Just a few weeks ago, the research enterprise was hurtling along a full speed. Now, the global science community, including researchers at the seven Kavli Neuroscience Institutes from the U.S. to Norway, is grappling with challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic. For many, that means shuttered laboratories, splintered research collaborations, and delayed or discarded experiments. Still, we’re continuing to shine a spotlight on recent progress in brain research and the teams driving that progress. Consider it a reflection of our optimism that when the world emerges from this crisis science—and trust in science—will be stronger.
High-speed brain circuit identified
Signals relayed by a superfast brain circuit have been recorded for the first time in humans. Researchers affiliated with the Kavli Institute for Fundamental Neuroscience at the University of California, San Francisco, confirmed the existence a 5-cm-long pathway that “rapidly and directly” conveys signals between two parts of the prefrontal cortex. They accomplished the feat using electrodes implanted onto the surface of the brain in Parkinson’s patients. (The patients were undergoing surgery for deep-brain stimulation and volunteered for the study.) Led by UCSF neurosurgeon Philip Starr, the team showed that the pathway coordinated a deceptively complex movement: suddenly stopping a motion that has already been initiated. Next, the researchers will continue monitoring the circuit as the patients go about their daily lives. “Using this technology, we can start to tease apart what this circuit is doing in real life when people are moving, talking, walking, playing music or sports or whatever they want to do,” said graduate student Witney Chen, first author on the new study. “We want to know whether we can stimulate this circuit in a certain way to improve gait for a Parkinson’s patient, or inhibition in impulse control disorders.”
The sea slug leap
The Lasker Foundation, which is a member of the Science Philanthropy Alliance along with The Kavli Foundation, is celebrating its 75th anniversary by publishing a set of research profile and videos. In this exclusive profile, Lasker Prize-winner Eric Kandel, who is Fred Kavli Professor of Neuroscience at Columbia University, discusses his fateful decision to study the mechanisms underlying learning and memory using the giant Mediterranean sea slug. In 1983, Kandel shared the 1983 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award with Vernon Mountcastle for their research on “molecular approaches to memory.”
A Key to Working Memory
Yale researchers have pinpointed a molecule that is critical for working memory, a mental sticky note that enables us to hold a thought in mind even through distraction. Neuroscientists are keenly interesting in understanding how working memory works because it is compromised in disorders like schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s. In a new study, researchers showed that the neuronal circuits in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) that give rise to working memory have special “molecular maintenance requirements,” said senior author Min Wang, senior research scientist in neuroscience at Yale University in a statement. The ability of those PFC neurons to do their job depends on the interaction between the brain signalling chemical acetylcholine and the muscarinic M1 receptors they stimulate. The finding is important because there are drugs under development for the treatment of schizophrenia that stimulate those same receptors. The research was conducted in the lab of Amy Arnsten, a member of the Kavli Institute for Neuroscience at Yale.
New Alzheimer’s Research Centre
Two of Norway’s most-accomplished scientists, brain researchers Edvard Moser and May-Britt Moser, will lead a new national center dedicated to Alzheimer’s disease research. The goal of the K. G. Jebsen Centre for Alzheimer’s Disease, set to open in the fall, is to bridge the gap between basic research into the disease and clinical treatments. In 2014, the Mosers were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their research on the brain’s spatial navigation system, a network of cells that encode our sense of time and place. These specialized cells are concentrated in the entorhinal cortex and are also the first to die off in Alzheimer’s disease. As a result, the new Centre will focus on understanding the role this deep-brain region plays in Alzheimer’s. “If we are to understand what causes Alzheimer’s, we need to identify the early mechanisms of the disease in the particular area where it occurs. …Knowledge about the very first route the disease makes may enable us to intervene in the process and stop the disease before cells die and brain functions start to unravel,” said Edvard Moser, who co-directs the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway, in a statement.