Who invented optogenetics?

Wayne State University. Ever heard of it? Probably not. How about Zhuo-Hua Pan? No? No bell ringing? Let’s try a different approach: ever heard of Stanford University? Why, yes, it’s one of the most prestigious and famous universities in the world. And now the last question: do you know who Karl Deisseroth is? If you’re not a neuroscientist, probably not. But if you are, then you would know him as the father of optogenetics.

Optogenetics is the newest tool in the biology kit that allows you to control the way a cell behaves by shining a light on it (that’s the opto part). Prior to that, the cell in question must be made to express a protein that is sensitive to light (i.e. rhodopsin) either by injecting a virus or breeding genetically modified animals that express that protein (that’s the genetics part).

If you’re watching the Nobel Prizes for Medicine, then you would also be familiar with Deisseroth’s name as he may be awarded the Nobel soon for inventing optogenetics. Only that, strictly speaking, he did not. Or, to be fair and precise at the same time, he did, but he was not the first one. Dr. Pan from Wayne State University was. And he got scooped.98.png

The story is at length imparted to us by Anna Vlasits in STAT and republished in Scientific American. In short, Dr. Pan, an obscure name in an obscure university from an ill-famed city (Detroit), does research for years in an unglamorous field of retina and blindness. He figured, quite reasonably, that restoring the proteins which sense light in the human eye (i.e. photoreceptor proteins) could restore vision in the congenitally blind. The problem is that human photoreceptor proteins are very complicated and efforts to introduce them into retinas of blind people have proven unsuccessful. But, in 2003, a paper was published showing how an algae protein that senses light, called channelrhodopsin (ChR), can be expressed into mammalian cells without loss of function.

So, in 2004, Pan got a colleague from Salus University (if Wayne State University is a medium-sized research university, then Salus is a really tiny, tiny little place) to engineer a ChR into a virus which Pan then injected in rodent retinal neurons, in vivo. After 3-4 weeks he obtained the expression of the protein and the expression was stable for at least 1 year, showing that the virus works nicely. Then his group did a bunch of electrophysiological recordings (whole cell patch-clamp and voltage clamp) to see if shining light on those neurons makes them fire. It did. Then, they wanted to see if ChR is for sure responsible for this firing and not some other proteins so they increased the intensity of the blue light that their ChR is known to sense and observed that the cell responded with increased firing. Now that they saw the ChR works in normal rodents, next they expressed the ChR by virally infecting mice who were congenitally blind and repeated their experiments. The electrophysiological experiments showed that it worked. But you see with your brain, not with your retina, so the researchers looked to see if these cells that express ChR project from the retina to the brain and they found their axons in lateral geniculate and superior colliculus, two major brain areas important for vision. Then, they recorded from these areas and the brain responded when blue light, but not yellow or other colors, was shone on the retina. The brain of congenitally blind mice without ChR does not respond regardless of the type of light shone on their retinas. But does that mean the mouse was able to see? That remains to be seen (har har) in future experiments. But the Pan group did demonstrate – without question or doubt – that they can control neurons by light.

All in all, a groundbreaking paper. So the Pan group was not off the mark when they submitted it to Nature on November 25, 2004. As Anna Vlasits reports in the Exclusive, Nature told Pan to submit to a more specialized journal, like Nature Neuroscience, which then rejected it. Pan submitted then to the Journal of Neuroscience, which also rejected it. He submitted it then to Neuron on November 29, 2005, which finally accepted it on February 23, 2006. Got published on April 6, 2006. Deisseroth’s paper was submitted to Nature Neuroscience on May 12, 2005, accepted on July, and published on August 14, 2005… His group infected rat hippocampal neurons cultured in a Petri dish with a virus carrying the ChR and then they did some electrophysiological recordings on those neurons while shining lights of different wavelengths on them, showing that these cells can be controlled by light.

