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Alyssa L. Pedersen and Colin J. Saldanha
Given the profound influence of steroids on the organization and activation of the vertebrate central nervous system (CNS), it is perhaps not surprising that these molecules are involved in processes that restructure the cytoarchitecture of the brain. This includes processes such as neurogenesis and the connectivity of neural circuits. In the last 30 years or so, we have learned that the adult vertebrate brain is far from static; it responds to changes in androgens and estrogens, with dramatic alterations in structure and function. Some of these changes have been directly linked to behavior, including sex, social dominance, communication, and memory. Perhaps the most dramatic levels of neuroplasticity are observed in teleosts, where circulating and centrally derived steroids can affect several end points, including cell proliferation, migration, and behavior. Similarly, in passerine songbirds and mammals, testosterone and estradiol are important modulators of adult neuroplasticity, with documented effects on areas of the brain necessary for complex behaviors, including social communication, reproduction, and learning. Given that many of the cellular processes that underlie neuroplasticity are often energetically demanding and temporally protracted, it is somewhat surprising that steroids can affect physiological and behavioral end points quite rapidly. This includes recent demonstrations of extremely rapid effects of estradiol on synaptic neurotransmission and behavior in songbirds and mammals. Indeed, we are only beginning to appreciate the role of temporally and spatially constrained neurosteroidogenesis, like estradiol and testosterone being made in the brain, on the rapid regulation of complex behaviors.
The crustacean stomatogastric nervous system contains a set of distinct but interacting rhythmic motor circuits that control movements of the foregut. When isolated, these circuits produce activity patterns that are almost perfect replicas of their behavior in vivo. The ease with which distinct circuit neurons are identified, recorded, and manipulated has provided considerable insight into the general principles of how motor circuits operate and are controlled at the cellular level. The small number of relatively large neurons has facilitated several technical advances in neuroscience research and allowed the identification of one of the earliest circuit connectomes. This enabled, for the first time, studies of circuit dynamics using the relationships between all component neurons of a nervous center. A major discovery was that circuits are not dedicated to producing a single neuronal activity pattern, and that the involved neurons are not committed to particular circuits. This flexibility results predominantly from the ability of neuromodulators to change the cellular and synaptic properties of circuit neurons. The relatively unique access to, and detailed documentation of, identified circuit, sensory, and descending pathways has also started new avenues into examining how individual modulatory neurons and transmitters affect their target cells. Groundbreaking experimental and modeling work has further demonstrated that the intrinsic properties of neurons depend on their recent history of activation and that neurons and circuits counterbalance destabilizing influences by compensatory homeostatic regulation of ionic conductances. The stomatogastric microcircuits continue to provide key insight into neural circuit operation in numerically larger and less accessible systems.
Thomas W. Cronin, N. Justin Marshall, and Roy L. Caldwell
The predatory stomatopod crustaceans, or mantis shrimp, are among the most attractive and dynamic creatures living in the sea. Their special features include their powerful raptorial appendages, used to kill, stun, or disable other animals (whether predators, prey, or competitors), and their highly specialized compound eyes. Mantis shrimp vision is unlike that of any other animal and has several unique features. Their compound eyes are optically triple, each having three separate regions that produce overlapping visual fields viewing certain regions of space. They have the most diverse set of spectral classes of receptors ever described in animals, with as many as 16 types in a single compound eye. These receptors are based on a highly duplicated set of opsin molecules paired with strongly absorbing photostable filters in some photoreceptor types. The receptor set includes six ultraviolet types, all spectrally distinct, many themselves tuned by photostable filters. There are as many as eight types of polarization receptors of up to three spectral classes (including an ultraviolet class). In some species, two sets of these receptors analyze circularly polarized light, another unique capability. Stomatopod eyes move independently, each capable of visual field stabilization, image foveation and tracking, or scanning of image features. Stomatopods are known to recognize colors and polarization features and evidently use these in predation and communication. Altogether, mantis shrimps have perhaps the most unusual vision of any animal.
We live in an approximately 24-hour world and circadian rhythms have evolved to adapt organisms to the opportunities presented by Earth’s 24-hour cycle of light and dark. A “master clock” located in the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) of the brain orchestrates daily rhythms in all manner of behavioral, endocrine, metabolic, autonomic, and homeostatic systems in our bodies. The SCN is comprised of about 20,000 neurons and about one third as many astroglia. How can so few neurons and astroglia guide so many rhythms? How do neurons time out an interval as long as a day? The answers are a case study in understanding how genes within cells, and cells within circuits, function together to perform complex activities and optimize bodily functions. While individual clock cells are found in virtually all bodily tissues, the unique connectome of the SCN, its specialized afferent inputs from the retinohypothalamic tract, and its neural and humoral outputs enable its “babel” of neuronal types to synchronize their activity and signal time to the rest of the body.
