Huntington’s Disease May Benefit from Research into Neuronal Circuits Behind Movement

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by Kara Elam |

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Recently, a group of interdisciplinary researchers from École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Switzerland, and the New York University Langone Medical Center, made a discovery that could lead to new treatment options for neurological disorders such as Huntington’s disease (HD). The study, entitled “Cell-Type-Specific Sensorimotor Processing in Striatal Projection Neurons during Goal-Directed Behavior,” was published in the latest edition of Neuron, and its experimental work identified specific neurons in the brain’s striatum that facilitate behaviors like movement.

About the Brain’s Striatum

Neurological research has shown that the mammalian brain’s striatum is necessary for voluntary movement and control in response to environmental stimuli.  In HD, the part of the brain that is most affected is the basal ganglia, and the striatum encompasses the main components of this neural structure.

About the Study

The study was overseen by senior scientific investigator Dr. Carl Petersen, PhD, Professor, Head of the Laboratory of Sensory Processing, and Brain Mind Institute, Faculty of Life Sciences, EPFL.  Dr. Petersen’s work is focused on understanding the mechanisms of simplistic sensory perception and learning at the level of individual neurons, and their synaptic reactions within the mammalian brain.  Dr. Petersen and his laboratory team utilize animal models, such as awake mice, to understand this synaptic reactionary activity within the brain.

In this study, Dr. Petersen and his research team aimed to discover the precise neuronal circuits and causal mechanisms that allow the brain to interpret incoming sensory information resulting in a learned or adaptive behavior. As such, researchers measured cell-specific sensory information from the striatums of head-restrained mice performing a simple goal-directed sensorimotor transformation after having their whiskers touched.

The experimental findings allowed researchers to evaluate the exact part of the brain where individual neurons within the striatum responded after the manufactured stimulus. In essence, they uncovered the specific types of neurons within the striatum that lead to action in response to information. This important finding may allow for an elucidation of the precise mechanisms involved in diseases that affect action initiation and motor control, such as HD.

When discussing their findings, Dr. Petersen and his colleagues concluded, “Our data are consistent with corticostriatal signals contributing to simple goal-directed sensorimotor transformation perhaps resulting from learning under guidance of dopamine signals evoked by whisker stimulation serving as a reward predictor. To test these hypotheses, in future experiments it will be important to record and manipulate the activity of dopaminergic neurons and also to test whether corticostriatal input from the C2 barrel column in S1 undergoes learning-induced plasticity that is necessary and sufficient for task performance.”