There’s more on the saga with patent filings and a conference where Pan showed the ChR data in May 2005 and so on, you can read all about it in Scientific American. The magazine is just hinting to what I will say outright, loud and clear: Pan didn’t get published because of his and his institution’s lack of fame. Deisseroth did because of the opposite. That’s all. This is not about squabbles about whose work is more elegant, who presented his work as a scientific discovery or a technical report or whose title is more catchy, whose language is more boisterous or native English-speaker or luck or anything like that. It is about bias and, why not?, let’s call a spade a spade, discrimination. Nature and Journal of Neuroscience are not caught doing this for the first time. Not by a long shot. The problem is that they are still doing it, that is: discriminating against scientific work presented to them based on the name of the authors and their institutions.

Personally, so I don’t get comments along the lines of the fox and the grapes, I have worked at both high profile and low profile institutions. And I have seen the difference not in the work, but in the reception.

That’s my piece for today.

Source:  STAT, Scientific American.


1) Bi A, Cui J, Ma YP, Olshevskaya E, Pu M, Dizhoor AM, & Pan ZH (6 April 2006). Ectopic expression of a microbial-type rhodopsin restores visual responses in mice with photoreceptor degeneration. Neuron, 50(1): 23-33. PMID: 16600853. PMCID: PMC1459045. DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2006.02.026. ARTICLE | FREE FULLTEXT PDF

2) Boyden ES, Zhang F, Bamberg E, Nagel G, & Deisseroth K. (Sep 2005, Epub 2005 Aug 14). Millisecond-timescale, genetically targeted optical control of neural activity. Nature Neuroscience, 8(9):1263-1268. PMID: 16116447. DOI: 10.1038/nn1525. doi:10.1038/nn1525. ARTICLE 

By Neuronicus, 11 September 2016





Mechanisms of stress resilience

71 stress - CopyLast year a new peer-reviewed journal called Neurobiology of Stress made its debut. The journal is published by Elsevier, who, in an uncharacteristic move, has provided Open Access for its first three issues. So hurry up and download the papers.

The very first issue is centered around the idea of resilience. That is, exposed to the same stressors, some people are more likely to develop stress-induced diseases, whereas others seem to be immune to the serious effects of stress.

Much research has been carried out to uncover the effects of chronic stress or of an exposure to a single severe stressor, which vary from cardiovascular disorders, obesity, irritable bowel syndrome, immune system dysfunctions to posttraumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety, specific phobias, or depression. By comparison, there is little, but significant data on resilience: the ability to NOT develop those nasty stress-induced disorders. Without doubt, one reason for this scarcity is the difficulty in finding such rare subjects in our extremely stressful society. Therefore most of the papers in this issue focus on animal models.

Nevertheless, there is enough data on resilience to lead to no less that twenty reviews on the subject. It was difficult to choose one as most are very interesting, tackling various aspects of resilience, from sex differences to prenatal exposure to stress, from epigenetic to neurochemical modifications, from social inequalities to neurogenesis and so on.

So I chose for today a more general review of Pfau & Russo (2015), entitled “Peripheral and central mechanisms of stress resilience”. After it introduces the reader to four animal models of resilience, the paper looks at the neruoendocrine responses to stress and identifies some possible chemical mediators of resilience (like certain hormones), then at the immune responses to stress (bad, bad cytokines), and finally at the brain responses to stress (surprisingly, not focusing on amygdala, hypothalamus or hippocampus, but on the dopamine system originating from ventral tegmental area).

I catalogue the review as a medium difficulty read because it requires a certain amount of knowledge of the stress field beforehand. But do check out the other ones in the issue, too!

Reference: Pfau ML & Russo SJ (1 Jan 2015). Peripheral and central mechanisms of stress resilience. Neurobiology of Stress, 1:66-79. PMID: 25506605, PMCID: PMC4260357, DOI: 10.1016/j.ynstr.2014.09.004. Article | FREE FULLTEXT PDF

By Neuronicus, 24 January 2016

Hope for a new migraine medication

Headache clipart. Courtesy of ClipArtHut.
Headache. Courtesy of ClipArtHut.

The best current anti-migraine medication are triptans (5-HT1B/1D receptor agonists). Because these medications are contra-indicated in patients with a variety of other diseases (cardiovascular, renal, hepatic, etc.), the search for alternative drugs continues.

