All parents know the infant milestones: turning over, learning to crawl, standing, and taking that first unassisted step. Achieving each accomplishment presumably requires the formation of new connections among subsets of the billions of nerve cells in the infant's brain. But how, when and where those connections form has been a mystery.
Now researchers at Duke Medicine have begun to find answers. In a study reported Jan. 23, 2013, in the scientific journal Neuron, the research team describes the entire network of brain cells that are connected to specific motor neurons controlling whisker muscles in newborn mice.
A better understanding of such motor control circuits could help inform how human brains develop, potentially leading to new ways of restoring movement in people who suffer paralysis from brain injuries, or to the development of better prosthetics for limb replacement.
"Whiskers to mice are like fingers to humans, in that both are moving touch sensors," said lead investigator Fan Wang, PhD, associate professor of cell biology and member of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences. "Understanding how the mouse's brain controls whisker movements may tell us about neural control of finger movements in people."
Mice are active at night, so they rely heavily on whiskers to detect and discriminate objects in the dark, brushing their whiskers against objects in a rhythmic back-and-forth sweeping pattern referred to as "whisking". But this whisking behavior does not appear until about two weeks after birth, when young mice start to explore the world outside their nest.
To learn how motor control of whiskers takes place, Wang and postdoctoral fellow Jun Takatoh used a new technique that takes advantage of the rabies virus' ability to spread through connected nerve cells. A disabled form of the virus used to vaccinate pets was created with the ability to express a fluorescent protein. The researchers were able to trace its path through a network of brain cells directly connected to the motor neurons controlling whisker movement.
"The precision of this mapping method allowed us to ask a key question, namely are parts of the whisker motor control circuitry not yet connected in newborn mice, and are such missing links added later to enable whisking?" Wang said.
By taking a series of pictures in the fluorescently labeled brains during the first two weeks after birth, the research team chronicled the developing circuits before and after mice start whisking.