These circuits sense bodily survival needs, such as energy and nutrient states, and regulate selection of the actions in the outside world that fulfill those needs. We are investigating the interaction of the hypothalamus, a brain structure critical for homeostasis, with forebrain and hindbrain circuits that are important for implementing motivated behaviors. Our focus is on the neural processes that underlie hunger, which is a fundamental motivational state that is essential for survival but is also a prime culprit in the worldwide obesity epidemic.
Neural circuits and behavior
Our lab focuses on neurons that sense internal energy levels and also influence feeding behavior. We have shown that activation of AGRP neurons, a hypothalamic neuron population, is sufficient to rapidly orchestrate voracious feeding behavior without training. The axon projections of these neurons provide a map of downstream circuit elements involved in induction of food seeking and consumption. By targeting this interoceptive sensory neuron for a fundamental bodily need for nutrients, we define a starting point for motivational circuits.
In addition, these neurons are readily accessible to genetically encoded tools for manipulating neuron activity, which enables detailed dissection of their functional properties. We use viral methods, optogenetic techniques, and electrophysiology to map functional circuit connectivity. We are investigating the behavioral mechanisms that underlie AGRP neuron-evoked feeding while relating this to specific circuit properties.
We are also investigating the molecular mechanisms regulating the hormonal control of electrical activity in AGRP neurons. These studies revealed a remarkable positive feedback mechanism responsible for synaptic plasticity of excitatory synapses onto AGRP neurons. We are currently exploring the presynaptic inputs to AGRP neurons.
Tools for reverse engineering neural circuits
The organization of the circuits that we study is extremely complex, we use a full palette of modern molecular circuit tracing and manipulation techniques. To overcome remaining challenges, we are also developing tools to perturb specific circuit properties such that the functional significance of circuit connections can be measured selectively in vivo.
We also develop new tools based on the combination of synthetic chemistry techniques with molecular and system neuroscience approaches. One example of this is the development of pharmacologically selective chimeric ion channels for flexibly manipulating a diverse range of ion conductances in defined cell types. In unpublished work, we are also developing methods in collaboration with Luke Lavis (Janelia Farm) to target pharmacological agents to molecularly defined cell types.
Evoked food intake resulting from optical stimulation of AGRP neurons.
Experiment is the first exposure of the mouse to photostimulation. Video
is at 5x speed.
Scott Sternson Group Leader
Anne-Kathrin Eiselt Postdoctoral Associate
Zhen Fang Huang Cao Graduate Student
Rong Gong Postdoctoral Associate
Fredrick Henry Postdoctoral Associate
Peter Lee Research Staff
Chris Magnus Research Staff
Tev Stachniak Visiting Scientist
Sheng-jin Xu Postdoctoral Associate
These vectors are prone to recombination. This is a well known issue with these AAV vectors and is due to the inverted terminal repeats (ITRs) required for rAAV production. To minimize recombination, we propagate these plasmids in Stbl2 cells from Invitrogen. Also, to minimize recombination, cells should be cultured at 30 ºC.
Note that these cultures will grow slowly (20 h for minipreps). Better yields and culture times are obtained with 2xYT as the media. This is strongly recommended.
Because recombination may still happen occasionally, we do a panel of restriction digestions to assess whether the ITRs are in tact. Separate digestions with PvuII, Sma1, and SnaB1 should be performed. The expected patterns can be calculated from the attached sequence available on addgene.com.
Viruses for Cre-dependent optogentics based on FLEX switch available from University of Pennsylvania Vector Core
Brain function is mediated by neural circuit connectivity, and elucidating the role of connections is aided by techniques to block their output. We developed cell-type-selective, reversible synaptic inhibition tools for mammalian neural circuits by leveraging G protein signaling pathways to suppress synaptic vesicle release. Here, we find that the pharmacologically selective designer Gi-protein-coupled receptor hM4D is a presynaptic silencer in the presence of its cognate ligand clozapine-N-oxide (CNO). Activation of hM4D signaling sharply reduced synaptic release probability and synaptic current amplitude. To demonstrate the utility of this tool for neural circuit perturbations, we developed an axon-selective hM4D-neurexin variant and used spatially targeted intracranial CNO injections to localize circuit connections from the hypothalamus to the midbrain responsible for feeding behavior. This synaptic silencing approach is broadly applicable for cell-type-specific and axon projection-selective functional analysis of diverse neural circuits.
