Little is known or understood about the molecular mechanisms responsible for social cognitive development and the diseases associated with its aberrations, such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Monitoring the concentration profile of molecules that are implicated in ASD is necessary to close a crucial understanding gap: how an organism’s social environment affects molecular-scale changes in the brain and corresponding alterations in social cognition. The key limitation in closing this gap hinges on sensors for neurohormones, such as oxytocin, implicated in social disorders.
Markita Landry and her colleagues have recently developed a method to produce sensors for biological molecules that are key players in brain function1. Unlike existing fluorescence techniques for detecting biological molecules, these sensors are very optically stable and transmit their signal in an optical window where biological matter such as the brain, cells, blood and bone are transparent.
In collaboration with Robert Froemke at New York University School of Medicine, Landry’s lab will combine newly developed oxytocin sensors with mouse behavioral assays, whole-cell recordings and optogenetic stimulation to study the impact of oxytocin on the brain at single-cell resolution in awake, behaving mice. By studying neurons at this level, they will be able to draw conclusions about how molecules such as oxytocin are implicated in social behaviors. These studies will provide a high-resolution picture of neuronal activity changes in response to oxytocin release in the context of social behaviors, providing insight into the relationship between an animal’s environment and the brain’s response.