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See-Through Brain

CLARITY provided this 3D view showing a thick slice of a mouse brain's memory hub, or hippocampus. It reveals a few different types of cells: projecting neurons (green), connecting interneurons (red), and layers of support cells, or glia (blue). Conventional 2D methods require that brain tissue be thinly sliced, sacrificing the ability to analyze such intact components in relation to each other. CLARITY permits such typing of molecular and cellular components to be performed repeatedly in the same brain.

Scientific Breakthrough: Creating a See-Through Brain

Scientists have created a new way to study the brain. They replaced the fat that gives brain cells their structure with a clear gel. The end result is a whole brain that's see-through.

"This feat of chemical engineering promises to transform the way we study the brain's anatomy and how disease changes it," says Thomas R. Insel, M.D. He directs NIH's National Institute of Mental Health, which helped fund the research.

Scientists studying cells, molecules, and other fine details have been doing it by slicing brain tissue into extremely thin sections. It's time consuming and difficult to relate the fine structure to the bigger picture of how the brain is wired.

This breakthrough method, called CLARITY, allows scientists to see both the details and the big picture. There's no slicing. The gel holds the brain intact so it can be studied as the three-dimensional organ it is. The gel is permeable, so features such as proteins and genes can be highlighted with stains.

"CLARITY has the potential to unmask the fine details of brains from people with brain disorders without losing larger-scale circuit perspective," says NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D.

Researchers at Stanford University developed the technique. It's for use only on tissue recovered after death. The Stanford team has used it to study an intact mouse brain and portions of a human brain.

Giving Statins a Second Chance

A new study finds that most people who quit statins because of side effects can tolerate them when tried a second time. Statins are drugs that lower cholesterol to prevent heart disease. The study found more than 90 percent of people who quit had success when they tried again (for example, with a lower dose or a different statin).

"There are potentially millions of patients who could take statins again and ultimately reduce their risk of heart disease," says researcher Alexander Turchin, MD., of Brigham and Women's Hospital. He suggests it's something doctors and patients should discuss.

The research team examined the electronic medical records of people who had been prescribed a statin at two Boston hospitals. Researchers developed software that allowed them to scour more than 5 million notes on more than 100,000 patients covering nearly a decade. Researchers say a clinical trial would be an important next step. NIH's National Library of Medicine helped fund the study.

Anti-Smoking Med Shows Promise for Treating Alcohol Dependence

A smoking-cessation medicine may be a viable option for treatment of alcohol dependence, according to a study by scientists at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). The study found that varenicline (marketed under the name Chantix), approved in 2006 to help people stop smoking, significantly reduced alcohol consumption and craving among people who are alcohol-dependent. The findings were published online in the Journal of Addiction Medicine.

"This is an encouraging development in our effort to expand and improve treatment options for people with alcohol dependence," says Kenneth R. Warren, Ph.D., acting director of NIAAA. This study is the first multi-site clinical trial to test the effectiveness and safety of varenicline in a population of smokers and nonsmokers with alcohol dependence. Alcohol craving was significantly reduced in people treated with varenicline. The study was conducted under the direction of NIAAA.

Summer 2013 Issue: Volume 8 Number 2 Page 28