At the molecular-cellular level, circadian rhythms are regulated by a 24-hour transcriptional–translational feedback loop. At the SCN tissue level, individual SCN neurons coordinate their gene expression and electrical activity, working together in circuits that sustain coherent rhythms. The SCN has many distinct cell types based on their neurotransmitters, neuropeptides, and afferent and efferent connections. There has been much progress in unraveling the dynamic network organization that underlies the SCN network’s communications. Though the precise anatomical connections underlying interneuronal communication in the SCN are not completely understood, key signaling mechanisms that sustain the SCN’s intrinsic rhythmicity have been tackled using intersectional genomic tools. Transgenic animals that permit the visualization of clock gene–protein expression have enabled analysis of SCN network activity over time. Availability of animals bearing mutations in clock genes or proteins enable the determination of changes within neurons, among neurons in networks, and their impact on behavior. The use of continuous readouts of circadian activity that track behavior, or clock gene expression, or electrical activity changes over time, within an SCN or a single neuron, leads the way to unraveling mechanisms sustaining the circadian timing system. Because the results of circadian studies generate huge amounts of data, the entry of mathematical modelers and statisticians into the field has begun to yield useful and testable predictions on how these multiplexed systems work to adapt to our 24-hour world.
Jose M. Alonso and Harvey A. Swadlow
The thalamocortical pathway is the main route of sensory information to the cerebral cortex. Vision, touch, hearing, taste, and balance all depend on the integrity of this pathway that connects the thalamic structures receiving sensory input with the cortical areas specialized in each sensory modality. Only the ancient sense of smell is independent of the thalamus, gaining access to cortex through more anterior routes. While the thalamocortical pathway targets different layers of the cerebral cortex, its main stream projects to the middle layers and has axon terminals that are dense, spatially restricted, and highly specific in their connections. The remarkable specificity of these thalamocortical connections allows for a precise reconstruction of the sensory dimensions that need to be most finely sampled, such as spatial acuity in vision and sound frequency in hearing. The thalamic axon terminals also segregate topographically according to their stimulus preferences, providing a simple principle to build cortical sensory maps: neighboring values in sensory space are represented by neighboring points within the cortex.
Thalamocortical processing is not static. It is continuously modulated by the brain stem and corticothalamic feedback based on the level of attention and alertness, and during sleep or general anesthesia. When alert, visual thalamic responses become stronger, more reliable, more sustained, more effective at sampling fast changes in the scene, and more linearly related to the stimulus. The high firing rates of the alert state make thalamocortical synapses chronically depressed and excitatory synaptic potentials less dependent on temporal history, improving even further the linear relation between stimulus and response. In turn, when alertness wanes, the thalamus reduces its firing rate, and starts generating spike bursts that drive large postsynaptic responses and keep the cortex responsive to sudden stimulus changes.
Maintaining water balance is critical for survival, but our bodies are constantly losing more water than we produce. Consuming water, therefore, is needed to restore what is lost by sweating, bleeding, vomiting, urinating, even breathing. Because the fluid in the body is divided into intracellular and extracellular compartments, and because depletion can happen in one compartment without affecting the other, separate detection mechanisms for losses in each are required. Moreover, the relatively high concentration of sodium in the extracellular space means that sodium loss accompanies extracellular dehydration. Accordingly, the behavioral response to loss of fluid from the extracellular space needs to include sodium intake. Activity of osmoreceptors (in the case of intracellular loss), or baroreceptors and the renin-angiotensin system (in the case of extracellular loss), underlies the responses to perturbations of fluid balance, and promotes the appropriate behaviors needed to restore balance to the system. The peptide angiotensin II (AngII) is a key component of these responses. Studies of AngII in drinking have been critical in our understanding of how a peripherally derived peptide can act in the brain without transport across the blood–brain barrier, and AngII-induced drinking has served as an important model for the study of intracellular signaling pathways that affect behavior. Although much has been discovered about these systems and how they respond to fluid deficits, the precise means by which the systems generate a behavioral response and the mechanism that mediates satiety remains poorly understood. Nevertheless, ongoing experiments on these open questions have already started to provide a new perspective on the negative reinforcement that is provided by drinking under conditions of thirst.
