Using rabies virus, researcher tracks inputs to dopamine neurons

June 6, 2012

A genetically-modified version of the rabies virus is helping scientists at Harvard to trace neural pathways in the brain, a research effort that could one day lead to treatments for Parkinson's disease and addiction.

As described in a paper published on June 7 in the journal Neuron, a team of researchers led by Associate Professor of Naoshige Uchida used the virus to create the first-ever comprehensive list of inputs that connect directly to dopamine in two regions of the , the (VTA), known for processing reward, and the substantia nigra (SNc), known for motor control.

"You may be familiar with the term connectome," Uchida explained. "The basic idea is we want to understand the brain in terms of connectivity and the various cell types. In this case, we're examining long-range connections; that is, how other connect directly to .

Dopamine neurons are thought to be important for processing reward and regulating motor output.

"By understanding their inputs, we might be able to better understand how the function of dopamine neurons is regulated, and, in turn, how happens, and how Parkinson's and other motor-control disorders are affected by problems with dopamine neurons," Uchida continued. "And because this application provides us with very quantitative data, it's possible that this is a technique that might be useful in attacking the causes of those diseases."

Creating that connectivity diagram, however, is anything but easy.

While both the VTA and SNc are known to have high concentrations of dopamine neurons, Uchida chose to examine both areas because the cells in the two regions fire differently.

"We wanted to know what the difference was, generally," Uchida said. "That's why we compared the inputs to both structures. Based on how other neurons are connected there, we can start to explain why these two regions of the brain do different things."

The challenge, however, is that dopamine neurons are packed into relatively small regions with several other cell types. To ensure they were only observing dopamine neurons, researchers turned to an organism more typically known for damaging neurons – the rabies virus.

Before they infect genetically-engineered mice with the rabies virus, however, they first inject the animals with a pair of "helper" viruses. The first causes dopamine neurons to produce a receptor protein, meaning the rabies virus can only infect dopamine neurons, while the second restores the virus' ability to "hop" from one neuron to another.

The mice are then infected with a version of the that has been genetically-modified to produce a fluorescent protein, allowing researchers to track the virus as it binds with dopamine neurons, and then jumps to the that link directly to those neurons.

The results, as depicted in images of a mouse's brain showing the wealth of connections to dopamine neurons, show that a number of brain regions – including some previously unknown areas – are connected to dopamine neurons.

"We found some new connections, and we found some that we suspected were there, but that were not well understood," Uchida said. "For example, we found that there are connection between the motor cortex and the SNc, which may be related to SNc dopamine neurons' role in motor control.

"Other connections, though, were more intriguing," he continued. "We found that the subthalmic nucleus preferentially connects to SNc neurons – that's particularly important because that region is a popular target for deep brain stimulation as a treatment for Parkinson's."

Often used as a treatment for Parkinson's and a variety of other disorders, deep brain stimulation involves implanting a device, called a brain pacemaker, into a patient's brain. The device then electrically stimulates specific regions of the brain, helping to mitigate symptoms of the disease.

"The mechanism for why deep brain stimulation works is not completely understood," Uchida said. "There was speculation that it might have been inhibiting neurons in the subthalmic nucleus, but our findings suggest, because there is a direct connection between those neurons and dopamine neurons in the SNc, that it is actually activating those neurons. I don't think this explains the entire mechanism for why deep works, but this may be part of it."

"This work also offers us a roadmap for other areas we might investigate, so now we can target those areas and record from them," Uchida added. "This is a critical step for future investigations."

Explore further: Study shows how neurons interact, could lead to new treatment for addiction

Related Stories

Study shows how neurons interact, could lead to new treatment for addiction

January 18, 2012
Harvard scientists have developed the fullest picture yet of how neurons in the brain interact to reinforce behaviors ranging from learning to drug use, a finding that might open the door to possible breakthroughs in the ...

Research targets brain region affected by Parkinson's

November 8, 2011
A team of researchers at The University of Western Ontario has demonstrated that elimination of one of the neurotransmitters in the part of the brain associated with Parkinson's disease may improve brain function without ...

Dopamine controls formation of new brain cells

April 8, 2011
(PhysOrg.com) -- A study of the salamander brain has led researchers at Karolinska Institutet to discover a hitherto unknown function of the neurotransmitter dopamine. In an article published in the prestigious scientific ...

Recommended for you

New surgical strategy offers hope for repairing spinal injuries

July 28, 2017
Scientists in the UK and Sweden previously developed a new surgical technique to reconnect sensory neurons to the spinal cord after traumatic spinal injuries. Now, they have gained new insight into how the technique works ...

Scientists block evolution's molecular nerve pruning in rodents

July 27, 2017
Researchers investigating why some people suffer from motor disabilities report they may have dialed back evolution's clock a few ticks by blocking molecular pruning of sophisticated brain-to-limb nerve connections in maturing ...

In witnessing the brain's 'aha!' moment, scientists shed light on biology of consciousness

July 27, 2017
Columbia scientists have identified the brain's 'aha!' moment—that flash in time when you suddenly become aware of information, such as knowing the answer to a difficult question. Today's findings in humans, combined with ...

Social influences can override aggression in male mice, study shows

July 27, 2017
Stanford University School of Medicine investigators have identified a cluster of nerve cells in the male mouse's brain that, when activated, triggers territorial rage in a variety of situations. Activating the same cluster ...

Scientists become research subjects in after-hours brain-scanning project

July 27, 2017
A quest to analyze the unique features of individual human brains evolved into the so-called Midnight Scan Club, a group of scientists who had big ideas but almost no funding and little time to research the trillions of neural ...

Researchers reveal unusual chemistry of protein with role in neurodegenerative disorders

July 27, 2017
A common feature of neurodegenerative diseases is the formation of permanent tangles of insoluble proteins in cells. The beta-amyloid plaques found in people with Alzheimer's disease and the inclusion bodies in motor neurons ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.