineering Volume 11 Number 6) 2014 J. J. Neural Eng. 11 066009 doi:10.1088/1741-2560/11/6/066009

This paper is open access.

A little unusually for me, here’s the abstract for the paper,

Objective. Neural tissue engineering holds incredible potential to restore functional capabilities to damaged neural tissue. It was hypothesized that patterned and functionalized nanofiber scaffolds could control neurite direction and enhance neurite outgrowth. Approach. A method of creating aligned electrospun nanofibers was implemented and fiber characteristics were analyzed using environmental scanning electron microscopy. Nanofibers were composed of polycaprolactone (PCL) polymer, PCL mixed with gelatin, or PCL with a laminin coating. Three-dimensional hydrogels were then integrated with embedded aligned nanofibers to support neuronal cell cultures. Microscopic images were captured at high-resolution in single and multi-focal planes with eGFP-expressing neuronal SH-SY5Y cells in a fluorescent channel and nanofiber scaffolding in another channel. Neuronal morphology and neurite tracking of nanofibers were then analyzed in detail. Main results. Aligned nanofibers were shown to enable significant control over the direction of neurite outgrowth in both two-dimensional (2D) and three-dimensional (3D) neuronal cultures. Laminin-functionalized nanofibers in 3D hyaluronic acid (HA) hydrogels enabled significant alignment of neurites with nanofibers, enabled significant neurite tracking of nanofibers, and significantly increased the distance over which neurites could extend. Specifically, the average length of neurites per cell in 3D HA constructs with laminin-functionalized nanofibers increased by 66% compared to the same laminin fibers on 2D laminin surfaces, increased by 59% compared to 2D laminin-coated surface without fibers, and increased by 1052% compared to HA constructs without fibers. Laminin functionalization of fibers also doubled average neurite length over plain PCL fibers in the same 3D HA constructs. In addition, neurites also demonstrated tracking directly along the fibers, with 66% of neurite lengths directly tracking laminin-coated fibers in 3D HA constructs, which was a 65% relative increase in neurite tracking compared to plain PCL fibers in the same 3D HA constructs and a 213% relative increase over laminin-coated fibers on 2D laminin-coated surfaces. Significance. This work demonstrates the ability to create unique 3D neural tissue constructs using a combined system of hydrogel and nanofiber scaffolding. Importantly, patterned and biofunctionalized nanofiber scaffolds that can control direction and increase length of neurite outgrowth in three-dimensions hold much potential for neural tissue engineering. This approach offers advancements in the development of implantable neural tissue constructs that enable control of neural development and reproduction of neuroanatomical pathways, with the ultimate goal being the achievement of functional neural regeneration.

I have a few comments, this work was performed in vitro and I imagine it will be several years before it is attempted in human clinical trials. As well, the ethics issues raised by this work are interesting. While the doctors are talking about repairs to injured tissues, it’s only a matter of time until someone tries to improve on the brain or human enhancement. After all, modern plastic surgery was developed as a form of repair for soldiers and others who were disfigured. These days, much of the practice is concerned with preserving youth or enhancing someone’s looks. Not altogether coincidentally, I wrote about the second volume of a report from the US Presidential Bioethics Commission in my April 2, 2015 post titled: Gray Matters volume 2: Integrative Approaches for Neuroscience, Ethics, and Society issued March 2015 by US Presidential Bioethics Commission.

Finally, you can find out more about the Institute of Neural Regeneration & Tissue Engineering here.

Université de Montréal (Canada) and nanobots breech blood-brain barrier to deliver drugs to the brain

In the spirit of full disclosure, the March 25, 2014 news item on ScienceDaily describing the research about breeching the blood-brain barrier uses the term nanorobotic agents rather than nanobots, a term which makes my headline a lot catchier although less accurate. Getting back to the research,

Magnetic nanoparticles can open the blood-brain barrier and deliver molecules directly to the brain, say researchers from the University of Montreal, Polytechnique Montréal, and CHU Sainte-Justine. This barrier runs inside almost all vessels in the brain and protects it from elements circulating in the blood that may be toxic to the brain. The research is important as currently 98% of therapeutic molecules are also unable to cross the blood-brain barrier.

