AANS Neurosurgeon | Volume 29, Number 2, 2020


The Written History of a Neuron

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Brain cells record their activity in gene expression, new study finds


From burning your palm on a hot pan handle to memorizing the name of a new acquaintance, “anytime you experience something, your neurons are active,” says Kelsey Tyssowski, a graduate student in genetics at Harvard Medical School.

Different experiences stimulate different patterns of activity in brain cells. Researchers want to track these activity patterns to better understand how the brain makes sense of the world, but they’ve been limited by the transient nature of the activity and by the tiny fraction of neurons they’re able to study at once—only a few thousand out of an estimated 100 billion.

A new study by Tyssowski, HMS graduate student Nicholas DeStefino and colleagues promises to change that. 

Studying cells in a dish and lab mice, the researchers reported that bits of a neuron’s activity record can be reconstructed by analyzing its gene expression pattern—the particular genes that are active in the cell.

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