Urging Caution During a Genomic Revolution: A Conversation with David Baltimore

Earlier this year, an elite group of scientists and ethicists—including Nobel Laureate David Baltimore, president emeritus and Robert Andrews Millikan Professor of Biology at Caltech—convened in Napa, California, to discuss the scientific, medical, legal, and ethical implications of genome engineering technology.

Such technologies—chief among them a now-widespread genetic tool known as CRISPR-Cas9, known colloquially as "DNA scissors"—allow scientists to make precise edits to the genome, or the entire genetic script, of an organism. By essentially rewriting genomes, researchers can, in weeks rather than years, create animal strains that mimic human diseases to test new therapies; easily knock out genes in the cells of animals and humans to test their function; and even change DNA sequences to correct genetic defects. Such edits can be made in both body cells and in germ-line cells (sperm and eggs), to alter heritable genes.

We recently spoke with Baltimore about these new technologies and the issues they raise.

 

What was your motivation for participating in this conversation in January about the uses of genome engineering technology?

I was most concerned about the ability to carry out germ-line modifications of humans using this technology. Other issues came up—modification of the general biosphere, somatic gene therapy as opposed to heritable gene therapy—but I think those things are less concerning at the moment.

 

What is the big issue with human germ-line modification?

The big issue is how simple it is, at least conceptually, to modify cells—embryonic stem cells as well as somatic cells. The major concern is the potential for off-target effects: If you carry out the germ-line modification of a gene that you have identified as of concern, how do you know that, somewhere else in the genome, there hasn't been an alteration which you didn't plan to do but that has occurred anyway? Most of the genome is not coding—it doesn't code for anything. So you wouldn't necessarily see a protein change. But that change would become heritable generations into the future. You want to be pretty sure that that is not happening.

We know that people have put a lot of effort into minimizing such off-target effects. Whether they have been minimized enough is a very important safety consideration.

 

Are you and your colleagues concerned about the potential for using this technology to create "designer" babies?

I think the thing to do is to distinguish between the long-term concern about modifications that are heritable but made for reasons that are "cosmetic," and a situation in which a modification is made in order to ameliorate a serious human disease.

The example that I find most compelling is Huntington's disease. It involves a mutation in the genome that most people don't carry; the few people who do carry it suffer very serious deleterious consequences that only become apparent with age. Ridding the genome of that modified gene seems to me to be an unalloyed good. Therefore, the question becomes, do you need to use genome alteration technology to accomplish that end or is there some other way to accomplish that? But the end seems to me to be something almost everybody would agree is a good.

 

But there are situations that are not that clear-cut . . .

Exactly. You go from, on one side, Huntington's disease, and on the other side, the desire for a more intelligent child. One is easy, it can be fixed by changing a single gene. The other is much more complicated. Intelligence certainly isn't determined by a single gene. It is multigenic—the result of many genes. One is a pretty straightforward medical decision; the other is an issue which is very culturally bound. So those are the two poles, and then there is everything in between.

 

For the in-between situations, that is just a judgment call?

Yes, it is a judgment call.

 

Who makes the decisions in those cases?                                                                   

Society, in the end, will make those decisions. The problem that I think everybody has with it is that although society has the ability to make decisions like that, it is a big world. And you could imagine things being done in other jurisdictions, where we don't have control.

 

How do we manage that?

My personal thought is that the best we can do is to make absolutely unambiguous the consensus feeling of society. Because the scientific community is an international community, we do have the ability to at least provide moral guidelines.

Any kind of modification that involves something as elusive as intelligence is a long way off. We don't understand it well enough to make modifications today, and so to an extent we are trying to establish a framework that will serve the world well into the future. That is a big order, and whether an international meeting can grapple with anything as profound as that, we will see.

 

Where do you see this technology in 10 years? 100 years?

