Portuguese scientists participate in pioneering international study to map the brain

Little is known about the properties of the thalamus.

Portuguese researchers Marcos Gomes and João Peça, from the Center for Neuroscience and Cell Biology at the University of Coimbra (CNC-UC), participated in a pioneering international study, published in the journal Nature, which deepens our knowledge of the thalamus – an important region of the brain.

Led by researchers at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), this study focused on the so-called “thalamus reticular nucleus”, an area thought to be involved in cognition, sensory processing, attention and regulation of sleep. Changes in this core are associated with neuropsychiatric and neurodevelopmental disorders such as schizophrenia, autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

However, despite its importance, little is known about the properties of this region and the characteristics of the neurons that compose it”, explain the two co-authors of the article published in Nature.

This work produced, for the first time, an atlas of the reticular nucleus of the thalamus, which brings together the electrophysiological and gene expression properties of thousands of individual cells, allowing researchers to identify “a population gradient and two types of previously unknown neurons. These “new” neurons were called Spp1+ and Ecel1+ and they proved to have a fundamental but distinct role in the regulation of sleep», underline Marcos Gomes and João Peça.

The contribution of the UC team to the investigation allowed the identification of the three-dimensional organization of the “new” Spp1+ and Ecel1+ neurons, which led to a detailed understanding of this thalamic nucleus.

«The results of this research represent another important step in the process of mapping the mammalian brain, and contribute to a better understanding of the architecture of the thalamus», says João Peça, also a professor at the Department of Life Sciences of the Faculty of Science and Technology of the University of Coimbra (FCTUC).

«Among other aspects, our study demonstrates a layered organization in the populations of this thalamic nucleus and identifies the particular electrophysiological and functional properties of each neuronal group», adds Marcos Gomes, a student in the Doctoral Program in Experimental Biology and Biomedicine at UC.

The approaches developed within the scope of this work allowed the «functional characterization of the circuit and provide important clues in the understanding, not only of sleep disorders, but also of various neurodevelopmental disorders.

This is because, with the knowledge of the unique particularities of the neurons that make up this region of the brain, the doors to the design of strategies and therapies to restore their normal function in disease processes are also open”, conclude the two researchers.


Author: Cristina Pinto – Press Office – University of Coimbra – Science Communication
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