Dr. Ed Boyden Shares How To Map And Repair The Brain
From controlling the brain with light to producing a movie to treat Alzheimer’s, the work of NYSCF — Robertson Investigator Alumnus and MIT professor Ed Boyden, PhD, exemplifies out-of-the-box thinking. He recently visited NYSCF headquarters to give an update on his research in neuroscience and biotechnology.
Dr. Boyden’s lab is interested in creating techniques that will help us understand the brain’s intricate neural circuits. With a detailed map of how these circuits function, we can then develop treatments to correct for when they fail.
The first technique Dr. Boyden spoke about was expansion microscopy. This tool allows researchers to study incredibly small and hard to access portions of the brain.
“If you were to blow up a human brain so it is the size of a city block, then the connections between brain cells would be the size of grains of sand,” he explains.
Expansion microscopy increases the space between biomolecules, essentially inflating them to a size that’s easier to study. This is done by weaving threads of a certain polymer (similar to those found in baby diapers) through a sample of tissue. When you add water to the sample, the polymers absorb it and expand, pulling apart the specimen and creating a constellation of biomolecules that show how cells are connected.
The second invention Dr. Boyden discussed was optogenetics. In optogenetics, the activity of brain cells can be stimulated or repressed by exposing them to certain wavelengths of light. Typically this is done through a fiberoptic cable leading into the brains of mice, but recent research suggests that it may be possible by simply exposing a subject to light.
This is where the Alzheimer’s movie comes in. Studies have shown that when mice modified to express Alzheimer’s symptoms exhibit brain activation at the rate of 40 Hz, their immune cells turn on and fight off harmful plaques. This happens simply because the mice are placed in a box with a blinking light on its ceiling.
“If this non-invasive strategy works in mice, maybe we can we recreate it in humans,” says Dr. Boyden.
“So what we’re doing is creating a movie would contain light and sounds designed to stimulate the brain at a certain frequency, and hopefully we’ll get a similar result.”
Often, we find the biomolecules that make these technologies possible in the genes of organisms we wouldn’t necessarily think to study. Dr. Boyden’s next endeavor is to create a system that aids this process. Using this system, scientists would take genes collected from a range of organisms, put them into mammalian cells, and then scan the cells with a microscope to see which show characteristics of interest.
For more information on Dr. Boyden’s lab, check out their website.