That is a good distinction—10 years versus 100 years. The latter is very hard to think about, because we have really no idea what scientific advances are going to be made in the next 100 years. About all we can be sure of is that they will be impressive and maybe revolutionary, and will present us with a very different technological landscape in which these questions will evolve.

In 10 years, we certainly are likely to know the outline of what we are likely to see, and it is not going to be a whole lot different from what we are seeing today. I would guess that in 10 years, we would understand multigenic traits better than we do now. I do suspect that people will be gratified that at this time we began the basic considerations, because the problems will get more difficult rather than easier.

 

Forty years ago, you were one of the organizers of the influential Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA, which laid out voluntary guidelines for the use of genetic engineering—the same type of guidelines you and your colleagues are advocating for now with genome engineering. What was the original inspiration for convening the Asilomar Conference?

It was the advent of recombinant DNA technology that drew our attention. We all worked in the biological sciences. We recognized that recombinant DNA technology was a game changer because it was going to allow scientific investigation of the questions that heretofore had been unavailable. In some ways, many of us had designed our careers around the inability to do this kind of work, and, suddenly, we were going to be able to do things that we had only previously dreamed about, if we had considered them at all.

But at the same time, there seemed to be potentially problematic aspects to it, in particular the ability to modify organisms, mainly microbial organisms, in ways that could have given the organisms the ability to be a danger to human health.

Actually, we simply did not know whether that was a realistic concern or not. As we talked to other people, we discovered that no one knew. So it seemed like a good idea to take a breather and to give consideration to these concerns of potential hazards in an international meeting that would be convened in the United States.

 

Was there some thought that if you tried to self-regulate you could avoid governmental regulation?

It wasn't a matter of avoiding governmental regulation. It was that we thought that we—the scientific community—were uniquely capable of putting in perspective these new capabilities. The answer might have been to have legislation. In fact, as our thinking progressed, we realized that the very best situation would be to avoid legislation because legislation is very hard to undo. We wanted to be sure we would have the flexibility to respond to inevitably changing scientific perspectives.

 

In retrospect, do you think Asilomar was a success?

It worked out very close to how we hoped it would. That is, as we learned more, we became more comfortable with the technology; as we investigated potential hazards, we saw less and less reason to be concerned; and we had a built-in flexibility in the system to allow it to evolve in the context of newer understanding.

 

Are you aware of any situations where scientists did not follow the rules?

To my knowledge, that has never happened.

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Amgen and Caltech Establish Partnership in Health Sciences

Caltech and Amgen have joined forces in the pursuit of foundational discoveries in the biological sciences through a multifaceted new partnership spanning research, graduate student training, and shared resources.

"The work we do is built upon the foundation of basic discoveries in biology," says Alexander Kamb (PhD '88), Amgen's senior vice president of Discovery Research. "We look forward to strengthening and extending this foundation through our connection with Caltech."

Caltech received its first gift from Amgen in 1981, just one year after the company was formed. Over the past three decades, Amgen has provided support for a variety of educational programs and investigations at Caltech. Today, Amgen has grown to be one of the world's leading independent biotechnology companies, and it has now entered into a collaborative research agreement for joint investigations with Caltech that will leverage the two institutions' strengths in discovery, and translational and clinical science.

Under the terms of the new agreement, Amgen will fund up to five research projects per year for three years. Bridging the divisions of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, Biology and Biological Engineering, and Engineering and Applied Science, the projects will focus on large- and small-molecule drug discovery, drug-delivery devices, and diagnostic technologies. Amgen will also provide support for Amgen Graduate Student Fellows in Caltech's interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics.

In addition to fellowship and research support, Amgen has chosen Caltech as its first partner to access the Amgen Biology-Enabling Resource, a searchable database comprising more than 1,000 items, including molecules, peptides, antibodies, and engineered cell lines acquired through years of discovery efforts. Amgen will have no claim to ownership of intellectual property to discoveries that may ensue. Over time, Amgen will extend access to other research institutions and, as specific materials are depleted, add others to the catalog.

