Calcium sensor helps map neurological disease effects

Researchers in the US are using a calcium-based sensor to map large-scale brain activity at the single-cell level, something that could shed light on a range of neurological diseases.

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To study how brainwaves influence behaviour and decision-making, researchers observe as neurons turn 'on' and 'off' across the organ in different situations. However, current technologies are unable to map the whole brain while still identifying single cells.

Using a sensor called CaMPARI (Calcium-modulated photoactivatable ratiometric integrator), the team in the US was able to distinguish active neurons (red) from inactive (green), with the photoactive markers remaining bright for several days. Upon illumination with 400 nm light in a high-calcium environment, CaMPARI undergoes an irreversible conformational change, and its fluorescence emission changes from green to red in a process called photoconversion (PC).

In a paper recently published in Nature Communications, the researchers describe how CaMPARI was able to map brain activity in mice while they completed cognitive tasks. It’s hoped the work could play a key role in helping to treat neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.  

"Effects on behaviour and personality in Alzheimer's disease and related disorders are caused by changes in brain function," said Dr Hod Dana, from the Clevland Clinic in Ohio. "If we can understand exactly how the changes occur, we may figure out how to slow down the process or to stop it. Recording brain activity patterns that underlie behavioural changes is the first step to bridging the gap."

Dr Dana worked with behavioural neuroscientist Dr Jacob Raber from Ohio State University to develop the study. The pair say they now hope to create tests and interventions that can improve the quality of life for patients, ultimately providing better treatment options.

"We now have the capability to study the relationship between brain activation and cognitive performance at an unprecedented level," said Dr Raber. "These are the first steps in developing strategies to reverse those changes and improve cognitive performance in those affected by neurological conditions. The future of behavioural and cognitive neuroscience looks bright."