The heat- and pain-sensitive TRPV1 receptors (Transient Receptor Potential Vanilloid 1) localized on the trigeminal terminals (the fifth cranial nerve) have been implicated in the production of headaches. That is, if you activate them by, say, capsaicin, the same substance that gives the chili peppers their hotness, you get headaches (you’d have to eat an awful lot of peppers to get the migraine, though). On the other hand, if you block these receptors by triptans, you alleviate the migraines. All good and well, so let’s hunt for some TRPV1 antagonists, i.e. blockers. But, as theory often doesn’t meet practice, the first two antagonists that were tried were dropped in the clinical trials for lack of efficiency.

Meents et al. (2015) are giving another try to two different TRPV1 antagonists, by their fetching names of JNJ-38893777 and JNJ-17203212, respectively. Because you cannot ask a rat if it has a headache, it is very difficult to have a rodent model for migraine. Instead, researchers focused on giving rats some inflammatory soup directly into the subarachnoid space or capsaicin directly into the carotid artery, actions which they have reasons to believe produce severe headaches and some biological changes, like increase in a certain gene expression (c-fos, if you must know) in the trigeminal brain stem complex and release of the neurotransmitter calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP).

JNJ-17203212 got rid of all those physiological changes in a dose-dependent manner, presumably of the migraine, too. The other drug, JNJ-38893777, was effective only on the highest dose. Give these drugs a few more tests to pass, and off to the clinical trials with them. I’m joking, it takes a lot more research than just a paper between discovery and human drug trials.

Reference: Meents JE, Hoffmann J, Chaplan SR, Neeb L, Schuh-Hofer S, Wickenden A, & Reuter U (December 2015, Epub 24 June 2015). Two TRPV1 receptor antagonists are effective in two different experimental models of migraine. The Journal of Headache and Pain. 16:57. doi: 10.1186/s10194-015-0539-z. Article | FREE FULLTEXT PDF

By Neuronicus, 8 November 2015

How long does it take for environmental enrichment to show effects?

From funnyvet.
From funnyvet.

Environmental enrichment is a powerful way to give a boost to neurogenesis and alleviate some anxiety and depression symptoms. For the laboratory rodents, who spend their lives in cages with water and food access, environmental enrichment can refer to as little as a toy or two or as much as large room colonies with different size tubes, different levels to explore, nesting materials, plenty of toys with various shapes, textures, and colors, exercise wheels, and even the occasional fruit or peanut butter snack. But for how long does a mouse need to be exposed to enrichment to show cognitive and emotional improvement?

Leger et al. (2015) ran several anxiety, depression, and long-term memory tests in mice who have been exposed to environmental enrichment for 24 h, 1, 3, or 5 weeks. Although 24 h exposure was enough to improve memory, only after 3-week exposure some anxiety behaviors were attenuated. No effect on depressive behaviors or coticosterone levels, which may be due to that particular strain of mouse (several other studies found that environmental enrichment ameliorates depressive symptoms in other mice strains and rats). The 3-week exposure also increased the levels of serotonin in the frontal cortex. Only after 5-eweek exposure there was a significant survival rate of the hippocampal new cells. Of note, these were normal mice, i.e. they were not suffering from any disorder prior to exposure.

Mice raised in an impoverished environment (a) show less dendrite growth (c) than do mice raised in an enriched environment (b, d). Copyright: BSCS.
Mice raised in an impoverished environment (a) show less dendrite growth (c) than do mice raised in an enriched environment (b, d). Copyright: BSCS.

The findings give us a nice timeline for environmental enrichment to show its desired effects. But… if there are differences in the timeline and effects of environmental enrichment exposure from mouse strain to mouse strain, then what can we say for humans? Probably not much, unfortunately. As the ad nauseam overused phrase goes at the end of so many papers, ‘more research is needed to elucidate this problem’.

Reference: Leger M, Paizanis E, Dzahini K, Quiedeville A, Bouet V, Cassel JC, Freret T, Schumann-Bard P, & Boulouard M. (Nov 2015, Epub 5 Jun 2014). Environmental Enrichment Duration Differentially Affects Behavior and Neuroplasticity in Adult Mice. Cerebral Cortex, 25(11):4048-61. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhu119. Article | FREE PDF

By Neuronicus, 1 November 2015

You were not my first choice either!