This comprehensive agreement with Amgen exemplifies Caltech's commitment to building strategic partnerships to optimize the Institute's capabilities and help solve pressing problems for the benefit of the public. This and other such relationships with corporations, government agencies, non-governmental organizations, and other institutions, focus on transferring technology from Caltech's campus to industry.

"Each industry collaboration has a unique scope and focus, but all share a goal of transforming new research findings into applications that will benefit society," explains Caltech Vice Provost, Mory Gharib, the Hans W. Liepmann Professor of Aeronautics and Bioinspired Engineering. "The hope is that the Caltech–Amgen partnership will enable our teams to swiftly convert laboratory discoveries into therapeutics or devices that will improve patients' lives."

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Yeast Protein Network Could Provide Insights into Human Obesity

A team of biologists and a mathematician have identified and characterized a network composed of 94 proteins that work together to regulate fat storage in yeast.

"Removal of any one of the proteins results in an increase in cellular fat content, which is analogous to obesity," says study coauthor Bader Al-Anzi, a research scientist at Caltech.

The findings, detailed in the May issue of the journal PLOS Computational Biology, suggest that yeast could serve as a valuable test organism for studying human obesity.

"Many of the proteins we identified have mammalian counterparts, but detailed examinations of their role in humans has been challenging," says Al-Anzi. "The obesity research field would benefit greatly if a single-cell model organism such as yeast could be used—one that can be analyzed using easy, fast, and affordable methods."

Using genetic tools, Al-Anzi and his research assistant Patrick Arpp screened a collection of about 5,000 different mutant yeast strains and identified 94 genes that, when removed, produced yeast with increases in fat content, as measured by quantitating fat bands on thin-layer chromatography plates. Other studies have shown that such "obese" yeast cells grow more slowly than normal, an indication that in yeast as in humans, too much fat accumulation is not a good thing. "A yeast cell that uses most of its energy to synthesize fat that is not needed does so at the expense of other critical functions, and that ultimately slows down its growth and reproduction," Al-Anzi says.

When the team looked at the protein products of the genes, they discovered that those proteins are physically bonded to one another to form an extensive, highly clustered network within the cell.

Such a configuration cannot be generated through a random process, say study coauthors Sherif Gerges, a bioinformatician at Princeton University, and Noah Olsman, a graduate student in Caltech's Division of Engineering and Applied Science, who independently evaluated the details of the network. Both concluded that the network must have formed as the result of evolutionary selection.

In human-scale networks, such as the Internet, power grids, and social networks, the most influential or critical nodes are often, but not always, those that are the most highly connected.

The team wondered whether the fat-storage network exhibits this feature, and, if not, whether some other characteristics of the nodes would determine which ones were most critical. Then, they could ask if removing the genes that encode the most critical nodes would have the largest effect on fat content.

To examine this hypothesis further, Al-Anzi sought out the help of a mathematician familiar with graph theory, the branch of mathematics that considers the structure of nodes connected by edges, or pathways. "When I realized I needed help, I closed my laptop and went across campus to the mathematics department at Caltech," Al-Anzi recalls. "I walked into the only office door that was open at the time, and introduced myself."

The mathematician that Al-Anzi found that day was Christopher Ormerod, a Taussky–Todd Instructor in Mathematics at Caltech. Al-Anzi's data piqued Ormerod's curiosity. "I was especially struck by the fact that connections between the proteins in the network didn't appear to be random," says Ormerod, who is also a coauthor on the study. "I suspected there was something mathematically interesting happening in this network."

With the help of Ormerod, the team created a computer model that suggested the yeast fat network exhibits what is known as the small-world property. This is akin to a social network that contains many different local clusters of people who are linked to each other by mutual acquaintances, so that any person within the cluster can be reached via another person through a small number of steps.

This pattern is also seen in a well-known network model in graph theory, called the Watts-Strogatz model. The model was originally devised to explain the clustering phenomenon often observed in real networks, but had not previously been applied to cellular networks.

