The language of neural cells

by Angela Herring
Heather Clark uses nanosensors to monitor the chemical environment of various biological systems.

Imagine if we could under­stand the lan­guage two neu­rons use to com­mu­ni­cate. We might learn some­thing about how thoughts and con­scious­ness are formed. At the very least, our improved under­standing of neuron com­mu­ni­ca­tion would help biol­o­gists study the brain with more pre­ci­sion than ever before.

Heather Clark, an asso­ciate pro­fessor of phar­ma­ceu­tical sci­ences at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity, has received a $300,000 Young Fac­ulty Award from the to explore neural cell com­mu­ni­ca­tion using her exper­tise in .

"We were inter­ested in looking into because of the need to mea­sure chem­i­cals in the brain," she explained.

In sep­a­rate work, Clark had already been devel­oping nanosen­sors to mea­sure the bio­chem­ical envi­ron­ment inside a single neuron. The DARPA award will allow her team to extend the inves­ti­ga­tion to the bio­chem­ical reac­tions between cells. "We will use the chem­istry devel­oped for another DARPA project and apply it to making a sensor for neu­ro­trans­mitter release," Clark said.

The other DARPA project, she noted, enabled the team to incor­po­rate enzymes into their sensor format. Post­doc­toral researcher Kevin Cash did the bulk of this work, devel­oping sen­sors that mon­itor the byprod­ucts of enzy­matic reactions.

As Clark put it, "We can mea­sure a whole lot more mol­e­cules that way."

When a neural cell sends a mes­sage to another cell, it releases mol­e­cules into the inter­cel­lular envi­ron­ment. The new nanosensor will incor­po­rate an enzyme that reacts with these mol­e­cules to pro­duce acidity changes. A pH mon­itor also incor­po­rated into the nanosensor will rec­og­nize those acidity changes and pro­duce a signal equiv­a­lent to the con­cen­tra­tion of the neurotransmitter.

This indi­rect mea­sure­ment process will allow Clark's team to mea­sure neu­ro­trans­mitter levels without directly binding to them, a chal­lenge in its own right. "But enzymes do a really great job of rec­og­nizing [these mol­e­cules] nat­u­rally," said Clark. "It's what they do best."

The researchers have devel­oped other sen­sors that use this same chem­ical pro­tocol, but the dif­fi­culty lies in get­ting them into the inter­cel­lular space. "We're not actu­ally working in the whole brain, we're working in slices [of the mouse brain]," Clark explained. "So we're hoping to just flush it into the tissue layer."

Col­lab­o­ra­tors at Har­vard Med­ical School will apply their exper­tise in keeping brain tissue alive in solu­tion for these types of tests. But before reaching that level of inves­ti­ga­tion, the North­eastern researchers will val­i­date the nanosen­sors in in vitro and model cel­lular settings.

In addi­tion to receiving funding, YFA awardees are paired with DARPA pro­gram man­agers who share sim­ilar inter­ests. Clark's mentor is a med­ical doctor with exper­tise in microscale and nanoscale bio­med­ical tech­nolo­gies. "It's always my goal to do some­thing that is med­ically and clin­i­cally rel­e­vant," Clark said. "I think that will be good insight."

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Fat for better drug function

Aug 09, 2012

Sci­en­tists have long known that food diges­tion affects the way the body absorbs var­ious compounds—from nutri­ents to drugs and toxins.

Chipping away at cancer

Jun 25, 2012

(Medical Xpress) -- In the last two decades, the number of deaths from col­orectal cancer has steadily declined, according to the Amer­ican Cancer Society. While some of the decrease can be attrib­uted ...

Recommended for you

How is depression related to dementia?

1 hour ago

A new study by neuropsychiatric researchers at Rush University Medical Center gives insight into the relationship between depression and dementia. The study is published in the July 30, 2014, online issue of Neurology, the me ...

Brainwaves can predict audience reaction

8 hours ago

Media and marketing experts have long sought a reliable method of forecasting responses from the general population to future products and messages. According to a study conducted at The City College of New ...

User comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Tausch
not rated yet Aug 23, 2012
Control climate and you control the world.
Control the molecular ('langauge') and you control the mind.

"It's always my goal to do some­thing that is med­ically and clin­i­cally rel­e­vant," Clark said. "I think that will be good insight."


Yes. Only in light of the esuing ethnics.