Susan C. P. Renn and Nadia Aubin-Horth
Several species show diversity in reproductive patterns that result from phenotypic plasticity. This reproductive plasticity is found for example in mate choice, parental care, reproduction suppression, reproductive tactics, sex role, and sex reversal. Studying the genome-wide changes in transcription that are associated with these plastic phenotypes will help answer several questions, including those regarding which genes are expressed and where they are expressed when an individual is faced with a reproductive choice, as well as those regarding whether males and females have the same brain genomic signature when they express the same behaviors, or if they activate sex-specific molecular pathways to output similar behavioral responses. The comparative approach of studying transcription in a wide array of species allows us to uncover genes, pathways, and biological functions that are repeatedly co-opted (“genetic toolkit”) as well as those that are unique to a particular system (“genomic signature”). Additionally, by quantifying the transcriptome, a labile trait, using time series has the potential to uncover the causes and consequences of expressing one plastic phenotype or another. There are of course gaps in our knowledge of reproductive plasticity, but no shortage of possibilities for future directions.
Kerrianne Ryan and Ian A. Meinertzhagen
Urochordates are chordate siblings that comprise the following marine invertebrates: the sessile Ascidiaceae, or sea squirts; planktonic Larvacea; and the pelagic salps, doliolids, and pyrosomes (collectively the Thaliacea), each more beautiful than the next. Tadpole larvae of ascidians and adult larvaceans both have a body plan that is chordate, with a notochord and dorsal, tubular nervous system that forms from a neural plate. Thalaciacea have a ganglion developed from a tubular structure, which has been compared to the vertebrate mes-metencephalic region, and while salps have well developed eyes, other anterior brain components are absent, and the connections within their central nervous system, as well as the neurobiology of other Thaliacea are all little reported. The ascidian tadpole larva is extensively reported, especially in the model species Ciona intestinalis, as is the caudal nerve cord in the larvacean Oikopleura dioica.
Chordate features that share proposed homology with vertebrate features include ciliary photoreceptors that hyperpolarize to light, descending decussating motor pathways that resemble Mauthner cell pathways, coronet cells in the ascidian larva and saccus vasculosus of fishes, the neural canal’s Reissner’s fiber; secondary mechanoreceptors that resemble hair cells; and ascidian bipolar cells that are like dorsal root ganglion cells.
Itzhak Fischer and Shaoping Hou
Spinal cord injury is characterized by a complex set of events, which include the disruption of connectivity between the brain and the periphery with little or no spontaneous regeneration, resulting in motor, sensory and autonomic deficits. Transplantation of neural stem cells has the potential to provide the cellular components for repair of spinal cord injury (SCI), including oligodendrocytes, astrocytes, and neurons. The ability to generate graft-derived neurons can be used to restore connectivity by formation of functional relays. The critical requirements for building a relay are to achieve long-term survival of graft-derived neurons and promote axon growth into and out of the transplant. Recent studies have demonstrated that mixed populations of glial and neuronal progenitors provide a permissive microenvironment for survival and differentiation of early-stage neurons, but inclusion of growth factors with the transplant or cues for directional axon growth outside the transplant may also be needed. Other important considerations include the timing of the transplantation and the selection of a population of neurons that maximizes the effective transmission of signals. In some experiments, the essential neuronal relay formation has been developed in both sensory and motor systems related to locomotion, respiration, and autonomic functions. Despite impressive advances, the poor regenerative capacity of adult CNS combined with the inhibitory environment of the injury remain a challenge for achieving functional connectivity via supraspinal tracts, but it is possible that recruitment of local propriospinal neurons may facilitate the formation of relays. Furthermore, it is clear that the new connections will not be identical to the original innervation, and therefore there needs to be a mechanism for translating the resulting connectivity into useful function. A promising strategy is to mimic the process of neural development by exploiting the remarkable plasticity associated with activity and exercise to prune and strengthen synaptic connections. In the meantime, the sources of neural cells for transplantation are rapidly expanding beyond the use of fetal CNS tissue and now include pluripotent ES and iPS cells as well as cells obtained by direct reprogramming. These new options can provide considerable advantages with respect to preparation of cell stocks and the use of autologous grafting, but they present challenges of complex differentiation protocols and risks of tumor formation. It is important to note that although neural stem cell transplantation into the injured spinal cord is primarily designed to provide preclinical data for the potential treatment of patients with SCI, it can also be used to develop analogous protocols for repair of neuronal circuits in other regions of the CNS damaged by injury or neurodegeneration. The advantages of the spinal cord system include well-defined structures and a large array of quantitative functional tests. Therefore, studying the formation of a functional relay will address the fundamental aspects of neuronal cell replacement without the additional complexities associated with brain circuits.