Ormerod suggested that graph theory might be used to make predictions that could be experimentally proven. For example, graph theory says that the most important nodes in the network are not necessarily the ones with the most connections, but rather those that have the most high-quality connections. In particular, nodes having many distant or circuitous connections are less important than those with more direct connections to other nodes, and, especially, direct connections to other important nodes. In mathematical jargon, these important nodes are said to have a high "centrality score."

"In network analysis, the centrality of a node serves as an indicator of its importance to the overall network," Ormerod says.

"Our work predicts that changing the proteins with the highest centrality scores will have a bigger effect on network output than average," he adds. And indeed, the researchers found that the removal of proteins with the highest predicted centrality scores produced yeast cells with a larger fat band than in yeast whose less-important proteins had been removed.

The use of centrality scores to gauge the relative importance of a protein in a cellular network is a marked departure from how proteins traditionally have been viewed and studied—that is, as lone players, whose characteristics are individually assessed. "It was a very local view of how cells functioned," Al-Anzi says. "Now we're realizing that the majority of proteins are parts of signaling networks that perform specific tasks within the cell."

Moving forward, the researchers think their technique could be applicable to protein networks that control other cellular functions—such as abnormal cell division, which can lead to cancer.

"These kinds of methods might allow researchers to determine which proteins are most important to study in order to understand diseases that arise when these functions are disrupted," says Kai Zinn, a professor of biology at Caltech and the study's senior author. "For example, defects in the control of cell growth and division can lead to cancer, and one might be able to use centrality scores to identify key proteins that regulate these processes. These might be proteins that had been overlooked in the past, and they could represent new targets for drug development."

Funding support for the paper, "Experimental and Computational Analysis of a Large Protein Network That Controls Fat Storage Reveals the Design Principles of a Signaling Network," was provided by the National Institutes of Health.

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Tuesday, May 26, 2015 to Friday, May 29, 2015
Center for Student Services 360 (Workshop Space) – Center for Student Services

CTLO Presents Ed Talk Week 2015

Ditch Day? It’s Today, Frosh!

Today we celebrate Ditch Day, one of Caltech's oldest traditions. During this annual spring rite—the timing of which is kept secret until the last minute—seniors ditch their classes and vanish from campus. Before they go, however, they leave behind complex, carefully planned out puzzles and challenges—known as "stacks"—designed to occupy the underclassmen and prevent them from wreaking havoc on the seniors' unoccupied rooms.

Follow the action on Caltech's Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram pages as the undergraduates tackle the puzzles left for them to solve around campus. Join the conversation by sharing your favorite Ditch Day memories and using #CaltechDitchDay in your tweets and postings.

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Doris Tsao Named Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has selected Caltech professor of biology Doris Tsao (BS '96) as one of 26 new HHMI investigators. Investigators represent some of the nation's top biomedical researchers and receive five years of funding to "move their research in creative new directions."

Tsao is a systems neuroscientist studying the neural mechanisms underlying primate vision. She and her group aim to discover how the brain "stitches together" individual pixels of light—the photons hitting our retinas—to create the visual experience of discrete and recognizable objects in space.

"The central problem I want to understand is how visual objects are represented in the brain, and how these representations are used to guide behavior," she says. "I feel inexpressibly lucky for the support from the HHMI that will allow us to dive deep into this program."

The group has used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanning to study neural responses to images and has identified discrete areas in the brain, called "face patches," that play important roles in detecting and identifying faces.

Tsao received her PhD in neuroscience from Harvard after completing her undergraduate studies in biology and mathematics at Caltech. She returned to Caltech as an assistant professor in 2008 and became a full professor in 2014. Her appointment brings the number of current Caltech HHMI investigators to eleven.

