Campaigning for brain awareness in Sri Lanka

With the help of European Dana Alliance member Ann Kato and her husband,
researcher Gabor Kato, Sri Lanka was a late addition to the roster of new
countries hosting Brain Awareness Week activities in 2009. The Katos, along
with Ranil De Silva of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, Nugegoda,
organized a four-hour program in basic neuroscience at the Sri Lanka Medical
Association in Colombo on Nov. 8 and a six-hour program on Nov. 10 at the Sri
Sumangala Girls’ College in Weligama. The events were such a success that De
Silva and the Katos are planning a second BAW event in Sri Lanka this year. (Brain Awareness Week 2010 is March

Gabor Kato at girls' college Gabor Kato at the Sri
Sumangala Girls’ College in Weligama

The Sri Lanka
Medical Association event included lectures on how the brain works, what
happens during brain disease and how to maintain health with food and exercise.
Students, teachers, parents, doctors and the general public listened with great
interest and asked many questions, especially about maintaining and improving
memory, Ann Kato said. Many people also wanted to discuss their sleep problems,
and it appeared that everyone had a family member or a friend with a brain
disorder such as multiple sclerosis, schizophrenia, Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s,
she added.

At the girls’
college, more than 400 high-school students, teachers, health-care workers and
members of the public spent nearly five hours learning about both the healthy
and diseased brains. De Silva translated the English lectures into Sinhalese,
as this audience did not have the same command of English as did the Colombo
group. In addition to lectures, the program included lighting of a traditional
oil lamp and two dance sessions by students, according to Ann Kato.

Girls' college processionProcession going to the auditorium at the Sri
Sumangala Girls’ College

There was room for
improvement. While the girls enjoyed the presentations, they asked for more
“cartoon-like” clips of how the brain functions. Two boys in the audience
wanted reassurance that the brain stays alive following death; perhaps they thought
the brain was immortal due to belief in reincarnation, Ann Kato said.

The Katos have
been supporting education efforts in Sri Lanka ever since they toured the
country after the devastation of the 2004 tsunami. They have repeatedly visited
the public girls’ college,
which serves 2,700 children from grades 3 to 12, to offer teaching assistance
and supplies. The school was severely damaged during the tsunami; thirteen students
died and more than half the children lost close members of their families.

While non-governmental
organizations helped rebuild most of the school’s buildings, it still lacks basic
items such as textbooks, pencils and notepads, as well as computers for the
technology lab. The Katos have collected and sent such supplies and offer university
scholarships for top students. At first, they paid out of pocket to fill urgent
needs; since then, they have received donations from friends and other
nonprofit groups and continue to look for sponsors for scholarships and other

Nicky Penttila

Photos courtesy Ann and Gabor Kato

Lights on, brain off

If you’re a night owl like me, then those first rays of
sunshine in the morning often seem to make you feel even groggier than you did
when you went to bed. But scientists have found a new, efficient way to use
simple beams of light to literally—not just metaphorically—shut down the brain.

Ed Boyden, a research
professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and his colleagues have
discovered two new light-sensitive proteins that, when implanted into neurons,
prevent those cells from activating in the presence of certain wavelengths of
light. Arch, found in a species of bacteria, is sensitive to yellow light,
whereas Mac is of fungal origin and responds to blue light, the scientists
in the Jan. 7 issue of Nature.

A mouse neuron expressing Arch

These proteins, Boyden says, will not only provide
scientists with a powerful but reversible way to study specific brain regions,
but may also provide promising new gene therapy treatments for diseases caused
by overactive brain cells. One of the most drastic examples of such a disorder
is epilepsy,
in which spontaneous activity by neurons can sometimes spread throughout the
entire brain, causing violent seizures and occasionally death.

These aren’t the first light-sensitive proteins, or opsins,
that neuroscientists have adapted to their purposes. For some time, researchers
have been using opsins to both selectively activate and inhibit brain cells, a
field known as optogenetics. As we reported last month,
such techniques allow scientists to study the function of specific brain cells,
such as those involved in memory or disease, with greater detail and precision
than previously possible.

Opsins work because they are ion channels; when activated,
they allow charged particles into a cell. In the case of ChR2, blue light
causes an influx of charged particles that mimic what naturally occurs when a
neuron is told to fire. Halorhodopsin, on the other hand, adds chloride ions to
a cell’s interior that make it unable to send a signal. Halorhodopsin, however,
quickly becomes inactive in the presence of light, whereas the new proteins,
which allow protons into cells, “reset” themselves and can shut off cells for
very long periods of time. “These are an order of magnitude better,” Boyden
says. “They allow for near-digital turning off of neurons in awake animal

In the Nature
paper, Boyden and his colleagues demonstrate the use of Arch and Mac in awake
mice, but he says that the team has also conducted tests in nonhuman primates
with no apparent side effects yet.  They
are also “very eager” to begin studying prototype therapies in mouse models for
epilepsy, chronic pain, brain injuries, and other brain diseases, he adds.
Opsins are normally implanted using gene therapy, in which a retrovirus is used
to insert the opsin-producing gene into the relevant brain cells. In recent
years, scientists have significantly improved their gene therapy techniques—for
instance, they can now target the right cells by altering the protein coat of
the virus or by adding different DNA promoter regions to the implanted
gene—Boyden says, and thus the risk of side effects such as cancer has dropped

Another benefit of the new long-lasting proteins, he adds,
is that scientists can now precisely and reversibly shut off small regions of
the brain to study their roles in activities like cognition and attention—essentially,
a “high-throughput scan for the brain.” Previously, scientists have obtained this
information largely by looking at lesions, but these are relatively large and
haphazard and provide no information about timing. “It’s like pulling the power
cord of a laptop. You don’t know if it’s the lack of a power or the processing
input causing the problem,” Boyden says. “We believe this will have a
significant effect on neuroscience.”

—Aalok Mehta

Image courtesy of Brian Chow, Xue Han and Ed Boyden / MIT

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