In the new Nature study, the researchers investigated the two major classes of inhibitory neurons. One, known as parvalbumin-expressing (PV) interneurons, targets neurons' cell bodies. The other, known as somatostatin-expressing (SOM) interneurons, targets dendrites small, branching projections of other neurons. Both PV and SOM cells inhibit a type of neuron known as pyramidal cells.
To study how these neurons exert their influence, the researchers had to develop a way to specifically activate PV or SOM neurons, then observe the reactions of the target pyramidal cells, all in the living brain.
First, the researchers genetically programmed either PV or SOM cells in mice to produce a light-sensitive protein called channelrhodopsin. When embedded in neurons' cell membranes, channelrhodopsin controls the flow of ions in and out of the neurons, altering their electrical activity. This allows the researchers to stimulate the neurons by shining light on them.
The team combined this with calcium imaging inside the target pyramidal cells. Calcium levels reflect a cell's electrical activity, allowing the researchers to determine how much activity was repressed by the inhibitory cells.
"Up until maybe three years ago, you could only just blindly record from whatever cell you ran into in the brain, but now we can actually target our recording and our manipulation to well-defined cell classes," Runyan says.
Taking a circuit apart
In this study, the researchers wanted to see how activation of these inhibitory neurons would influence how the brain processes visual input in this case, horizontal, vertical or tilted bars. When such a stimulus is presented, individual cells in the eye respond to points of light, then convey th
|Contact: Sarah McDonnell|
Massachusetts Institute of Technology