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Controlling a Robotic Arm with a Patient's Intentions

Neural prosthetic devices implanted in the brain's movement center, the motor cortex, can allow patients with amputations or paralysis to control the movement of a robotic limb—one that can be either connected to or separate from the patient's own limb. However, current neuroprosthetics produce motion that is delayed and jerky—not the smooth and seemingly automatic gestures associated with natural movement. Now, by implanting neuroprosthetics in a part of the brain that controls not the movement directly but rather our intent to move, Caltech researchers have developed a way to produce more natural and fluid motions.

In a clinical trial, the Caltech team and colleagues from Keck Medicine of USC have successfully implanted just such a device in a patient with quadriplegia, giving him the ability to perform a fluid hand-shaking gesture and even play "rock, paper, scissors" using a separate robotic arm.

The results of the trial, led by principal investigator Richard Andersen, the James G. Boswell Professor of Neuroscience, and including Caltech lab members Tyson Aflalo, Spencer Kellis, Christian Klaes, Brian Lee, Ying Shi and Kelsie Pejsa, are published in the May 22 edition of the journal Science.

"When you move your arm, you really don't think about which muscles to activate and the details of the movement—such as lift the arm, extend the arm, grasp the cup, close the hand around the cup, and so on. Instead, you think about the goal of the movement. For example, 'I want to pick up that cup of water,'" Andersen says. "So in this trial, we were successfully able to decode these actual intents, by asking the subject to simply imagine the movement as a whole, rather than breaking it down into myriad components."

For example, the process of seeing a person and then shaking his hand begins with a visual signal (for example, recognizing someone you know) that is first processed in the lower visual areas of the cerebral cortex. The signal then moves up to a high-level cognitive area known as the posterior parietal cortex (PPC). Here, the initial intent to make a movement is formed. These intentions are then transmitted to the motor cortex, through the spinal cord, and on to the arms and legs where the movement is executed.

High spinal cord injuries can cause quadriplegia in some patients because movement signals cannot get from the brain to the arms and legs. As a solution, earlier neuroprosthetic implants used tiny electrodes to detect and record movement signals at their last stop before reaching the spinal cord: the motor cortex.

The recorded signal is then carried via wire bundles from the patient's brain to a computer, where it is translated into an instruction for a robotic limb. However, because the motor cortex normally controls many muscles, the signals tend to be detailed and specific. The Caltech group wanted to see if the simpler intent to shake the hand could be used to control the prosthetic limb, instead of asking the subject to concentrate on each component of the handshake—a more painstaking and less natural approach.

Andersen and his colleagues wanted to improve the versatility of movement that a neuroprosthetic can offer by recording signals from a different brain region—the PPC. "The PPC is earlier in the pathway, so signals there are more related to movement planning—what you actually intend to do—rather than the details of the movement execution," he says. "We hoped that the signals from the PPC would be easier for the patients to use, ultimately making the movement process more intuitive. Our future studies will investigate ways to combine the detailed motor cortex signals with more cognitive PPC signals to take advantage of each area's specializations."

In the clinical trial, designed to test the safety and effectiveness of this new approach, the Caltech team collaborated with surgeons at Keck Medicine of USC and the rehabilitation team at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center. The surgeons implanted a pair of small electrode arrays in two parts of the PPC of a quadriplegic patient. Each array contains 96 active electrodes that, in turn, each record the activity of a single neuron in the PPC. The arrays were connected by a cable to a system of computers that processed the signals, decoded the intent of the subject, and controlled output devices that included a computer cursor and a robotic arm developed by collaborators at Johns Hopkins University.

After recovering from the surgery, the patient was trained to control the computer cursor and the robotic arm with his mind. Once training was complete, the researchers saw just what they were hoping for: intuitive movement of the robotic arm.

"For me, the most exciting moment of the trial was when the participant first moved the robotic limb with his thoughts. He had been paralyzed for over 10 years, and this was the first time since his injury that he could move a limb and reach out to someone. It was a thrilling moment for all of us," Andersen says.

