Dopamine primes the brain for enhanced vigilance

Neuroscientists discover a circuit that helps redirect attention to focus on potential threats.

Imagine a herd of deer grazing in the forest. Suddenly, a twig snaps nearby, and they look up from the grass. The thought of food is forgotten, and the animals are primed to respond to any threat that might appear.

MIT neuroscientists have now discovered a circuit that they believe controls the diversion of attention away from everyday pursuits, to focus on potential threats. They also found that dopamine is key to the process: It is released in the brain’s prefrontal cortex when danger is perceived, stimulating the prefrontal cortex to redirect its focus to a part of the brain that responds to threats. Original Article »

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Meet the School of Science’s tenured professors for 2018

Six faculty members are granted tenure in four departments.

… Kay Tye dissects the synaptic and cellular mechanisms in emotion and reward processing with the goal of understanding how they underpin addiction-related behaviors and frequently co-morbid disease states such as attention-deficit disorder, anxiety, and depression. Using an integrative approach including optogenetics, pharmacology, and both in vivo and ex vivo electrophysiology, she explores such problems as how neural circuits differently encode positive and negative cues from the environment; if and how perturbations in neural circuits mediating reward processing, fear, motivation, memory, and inhibitory control underlie the co-morbidity of substance abuse, attention-deficit disorder, anxiety, and depression; and how emotional states such as increased anxiety might increase the propensity for substance abuse by facilitating long-term changes associated with reward-related learning.

Tye received her BS in brain and cognitive sciences from MIT in 2003 and earned her PhD in 2008 at the University of California at San Francisco under the direction of Patricia Janak. After she completed her postdoctoral training with Karl Deisseroth at Stanford University in 2011, she returned to the MIT Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences as a faculty member in 2012. Original Article »

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A Matter of Taste: Can a Sweet Tooth Be Switched Off in the Brain?

A study describes the complex brain circuitry that lets us identify, savor (or recoil from) a taste 

…The new study, published Wednesday in Nature, builds on these findings to delve deeper into the brain’s taste circuitry. The researchers genetically engineered mice to produce fluorescent proteins in neurons—green in the sweet cortex, red in the bitter cortex. They then traced the connections emanating from these cells to other regions. They were especially interested in the amygdala, a brain structure involved in processing emotion and assigning positive or negative values, or valence, to sensory input. The specialization in different areas of the cortex was remarkably preserved—sweet cells connected primarily to an area called the anterior basolateral amygdala whereas bitter cells mainly linked to the central amygdala. “This elegant study provides new insight into the architecture of positive and negative valence in taste,” says neuroscientist Kay Tye of The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who was not involved in the study. “The segregation of sweet and bitter [connections] across different amygdalar nuclei was stunning.” Original Article »

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Brain circuit helps us learn by watching others

Scientists pinpoint neural interactions that are necessary for observational learning.

It’s often said that experience is the best teacher, but the experiences of other people may be even better. If you saw a friend get chased by a neighborhood dog, for instance, you would learn to stay away from the dog without having to undergo that experience yourself.

This kind of learning, known as observational learning, offers a major evolutionary advantage, says Kay Tye, an MIT associate professor of brain and cognitive sciences and a member of MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory.

“So much of what we learn day-to-day is through observation,” she says. “Especially for something that is going to potentially hurt or kill you, you could imagine that the cost of learning it firsthand is very high. The ability to learn it through observation is extremely adaptive, and gives a major advantage for survival.” Original Article »

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Lifting the veil on “valence,” brain study reveals roots of desire and dislike

Researchers map the amygdala’s distinct but diverse and dynamic neighborhoods where feelings are assigned.

The amygdala is a tiny hub of emotions where in 2016 a team led by MIT neuroscientist Kay Tye found specific populations of neurons that assign good or bad feelings, or “valence,” to experience. Learning to associate pleasure with a tasty food, or aversion to a foul-tasting one, is a primal function and key to survival.

In a new study in Cell Reports, Tye’s team at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory returns to the amygdala for an unprecedentedly deep dive into its inner workings. Focusing on a particular section called the basolateral amygdala, the researchers show how valence-processing circuitry is organized and how key neurons in those circuits interact with others. What they reveal is a region with distinct but diverse and dynamic neighborhoods where valence is sorted out by both connecting with other brain regions and sparking cross-talk within the basolateral amygdala itself. Original Article »

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Kay Tye receives NIH Pioneer Award

Kay M. Tye, the Whitehead Career Development Assistant Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and member of the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, was awarded the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award for her project Neural Circuit Mechanisms of Social Homeostasis in Individuals and Supraorganismal Groups. The award supports investigators to pursue new research directions and develop groundbreaking, high-impact approaches to a broad area of biomedical or behavioral science. Original Article »

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Kay Tye improvises to understand our inner lives

Tweaking neurons in lab animals could help reveal what makes us individuals

Here are some of the things Kay Tye relishes: break dancing, rock-climbing, snowboarding, poker, raising her young daughter and son. These adrenaline-fueled activities all require basic skills. But true mastery — and the joy Tye finds in them — comes from improvisation. She boldly steps into a void, a realm where she has to riff, and trusts that a flash of insight will lead the way out.