“The barrier is temporary [sic] opened at a desired location for approximately 2 hours by a small elevation of the temperature generated by the nanoparticles when exposed to a radio-frequency field,” explained first author and co-inventor Seyed Nasrollah Tabatabaei. “Our tests revealed that this technique is not associated with any inflammation of the brain. This new result could lead to a breakthrough in the way nanoparticles are used in the treatment and diagnosis of brain diseases,” explained the co-investigator, Hélène Girouard. “At the present time, surgery is the only way to treat patients with brain disorders. Moreover, while surgeons are able to operate to remove certain kinds of tumors, some disorders are located in the brain stem, amongst nerves, making surgery impossible,” added collaborator and senior author Anne-Sophie Carret.

A March 25, 2015 University of Montreal news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, notes that the technique was tested or rats or mice (murine model) and explains how the technology breeches the blood-brain barrier,

Although the technology was developed using murine models and has not yet been tested in humans, the researchers are confident that future research will enable its use in people. “Building on earlier findings and drawing on the global effort of an interdisciplinary team of researchers, this technology proposes a modern version of the vision described almost 40 years ago in the movie Fantastic Voyage, where a miniature submarine navigated in the vascular network to reach a specific region of the brain,” said principal investigator Sylvain Martel. In earlier research, Martel and his team had managed to manipulate the movement of nanoparticles through the body using the magnetic forces generated by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines.

To open the blood-brain barrier, the magnetic nanoparticles are sent to the surface of the blood-brain barrier at a desired location in the brain. Although it was not the technique used in this study, the placement could be achieved by using the MRI technology described above. Then, the researchers generated a radio-frequency field. The nanoparticles reacted to the radio-frequency field by dissipating heat thereby creating a mechanical stress on the barrier. This allows a temporary and localized opening of the barrier for diffusion of therapeutics into the brain.

The technique is unique in many ways. “The result is quite significant since we showed in previous experiments that the same nanoparticles can also be used to navigate therapeutic agents in the vascular network using a clinical MRI scanner,” Martel remarked. “Linking the navigation capability with these new results would allow therapeutics to be delivered directly to a specific site of the brain, potentially improving significantly the efficacy of the treatment while avoiding systemic circulation of toxic agents that affect healthy tissues and organs,” Carret added. “While other techniques have been developed for delivering drugs to the blood-brain barrier, they either open it too wide, exposing the brain to great risks, or they are not precise enough, leading to scattering of the drugs and possible unwanted side effect,” Martel said.

Although there are many hurdles to overcome before the technology can be used to treat humans, the research team is optimistic. “Although our current results are only proof of concept, we are on the way to achieving our goal of developing a local drug delivery mechanism that will be able to treat oncologic, psychiatric, neurological and neurodegenerative disorders, amongst others,” Carret concluded.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Remote control of the permeability of the blood–brain barrier by magnetic heating of nanoparticles: A proof of concept for brain drug delivery by Seyed Nasrollah Tabatabaei, Hélène Girouard, Anne-Sophie Carret, and Sylvain Martel.Journal of Controlled Release, Volume 206, 28 May 2015, Pages 49–57,  DOI: 10.1016/j.jconrel.2015.02.027  Available online 25 February 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

For anyone unfamiliar with French, University of Montreal is Université de Montréal.

Spinal cords, brains, implants, and remote control

I have two items about implants and brains and an item about being able to exert remote control of the brain, all of which hint at a cyborg future for at least a few of us.

e-Dura, the spinal column, and the brain

The first item concerns some research, at the École Polytechnique de Lausanne (EPFL) which features flexible electronics. From a March 24, 2015 article by Ben Schiller for Fast Company (Note: Links have been removed),

Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, in Lausanne, have developed the e-Dura—a tiny skinlike device that attaches directly to damaged spinal cords. By sending out small electrical pulses, it stimulates the cord as if it were receiving signals from the brain, thus allowing movement.

“The purpose of the neuro-prosthesis is to excite the neurons that are on the spinal cord below the site of the injury and activate them, just like if they were receiving information from the brain,” says Stéphanie Lacour, a professor at the institute.