"It was a big surprise that the patient was able to control the limb on day one—the very first day he tried," he adds. "This attests to how intuitive the control is when using PPC activity."

The patient, Erik G. Sorto, was also thrilled with the quick results: "I was surprised at how easy it was," he says. "I remember just having this out-of-body experience, and I wanted to just run around and high-five everybody."

Over time, Sorto continued to refine his control of his robotic arm, thus providing the researchers with more information about how the PPC works. For example, "we learned that if he thought, 'I should move my hand over toward to the object in a certain way'—trying to control the limb—that didn't work," Andersen says. "The thought actually needed to be more cognitive. But if he just thought, 'I want to grasp the object,' it was much easier. And that is exactly what we would expect from this area of the brain."

This better understanding of the PPC will help the researchers improve neuroprosthetic devices of the future, Andersen says. "What we have here is a unique window into the workings of a complex high-level brain area as we work collaboratively with our subject to perfect his skill in controlling external devices."

"The primary mission of the USC Neurorestoration Center is to take advantage of resources from our clinical programs to create unique opportunities to translate scientific discoveries, such as those of the Andersen Lab at Caltech, to human patients, ultimately turning transformative discoveries into effective therapies," says center director Charles Y. Liu, professor of neurological surgery, neurology, and biomedical engineering at USC, who led the surgical implant procedure and the USC/Rancho Los Amigos team in the collaboration.

"In taking care of patients with neurological injuries and diseases—and knowing the significant limitations of current treatment strategies—it is clear that completely new approaches are necessary to restore function to paralyzed patients. Direct brain control of robots and computers has the potential to dramatically change the lives of many people," Liu adds.

Dr. Mindy Aisen, the chief medical officer at Rancho Los Amigos who led the study's rehabilitation team, says that advancements in prosthetics like these hold promise for the future of patient rehabilitation. "We at Rancho are dedicated to advancing rehabilitation through new assistive technologies, such as robotics and brain-machine interfaces. We have created a unique environment that can seamlessly bring together rehabilitation, medicine, and science as exemplified in this study," she says.

Although tasks like shaking hands and playing "rock, paper, scissors" are important to demonstrate the capability of these devices, the hope is that neuroprosthetics will eventually enable patients to perform more practical tasks that will allow them to regain some of their independence.

"This study has been very meaningful to me. As much as the project needed me, I needed the project. The project has made a huge difference in my life. It gives me great pleasure to be part of the solution for improving paralyzed patients' lives," Sorto says. "I joke around with the guys that I want to be able to drink my own beer—to be able to take a drink at my own pace, when I want to take a sip out of my beer and to not have to ask somebody to give it to me. I really miss that independence. I think that if it was safe enough, I would really enjoy grooming myself—shaving, brushing my own teeth. That would be fantastic." 

To that end, Andersen and his colleagues are already working on a strategy that could enable patients to perform these finer motor skills. The key is to be able to provide particular types of sensory feedback from the robotic arm to the brain.

Although Sorto's implant allowed him to control larger movements with visual feedback, "to really do fine dexterous control, you also need feedback from touch," Andersen says. "Without it, it's like going to the dentist and having your mouth numbed. It's very hard to speak without somatosensory feedback." The newest devices under development by Andersen and his colleagues feature a mechanism to relay signals from the robotic arm back into the part of the brain that gives the perception of touch.

"The reason we are developing these devices is that normally a quadriplegic patient couldn't, say, pick up a glass of water to sip it, or feed themselves. They can't even do anything if their nose itches. Seemingly trivial things like this are very frustrating for the patients," Andersen says. "This trial is an important step toward improving their quality of life."

