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Virus 'explorers' probe inner workings of the brain
Date:6/28/2010

Imagine an exceedingly complex circuit board. Wires often split -- seemingly at random -- and connect in strange and unexpected ways.

This is how Princeton University researchers developing a new method for studying brain connectivity see the brain.

Because of its intricate organization, figuring out the wiring diagram that explains how the billions of neurons in the brain are connected, and determining how they work together, remains a formidable task. But success in this endeavor could transform the field of neuroscience, offering a map toward increased knowledge of how the brain works, with implications for learning more about conditions ranging from depression and schizophrenia to Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.

Funded by a $993,000 National Institutes of Health Challenge Grant through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Lynn Enquist, a professor in Princeton's Department of Molecular Biology and in the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, is leading an effort to use genetically engineered viruses as explorers that travel throughout the nervous system, tracing the connections between neurons and reporting on their activity along the way.

"Over the years, the understanding of how cells in the brain are connected has been a major problem," said Enquist, Princeton's Henry L. Hillman Professor in Molecular Biology. "How can this blob of tissue do everything? We're missing a lot of information about how the brain works."

The NIH-funded project hinges on the creation and use of a genetically engineered virus that causes neurons to produce colorful fluorescent proteins. As the virus spreads, it leaves a colorful path through the brain in its wake. Some of the engineered viruses are designed to make the neurons glow brightly when they are active, like an "On Air" sign in the brain.

"These DNA-based technologies allow us to put little labels on neurons that tell who they are connected to," said team
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Contact: Kitta MacPherson
kittamac@princeton.edu
609-258-5729
Princeton University
Source:Eurekalert

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