Elucidating the roles of neuronal cell types for physiology and behavior is essential for understanding brain functions. Perturbation of neuron electrical activity can be used to probe the causal relationship between neuronal cell types and behavior. New genetically encoded neuron perturbation tools have been developed for remotely controlling neuron function using small molecules that activate engineered receptors that can be targeted to cell types using genetic methods. Here we describe recent progress for approaches using genetically engineered receptors that selectively interact with small molecules. Called "chemogenetics," receptors with diverse cellular functions have been developed that facilitate the selective pharmacological control over a diverse range of cell-signaling processes, including electrical activity, for molecularly defined cell types. These tools have revealed remarkably specific behavioral physiological influences for molecularly defined cell types that are often intermingled with populations having different or even opposite functions.
Neural processes that direct an animal's actions toward environmental goals are critical elements for understanding behavior. The hypothalamus is closely associated with motivated behaviors required for survival and reproduction. Intense feeding, drinking, aggressive, and sexual behaviors can be produced by a simple neuronal stimulus applied to discrete hypothalamic regions. What can these "evoked behaviors" teach us about the neural processes that determine behavioral intent and intensity? Small populations of neurons sufficient to evoke a complex motivated behavior may be used as entry points to identify circuits that energize and direct behavior to specific goals. Here, I review recent applications of molecular genetic, optogenetic, and pharmacogenetic approaches that overcome previous limitations for analyzing anatomically complex hypothalamic circuits and their interactions with the rest of the brain. These new tools have the potential to bridge the gaps between neurobiological and psychological thinking about the mechanisms of complex motivated behavior.
How does an organism's internal state direct its actions? At one moment an animal forages for food with acrobatic feats such as tree climbing and jumping between branches. At another time, it travels along the ground to find water or a mate, exposing itself to predators along the way. These behaviors are costly in terms of energy or physical risk, and the likelihood of performing one set of actions relative to another is strongly modulated by internal state. For example, an animal in energy deficit searches for food and a dehydrated animal looks for water. The crosstalk between physiological state and motivational processes influences behavioral intensity and intent, but the underlying neural circuits are poorly understood. Molecular genetics along with optogenetic and pharmacogenetic tools for perturbing neuron function have enabled cell type-selective dissection of circuits that mediate behavioral responses to physiological state changes. Here, we review recent progress into neural circuit analysis of hunger in the mouse by focusing on a starvation-sensitive neuron population in the hypothalamus that is sufficient to promote voracious eating. We also consider research into the motivational processes that are thought to underlie hunger in order to outline considerations for bridging the gap between homeostatic and motivational neural circuits.
Neural circuits for essential natural behaviors are shaped by selective pressure to coordinate reliable execution of flexible goal-directed actions. However, the structural and functional organization of survival-oriented circuits is poorly understood due to exceptionally complex neuroanatomy. This is exemplified by AGRP neurons, which are a molecularly defined population that is sufficient to rapidly coordinate voracious food seeking and consumption behaviors. Here, we use cell-type-specific techniques for neural circuit manipulation and projection-specific anatomical analysis to examine the organization of this critical homeostatic circuit that regulates feeding. We show that AGRP neuronal circuits use a segregated, parallel, and redundant output configuration. AGRP neuron axon projections that target different brain regions originate from distinct subpopulations, several of which are sufficient to independently evoke feeding. The concerted anatomical and functional analysis of AGRP neuron projection populations reveals a constellation of core forebrain nodes, which are part of an extended circuit that mediates feeding behavior.
Mice lacking leptin receptors are grossly obese and diabetic, in part due to dysfunction in brain circuits important for energy homeostasis. Transplantation of leptin receptor-expressing hypothalamic progenitor neurons into the brains of leptin receptor deficient mice led to integration into neural circuits, reduced obesity, and normalized circulating glucose levels.
Transforming synaptic input into action potential output is a fundamental function of neurons. The pattern of action potential output from principal cells of the mammalian hippocampus encodes spatial and nonspatial information, but the cellular and circuit mechanisms by which neurons transform their synaptic input into a given output are unknown. Using a combination of optical activation and cell type-specific pharmacogenetic silencing in vitro, we found that dendritic inhibition is the primary regulator of input-output transformations in mouse hippocampal CA1 pyramidal cells, and acts by gating the dendritic electrogenesis driving burst spiking. Dendrite-targeting interneurons are themselves modulated by interneurons targeting pyramidal cell somata, providing a synaptic substrate for tuning pyramidal cell output through interactions in the local inhibitory network. These results provide evidence for a division of labor in cortical circuits, where distinct computational functions are implemented by subtypes of local inhibitory neurons.