A January 8, 2015 (?) EPFL press release provides more information about the research,

EPFL scientists have managed to get rats walking on their own again using a combination of electrical and chemical stimulation. But applying this method to humans would require multifunctional implants that could be installed for long periods of time on the spinal cord without causing any tissue damage. This is precisely what the teams of professors Stéphanie Lacour and Grégoire Courtine have developed. Their e-Dura implant is designed specifically for implantation on the surface of the brain or spinal cord. The small device closely imitates the mechanical properties of living tissue, and can simultaneously deliver electric impulses and pharmacological substances. The risks of rejection and/or damage to the spinal cord have been drastically reduced. An article about the implant will appear in early January [2015] in Science Magazine.

So-called “surface implants” have reached a roadblock; they cannot be applied long term to the spinal cord or brain, beneath the nervous system’s protective envelope, otherwise known as the “dura mater,” because when nerve tissues move or stretch, they rub against these rigid devices. After a while, this repeated friction causes inflammation, scar tissue buildup, and rejection.

Here’s what the implant looks like,

Courtesy: EPFL

Courtesy: EPFL

The press release describes how the implant is placed (Note: A link has been removed),

Flexible and stretchy, the implant developed at EPFL is placed beneath the dura mater, directly onto the spinal cord. Its elasticity and its potential for deformation are almost identical to the living tissue surrounding it. This reduces friction and inflammation to a minimum. When implanted into rats, the e-Dura prototype caused neither damage nor rejection, even after two months. More rigid traditional implants would have caused significant nerve tissue damage during this period of time.

The researchers tested the device prototype by applying their rehabilitation protocol — which combines electrical and chemical stimulation – to paralyzed rats. Not only did the implant prove its biocompatibility, but it also did its job perfectly, allowing the rats to regain the ability to walk on their own again after a few weeks of training.

“Our e-Dura implant can remain for a long period of time on the spinal cord or the cortex, precisely because it has the same mechanical properties as the dura mater itself. This opens up new therapeutic possibilities for patients suffering from neurological trauma or disorders, particularly individuals who have become paralyzed following spinal cord injury,” explains Lacour, co-author of the paper, and holder of EPFL’s Bertarelli Chair in Neuroprosthetic Technology.

The press release goes on to describe the engineering achievements,

Developing the e-Dura implant was quite a feat of engineering. As flexible and stretchable as living tissue, it nonetheless includes electronic elements that stimulate the spinal cord at the point of injury. The silicon substrate is covered with cracked gold electric conducting tracks that can be pulled and stretched. The electrodes are made of an innovative composite of silicon and platinum microbeads. They can be deformed in any direction, while still ensuring optimal electrical conductivity. Finally, a fluidic microchannel enables the delivery of pharmacological substances – neurotransmitters in this case – that will reanimate the nerve cells beneath the injured tissue.

The implant can also be used to monitor electrical impulses from the brain in real time. When they did this, the scientists were able to extract with precision the animal’s motor intention before it was translated into movement.

“It’s the first neuronal surface implant designed from the start for long-term application. In order to build it, we had to combine expertise from a considerable number of areas,” explains Courtine, co-author and holder of EPFL’s IRP Chair in Spinal Cord Repair. “These include materials science, electronics, neuroscience, medicine, and algorithm programming. I don’t think there are many places in the world where one finds the level of interdisciplinary cooperation that exists in our Center for Neuroprosthetics.”

For the time being, the e-Dura implant has been primarily tested in cases of spinal cord injury in paralyzed rats. But the potential for applying these surface implants is huge – for example in epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease and pain management. The scientists are planning to move towards clinical trials in humans, and to develop their prototype in preparation for commercialization.