Sexually receptive female mice prefer a Lego brick over a male if their prefrontal oxytocin neurons are silenced.

Over the past five years or so, dopamine stepped down from the role of the “love molecule” in favor of oxytocin, a hormone previously known mostly for its crucial role in pregnancy, labor, delivery, lactation, and breastfeeding. Since some interesting discoveries in monogamous vs. polygamous voles (a type of rodent) pointing to oxytocin as essential for bonding, many studies implicated the chemical in all sorts of behaviors, from autistic to trusting, from generosity to wound healing.

Nakajima, Görlich, & Heintz (2015) add to that body of knowledge by finding that only a small group of cells in the medial prefrontal cortex express oxytocin receptors: a subpopulation of somatostatin cortical interneurons. Moreover, these neurons are gender dimorphic, meaning they differ from male to female: the female ones have twice as many action potentials upon application of oxytocin as compared to male’s.

And here is the more interesting part:
– Females in the sexually receptive phase of their estrus whose oxytocin neurons were silenced preferred to interact with a Lego brick over a male mouse (which, as you might have guessed, in not what they typically choose).
– Females that were not in their sexually receptive phase when their oxytocin neurons were silenced still preferred to interact with a mouse (male or female) over the Lego brick.
– Silencing of other neurons had no effect on their choice.
– Silencing had no effect on the males.

Hm… there are such things out there as oxytocin inter-nasal sprays… How soon do you think until the homeopaths, naturopaths, and other charlatans market oxytocin as a potent aphrodisiac? And it will take some deaths until the slow machine of beaurocracy turns its wheels and tightens the regulations on the accessibility to the hormone. Until then… as the cartoons say, don’t try this at home! Go buy some flowers or something for your intended one… it would work better, trust me on this.

Reference: Nakajima M, Görlich A, & Heintz N (9 October 2014). Oxytocin modulates female sociosexual behavior through a specific class of prefrontal cortical interneurons. Cell. 159(2): 295–305. doi:10.1016/j.cell.2014.09.020. Article | FREE FULLTEXT PDF

By Neuronicus, 23 October 2015

The FIRSTS: Adult neurogenesis (1962)

New neurons in the granular layer of the hippocampus. Fig. 30 from Altman & Das (1965).
New neurons in the granular layer of the hippocampus. Fig. 30 from Altman & Das (1965).

I am starting a new category today: the Firsts. It will feature articles that showed something really interesting for the first time. Yes, all articles show something for the first time, that’s why they are published. But I have noticed either a lack of acknowledgment (“it is known that x”) or a disregard for the old papers (“doesn’t count if it’s before, say, 2001”), particularly among the new generation of scientists. So I will feature both the really big ones (e.g., first proof of adult neurogenesis) or the more obscure, but nonetheless, first in their field (e.g., first synthesis of morphine).

Today, first proof of adult neurogenesis. Altman (1962) wanted to see the kinetics of glial proliferation after brain injury. Glial cells are the other type of cells in the brain and they outnumber the neurons 10 to 1. Altman lesioned the rat lateral geniculate nucleus (a portion of the thalamus that deals primarily with vision) and then injected the rats with thymidine-H3, a dye that labels the newly formed cells. In addition to the expected glial proliferation, he also observed (by microscope and careful histology) that some neurons were also stained with the dye, which means that they were born after the injection. The new neurons were in many regions of the brain (so not only those associated with the lesioned area), including the cortical areas.

Altman followed up and three years later published the first comprehensive study of postnatal (not adult) neurogenesis in dendate gyrus of the hippocampus.


  1. Altman, J. (30 March 1962). Are New Neurons Formed in the Brains of Adult Mammals?. Science, 135 (3509): 1127-1128. DOI: 10.1126/science.135.3509.1127. Article | PDF
  2. Altman, J, & Das, G. D. (June 1965). Autoradiographic and histological evidence of postnatal hippocampal neurogenesis in rats. The Journal of Comparative Neurology, 124 (3): 319 –335. DOI: 10.1002/cne.901240303. Article | PDF

by Neuronicus, 30 September 2015