Researchers at Johns Hopkins have developed a new imaging technique that can be used to analyze the brain cells in mice that light up when one mice 'called' the other, shedding new light on understanding how brains process language, a new study published in the journal Neuron reveals.
In the past, researchers often studied sound processing in various animal brains by poking tiny electrodes into the auditory cortex, the part of the brain that processes sound. They then played tones and observed the response of nearby neurons, laboriously repeating the process over a gridlike pattern to figure out where the active neurons were. The neurons seemed to be laid out in neatly organized bands, each responding to a different tone. More recently, a technique called two-photon microscopy has allowed researchers to focus in on minute slices of the live mouse brain, observing activity in unprecedented detail. This newer approach has suggested that the well-manicured arrangement of bands might be an illusion. But, says David Yue, M.D., Ph.D., a professor of biomedical engineering and neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, "You could lose your way within the zoomed-in views afforded by two-photon microscopy and not know exactly where you are in the brain." Yue led the study along with Eric Young, Ph.D., also a professor of biomedical engineering and a researcher in Johns Hopkins' Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences.
With these advances, Issa and the rest of the research team were able see the tidy tone bands identified in earlier electrode studies. In addition, the new imaging platform quickly revealed more sophisticated properties of the auditory cortex, particularly as mice listened to the chirps they use to communicate with each other. "Understanding how sound representation is organized in the brain is ultimately very important for better treating hearing deficits," Yue says. "We hope that mouse experiments like this can provide a basis for figuring out how our own brains process language and, eventually, how to help people with cochlear implants and similar interventions hear better."
Yue notes that the same approach could also be used to understand other parts of the brain as they react to outside stimuli, such as the visual cortex and the parts of the brain responsible for processing stimuli from limbs.