Researchers develop novel system to image worm brain activity

Published on November 18, 2013 at 1:13 AM · No Comments

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and The Rockefeller University has developed a novel method to image worm brain activity and screen early stage compounds aimed at treating autism and anxiety

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) and The Rockefeller University in New York has developed a novel system to image brain activity in multiple awake and unconstrained worms. The technology, which makes it possible to study the genetics and neural circuitry associated with animal behavior, can also be used as a high-throughput screening tool for drug development targeting autism, anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, and other brain disorders.

The team details their technology and early results in the paper "High-throughput imaging of neuronal activity in Caenorhabditis elegans," published on-line in advance of print by the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences .

"One of our major objectives is to understand the neural signals that direct behavior-how sensory information is processed through a network of neurons leading to specific decisions and responses," said Dirk Albrecht, PhD, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at WPI and senior author of the paper. Albrecht led the research team both at WPI and at Rockefeller, where he served previously as a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Cori Bargmann, PhD, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and a co-author of the new paper.

To study neuronal activity, Albrecht's lab uses the tiny worm Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans), a nematode found in many environments around the world. A typical adult C. elegans is just 1 millimeter long and has 969 cells, of which 302 are neurons. Despite its small size, the worm is a complex organism able to do all of the things animals must do to survive. It can move, eat, mate, and process environmental cues that help it forage for food or react to threats. As a bonus for researchers, C. elegans is transparent. By using various imaging technologies, including optical microscopes, one can literally see into the worm and watch physiological processes in real time.

Numerous studies have been done by "worm labs" around the world exploring various neurological processes in C. elegans. These have typically been done using one worm at a time, with the animal's body fixed in place on a slide. In their new paper, Albrecht's team details how they imaged, recorded, and analyzed specific neurons in multiple animals as they wormed their way around a custom-designed microfluidic array, called an arena, where they were exposed to favorable or hostile sensory cues.

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