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Researchers Developing a Technique That Could Decipher Genes' Roles In Learning And Memory

Update Date: Mar 26, 2014 08:13 AM EDT

A team of engineers at MIT are trying to adapt magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) - a technique commonly used to diagnose tumors and other medical conditions - to a much smaller scale allowing researchers to visualize gene activity inside the brains of living animals. 

If they succeed, it would help scientists learn more about how genes control processes such as forming memories and learning new skills. 

"The dream of molecular imaging is to provide information about the biology of intact organisms, at the molecule level," said Alan Jasanoff, who is also an associate member of MIT's McGovern Institute for Brain Research in the press release. "The goal is to not have to chop up the brain, but instead to actually see things that are happening inside."

In the recent development reported, engineers have developed a new way to image a "reporter gene". A reporter gene is an artificial gene that turns on or off to signal events in the body. The gene also encodes an enzyme interacting with a magnetic contrast agent injected in the brain. 

For creating the detailed image of the body's interior MRI uses magnetic fields combined with radio waves that interacts with protons in the body. The new approach will involve a contrast agent called manganese porphyrin and a new reporter gene.

The contrast agent has been designed in such a way that becomes easily soluble in water and could be readily eliminated from the body. 

"As people who are interested in brain function, the top questions we want to address are about how brain function changes patterns of gene expression in the brain," Jasanoff added in the press release. "We also imagine a future where we might turn the reporter enzyme on and off when it binds to neurotransmitters, so we can detect changes in neurotransmitter levels as well."

The development of the research has been published in the recent issue of the journal Chemical Biology.

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