Marriage of imaging and genetics opens new view of brain function

A myelin map of nerves in the human brain.

Neuroimaging has revolutionized the study of the brain, but can provide no information about what is actually happening at molecular level in humans. Scientists at Yale have developed new approaches to link gene expression patterns to brain signals captured by imaging.

Leading neuroscientific theories posit that the brain’s cerebral cortex operates in a hierarchy — with information flowing from sensory areas to higher-order cognitive areas of the brain. In a new study appearing in the journal Nature Neuroscience, Yale scientists report that the primary pattern of gene expression across the human cerebral cortex also follows this processing hierarchy.

Specialization of a brain area’s function, for sensory or cognitive processing, appears to involve tuning how different genes are expressed within that area,” said Yale’s John Murray, assistant professor of psychiatry, neuroscience and physics and senior author of the study.

The research has led to a technology developed in the labs of Murray and Alan Anticevic, assistant professor of psychiatry and psychology, called GEMINI-DOT (Gene Expression Mapping Integrated with Neuro-Imaging for Discovery Of Therapeutics). It allows researchers to link neuroimaging biomarkers, such as for a psychiatric disorder, to genes and targets for pharmaceutical drugs.

 “Mapping the whole-brain gene expression pattern of a given molecular target provides vital leverage to optimize our neuroimaging tools to align with such targets,” Anticevic said. “This puts us on the path towards rational development for precise treatment-relevant neuroimaging markers.”

The research was primarily financed by Blackthorn Therapeutics, which has entered into a licensing agreement with Yale to further develop the technology.

We believe that mapping  specific neural patterns onto specific receptor gene expression profiles represents a significant advance for the field of clinical neuroscience,” said Bill Martin, chief scientific officer of BlackThorn.

Joshua B. Burt of the Department of Physics is lead author of the study.

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Bill Hathaway: william.hathaway@yale.edu, 203-432-1322