Lauren Quattrochi on Novel Cell Types

By: Brown University

For my talk, I'm going to start out with a bold statement, and that is, Star Trek is wrong. Neuroscience is the final frontier. You have cells and circuits within your nervous system that we still cannot define or assign a function, even entire nuclei of your brain that remain an enigma. My research attempts to combat those unknowns.

Alongside my adviser, Professor David Berson, we study retinal ganglion cells, or the conduits connecting your eyes to your brain. If you've ever seen a scary movie where the eyeball pops out and is hanging by a thread, that thread is composed of 1 to 1.5 million retinal ganglion cells. And of those cells, there are over 20 different types, each paying attention to a different piece of information about your visual scene and relaying that back to specialized centers within your brain. This also means that, in our line of research, each type, we assume, has a different function. So where one may be keen on color, another may be interpreting information about motion. In fact, you have cells that are so sensitive within your eyes, that they can track the movement of the stars across the sky, assuming we had the attention span to stare into space that long.

Our laboratory focuses on one type in particular, and it's called a ganglion cell photoreceptor. It has a really specialized protein that's light sensitive, called melanopsin, which was first discovered in the skin of frogs. And what it does is, it enables the cell to respond to light independent of any other cell around them.

Moreover, these cells can integrate light over long periods of time, upwards of 10 hours, making them excellent candidates as light intensity detectors. Now these cells were first discovered just over a decade ago here at Brown, though since then, countless other researchers have contributed to discerning the functions of these light intensity detectors. And what they've found is that they're pivotal in these reflexive, unconscious, behavioral movements that are elicited from light. So, for example, pupillary constriction, regulating your wake-sleep cycle, hormone regulation, and perhaps even light-induced migraines. All of these seemingly disparate functions have implications within our daily lives. One such implication may be a piece of technology called f.lux, which is a free app you can download that actually changes the spectral composition emitted by your computer monitor over the course of the day so you can fall asleep at night. Another one is something called the Happy Blue Light, from Brookstone, which is meant to ameliorate seasonal affective disorder.

Lauren Quattrochi on Novel Cell Types

Imagine, if you will, if we could identify, characterize and control these cells, we would no longer have ailments like seasonal affective disorder, jet lag, certain forms of insomnia, and perhaps even light-induced pain. Moreover, these cells have been proven to be the most resilient cells within your eye. So, because we know that some blind patients sharing these ailments with us, we know these cells are active within them, which means researchers can now leverage these cells' innate ability to survive disease states, such as glaucoma, to create novel sight-sparing therapeutics. For my thesis, I've discovered a novel sixth subtype of the ganglion cell photoreceptor, called the M6. It has an absolutely beautiful structure and incredibly refined brain targets. However, its main function still evades us. When I was in high school, or even college, I believed that every cell in the human body had already been identified and well characterized, or so textbooks have led us all to believe. However, in reality, we are on the verge of discovering completely new cells within you and me using breakthrough technologies.

It always boggled my mind how Jean-Luc Picard could communicate with aliens, yet here now, in the 21st century, we scientists don't even know how we see what we see. However, it's discoveries like these novel cell types where we can begin to understand how light influences our health and behavior. And to that I stand resolute that neuroscience is the final frontier. Live long and prosper.

[LAUGHTER] [APPLAUSE].

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