HMS homepage HMS homepage
Home Research Departments / Admin Consumer Info Harvard University
HMS website banner

Contact Us

Harvard Medical School
Office of Communications & External Relations
25 Shattuck Street
Boston, MA 02115

Telephone 617-432-0442

 News Archives  

Click to subscribe to our news alerts. What is RSS?

Harvard Medical School Office of Communications & External Relations

Scientists get first close look at stimulated brain

With the aid of optical imaging technology, researchers have for the first time been able to see how neurons react to electrical stimulation. The neural response to electrical currents isn't localized, as some had previously thought. Rather, electrical stimulation activates a scattered and widely distributed set of neurons.

This study marks the first time that scientists have been able to see what is happening at the cellular level when the brain is exposed to electrical stimuli. This information sheds light on all research - past, present, and future - that involves electrical brain stimulation. This includes clinical studies of cortical prostheses used to treat such medical conditions as Parkinson's disease, chronic pain, depression, and vision loss.

BOSTON, Mass. (August 26, 2009) — For over a century, scientists have been using electrical stimulation to explore and treat the human brain. The technique has helped identify regions responsible for specific neural functions - for instance, the motor cortex and pleasure center - and has been used to treat a variety of conditions from Parkinson's disease to depression. Yet no one has been able to see what actually happens at the cellular level when the brain is electrically prodded.

Now, with the aid of optical imaging technology, researchers in the lab of HMS neurobiology professor Clay Reid have taken the first look at this process. They found that the neural response to electrical currents isn't localized, as some had previously thought. That is, not all neurons immediately surrounding an electrode fire when a charge is delivered. Rather, a scattered and widely distributed set of neurons switch on. These findings, which will appear in the August 27 issue of Neuron, promise to end a longstanding debate about how neurons react to electrical stimulation.

Fired neurons
Here, electrical stimulation was applied at the intersection of the two white lines. Neurons that were activated appear in bright red.

Photo courtesy of the Reid lab.

According to Histed, these findings run counter to a long-standing hypothesis. "One prior theory was that at low currents, the neurons in a tiny ball around the electrode would activate, and if you increased the current, a larger ball would activate, but you would still only activate cells within that ball. What we showed was that, even at the lowest currents, you have cells very far away that are activated, so it's not just a tiny ball around the electrode tip that increases in size, but instead a very large, sparse pattern that fills in as the current is increased."

“The researchers suspect that this sparsely distributed activation pattern results because it's really the axons - the long, thin fibers that transmit electrical signals in the nerve cells - that are being stimulated, not the cell bodies. To prove this, they moved the electrode tip 10 microns from the site of their first stimulations. That's a distance smaller than the width of just one nerve cell. Reid says, "you might guess that the same neurons would light up. But, in fact, the same number of neurons lit up, but they were entirely different neurons, and that really proved to us the hypothesis that we're exciting just a tiny little ball of neural processes, not neurons. We think we're exciting the axons in that 10 micron sphere."

Histed compares the neural mass to a box of unwound yo-yos. If you stick a pencil into that box, the tip of the pencil would touch only a few strings. Follow those strings all the way to their respective disks, and you would be "activating" only a few, scattered yo-yos within the knotted heap. Move the pencil tip just a quarter of an inch, and it touches a completely different group of strings, leading to an entirely different set of bodies.

The researchers believe that this study establishes optical imaging as a vital tool for any scientific and clinical research that involves electrical brain stimulation. Reid hopes that it will also "be very important in understanding, rationalizing, and designing neural prostheses." Such prostheses are already being used to cure deafness and to treat movement disorders, and Reid's lab has itself conducted research into the use of electrical stimulation to restore vision. This study, by shedding light on how electrical stimulation acts on the brain at the cellular level, could lead to the reinterpretation and refinement of earlier research in the field, and may help guide experiments.

This work was supported by NIH grants and by Microsoft Research.

Written by Veronica Meade-Kelly


Neuron, August 26, 2009, early online publication

"Direct activation of sparse, distributed populations of cortical neurons by electrical microstimulation."

Mark H. Histed (1),* Vincent Bonin (1), and R. Clay Reid (1)*

Harvard Medical School
Veronica Meade-Kelly

Harvard Medical School has more than 7,500 full-time faculty working in 11 academic departments located at the School's Boston campus or in one of 47 hospital-based clinical departments at 17 Harvard-affiliated teaching hospitals and research institutes. Those affiliates include Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Cambridge Health Alliance, Children's Hospital Boston, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Forsyth Institute, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, Hebrew SeniorLife, Joslin Diabetes Center, Judge Baker Children's Center, Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, Massachusetts General Hospital, McLean Hospital, Mount Auburn Hospital, Schepens Eye Research Institute, Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, and VA Boston Healthcare System.