Lighting Design & Specification


Stimulating Neurons with LightResearchers from the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) have used optogenetics to capture the neuronal connection in the brains of mammals. They managed to record exclusive synaptic transmissions between neurons in a living animal.

Neurons, the cells of the nervous system, communicate with each other by transmitting chemical signals via junctions called synapses. This "synaptic transmission" is essential for the brain and spinal cord to treat the huge amount of stimuli and generate outgoing messages. However, the study of synaptic transmission in animals is very complex, and researchers must use artificial conditions that do not capture the real environment of neurons. Nevertheless, scientists from EPFL have now managed to observe and measure the synaptic transmission in real time in a living animal via a new approach that combines genetics and the physics of light. Their work is published in Neuron.

Aurélie Pala and Carl Petersen of the Brain Mind Institute at EPFL indeed used an innovative technique, optogenetics, which in the past 10 years has made spectacular advances in the field of neuroscience. This method uses light to precisely control the real-time activity of specific neurons in living animals, even on the move. Such precision is essential for studying the hundreds of different types of neurons, and understanding such higher brain functions as thought, behaviour, language, memory - or even mental disorders.

Activating neurons via light

Optogenetics consists of inserting a light-sensitive protein gene in living neurons, a single cell, or an entire family. Modified neurons genetically then produce this protein, which is placed on their outer envelope. They then work there as an electrical channel. When the light shines, this passage opens and allows the electrical ions to enter the cell, like a battery charged by the sun.

However, the addition of an electrical ion alters the neuron’s balance of power, and if the optogenetic stimulus is powerful enough, it generates an explosive electrical signal in the neuron. This is the optogenetic impact: controlling neuronal activity by turning on or turning off a light.

Recording neural transmissions

Pala thus used these optogenetics to stimulate isolated neurons of anesthetized mice and check if this approach could be used to record synaptic transmissions. Targeted neurons were located in a part of the brain of the rodent called the somato-sensory cortex, which transmits sensory information captured by the mouse whiskers.

When Pala sent the blue light on the neurons containing light-sensitive protein, they were activated and launched signals. At the same time, electrical signals have been measured in the surrounding neurons with microelectrodes able to capture small voltage changes across the neuronal membrane.

Through these approaches, the researchers were able to observe how light-sensitive neurons connected to some of their neighbours, either through small connectors called interneurons. In the brain, these Interneurons are generally inhibitors: when they receive a signal, they render the neuron less likely to continue the transmission.

The scientists then recorded and analyzed the synaptic transmissions between Interneuron and light-sensitive neurons. They also used an advanced imaging technique (two-photon microscopy), which allowed them to examine in depth the brains of rodents and to identify the type of each studied interneuron. The data showed that the transmissions of light-sensitive neurons varied according to the interneuron receivers.

"It’s a simple demonstration of feasibility," explains Aurélie Pala, who earned her doctorate through this research. "We believe however that optogenetics are able to give a broader picture of connectivity between other types of neurons in additional areas of the brain."

The researchers want now to explore other neuronal connections in the somato-sensory cortex and use this technique on live mice to see how enabling or disabling neuronal activity via the light is likely to affect the higher brain functions.

Source: Pala A, Petersen CCH. In Vivo Measurement of Cell-Type-Specific Synaptic Connectivity and Synaptic Transmission in Layer 2/3 Mouse Barrel Cortex. Neuron (2015) http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2014.11.025

This article first appeared in Enerzine, a French language energy news site; http://www.enerzine.com/14/18081+stimuler-les-neurones-via-la-lumiere+.html.

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