May is Mental Health Month 2012

More than 50 years ago, Mental Health America started the tradition of celebrating “May is Mental Health Month” to raise awareness of mental health conditions and mental wellness for all. For 2012, Mental Health America is addressing mental health conditions and mental wellness through two themes.

Mental health month

A Light Switch to Turn Specific Neurons On and Off

Ed Boyden is creating new brains. A pioneer in the field of optogenetics, he is the founder and principal investigator of the synthetic neurobiology group at the MIT Media Lab, which invents technologies to reveal how cognition and emotion arise from brain networks — and to enable systematic repair of disorders such as epilepsy and post-traumatic stress disorder (ptsd).

Using a combination of lasers and genetic engineering, Boyden’s lab implants brains with optical fibers that allow them to activate special proteins in specific neurons and see their connections. In addition to helping create detailed maps of brain circuitry, the engineering of these cells has been used to cure blindness in mice, and could point the way to cures for Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s disease. On the horizon: ways of connecting to the brain via prosthetics.

By inserting genes for light-sensitive proteins into brain cells, neurons can be selectively activated or de-activated with fiber-optic implants. Check out Boyden’s demonstration at TED2011 below.

Memory Enhancement Achieved in Rats

Memories are fragile; initially forming and then retrieving them are both dependent on new protein synthesis in the brain, and both processes are vulnerable to disruption. A number of agents are known that can impair memory and these can certainly be useful — for example, in treating post-traumatic stress disorder (ptsd). Enhancing memory, however, has proven more difficult. Yet as noted in The New York Times last week [1], two different research groups have recently reported enhancing memory in rats [2-3]. Of note is the fact that they did so utilizing independent molecular pathways.

Rat in a maze

Growth Factor Enhances Memory, Prevents Forgetting in Rats

A naturally occurring growth factor significantly boosted retention and prevented forgetting of a fear memory when injected into rats’ memory circuitry during time-limited windows when memories become fragile and changeable. In a study funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), animals treated with insulin-like growth factor (IGF2) excelled at remembering to avoid a location where they had previously experienced a mild shock [1].