(Great Neck, N.Y. - May 26, 2009) — Research led by NARSAD Investigator Karl Deisseroth, M.D., Ph.D., of Stanford University Medical Center, suggests that brain cells need to follow specific rhythms for proper brain functioning, and that these rhythms don't appear to be working correctly in schizophrenia and autism.
In studies published in Nature and Science, the researchers demonstrate that precisely tuning the oscillation frequencies of certain neurons can affect how the brain processes information and implements feelings of reward.
"A unifying theme here is that of brain rhythms and 'arrhythmias'," stated Dr. Deisseroth, an associate professor of bioengineering and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. Senior author of the studies, Dr. Deisseroth received a NARSAD Young Investigator grant in 2005 and was elected to NARSAD’s Scientific Council last year.
An arrhythmia is what cardiologists call a seriously irregular heartbeat. The new findings suggest that, like the cells that keep the beat of the heart, certain brain cells can orchestrate oscillations that ultimately help govern behavior of other cells that are guided by those rhythms.
In the Nature study, published online on April 26 along with a companion paper from MIT, Dr. Deisseroth's team focused on neurons in mice that produce a protein called parvalbumin. Some researchers have suspected that these neurons drive gamma brain waves that oscillate at a frequency of 40 times a second (or Hertz), and that these waves might affect the flow of information in the brain. This could not previously be proved because no one could selectively control the neurons and see the resulting effect on the information flow, or oscillations.
"This has been a fundamental mystery. We have these cells that could be crucially involved in high-level, complex information processing and we see these oscillations that are happening, but people don't really know how to put all this together," Dr. Deisseroth said. "But this is exactly the kind of thing now that we can address using optical methods."