Using a powerful gene-hunting technique for the first time in mammalian brain cells, researchers at Johns Hopkins report they have identified a gene involved in building the circuitry that relays signals through the brain. The gene is a likely player in the aging process in the brain, the researchers say. Additionally, in demonstrating the usefulness of the new method, the discovery paves the way for faster progress toward identifying genes involved in complex mental illnesses such as autism and schizophrenia as well as potential drugs for such conditions. A summary of the study appears in the Dec. 12 issue of Cell Reports.
"We have been looking for a way to sift through large numbers of genes at the same time to see whether they affect processes we're interested in," says Richard Huganir, Ph.D., director of the Johns Hopkins University Solomon H. Snyder Department of Neuroscience and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, who led the study. "By adapting an automated process to neurons, we were able to go through 800 genes to find one needed for forming synapses connections among those cells."
Although automated gene-sifting techniques have been used in other areas of biology, Huganir notes, many neuroscience studies instead build on existing knowledge to form a hypothesis about an individual gene's role in the brain. Traditionally, researchers then disable or "knock out" the gene in lab-grown cells or animals to test their hypothesis, a time-consuming and laborious process.
In this study, Huganir's group worked to test many genes all at once using plastic plates with dozens of small wells. A robot was used to add precise allotments of cells and nutrients to each well, along with molecules designed to knock out one of the cells' genes a different one for each well.
"The big challenge was getting the neurons, which are very sensitive, to function under these automated conditions," says Kamal Sharma, Ph.D., a research associa
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Johns Hopkins Medicine