EPFL has provided a video of researcher Stéphanie Lacour describing e-Dura and expressing hopes for its commercialization,

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Electronic dura mater for long-term multimodal neural interfaces by Ivan R. Minev, Pavel Musienko, Arthur Hirsch, Quentin Barraud, Nikolaus Wenger, Eduardo Martin Moraud, Jérôme Gandar, Marco Capogrosso, Tomislav Milekovic, Léonie Asboth, Rafael Fajardo Torres, Nicolas Vachicouras, Qihan Liu, Natalia Pavlova, Simone Duis, Alexandre Larmagnac, Janos Vörös, Silvestro Micera, Zhigang Suo, Grégoire Courtine, Stéphanie P. Lacour. Science 9 January 2015: Vol. 347 no. 6218 pp. 159-163 DOI: 10.1126/science.1260318

This paper is behind a paywall.

Carbon nanotube fibres could connect to the brain

Researchers at Rice University (Texas, US) are excited about the possibilities that carbon nanotube fibres offer in the field of implantable electronics for the brain. From a March 25, 2015 news item on Nanowerk,

Carbon nanotube fibers invented at Rice University may provide the best way to communicate directly with the brain.

The fibers have proven superior to metal electrodes for deep brain stimulation and to read signals from a neuronal network. Because they provide a two-way connection, they show promise for treating patients with neurological disorders while monitoring the real-time response of neural circuits in areas that control movement, mood and bodily functions.

New experiments at Rice demonstrated the biocompatible fibers are ideal candidates for small, safe electrodes that interact with the brain’s neuronal system, according to the researchers. They could replace much larger electrodes currently used in devices for deep brain stimulation therapies in Parkinson’s disease patients.

They may also advance technologies to restore sensory or motor functions and brain-machine interfaces as well as deep brain stimulation therapies for other neurological disorders, including dystonia and depression, the researchers wrote.

A March 25, 2015 Rice University news release (also on EurekAlert*), which originated the news item, provides more details,

The fibers created by the Rice lab of chemist and chemical engineer Matteo Pasquali consist of bundles of long nanotubes originally intended for aerospace applications where strength, weight and conductivity are paramount.

The individual nanotubes measure only a few nanometers across, but when millions are bundled in a process called wet spinning, they become thread-like fibers about a quarter the width of a human hair.

“We developed these fibers as high-strength, high-conductivity materials,” Pasquali said. “Yet, once we had them in our hand, we realized that they had an unexpected property: They are really soft, much like a thread of silk. Their unique combination of strength, conductivity and softness makes them ideal for interfacing with the electrical function of the human body.”

The simultaneous arrival in 2012 of Caleb Kemere, a Rice assistant professor who brought expertise in animal models of Parkinson’s disease, and lead author Flavia Vitale, a research scientist in Pasquali’s lab with degrees in chemical and biomedical engineering, prompted the investigation.

“The brain is basically the consistency of pudding and doesn’t interact well with stiff metal electrodes,” Kemere said. “The dream is to have electrodes with the same consistency, and that’s why we’re really excited about these flexible carbon nanotube fibers and their long-term biocompatibility.”

Weeks-long tests on cells and then in rats with Parkinson’s symptoms proved the fibers are stable and as efficient as commercial platinum electrodes at only a fraction of the size. The soft fibers caused little inflammation, which helped maintain strong electrical connections to neurons by preventing the body’s defenses from scarring and encapsulating the site of the injury.

The highly conductive carbon nanotube fibers also show much more favorable impedance – the quality of the electrical connection — than state-of-the-art metal electrodes, making for better contact at lower voltages over long periods, Kemere said.

The working end of the fiber is the exposed tip, which is about the width of a neuron. The rest is encased with a three-micron layer of a flexible, biocompatible polymer with excellent insulating properties.

The challenge is in placing the tips. “That’s really just a matter of having a brain atlas, and during the experiment adjusting the electrodes very delicately and putting them into the right place,” said Kemere, whose lab studies ways to connect signal-processing systems and the brain’s memory and cognitive centers.

Doctors who implant deep brain stimulation devices start with a recording probe able to “listen” to neurons that emit characteristic signals depending on their functions, Kemere said. Once a surgeon finds the right spot, the probe is removed and the stimulating electrode gently inserted. Rice carbon nanotube fibers that send and receive signals would simplify implantation, Vitale said.

