Paradis and Van Hooser labs collaborate on eLife paper

Figure 3 from research paper

Figure 3. Rem2 is required for late-phase critical period ocular dominance plasticity.

“Rem2 stabilizes intrinsic excitability and spontaneous firing in visual circuits.” Anna R Moore, Sarah E Richards, Katelyn Kenny, Leandro Royer, Urann Chan, Kelly Flavahan, Stephen D Van Hooser, Suzanne Paradis. eLife 2018;7:e33092.

Throughout our waking hours, we experience an ever-changing stream of input from our senses. The brain responds to this varying input by adjusting its own activity levels and even its own structure. It does this by changing the strength of the connections between neurons, or the properties of the neurons themselves. Known as plasticity, this process of continuous change enables the brain to develop, learn and to recover from injury.

The visual systems of mammals are particularly well suited to studying how sensory experience alters the brain. Studies in animals show that lack of sensory input to one or both eyes during a critical period in development causes long-lasting changes in the brain’s visual circuits. Similarly, children with the condition amblyopia or ‘lazy eye’ – in which one eye has impaired vision and the brain ignores input from that eye – can end up with permanent deficits in their vision if the condition is not treated during childhood. Changes in sensory input are thought to trigger plasticity in the brain by altering the activity of specific genes. But exactly how this process works is unclear.

Anna Moore, Sarah Richards et al. now show that a gene called Rem2 has an important role in regulating visual plasticity. In the key experiments, young mice had their vision in one eye blocked for a few days. Analysis of their brains showed that mice that had been genetically modified to lack the Rem2 gene responded differently to this change in their environment (i.e. the loss of input to one eye) than their normal counterparts. Further experiments suggest that Rem2 regulates the excitability of individual neurons: that is, how much the neurons respond to any given input. In the absence of Rem2, neurons in visual areas of the brain become hyperactive. This prevents them from adjusting their activity levels in response to changes in sensory input, which in turn leads to impaired plasticity.

Being able to harness the brain’s visual plasticity mechanisms on demand, for example by regulating Rem2 activity, could benefit individuals with disorders such as amblyopia. Rem2 is also active in many other parts of the brain besides those that support vision. This suggests that manipulating this gene could affect numerous forms of plasticity. However, various barriers must be overcome before we could use this approach to treat brain disorders. These include obtaining a more in depth understanding of the role of the Rem2 gene in the human brain.

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