UC researchers participate in pioneering study that deepens brain cartography

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

Led by researchers from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), this study focused on the so-called “reticular nucleus of the thalamus”, an area thought to be involved in cognition, sensory processing, attention and sleep regulation.

Changes in this nucleus “are associated with neuropsychiatric and neurodevelopmental disorders, such as schizophrenia, autism and hyperactivity and attention deficit 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, bringing 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 demonstrated to have a fundamental, but distinct, role in the regulation of sleep », underline Marcos Gomes and João Peça.

The contribution of the UC team in the investigation made it possible to identify the three-dimensional organization of the “new” neurons Spp1 + and Ecel1 +, which led to a detailed understanding of this nucleus of the thalamus.

“The results of this investigation signify another important step in the process of mapping the brain of mammals, and contribute to better understand the architecture of the thalamus”, says João Peça, also a professor in the Department of Life Sciences at the Faculty of Sciences and Technology of the University of Coimbra (FCTUC).

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

The approaches developed in the scope of this work allowed the “Functional characterization of the circuit and provide important clues in understanding not only sleep diseases, but also several neurodevelopmental diseases. This is because, with the knowledge of the unique peculiarities of the neurons that make up this region of the brain, the doors are also open to the design of strategies and therapies to restore their normal function in disease processes”, conclude the two researchers.

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