The results of the trial were published in a paper titled, "Decoding Motor Imagery from the Posterior Parietal Cortex of a Tetraplegic Human." The implanted device and signal processors used in the Caltech-led clinical trial were the NeuroPort Array and NeuroPort Bio-potential Signal Processors developed by Blackrock Microsystems in Salt Lake City, Utah. The robotic arm used in the trial was the Modular Prosthetic Limb, developed at the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins. Sorto was recruited to the trial by collaborators at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center and at Keck Medicine of USC. This trial was funded by National Institutes of Health, the Boswell Foundation, the Department of Defense, and the USC Neurorestoration Center.

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Do Fruit Flies Have Emotions?

A fruit fly starts buzzing around food at a picnic, so you wave your hand over the insect and shoo it away. But when the insect flees the scene, is it doing so because it is actually afraid? Using fruit flies to study the basic components of emotion, a new Caltech study reports that a fly's response to a shadowy overhead stimulus might be analogous to a negative emotional state such as fear—a finding that could one day help us understand the neural circuitry involved in human emotion.

The study, which was done in the laboratory of David Anderson, Seymour Benzer Professor of Biology and an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, was published online May 14 in the journal Current Biology.

Insects are an important model for the study of emotion; although mice are closer to humans on the evolutionary family tree, the fruit fly has a much simpler neurological system that is easier to study. However, studying emotions in insects or any other animal can also be tricky. Because researchers know the experience of human emotion, they might anthropomorphize those of an insect—just as you might assume that the shooed-away fly left your plate because it was afraid of your hand. But there are several problems with such an assumption, says postdoctoral scholar William T. Gibson, first author of the paper.

"There are two difficulties with taking your own experiences and then saying that maybe these are happening in a fly. First, a fly's brain is very different from yours, and second, a fly's evolutionary history is so different from yours that even if you could prove beyond any doubt that flies have emotions, those emotions probably wouldn't be the same ones that you have," he says. "For these reasons, in our study, we wanted to take an objective approach."

Anderson and Gibson and their colleagues did this by deconstructing the idea of an emotion into basic building blocks—so-called emotion primitives, a concept previously developed by Anderson and Ralph Adolphs, Bren Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience and professor of biology.

"There has been ongoing debate for decades about what 'emotion' means, and there is no generally accepted definition. In an article that Ralph Adolphs and I recently wrote, we put forth the view that emotions are a type of internal brain state with certain general properties that can exist independently of subjective, conscious feelings, which can only be studied in humans," Anderson says. "That means we can study such brain states in animal models like flies or mice without worrying about whether they have 'feelings' or not. We use the behaviors that express those states as a readout."

Gibson explains by analogy that emotions can be broken down into these emotion primitives much as a secondary color, such as orange, can be separated into two primary colors, yellow and red. "And if we can show that fruit flies display all of these separate but necessary primitives, we then may be able to make the argument that they also have an emotion, like fear."

The emotion primitives analyzed in the fly study can be understood in the context of a stimulus associated with human fear: the sound of a gunshot. If you hear a gun fire, the sound may trigger a negative feeling. This feeling, a primitive called valence, will probably cause you to behave differently for several minutes afterward. This is a primitive called persistence. Repeated exposure to the stimulus should also produce a greater emotional response—a primitive called scalability; for example, the sound of 10 gunshots would make you more afraid than the sound of one shot.

Gibson says that another primitive of fear is that it is generalized to different contexts, meaning that if you were eating lunch or were otherwise occupied when the gun fired, the fear would take over, distracting you from your lunch. Trans-situationality is another primitive that could cause you to produce the same fearful reaction in response to an unrelated stimulus—such as the sound of a car backfiring.

The researchers chose to study these five primitives by observing the insects in the presence of a fear-inducing stimulus. Because defensive behavioral responses to overhead visual threats are common in many animals, the researchers created an apparatus that would pass a dark paddle over the flies' habitat. The flies' movements were then tracked using a software program created in collaboration with Pietro Perona, the Allen E. Puckett Professor of Electrical Engineering.

