New tech gives unprecedented glimpse inside single brain cells: Vital step for understanding disease development

New technology which gives an unprecedented glimpse inside individual brain cells has been developed by scientists. Researchers hope the new platform will give them a better grasp of brain diseases.

Academics at the Salk Institute in California created a new genomic technology that can simultaneously analyze DNA, RNA and chromatin, which contains DNA and protein, from a single cell. The method, which took five years to develop, is a vital step towards large collaborations where several teams can work at the same time to classify thousands of new brain cell types.

The technology should prove invaluable for large-scale efforts to develop catalogues of mouse and human brain cell types. This information can then be used to better understand how the brain grows and develops and the role different cell types play in debilitating diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Brain cell breakthrough with snmCAT-seq

Existing single cell technology works by extracting DNA, RNA or chromatin from a cell’s nucleus and then analyzing its molecular structure for patterns. However, this destroys the cell in the process, leaving researchers relying on complex algorithms to analyze more than one of these components per cell and compare the results.

For the new method, called snmCAT-seq, scientists used biomarkers to tag DNA, RNA and chromatin without removing them from the cell. This let them measure all three types of molecular information in the same cell.

The method was then used to identify 63 cell types in the frontal lobe at the front of the brain, a part of the brain that is key to personality development. It benchmarked the efficacy of computerized ways of integrating multiple single-cell technologies.

Scientists say the computer methods are very good at characterizing broadly-defined brain populations but less effective at analyzing less well-defined cell types. Cell types need to be defined by a wider range of measurements if they are to be classified more accurately.

‘Another data dimension’

The technology could be used to help scientists better understand how genes and cells interact to cause brain diseases.

“These diseases can broadly affect many cell types, but there are certain cell populations that are particularly vulnerable,” says the study’s first author Dr Chongyuan Luo in a statement. “Genetic research has pinpointed the regions of the genome that are relevant for diseases like Alzheimer’s. We are providing another data dimension and identifying the cell types affected by these genomic reasons.”

The researchers now want to survey other parts of the brain and compare healthy brain cells with ones affected by Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases so those conditions can be better understood.

The findings are published in the journal Cell Genomics.

The research was supported by the US National Institutes of Health, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the University of California San Diego.

Article by South West News Service writer Gwyn Wright

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Steve Fink

Steve Fink is the Editor-in-Chief of BrainTomorrow.com, GutNews.com and StudyFinds.com. He is formerly the Vice President of News Engagement for CBS Television Stations’ websites, and spent 20 years with CBS.

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