As a 36-year-old neuroscientist studying how the brain creates experiences, Tye brings this mix of fearlessness and creativity to her lab, where it’s a key ingredient to her success. “Kay always finds this interesting twist,” says Leslie Vosshall, a molecular neurobiologist at Rockefeller University in New York City. Tye’s group at MIT investigates scientific questions in innovative ways, often with powerful results. Original Article »

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How the Brain Seeks Pleasure and Avoids Pain

Neuroscientist Kay Tye tackles the physical basis of emotions and behavior.

As a child, Kay Tye was immersed in a life of science. “I grew up in my mom’s lab,” she says. At the age of five or six, she earned 25 cents a box for “restocking” bulk-ordered pipette tips into boxes for sterilization as her mother, an acclaimed biochemist at Cornell University, probed the genetics of yeast. (Tye’s father is a theoretical physicist known for his work on cosmic inflation and superstring theory.)

Today, Tye runs her own neuroscience lab at MIT. Under large black lights reminiscent of a fashion shoot, she and her team at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory can observe how mice behave when particular brain circuits are turned on or off. Nearby, they can record the mice’s neural activity as the animals move toward a particular stimulus, like sugar water, or away, if they’re crossing a floor that delivers mild electric shocks. Elsewhere, they create brain slices to test in vitro, since these samples retain their physiological activity, even outside the body, for up to eight hours. Original Article »

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New method could take a snapshot of the whole brain in action

Imagine being able to take a crystal-clear snapshot of an entire brain, recording what every single neuron was doing at a particular moment as an animal experienced fear or pleasure or any other emotion. Today, that’s just a dream — neuroscientists have to choose between seeing the entire brain in low resolution or seeing a small piece of it in high resolution — but a new technique known as FLARE could bring that dream one step closer to reality.

The research emerged, says Alice Ting, PhD, out of neuroscientists’ frustration with their inability to capture a fine-grained picture of what the whole brain was doing in experiments, although some well-timed “pestering” also played a role. Ting says her friend and collaborator Kay Tye, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, kept asking her to develop a method that could achieve both a fine resolution and a wide scope. Original Article »

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New tool offers snapshots of neuron activity

FLARE technique can reveal which cells respond during different tasks.

Many cognitive processes, such as decision-making, take place within seconds or minutes. Neuroscientists have longed to capture neuron activity during such tasks, but that dream has remained elusive — until now.

A team of MIT and Stanford University researchers has developed a way to label neurons when they become active, essentially providing a snapshot of their activity at a moment in time. This approach could offer significant new insights into neuron function by offering greater temporal precision than current cell-labeling techniques, which capture activity across time windows of hours or days.

“A thought or a cognitive function usually lasts 30 seconds or a minute. That’s the range of what we’re hoping to be able to capture,” says Kay Tye, an assistant professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT, a member of the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, and one of the senior authors of the study, which appears in Nature Biotechnology on June 26. Original Article »

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A New Approach to Treating Brain Disorders: Reprogramming Neural Circuits

If you want a glimpse into the future, to know where brain research is taking us, just ask Dr. Kay M. Tye. A NARSAD Young Investigator grantee in 2013, Dr. Tye in the eight years since earning her Ph.D. in neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has won a bevy of top fellowships including the Society for Neuroscience Young Investigator Award as well as the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award. She has been named one of the world’s “35 Top Innovators Under 35” by Technology Review. And she has secured an assistant professorship in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory. This past year Dr. Tye was the recipient of the Foundation’s prestigious Freedman Award, and, separately, was named a member of the Foundation’s Scientific Council.

Dr. Tye speaks with infectious enthusiasm about the subject at the focus of her research: the neural circuits of emotions. Although hard to describe in rigorous scientific terms, emotions come in essentially two flavors, she says: pleasure and pain. So much of behavior has at its root the pursuit of one and the avoidance of the other. And yet, “even during the years I was in graduate school and just getting into neuroscience, most people weren’t very confident that ‘emotion’ was something that you could come up with a mechanistic explanation for.” Original Article »

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Brain circuit enables split-second decisions when cues conflict

New findings shed light on how we quickly assess risks and rewards before acting.

When animals hunt or forage for food, they must constantly weigh whether the chance of a meal is worth the risk of being spotted by a predator. The same conflict between cost and benefit is at the heart of many of the decisions humans make on a daily basis.

The ability to instantly consider contradictory information from the environment and decide how to act is essential for survival. It’s also a key feature of mental health. Yet despite its importance, very little is known about the connections in the brain that give us the ability to make these split second decisions.

Now, in a paper published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, researchers at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT reveal the circuit in the brain that is critical for governing how we respond to conflicting environmental cues. Original Article »

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Interstellate: Celebrating the the beauty of neuroscience

Caitlin Vander Weele, a graduate student in brain and cognitive sciences, launches a collaborative neuro-art pictorial magazine.

“Scientists take beautiful images of the brain every day, and for the most part no one gets to see them,” says Caitlin Vander Weele, a graduate student in the MIT Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.

“Experiments fail all the time and the images just get buried. People don’t really get to see that side of science. At the end of the day, they aren’t really failed experiments. They help us generate better methods and come up with better hypotheses.”

A fifth-year graduate student in the lab of Assistant Professor Kay Tye, Vander Weele recently launched Interstellate, a neuro-art pictorial magazine, to share these images with the world. Original Article »

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