Hunger is a complex behavioural state that elicits intense food seeking and consumption. These behaviours are rapidly recapitulated by activation of starvation-sensitive AGRP neurons, which present an entry point for reverse-engineering neural circuits for hunger. Here we mapped synaptic interactions of AGRP neurons with multiple cell populations in mice and probed the contribution of these distinct circuits to feeding behaviour using optogenetic and pharmacogenetic techniques. An inhibitory circuit with paraventricular hypothalamus (PVH) neurons substantially accounted for acute AGRP neuron-evoked eating, whereas two other prominent circuits were insufficient. Within the PVH, we found that AGRP neurons target and inhibit oxytocin neurons, a small population that is selectively lost in Prader-Willi syndrome, a condition involving insatiable hunger. By developing strategies for evaluating molecularly defined circuits, we show that AGRP neuron suppression of oxytocin neurons is critical for evoked feeding. These experiments reveal a new neural circuit that regulates hunger state and pathways associated with overeating disorders.
Selective esterase-ester pair for targeting small molecules with cellular specificity.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 2012
L. Tian, Y. Yang, L. M. Wysocki, A. C. Arnold, A. Hu, B. Ravichandran, S. M. Sternson, L. L. Looger, and L. D. Lavis Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 109:4756-61 (2012)
Small molecules are important tools to measure and modulate intracellular signaling pathways. A longstanding limitation for using chemical compounds in complex tissues has been the inability to target bioactive small molecules to a specific cell class. Here, we describe a generalizable esterase-ester pair capable of targeted delivery of small molecules to living cells and tissue with cellular specificity. We used fluorogenic molecules to rapidly identify a small ester masking motif that is stable to endogenous esterases, but is efficiently removed by an exogenous esterase. This strategy allows facile targeting of dyes and drugs in complex biological environments to label specific cell types, illuminate gap junction connectivity, and pharmacologically perturb distinct subsets of cells. We expect this approach to have general utility for the specific delivery of many small molecules to defined cellular populations.
Synaptic plasticity in response to changes in physiologic state is coordinated by hormonal signals across multiple neuronal cell types. Here, we combine cell-type-specific electrophysiological, pharmacological, and optogenetic techniques to dissect neural circuits and molecular pathways controlling synaptic plasticity onto AGRP neurons, a population that regulates feeding. We find that food deprivation elevates excitatory synaptic input, which is mediated by a presynaptic positive feedback loop involving AMP-activated protein kinase. Potentiation of glutamate release was triggered by the orexigenic hormone ghrelin and exhibited hysteresis, persisting for hours after ghrelin removal. Persistent activity was reversed by the anorexigenic hormone leptin, and optogenetic photostimulation demonstrated involvement of opioid release from POMC neurons. Based on these experiments, we propose a memory storage device for physiological state constructed from bistable synapses that are flipped between two sustained activity states by transient exposure to hormones signaling energy levels.
Ionic flux mediates essential physiological and behavioral functions in defined cell populations. Cell type-specific activators of diverse ionic conductances are needed for probing these effects. We combined chemistry and protein engineering to enable the systematic creation of a toolbox of ligand-gated ion channels (LGICs) with orthogonal pharmacologic selectivity and divergent functional properties. The LGICs and their small-molecule effectors were able to activate a range of ionic conductances in genetically specified cell types. LGICs constructed for neuronal perturbation could be used to selectively manipulate neuron activity in mammalian brains in vivo. The diversity of ion channel tools accessible from this approach will be useful for examining the relationship between neuronal activity and animal behavior, as well as for cell biological and physiological applications requiring chemical control of ion conductance.
Two intermingled hypothalamic neuron populations specified by expression of agouti-related peptide (AGRP) or pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC) positively and negatively influence feeding behavior, respectively, possibly by reciprocally regulating downstream melanocortin receptors. However, the sufficiency of these neurons to control behavior and the relationship of their activity to the magnitude and dynamics of feeding are unknown. To measure this, we used channelrhodopsin-2 for cell type-specific photostimulation. Activation of only 800 AGRP neurons in mice evoked voracious feeding within minutes. The behavioral response increased with photoexcitable neuron number, photostimulation frequency and stimulus duration. Conversely, POMC neuron stimulation reduced food intake and body weight, which required melanocortin receptor signaling. However, AGRP neuron-mediated feeding was not dependent on suppressing this melanocortin pathway, indicating that AGRP neurons directly engage feeding circuits. Furthermore, feeding was evoked selectively over drinking without training or prior photostimulus exposure, which suggests that AGRP neurons serve a dedicated role coordinating this complex behavior.
