One of the major challenges in neuroscience is to link the structure to the function of neural circuits. To achieve this goal, we need to understand the connectivity between defined neuronal populations and the contribution of these neurons to physiological processes, behavioral responses and disease states. Recent advances in imaging techniques allow us to visualize the brain structure with cellular resolution. Application of the current generation of genetically encoded optical tools, such as sensors and controllers, is facilitating measurement and manipulation of neuron activity from molecular-defined cell populations in awake, behaving animals. However, probing the dynamics of neural circuitry underlying behavior, specifically for dissecting functional-defined circuitry beyond molecular-defined circuitry, not only depends on the improvement of existing tools, but also requires novel engineering. We thus propose to develop a radically novel sensor to label functionally related neurons through biochemical reagents that can integrate neural activity into permanently increased fluorescent signals during a researcher-defined behavioral epoch. Our technology hinges on effector proteins, ion channels, in particular the potassium channel Kv2.1, whose activation status is directly correlated to the integrated neural activity. The activation of Kv2.1is determined by their conformational and post-translational status, and ion channel activation drives electrical signaling. Recently, we have developed molecular tools appropriate for creating probes to monitor the activation of ion channels. Using one-bead-one-compound (OBOC) combinatorial technology, we have identified genetically encoded short peptides (12-16 mers, GESIs) that specifically activate the fluorescence of organic dyes under a given biological condition. Using existing GESIs as scaffolds, we propose to design and screen novel peptide-dye pairs whose interaction is controlled by voltage-induced conformational changes or phosphorylation of Kv2.1, thus transforming the activation status of this abundant neuronal ion channel into fluorescent signals.
Our specific aims will start by designing and screening voltage-sensing and dephosphorylation GESIs, guided by our expertise in ion channel structure-function, Rosetta computational protein design and high-throughput OBOC library. We will characterize the expression, cytotoxicity, sensitivity and kinetics of promising Kv2.1- GESI voltage activation and dephosphorylation probes in dissociated neuronal culture and in brain slices. We will finally demonstrate the capability of this novel toolset to identify activated neurons in living animals. A successful outcome of this proposal will enable dynamic mapping of neural activity through a new lens: visualizing the activation states of ion channels that are central effectors of electrical activity in the brain. As this toolset uniquely provides informatio regarding functional connectivity, it represents a completely novel approach for functional circuitry analysis, instead of circuitry dissection based on structure and genetics. Combined with behavior, application of these small dynamic activity tags to brain imaging opens up new dimensions of functional understanding of neuronal circuitry.
To understand general principles of brain function and organization, we must map neural circuitry that gives rise to behavior. The emergence of this novel technology proposed here will enable neuroscientists to obtain a picture of functionally connected neurons that are spatially distributed at the cellular, tissue, and whole-animal level. This knowledge is important to understand the brain mechanisms that control complex behaviors and discover novel treatment of neurological diseases.