Scientists have captured the brain and are making memories for the first time

A team of USC researchers has filmed zebrafish’s living brains to show how the brain processes and stores memories in a groundbreaking study that could raise hopes for new PTSD treatments.

Using a bespoke microscope, the researchers were able to record how the brain cells of the fish – which are transparent as juveniles – ‘lit up like Times Square on New Year’s Eve’ during the experiment.

The study, which mapped the changes in the brain, made the surprising discovery that creating memories seems to create new synapses – connections between neurons – or made them disappear completely. The widely accepted theory that learning and memories strengthen synapses was not visible.

“For the past 40 years, the common wisdom has been that you learn by changing the strength of the synapses, but that’s not what we found in this case,” co-author, director of the Informatics Division at the USC Information Sciences Institute and computer scientist Prof. . Carl Kesselman said in a press release.

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A team of USC researchers has filmed the zebrafish's brains to show how the brain processes and stores memories.  The image shows a scan of a young zebrafish using USC's bespoke microscope

A team of USC researchers has filmed the zebrafish’s brains to show how the brain processes and stores memories. The image shows a scan of a young zebrafish using USC’s bespoke microscope

Using a bespoke microscope, the researchers were able to record how brain cells in fish - which are transparent as juveniles - 'light up like Times Square on New Year's Eve' (pictured) during the experiment

Using a bespoke microscope, the researchers were able to record how brain cells in fish – which are transparent as juveniles – ‘light up like Times Square on New Year’s Eve’ (pictured) during the experiment

Lead author Professor Don Arnold at the University of Southern California added: ‘This was the best possible result we could have had because we saw this dramatic change in the number of synapses – some disappear, some form and we saw it in a very clear part of the brain.

‘The dogma was that the synapses change their strength. But I was surprised to see a push-pull phenomenon and that we did not see a change in the forces of the synapses. ‘

By allowing scientists to track and feel the synaptic changes, the experiment can help show how memories are formed and why certain types of memories are more powerful than others.

Researchers believe that this may offer a breakthrough for new treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and neurodegenerative diseases.

The study, which mapped the changes in the brain, made the surprising discovery that creating memories seems to create new synapses - connections between neurons - or made them disappear completely.  The picture shows a synapse from the study

The study, which mapped the changes in the brain, made the surprising discovery that creating memories seems to create new synapses – connections between neurons – or made them disappear completely. The picture shows a synapse from the study

By allowing scientists to track and feel the synaptic changes, the experiment can help show how memories are formed and why certain types of memories are more powerful than others

By allowing scientists to track and feel the synaptic changes, the experiment can help show how memories are formed and why certain types of memories are more powerful than others

Researchers believe that this could lead to a breakthrough for new treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and neurodegenerative diseases

Researchers believe that this could lead to a breakthrough for new treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and neurodegenerative diseases

It discovers that negative memories appear to be formed in a different part of the brain than most other memories - the amygdala, which is responsible for emotional reactions, including struggle or flight

It discovers that negative memories appear to be formed in a different part of the brain than most other memories – the amygdala, which is responsible for emotional reactions, including struggle or flight

It detects that negative memories appear to be formed in a different part of the brain than most other memories – the amygdala, which is responsible for emotional reactions, including struggle or flight.

“It has been thought that memory formation mainly involves rebuilding existing synaptic connections, whereas in this study we found formation and elimination of synapses, but we saw only small, random changes in synaptic strength of existing synapses,” Arnold explained.

‘It may be because this study concentrated on associative memories, which are much more robust than other memories and are formed elsewhere in the brain, the amygdala, relative to the hippocampus for most other memories. This may one day be relevant to PTSD, which is thought to be mediated by the formation of associative memories. ‘

The study used zebrafish because their brains are similar to humans’, both at the genetic and cellular level, but young fish are transparent – allowing an unchanged view of their living brains.

“Our probes can sense synapses in a living brain without changing their structure or function, which was not possible with previous tools,” said Professor Arnold.

Using a new advanced microscope, invented by USC, they were able to study the fish’s brains over time and compare synapses and synaptic changes in the same brains – a ‘breakthrough in neuroscience’.

“The microscope that we built was tailored to solve this image challenge and extract the knowledge we needed,” added co-author Prof. Scott Fraser.

‘Sometimes you try to get such a spectacular picture that you kill what you are looking at. For this experiment, we had to find the right balance between getting an image that was good enough to get answers, but not so spectacular that we wanted to kill the fish with photons. ‘

The study used zebrafish because their brains are similar to humans', both at the genetic and cellular level, but young fish are transparent - allowing an unchanged view of their living brains.  The picture shows a young zebrafish

The study used zebrafish because their brains are similar to humans’, both at the genetic and cellular level, but young fish are transparent – allowing an unchanged view of their living brains. The picture shows a young zebrafish

Using a new advanced microscope (the image) invented by USC, they were able to study the fish's brains over time and compare synapses and synaptic changes in the same brains - a 'breakthrough in the field of neuroscience'

Using a new advanced microscope (the image) invented by USC, they were able to study the fish’s brains over time and compare synapses and synaptic changes in the same brains – a ‘breakthrough in the field of neuroscience’

The results were analyzed in a group led by Kesselman, who developed new algorithms to monitor the changing synaptic patterns.

The results were analyzed in a group led by Kesselman, who developed new algorithms to monitor the changing synaptic patterns.

Previous experiments had been performed on dead specimens, while this experiment meant that they had hundreds of images of the neural activity of the same fish.

“This is ninja imagery, we sneak in without being noticed,” Fraser said.

During their six years of research, Fraser, Arnold, and Kesselman trained zebrafish to connect a light that turns on with the unpleasant sensation of an infrared laser warming their head.

The fish, which had their DNA altered so that their synapses could be labeled with a fluorescent protein that glows when scanned with a laser, would try to avoid the laser by swimming away.

Fish that remembered the association struck with their tails when they lit, even without the laser.

Five hours after the first exposure to the laser, the researchers measured the dramatic changes in the animal’s synapses and neural functions.

The results were analyzed in a group led by Kesselman, who developed new algorithms to monitor the changing synaptic patterns.

What is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder caused by very stressful, frightening, or disturbing events.

People with PTSD often suffer from nightmares and flashbacks to the traumatic event and may experience insomnia and inability to concentrate.

The symptoms are often severe enough to have a severe impact on the person’s daily life and can appear right after the traumatic event or years later.

PTSD is thought to affect about 1 in 3 people who have a traumatic experience, and was first documented in World War I in soldiers with grenade shock.

People who are worried about having PTSD should visit their GP, who could recommend a course of psychotherapy or antidepressants.

Combat Stress operates a 24-hour helpline for veterans, which can be contacted on 0800 138 1619.

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