Understanding the structure and function of neural circuits are central questions in neuroscience research. To address these questions, new genetically encoded tools have been developed for mapping, monitoring, and manipulating neurons. Essential to implementation of these tools is their selective delivery to defined neuronal populations in the brain. This has been facilitated by recent improvements in cell type-specific transgene expression using recombinant adeno-associated viral vectors. Here, we highlight these developments and discuss areas for improvement that could further expand capabilities for neural circuit analysis.
Digital reconstruction of 3D neuron structures is an important step toward reverse engineering the wiring and functions of a brain. However, despite a number of existing studies, this task is still challenging, especially when a 3D microscopic image has low single-to-noise ratio and discontinued segments of neurite patterns.
Understanding cortical circuits will require mapping the connections between specific populations of neurons, as well as determining the dendritic locations where the synapses occur. The dendrites of individual cortical neurons overlap with numerous types of local and long-range excitatory axons, but axodendritic overlap is not always a good predictor of actual connection strength. Here we developed an efficient channelrhodopsin-2 (ChR2)-assisted method to map the spatial distribution of synaptic inputs, defined by presynaptic ChR2 expression, within the dendritic arborizations of recorded neurons. We expressed ChR2 in two thalamic nuclei, the whisker motor cortex and local excitatory neurons and mapped their synapses with pyramidal neurons in layers 3, 5A and 5B (L3, L5A and L5B) in the mouse barrel cortex. Within the dendritic arborizations of L3 cells, individual inputs impinged onto distinct single domains. These domains were arrayed in an orderly, monotonic pattern along the apical axis: axons from more central origins targeted progressively higher regions of the apical dendrites. In L5 arborizations, different inputs targeted separate basal and apical domains. Input to L3 and L5 dendrites in L1 was related to whisker movement and position, suggesting that these signals have a role in controlling the gain of their target neurons. Our experiments reveal high specificity in the subcellular organization of excitatory circuits.
The central actions of leptin are essential for homeostatic control of adipose tissue mass, glucose metabolism, and many autonomic and neuroendocrine systems. In the brain, leptin acts on numerous different cell types via the long-form leptin receptor (LepRb) to elicit its effects. The precise identification of leptin's cellular targets is fundamental to understanding the mechanism of its pleiotropic central actions. We have systematically characterized LepRb distribution in the mouse brain using in situ hybridization in wildtype mice as well as by EYFP immunoreactivity in a novel LepRb-IRES-Cre EYFP reporter mouse line showing high levels of LepRb mRNA/EYFP coexpression. We found substantial LepRb mRNA and EYFP expression in hypothalamic and extrahypothalamic sites described before, including the dorsomedial nucleus of the hypothalamus, ventral premammillary nucleus, ventral tegmental area, parabrachial nucleus, and the dorsal vagal complex. Expression in insular cortex, lateral septal nucleus, medial preoptic area, rostral linear nucleus, and in the Edinger-Westphal nucleus was also observed and had been previously unreported. The LepRb-IRES-Cre reporter line was used to chemically characterize a population of leptin receptor-expressing neurons in the midbrain. Tyrosine hydroxylase and Cre reporter were found to be coexpressed in the ventral tegmental area and in other midbrain dopaminergic neurons. Lastly, the LepRb-IRES-Cre reporter line was used to map the extent of peripheral leptin sensing by central nervous system (CNS) LepRb neurons. Thus, we provide data supporting the use of the LepRb-IRES-Cre line for the assessment of the anatomic and functional characteristics of neurons expressing leptin receptor.
