Scientists have found a way to control the human brain using a protein lurking inside a creature known as ‘vampire fish’ that has lived on Earth for hundreds of millions of years.
US scientists used a protein from a lamprey, which is an ancient lineage of jawless fish similar to eel, to turn off brain circuits associated with addiction, anxiety and depression.
Researchers took a gene from the protein, called parapinopsin, and found they were able to control it in the way neurons communicate with each other.
Parapinopsin also responds to light, allowing scientists use beams of light to turn off the circuit or reactivate it alter reward behaviors – which could lead to brain implants to deliver treatment.
Those suffering with addiction, anxiety and depression may have often wished if they could just turn off their brain and the latest discover could soon make that happen.
In a paper published May 11 in Neuron, researchers at the University of Washington School of Medicine and Washington University in St. Louis, along with several other universities, successfully used a protein from a lamprey to turn off brain circuits.
Lampreys are a species that has roamed the Earth for about 360 million years and feasts parasitically by attaching their mouths to the side of a fish or whale before sucking blood.
And due to their large mouth and feeding behavior, the marine creature has earned the name ‘vampire fish.’
Michael Bruchas, professor of anesthesiology and pain medicine at the University of Washington, said: ‘We found a particular protein that comes from lamprey that has been around for hundreds of millions of years.
‘We took the gene from that protein and found we can control the way neurons talk to each other, which is how chemicals are transmitted into the brain.’
For decades, neuroscientists have been using different types of light-sensitive proteins that are expressed in plants and bacteria to experiment with brain circuitry, said Bruchas.
But this is the first time a protein was taken from lamprey to control brain circuits.
Parapinopsin is a type of protein called a ‘g protein coupled receptor’ or GPCR.
These GPCRs emerged early on in evolution and can be found in organisms ranging from bacteria to humans.
And there at least 850 of these kinds of proteins in mammals.
These proteins control everything from heart rate to fat storage, to reward and stress responses.
GPCRs also respond well to chemicals, such as dopamine and serotonin, which make people feel good and are important with learning and reward.
‘Some of these GPCR pathways are highly conserved across millions of years of evolution, and that allowed us to hack into them using parapinopsin,’ said Bryan Copits, lead author and co-corresponding author, assistant professor of anesthesiology in the Pain Center at Washington University School of Medicine, where Bruchas was formerly located.
Finding a way to control neurons is the holy grail among the scientific community, as this would open up a world of treatments for people suffering with mood disorders, along with other complications like paralysis and blindness.
And determining the lamprey protein responds to light might be exactly what they have been searching for.
The team found that zapping the protein with a blue light activates it and amber light switches it off.
This would eliminate the need for chemicals treatments that could have side effects and instead zap the proteins with a harmless beam of light.
‘For example, if a part of the brain was having seizures from Parkinson’s, it might be possible to isolate the effect with an electrode, dampen it with adjustments to neurotransmission or to inhibit specific pathways to improve mood, the team shared in a statement.
Bruchas said the original discovery of parapinopsin was made by researchers in Japan in the Terakita lab, who have been discovering different light-sensitive GPCRs across species.
‘This is a perfect rationale for why basic science is so incredibly important,’ said Bruchas. ‘Because of someone’s hard work of basic biological discovery, we have a new tool for medical research. ‘
Bruchas said his team is planning to use the discovery for research into expanding their knowledge of the inner workings of the brain and to identify treatments for stress, depression, addiction, and pain.