How Hopkins Is Using Mouse Whiskers to Study Autism

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Medical research regularly uses mice to test out hypotheses. And usually, those mice are dead. But some really exciting research out of Johns Hopkins has found a new way to study the neuroscience of mice–by peeking into their brains while they’re still alive. Yep, you heard that right–researchers were able to observe the mice brains with such precision that they could see how proteins changed when the mice formed new memories. In real time. That’s nuts.

How do they do it? Through the whiskers, of course. More precisely, the research group bred special mice with AMPA receptors (a neural protein) that glowed when viewed under the light of a special microscope. Then they tickled one whisker on each mouse for an hour–presumably the most adorable part of the whole experiement–and then looked under the microscope to see how the brains changed.

“As far as we know, no one has ever been able to look at receptor proteins in live animals before,” Richard Huganir, director of Hopkins’ Department of Neuroscience, told the Hopkins Hub. “This allows us to get a more accurate picture of what’s really happening as the brain processes experiences into memories.”

This kind of research goes well beyond mouse-tickling. It has implications for diseases that impact learning and memory formation, such as Alzheimer’s, autism, and schizophrenia.