The researchers analyzed the flies' responses to the stimulus and found that the insects displayed all of these emotion primitives. For example, responses were scalable: when the paddle passed overhead, the flies would either freeze, or jump away from the stimulus, or enter a state of elevated arousal, and each response increased with the number of times the stimulus was delivered. And when hungry flies were gathered around food, the stimulus would cause them to leave the food for several seconds and run around the arena until their state of elevated arousal decayed and they returned to the food—exhibiting the primitives of context generalization and persistence.

"These experiments provide objective evidence that visual stimuli designed to mimic an overhead predator can induce a persistent and scalable internal state of defensive arousal in flies, which can influence their subsequent behavior for minutes after the threat has passed," Anderson says. "For us, that's a big step beyond just casually intuiting that a fly fleeing a visual threat must be 'afraid,' based on our anthropomorphic assumptions. It suggests that the flies' response to the threat is richer and more complicated than a robotic-like avoidance reflex."

In the future, the researchers say that they plan to combine the new technique with genetically based techniques and imaging of brain activity to identify the neural circuitry that underlies these defensive behaviors. Their end goal is to identify specific populations of neurons in the fruit fly brain that are necessary for emotion primitives—and whether these functions are conserved in higher organisms, such as mice or even humans.

Although the presence of these primitives suggests that the flies might be reacting to the stimulus based on some kind of emotion, the researchers are quick to point out that this new information does not prove—nor did it set out to establish—that flies can experience fear, or happiness, or anger, or any other feelings.

"Our work can get at questions about mechanism and questions about the functional properties of emotion states, but we cannot get at the question of whether or not flies have feelings," Gibson says.

The study, titled "Behavioral Responses to a Repetitive Stimulus Express a Persistent State of Defensive Arousal in Drosophila," was published in the journal Current Biology. In addition to Gibson, Anderson, and Perona, Caltech coauthors include graduate student Carlos Gonzalez, undergraduate Rebecca Du, former research assistants Conchi Fernandez and Panna Felsen (BS '09, MS '10), and former postdoctoral scholar Michael Maire. Coauthors Lakshminarayanan Ramasamy and Tanya Tabachnik are from the Janelia Research Campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). The work was funded by the National Institutes of Health, HHMI, and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

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Monday, May 18, 2015
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Jupiter’s Grand Attack

Andersen Wins Inaugural Cal-BRAIN Funding

Richard Andersen, James G. Boswell Professor of Neuroscience, has been selected as a recipient of one of the first grants from the California Blueprint for Research to Advance Innovations in Neuroscience (Cal-BRAIN) program.

Cal-BRAIN, a joint initiative led by UC San Diego and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, is the California complement to President Obama's federal BRAIN Initiative. Scientists from all California nonprofit research institutions were eligible to apply for the state initiative's first round of $120,000 seed grants; Andersen from Caltech and the 15 other inaugural winners from Stanford, USC, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and 10 UC campuses were selected from a pool of 126 applicants.

The initiative's goal is for funded projects to use an interdisciplinary approach to advance the diagnosis and treatment of all brain disorders as well as develop better neural prosthetic devices that would allow paralyzed patients to move a robotic limb using signals from the patient's own brain. By supporting this research specifically, Cal-BRAIN aims to position California as a leader in the growing neurotechnology sector—a possible future source of economic growth and job creation in the state.

Andersen's Cal-BRAIN–funded project, titled "Engineering Artificial Sensation," will focus on artificially replicating the sensation of touch in patients with paralysis accompanied by loss of touch perception; such replication would improve the dexterity of neural prosthetic devices. This capability, when combined with a traditional neural prosthetic device and robotic arm, would enable patients to manipulate their environment and would provide feedback allowing them to recognize, for example, that they had used too much or too little force when grasping an object. The project is being done in collaboration with physicians Charles Liu, Brian Lee, and Christi Heck at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and the USC Neurorestoration Center. 

A full list of the Cal-BRAIN funded institutions, researchers, and projects can be viewed here: http://cal-brain.org/content/cal-brain-awards-2015.

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