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Scientists use lasers to control mouse brain switchboard
Date:8/14/2014

Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), which helped fund the study. "Understanding brain circuits at the level of detail attained in this study is a goal of the President's Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative."

To study the circuits, the researchers identified TRN cells that send inhibitory signals to parts of the thalamus known to relay visual information to the cortex. Using a technique known as multi-electrode recordings, they showed that sleep and concentration affected these cells in opposite ways.

They fired often when the mice were asleep, especially during short bursts of simultaneous brain cell activity called sleep spindles. These activity bursts briefly widen electrical brain wave traces making them look like spindles, the straight spikes with rounded bottoms used to make yarn. In contrast, the cells fired infrequently when the mice were tasked with using visual cues to find food. The results suggested that these cells blocked visual information from reaching the cortex during sleep and allowed its transmission when the mice were awake and attentive.

For Dr. Halassa, a practicing psychiatrist who treats schizophrenia, these surprising results may provide fundamental insights into how the brain controls information transmission, a process that is disrupted in patients with neuropsychiatric disorders. Previous studies suggested that people who experienced more spindles while sleeping were less susceptible to being disturbed by outside noises. Moreover, people with schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorder may experience fewer spindles.

"Spindles may be peepholes into the mysteries of these disorders," said Dr. Halassa.

To test this idea, the researchers used optogenetics, a technique that introduces light-sensitive molecules into nerve cells. This allowed them to precisely control the firing patterns of visual TRN cells with flashes of laser light. The experiments were perfor
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Contact: Christopher G. Thomas
thomaschr@ninds.nih.gov
301-496-5751
NIH/National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
Source:Eurekalert  

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