UWIN faculty member and Washington Research Foundation (WRF) Innovation Assistant Professor in Neuroengineering Azadeh Yazdan published a paper in eLIFE on how brain stimulation changes the ability of neurons to activate and encourage a learning state. The paper titled “Target cortical reorganization using optogenetics in non-human primates” describes investigations into the large-scale connections between brain regions, testing if the relationship between regions become stronger or weaker with varied stimulation.
When people preform everyday actions, connections occur between the sensory and motor areas in the brain. As this action happens more often, those connections becomes stronger. Strengthening connections allow us to learn new skills, and may be key to relearning skills lost due to a brain injury. While many studies have addressed this idea in individual neurons, the importance of strengthened connections can also be expanded to brain regions. Yazdan used a type of virus with the ability to embed light-sensitive proteins into neurons to modify the neurons of macaque monkeys. This allows for researchers to specifically activate certain neurons in the brain, isolating desired regions for connectivity and investigation. Using a concentrated light, researchers activated small regions of tissue within the brain and measured the activity of the regions electronically, displaying the reaction of the regions. While much of the brain followed the assumption that co-activation strengthens connections between brain areas, smaller brain regions had more variability, with some connections becoming weaker overall.
Using the understanding gained through these experiments, researchers can continue to refine therapies that use brain stimulation, such as those used in Parkinson’s disease. Researchers hope to use the brain’s natural learning and growing process to cure or recover from neurological illness and traumas.