New Brain Maps Capture Parenting Behavior in Vivid Snapshots

New brain imaging technique takes snapshots of the "parenting brain" in action.

Posted May 29, 2016

Courtesy of the Laboratory of Brain Development and Repair at The Rockefeller University
The regions that are lit up in white and yellow on this snapshot of the cerebral cortex represent neurons associated with a mouse's whiskers that are activated as the mouse explores a new environment.
Source: Courtesy of the Laboratory of Brain Development and Repair at The Rockefeller University

Recently, brain imaging became more vivid, in a Kodachrome kind of way. This week, researchers at The Rockefeller University in New York City announced a revolutionary neuroimaging technique which allows them to create colorful snapshots that encompass the entire cerebral cortex of a mouse brain in a single frame.

These state-of-the-art brain images are groundbreaking from a neuroscientific vantage point... They're also very pleasing to the eye. In my opinion, huge canvases of these captivating images wouldn't seem out of place hanging in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Personally, I was excited to see these images coming out of Rockefeller because my mom worked with René Dubos in the 1960s when he was at their institute writing his Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece, So Human an Animal.

The new, cutting-edge neuroimaging technique from Rockefeller is called 'ClearMap' and is able to create dynamic snapshots that represent all of the active neurons in the brain at a specific time. Currently, researchers at Rockefeller and Harvard University are using ClearMap to study brain regions involved in parental behavior. 

ClearMap Takes Snapshots of the Entire Cerebral Cortex

Until now, neuroscientists have relied on brain imaging tools that can only take a precise look at a very small slice of the mammalian brain (less than one cubic millimeter), or take a blurry look at a larger brain area. What makes this new technique groundbreaking is that the researchers at Rockefeller have created a method that combines the best of both worlds . . . ClearMap captures a detailed snapshot of global activity and creates an atlas of the entire mouse brain.

The new method is described in a May 2016 report, “Mapping of Brain Activity by Automated Volume Analysis of Immediate Early Genes,” which appears online in the journal Cell

Courtesy of the Laboratory of Brain Development and Repair at The Rockefeller University
Source: Courtesy of the Laboratory of Brain Development and Repair at The Rockefeller University

This research took place in the lab of Marc Tessier-Lavigne, professor of the Laboratory of Brain Development and Repair, and currently president of The Rockefeller University. In a statement, Tessier-Lavigne explained, "The mouse brain contains millions of neurons, and a typical image depicts the activity of approximately one million neurons. The purpose of the technique is to accelerate our understanding of how the brain works."

Eliza Adams, a graduate student in Tessier-Lavigne's lab and co-author of the study, added, "Because of the nature of our technique, we cannot visualize live brain activity over time—we only see neurons that are active at the specific time we took the snapshot. But what we gain in this trade-off is a comprehensive view of most neurons in the brain, and the ability to compare these active neuronal populations between snapshots in a robust and unbiased manner."

Even though each snapshot of brain activity typically includes at least a million active neurons, the researchers are able to sift through masses of data relatively quickly by comparing one snapshot to the next in a slideshow. Simply by eliminating the neurons that are active in both snapshots, the researchers can hone in on which neurons are activated in each unique state. 

Observing and Testing How the Parental Brain Operates

Currently, the primary purpose of this imaging tool is to help researchers generate hypotheses about brain function that can later be tested in other experiments on parental behavior. Using the new ClearMap technique, the Rockefeller University researchers collaborated with Catherine Dulac, and other scientists at Harvard University, to observe what brain regions are activated during parental nurturing. 

The researchers found that when an adult mouse encounters a pup, a region of its brain known to be active during parenting—the medial pre-optic nucleus, or MPO—lights up. However, they also noticed that whenever the MPO area becomes activated, there is less neural activity in the cortical amygdala.

The amygdala has many functions, but is widely considered to be an area that processes aversive fear-based responses. Interestingly, the researchers found that the amygdala is directly connected to the MPO "parenting region." In a statement, study author, Nicolas Renier, explained this connection, 

"Our hypothesis is that parenting neurons put the brake on activity in the fear region, which may suppress aversive responses the mice may have towards pups. Indeed, mice that are being aggressive to pups tend to show more activity in the cortical amygdala. To test this idea, the next step is to block the activity of this brain region to see if this reduces aggression in the mice."

Although it's pure speculation on my part, one could make an educated guess that this discovery might help to explain the neurobiological roots of unloving mothers and absent fathers. Maybe human beings with atypical brain connectivity between the MPO and amygdala aren't biologically hardwired to nurture their children? It will be interesting to see if future research using ClearMap leads to interventions that can promote parent-child bonding in situations where innate biological parental mechanisms go awry.

That said, the ClearMap technique has broader implications than simply looking at which brain areas of the mouse are active in different situations. This new technique can also be used to map brain activity in response to any type of biological change. This could include: testing the efficacy of a drug; monitoring the spread of disease; or even exploring the decision-making process in the brain. "You can use the same strategy to map anything you want in the mouse brain," says Renier.

Conclusion: Mice Brains Hold Many Clues for Understanding Human Brains

This new method of brain mapping is particularly important because the mouse brain and the human brain are surprisingly similar. In fact, the genes responsible for building and operating the mouse brain and human brain are 90% identical. Therefore, mapping the entire mouse brain in a single snapshot is a powerful tool for identifying the neuronal mechanisms of human behaviors and decoding the mysteries of human neuropsychology.

ClearMap is a potentially revolutionary brain imaging technology that could benefit humanity in the near future. Stay tuned for more on this exciting topic!   

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