The fibers could lead to self-regulating therapeutic devices for Parkinson’s and other patients. Current devices include an implant that sends electrical signals to the brain to calm the tremors that afflict Parkinson’s patients.

“But our technology enables the ability to record while stimulating,” Vitale said. “Current electrodes can only stimulate tissue. They’re too big to detect any spiking activity, so basically the clinical devices send continuous pulses regardless of the response of the brain.”

Kemere foresees a closed-loop system that can read neuronal signals and adapt stimulation therapy in real time. He anticipates building a device with many electrodes that can be addressed individually to gain fine control over stimulation and monitoring from a small, implantable device.

“Interestingly, conductivity is not the most important electrical property of the nanotube fibers,” Pasquali said. “These fibers are intrinsically porous and extremely stable, which are both great advantages over metal electrodes for sensing electrochemical signals and maintaining performance over long periods of time.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Neural Stimulation and Recording with Bidirectional, Soft Carbon Nanotube Fiber Microelectrodes by Flavia Vitale, Samantha R. Summerson, Behnaam Aazhang, Caleb Kemere, and Matteo Pasquali. ACS Nano, Just Accepted Manuscript DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.5b01060 Publication Date (Web): March 24, 2015

Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

The paper is open access provided you register on the website.

Remote control for stimulation of the brain

Mo Costandi, neuroscientist and freelance science writer, has written a March 24, 2015 post for the Guardian science blog network focusing on neuronal remote control,

Two teams of scientists have developed new ways of stimulating neurons with nanoparticles, allowing them to activate brain cells remotely using light or magnetic fields. The new methods are quicker and far less invasive than other hi-tech methods available, so could be more suitable for potential new treatments for human diseases.

Researchers have various methods for manipulating brain cell activity, arguably the most powerful being optogenetics, which enables them to switch specific brain cells on or off with unprecedented precision, and simultaneously record their behaviour, using pulses of light.

This is very useful for probing neural circuits and behaviour, but involves first creating genetically engineered mice with light-sensitive neurons, and then inserting the optical fibres that deliver light into the brain, so there are major technical and ethical barriers to its use in humans.

Nanomedicine could get around this. Francisco Bezanilla of the University of Chicago and his colleagues knew that gold nanoparticles can absorb light and convert it into heat, and several years ago they discovered that infrared light can make neurons fire nervous impulses by heating up their cell membranes.

Polina Anikeeva’s team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology adopted a slightly different approach, using spherical iron oxide particles that give off heat when exposed to an alternating magnetic field.

Although still in the experimental stages, research like this may eventually allow for wireless and minimally invasive deep brain stimulation of the human brain. Bezanilla’s group aim to apply their method to develop treatments for macular degeneration and other conditions that kill off light-sensitive cells in the retina. This would involve injecting nanoparticles into the eye so that they bind to other retinal cells, allowing natural light to excite them into firing impulses to the optic nerve.

Costandi’s article is intended for an audience that either understands the science or can deal with the uncertainty of not understanding absolutely everything. Provided you fall into either of those categories, the article is well written and it provides links and citations to the papers for both research teams being featured.

Taken together, the research at EPFL, Rice University, University of Chicago, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology provides a clue as to how much money and intellectual power is being directed at the brain.

* EurekAlert link added on March 26, 2015.

Nanoscale antioxidants

A Feb. 10, 2015 news item on Azonano features injectable nanoparticles that act as antioxidants useful in case of injury, in particular, brain injury,

Injectable nanoparticles that could protect an injured person from further damage due to oxidative stress have proven to be astoundingly effective in tests to study their mechanism.

Scientists at Rice University, Baylor College of Medicine and the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) Medical School designed methods to validate their 2012 discovery that combined polyethylene glycol-hydrophilic carbon clusters — known as PEG-HCCs — could quickly stem the process of overoxidation that can cause damage in the minutes and hours after an injury.

A Feb. 9, 2015 Rice University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describe the benefits in more detail,

The tests revealed a single nanoparticle can quickly catalyze the neutralization of thousands of damaging reactive oxygen species molecules that are overexpressed by the body’s cells in response to an injury and turn the molecules into oxygen. These reactive species can damage cells and cause mutations, but PEG-HCCs appear to have an enormous capacity to turn them into less-reactive substances.

