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Making your brain social: Identifying brain connections that lead to social behavior

Date:
February 2, 2014
Source:
European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL)
Summary:
Scientists have identified, for the first time, a way in which the decreased functional connectivity seen in the brain of many people with autism can come about: it can be caused by cells called microglia failing to trim connections between neurons, researchers demonstrate in a study published.

This image shows trongly connected brain regions -- in mice with fewer microglia, the links between these regions are weaker.
Credit: Alessandro Gozzi, Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia

In many people with autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders, different parts of the brain don't talk to each other very well. Scientists have now identified, for the first time, a way in which this decreased functional connectivity can come about. In a study published online today in Nature Neuroscience, scientists at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Monterotondo, Italy, and collaborators at the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT), in Rovereto, and La Sapienza University in Rome, demonstrate that it can be caused by cells called microglia failing to trim connections between neurons.

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"We show that a deficit in microglia during development can have widespread and long-lasting effects on brain wiring and behavior," says Cornelius Gross, who led the study. "It leads to weak brain connectivity, decreased social behavior, and increased repetitive behavior, all hallmarks of autism."

The findings indicate that, by trimming surplus connections in the developing brain, microglia allow the remaining links to grow stronger, like high-speed fibre-optic cables carrying strong signals between brain regions. But if these cells fail to do their job at that crucial stage of development, those brain regions are left with a weaker communication network, which in turn has lifelong effects on behavior.

Yang Zhan, a postdoctoral fellow in Gross' lab at EMBL, analyzed the strength of connections between different areas of brain in mice that were genetically engineered to have fewer microglia during development. Working with Alessandro Gozzi's lab at IIT and Davide Ragozzino at La Sapienza University, the EMBL scientists combined this approach with high-resolution fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scans of the mice's brains, taking full advantage of a novel technique developed at IIT, which enables scientists to obtain detailed, three-dimensional maps of the brain's functional connections. The team found that mice with fewer microglia had weaker connections between neurons, and less cross-talk between different brain regions. When Rosa Paolicelli, a PhD student in Gross' lab, studied the mice's behavior, she discovered that mice with fewer microglia and decreased connectivity displayed behaviors commonly associated with autism spectrum disorders. These mice spent more time repeatedly grooming themselves, and avoided social interactions.

"This is an exciting time to be studying microglia," Gross concludes: "they're turning out to be major players in how our brain gets wired up."


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL). Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Zhan, Y., Paolicelli, R.C., Sforazzini, F., Weinhard, L., Bolasco, G., Pagani, F., Vyssotski, A.L., Bifone, A., Gozzi, A., Ragozzino, D., & Gross, C.T. Deficient neuron-microglia signaling results in impaired functional brain connectivity and social behavior. Nature Neuroscience, February 2014 DOI: 10.1038/nn.3641

Cite This Page:

European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL). "Making your brain social: Identifying brain connections that lead to social behavior." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 2 February 2014. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/02/140202132255.htm>.
European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL). (2014, February 2). Making your brain social: Identifying brain connections that lead to social behavior. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 24, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/02/140202132255.htm
European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL). "Making your brain social: Identifying brain connections that lead to social behavior." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/02/140202132255.htm (accessed October 24, 2014).

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