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Cell voltage molds developing brain tweaking electric charge fixed defects in frog embryos.

A little electricity goes a long way in shaping the growing brain. The electric charge across cell membranes directs many aspects of brain development, scientists report in the March 11 Journal of Neuroscience. Harnessing these charges could eventually allow scientists to fix birth defects or grow new tissue.

By tinkering with the voltage in cell membranes of developing African clawed frogs, researchers found that the electric charge, also called membrane potential, plays a role in how big the brain grows and what kind of tissues developing cells grow into.

The work "highlights the importance of membrane potential and its role in development," says Simon Perathoner, a developmental biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tubingen, Germany.

All cells have electrical activity in their membranes. "Cells use this electrical activity to communicate with each other in making decisions about growth," says study coauthor Michael Levin, a developmental biologist at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. "For the first time here, we also show that these bioelectrical signals are used to determine the size and location of the brain itself."

Levin and his colleagues stained developing embryos with dyes that glow more or less intensely depending on variations in electric charge in cell membranes. The researchers then flipped on or off genes that control cell growth by inducing the growth of tiny structures called ion channels in cell membranes.

"We put [ion channels] into cells as needed to move the voltage up or down," says Levin. "We were able to make the brain cells grow more, or less, as we wanted, thus showing that voltage controls the size of the primary brain."

Changing the voltage also caused brain tissue to grow outside of the brain area--for instance, in a frog embryo's tail. "It switched the fate of other cell types into that of brain," Levin says.

Regenerative medicine could take advantage of cells' reliance on bioelectricity to grow new tissue to replace missing or damaged organs, Levin says.

In another experiment, the team used a genetic trick to manipulate brain voltage in frog embryos to mimic a mutation that causes much of the brain to be malformed or missing. When the researchers restored errant voltage in brain cell membranes, most of the embryos developed nearly normal brains.

Many drugs already exist to tweak ion channels, Levin says. The team's success in fixing an abnormality with bioelectricity indicates that ion channel drugs could treat birth defects or degenerative brain disease.

Caption: Changing the voltage in a frog embryo's brain cells can fix the damage caused by a defect that makes the brain grow abnormally, allowing the brain to develop like that of a normal embryo. Markers point to differences in brain development.


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Title Annotation:BODY & BRAIN
Author:Baggaley, Kate
Publication:Science News
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 18, 2015
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