PITTSBURGH--Carnegie Mellon University neuroscientist Alison Barth has developed the first tool to identify and study individual neurons activated in a living animal. This advance, described in the July 21 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience, ultimately could lead to the development of targeted drugs that directly affect specific neurons involved in neurological diseases that alter behavior, learning and perception.
While neuroscientists have made great strides in identifying the general areas of the brain that perform certain tasks, these methods have worked at the gross level and with poor resolution, according to Barth, an assistant professor of biological sciences at the university's Mellon College of Science. To overcome these limitations, Barth created a transgenic mouse that couples the green fluorescent protein (GFP) with the gene c-fos, which turns on when nerve cells are activated. Using this method, researchers can see specific neurons glow as they are activated by external stimuli such as sensory experience or drug treatment.
"Our transgenic mouse is a novel tool that can be used to visualize, in living brain tissue, a single neuron that has been activated in response to an animal's experience," Barth said.
Barth used the fosGFP mice to identify neurons that are activated during a specific rearing condition experiencing the world through one whisker. By locating a cluster of glowing neurons, she was able to precisely identify the area of the brain involved in processing sensory input from the single whisker. Once the neurons of interest had been located, Barth then examined each neuron to determine how its electrophysiological and synaptic properties changed in response to sensory input. Her results are the first to show alterations in the rate at which neurons transm