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MIT researchers watch brain in action

Cambridge, Mass. -- For the first time, scientists have been able to watch neurons within the brain of a living animal change in response to experience.

Thanks to a new imaging system, researchers at MIT's Picower Institute for Learning and Memory have gotten an unprecedented look into how genes shape the brain in response to the environment. Their work is reported in the July 28 issue of Cell.

"This work represents a technological breakthrough," said first author Kuan Hong Wang, a research scientist at the Picower Institute who will launch his own laboratory at the National Institute of Mental Health in the fall. "This is the first study that demonstrates the ability to directly visualize the molecular activity of individual neurons in the brain of live animals at a single-cell resolution, and to observe the changes in the activity in the same neurons in response to the changes of the environment on a daily basis for a week."

This advance, coupled with other brain disease models, could "offer unparalleled advantages in understanding pathological processes in real time, leading to potential new drugs and treatments for a host of neurological diseases and mental disorders," said Nobel laureate Susumu Tonegawa, a co-author of the study.

Tonegawa, director of the Picower Institute and the Picower Professor of Biology and Neuroscience at MIT, Wang and colleagues found that visual experience induces a protein that works as a molecular "filter" to enhance the overall selectivity of the brain's responses to visual stimuli.

The protein, called "Arc," was previously detected in the hippocampus, where it is believed to help store lasting memories by strengthening synapses, the connections between neurons. The Picower Institute's unexpected finding was that Arc also blocks the activity of neurons with low orientation selectivity that are not well "tuned" to vertical and horizontal lines, while keeping neurons with high or
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Contact: Elizabeth Thomson
thomson@mit.edu
617-258-5402
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
28-Jul-2006


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