Scientists create new way to study brain function

October 28, 2015

Roth immediately looked for epilepsy experts to collaborate with and contacted McNamara at Duke. Together they worked on this system that allowed them to regulate the activity of neurons in mice with CNO that was injected and able to cross the blood-brain barrier to access deep-brain neurons. With this model, the scientists were able to examine neuronal activity leading to seizures and activity that occurred during seizures.

This receptor was designed for experimental use with animals. "Based on what we learn from animal models of disease, we could get better target treatments for humans," said Georgia Alexander, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in Duke Neurobiology and co-lead author. "The great thing about these drug-activated receptors is that they can be applied to study any disease state, not just epilepsy. With this, you could try to selectively activate other populations of neurons, in an animal model of Parkinson's disease, for example." Roth said that the technique is not limited to neurons and brains, and is being used to study other cells in the body as well.

Alexander said researchers now can ask which areas of the brain are most susceptible to and critical to seizure generation, "because we can use similar techniques to inactivate or silence neurons, too."

For example, some people with seizures have a portion of their temporal lobes removed from their brains. "Now we can ask, 'Is there a different part of the brain or population of neurons we could selectively silence that would be an even better way to treat epilepsy patients?'" Alexander said.