A FLEX switch targets Channelrhodopsin-2 to multiple cell types for imaging and long-range circuit mapping.The Journal of Neuroscience : The Official Journal of the Society for Neuroscience 2008
D. Atasoy, Y. Aponte, H. Su, and S. M. Sternson The Journal of Neuroscience : The Official Journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 28:7025-30 (2008)
Prior Publications (6)
In the hypothalamic arcuate nucleus (ARC), pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC) neurons inhibit feeding and neuropeptide-Y (NPY) neurons stimulate feeding. We tested whether neurons in the ventromedial hypothalamic nucleus (VMH), a known satiety center, activate anorexigenic neuronal pathways in the ARC by projecting either excitatory synaptic inputs to POMC neurons and/or inhibitory inputs to NPY neurons. Using laser scanning photostimulation in brain slices from transgenic mice, we found that POMC and NPY neurons, which are interspersed in the ARC, are nevertheless regulated by anatomically distinct synaptic inputs. POMC neurons received strong excitatory input from the medial VMH (mVMH), whereas NPY neurons did not and, instead, received weak inhibitory input only from within the ARC. The strength of the excitatory input from the mVMH to POMC neurons was diminished by fasting. These data identify a new molecularly defined circuit that is dynamically regulated by nutritional state in a manner consistent with the known role of the VMH as a satiety center.
Modular synthesis and substrate stereocontrol were combined to furnish 18,000 diverse 1,3-dioxanes whose distribution in chemical space rivals that of a reference set of over 2,000 bioactive small molecules. Library quality was assessed at key synthetic stages, culminating in a detailed postsynthesis analysis of purity, yield, and structural characterizability, and the resynthesis of library subsets that did not meet quality standards. The importance of this analysis-resynthesis process is highlighted by the discovery of new biological probes through organismal and protein binding assays, and by determination of the building block and stereochemical basis for their bioactivity. This evaluation of a portion of the 1,3-dioxane library suggests that many additional probes for chemical genetics will be identified as the entire library becomes biologically annotated.
Small molecules that alter protein function provide a means to modulate biological networks with temporal resolution. Here we demonstrate a potentially general and scalable method of identifying such molecules by application to a particular protein, Ure2p, which represses the transcription factors Gln3p and Nil1p. By probing a high-density microarray of small molecules generated by diversity-oriented synthesis with fluorescently labelled Ure2p, we performed 3,780 protein-binding assays in parallel and identified several compounds that bind Ure2p. One compound, which we call uretupamine, specifically activates a glucose-sensitive transcriptional pathway downstream of Ure2p. Whole-genome transcription profiling and chemical epistasis demonstrate the remarkable Ure2p specificity of uretupamine and its ability to modulate the glucose-sensitive subset of genes downstream of Ure2p. These results demonstrate that diversity-oriented synthesis and small-molecule microarrays can be used to identify small molecules that bind to a protein of interest, and that these small molecules can regulate specific functions of the protein.
Split--pool synthesis of 1,3-dioxanes leading to arrayed stock solutions of single compounds sufficient for multiple phenotypic and protein-binding assays.Journal of the American Chemical Society 2001
S M. Sternson, J B. Louca, J C. Wong, and S L. Schreiber Journal of the American Chemical Society, 123:1740-7 (2001)
Diversity-oriented organic synthesis offers the promise of advancing chemical genetics, where small molecules are used to explore biology. While the split--pool synthetic method is theoretically the most effective approach for the production of large collections of small molecules, it has not been widely adopted due to numerous technical and analytical hurdles. We have developed a split--pool synthesis leading to an array of stock solutions of single 1,3-dioxanes. The quantities of compounds are sufficient for hundreds of phenotypic and protein-binding assays. The average concentration of these stock solutions derived from a single synthesis bead was determined to be 5.4 mM in 5 microL of DMSO. A mass spectrometric strategy to identify the structure of molecules from a split--pool synthesis was shown to be highly accurate. Individual members of the 1,3-dioxane library have activity in a variety of phenotypic and protein-binding assays. The procedure developed in this study allows many assays to be performed with compounds derived from individual synthesis beads. The synthetic compounds identified in these assays should serve as useful probes of cellular and organismal processes.
Seventy-two hundred potential inhibitors of the histone deacetylase (HDAC) enzyme family, based on a 1,3-dioxane diversity structure, were synthesized on polystyrene macrobeads. The compounds were arrayed for biological assays in a "one bead-one stock solution" format. Metal-chelating functional groups were used to direct the 1,3-dioxanes to HDAC enzymes, which are zinc hydrolases. Representative structures from this library were tested for inhibitory activity and the 1,3-dioxane structure was shown to be compatible with HDAC inhibition. [structure: see text]
The synthesis of an o-nitrobenzyl photolabile linker (1) from o-nitrobenzaldehyde is described, and the efficiency of its light-mediated (365 nm) cleavage is found to be comparable to related, previously developed systems. In contrast, 1 is shown to be stable to acid, base, and Lewis acid/amine combinations while the previously developed linker 2 is shown to degrade under the latter two conditions.