Sabine Kastner and Timothy J. Buschman
Natural scenes are cluttered and contain many objects that cannot all be processed simultaneously. Due to this limited processing capacity, neural mechanisms are needed to selectively enhance the information that is most relevant to one’s current behavior and to filter unwanted information. We refer to these mechanisms as “selective attention.” Attention has been studied extensively at the behavioral level in a variety of paradigms, most notably, Treisman’s visual search and Posner’s paradigm. These paradigms have also provided the basis for studies directed at understanding the neural mechanisms underlying attentional selection, both in the form of neuroimaging studies in humans and intracranial electrophysiology in non-human primates. The selection of behaviorally relevant information is mediated by a large-scale network that includes regions in all major lobes as well as subcortical structures. Attending to a visual stimulus modulates processing across the visual processing hierarchy with stronger effects in higher-order areas. Current research is aimed at characterizing the functions of the different network nodes as well as the dynamics of their functional connectivity.
Anitha Pasupathy, Yasmine El-Shamayleh, and Dina V. Popovkina
Humans and other primates rely on vision. Our visual system endows us with the ability to perceive, recognize, and manipulate objects, to avoid obstacles and dangers, to choose foods appropriate for consumption, to read text, and to interpret facial expressions in social interactions. To support these visual functions, the primate brain captures a high-resolution image of the world in the retina and, through a series of intricate operations in the cerebral cortex, transforms this representation into a percept that reflects the physical characteristics of objects and surfaces in the environment. To construct a reliable and informative percept, the visual system discounts the influence of extraneous factors such as illumination, occlusions, and viewing conditions. This perceptual “invariance” can be thought of as the brain’s solution to an inverse inference problem in which the physical factors that gave rise to the retinal image are estimated. While the processes of perception and recognition seem fast and effortless, it is a challenging computational problem that involves a substantial proportion of the primate brain.
Luis Carrillo-Reid and Rafael Yuste
Despite over a century of neuroscience research, the nature of the neural code, that is, how neuronal activity underlies motor, sensory, and cognitive functions, remains elusive. Understanding the causal relation between neuronal activity and behavior requires a new conceptual paradigm that considers groups of neurons, instead of individual neurons, as the functional building blocks of the brain. These “neuronal ensembles,” defined as groups of neurons with coordinated activity that are reliably recalled by sensory stimuli, motor programs, or cognitive states, could be basic modular functional units of neural circuits. This hypothesis is consistent with past and present neuroscience results and could provide a broader framework to more effectively decipher the neural code in normal brains and provide new insights into how abnormal brain activity could lead to mental and neurological disease.
What is a Sequence? The Neural Mechanisms of Perceptual, Motor, and Task Sequences Across Species and Their Interaction with Addiction
Theresa M. Desrochers and Theresa H. McKim
Sequences permeate daily life. They can be defined as a discrete series of items or states that occur in a specific order with a beginning and end. The brain supports the perception and execution of sequences. Perceptual sequences involve tracking regularities in incoming stimuli, such as the series of sounds that make up a word in language. Executed sequences range from the series of muscle activations used by a frog to catch a fly to a chess master mapping her next moves. How the brain controls sequences must therefore scale to multiple levels of control. Investigating how the brain functions to accomplish this task spans from the study of individual cells in the brain to human cognition. Understanding the neural systems that underlie sequential control is necessary to approach the mechanistic underpinnings of complex conditions such as addiction, which may be rooted in difficult-to-extinguish sequential behaviors. Current research focuses on studies in both animal and human models and spans the levels of complexity of sequential control and the brain systems that support it.
Pedro Martínez, Volker Hartenstein, and Simon G. Sprecher
The emergence and diversification of bilateral animals are among the most important transitions in the history of life on our planet. A proper understanding of the evolutionary process will derive from answering such key questions as, how did complex body plans arise in evolutionary time, and how are complex body plans “encoded” in the genome? the first step is focusing on the earliest stages in bilaterian evolution, probing the most elusive organization of the genomes and microscopic anatomy in basally branching taxa, which are currently assembled in a clade named Xenacoelomorpha. This enigmatic phylum is composed of three major taxa: acoel flatworms, nemertodermatids, and xenoturbellids. Interestingly, the constituent species of this clade have an enormously varied set of morphologies; not just the obvious external features but also their tissues present a high degree of constructional variation. This interesting diversity of morphologies (a clear example being the nervous system, with animals showing different degrees of compaction) provides a unique system in which to address outstanding questions regarding the parallel evolution of genomes and the many morphological characters encoded by them. A systematic exploration of the anatomy of members of these three taxa, employing immunohistochemistry, in situ hybridization, and high-throughput transmission electron microscopy, will provide the reference framework necessary to understand the changing roles of genes and gene networks during the evolution of xenacoelomorph morphologies and, in particular, of their nervous systems.