Futuristic Brain Probe Allows for Wireless Control of Neurons
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.
Photo: Jeong Lab, University of Colorado
A study showed that scientists can wirelessly determine the path a mouse walks with a press of a button. Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis, and the 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. Its development was partially funded by NIH.
“It unplugs a world of possibilities for scientists to learn how brain circuits work in a more natural setting,” said Dr. Michael Bruchas, associate professor of anesthesiology and neurobiology at WUSM and a senior author of the study.
His 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, scientists constructed 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.
“This is the kind of revolutionary tool development that neuroscientists need to map out brain circuit activity,” said Dr. James Gnadt, program director at NINDS. “It’s in line with the goals of the NIH’s BRAIN Initiative.”
In Blinding Eye Disease, Trash-Collecting Cells Go Awry, Accelerate Damage
Spider-like cells inside the brain, spinal cord and eye hunt for invaders, capturing and then devouring them. These cells, called microglia, often play a beneficial role by helping to clear trash and protect the central nervous system against infection. But a new study by researchers at NEI shows that they also accelerate damage wrought by blinding eye disorders, such as retinitis pigmentosa.
“These findings are important because they suggest that microglia may provide a target for entirely new therapeutic strategies aimed at halting blinding eye diseases of the retina,” said NEI director Dr. Paul Sieving. “New targets create untapped opportunities for preventing disease-related damage to the eye, and preserving vision for as long as possible.” The findings were published in the journal EMBO Molecular Medicine.
Retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited disorder that affects roughly 1 in 4,000 people, damages the retina, the light-sensitive tissue at the back of the eye. Research has shown links between retinitis pigmentosa and several mutations in genes for photoreceptors, the cells in the retina that convert light into electrical signals that are sent to the brain via the optic nerve. In the early stages of the disease, rod photoreceptors, which enable us to see in low light, are lost, causing night blindness. As the disease progresses, cone photoreceptors, which are needed for sharp vision and seeing colors, can also die off, eventually leading to complete blindness.
The findings suggest that therapeutic strategies may help decelerate the rate of rod photoreceptor degeneration and preserve vision, said lead investigator Dr. Wai T. Wong, chief of NEI’s unit on neuron-glia interactions in retinal disease.
Boys More Likely to Have Antipsychotics Prescribed, Regardless of Age
Boys are more likely than girls to receive a prescription for antipsychotic medication regardless of age, researchers have found. Approximately 1.5 percent of boys ages 10-18 received an antipsychotic prescription in 2010, although the percentage falls by nearly half after age 19. Among antipsychotic users with mental disorder diagnoses, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder was the most common among youth ages 1-18, while depression was the most common diagnosis among young adults ages 19-24 receiving antipsychotics.
Despite concerns over the rising use of antipsychotic drugs to treat young people, little has been known about trends and usage patterns in the United States before this latest research, which was funded by NIMH. The findings were reported July 1 in JAMA Psychiatry.
“No prior study has had the data to look at age patterns in antipsychotic use among children the way we do here,” said co-author Dr. Michael Schoenbaum, senior advisor for mental health services, epidemiology and economics at NIMH. “What’s especially important is the finding that around 1.5 percent of boys aged 10-18 are on antipsychotics, and then this rate abruptly falls by half, as adolescents become young adults.
“Antipsychotics should be prescribed with care,” said Schoenbaum. “They can adversely affect both physical and neurological function and some of their adverse effects can persist even after the medication is stopped.”