In oncology, the notion of personalized medicine—in which genetic tools can be used precisely to characterize a patient's cancer and tailor treatment to a genetic profile—is now all but standard practice.
Though personalized treatments for diseases like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), epilepsy, and bipolar disorders have remained frustratingly out of reach for neurologists, Harvard scientists say that could soon change.
A new technique for observing neural activity, developed by Adam Cohen, professor of chemistry and chemical biology and of physics, and colleagues including Venkatesh Murthy, professor of molecular and cellular biology, and Bernardo Sabatini, the Takeda Professor of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School, will allow scientists to stimulate neurons and observe their firing pattern in real time.
Tracing those neural pathways can help researchers answer questions about how neural signals propagate, and could one day allow doctors to design individualized treatments for a host of disorders. The study is described in a paper in Nature Methods.
"This is a tool for looking in great detail at how signals flow through neurons, and how the signal flows through circuits of neurons," Cohen said. "You can think of this as a complete neuro-electronic interface, where you can stimulate any piece of the circuit, or any subcellular region, in any pattern of space and time you can dream of. And you can then record absolutely everything that's going on in that circuit."
In addition to offering invaluable insight into how healthy neural circuits work, the system can be used to probe how disease might cause those circuits to go awry.