The researchers hope an injection of PEG-HCCs as soon as possible after an injury, such as traumatic brain injury or stroke, can mitigate further brain damage by restoring normal oxygen levels to the brain’s sensitive circulatory system.

“Effectively, they bring the level of reactive oxygen species back to normal almost instantly,” said Rice chemist James Tour. “This could be a useful tool for emergency responders who need to quickly stabilize an accident or heart attack victim or to treat soldiers in the field of battle.” Tour led the new study with neurologist Thomas Kent of Baylor College of Medicine and biochemist Ah-Lim Tsai of UTHealth.

The news release goes on to describe the antioxidant particles and previous research,

PEG-HCCs are about 3 nanometers wide and 30 to 40 nanometers long and contain from 2,000 to 5,000 carbon atoms. In tests, an individual PEG-HCC nanoparticle can catalyze the conversion of 20,000 to a million reactive oxygen species molecules per second into molecular oxygen, which damaged tissues need, and hydrogen peroxide while quenching reactive intermediates.

Tour and Kent led the earlier research that determined an infusion of nontoxic PEG-HCCs may quickly stabilize blood flow in the brain and protect against reactive oxygen species molecules overexpressed by cells during a medical trauma, especially when accompanied by massive blood loss.

Their research targeted traumatic brain injuries, after which cells release an excessive amount of the reactive oxygen species known as a superoxide into the blood. These toxic free radicals are molecules with one unpaired electron that the immune system uses to kill invading microorganisms. In small concentrations, they contribute to a cell’s normal energy regulation. Generally, they are kept in check by superoxide dismutase, an enzyme that neutralizes superoxides.

But even mild traumas can release enough superoxides to overwhelm the brain’s natural defenses. In turn, superoxides can form such other reactive oxygen species as peroxynitrite that cause further damage.

“The current research shows PEG-HCCs work catalytically, extremely rapidly and with an enormous capacity to neutralize thousands upon thousands of the deleterious molecules, particularly superoxide and hydroxyl radicals that destroy normal tissue when left unregulated,” Tour said.

“This will be important not only in traumatic brain injury and stroke treatment, but for many acute injuries of any organ or tissue and in medical procedures such as organ transplantation,” he said. “Anytime tissue is stressed and thereby oxygen-starved, superoxide can form to further attack the surrounding good tissue.”

These details about the research are also noted in the news release,

The researchers used an electron paramagnetic resonance spectroscopy technique that gets direct structure and rate information for superoxide radicals by counting unpaired electrons in the presence or absence of PEG-HCC antioxidants. Another test with an oxygen-sensing electrode, peroxidase and a red dye confirmed the particles’ ability to catalyze superoxide conversion.

“In sharp contrast to the well-known superoxide dismutase, PEG-HCC is not a protein and does not have metal to serve the catalytic role,” Tsai said. “The efficient catalytic turnover could be due to its more ‘planar,’ highly conjugated carbon core.”

The tests showed the number of superoxides consumed far surpassed the number of possible PEG-HCC bonding sites. The researchers found the particles have no effect on important nitric oxides that keep blood vessels dilated and aid neurotransmission and cell protection, nor was the efficiency sensitive to pH changes.

“PEG-HCCs have enormous capacity to convert superoxide to oxygen and the ability to quench reactive intermediates while not affecting nitric oxide molecules that are beneficial in normal amounts,” Kent said. “So they hold a unique place in our potential armamentarium against a range of diseases that involve loss of oxygen and damaging levels of free radicals.”

The study also determined PEG-HCCs remain stable, as batches up to 3 months old performed as good as new.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Highly efficient conversion of superoxide to oxygen using hydrophilic carbon clusters by Errol L. G. Samuel, Daniela C. Marcano, Vladimir Berka, Brittany R. Bitner, Gang Wu, Austin Potter, Roderic H. Fabian, Robia G. Pautler, Thomas A. Kent, Ah-Lim Tsai, and James M. Tour. Published online before print February 9, 2015, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1417047112 PNAS February 9, 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.