A Modern Classic, Part I

Today I’ll be revisiting a paper that had a massive impact both on what we know about control of energy balance, but also how I think about and approach my experiments. I’m talking about Atasoy’s 2012 Nature paper with the pretentious title1, in the study that first introduced me to optogenetics. Or at least to the possibility of controlling awake mouse behaviour using optogenetics.

This paper came out not long after the seminal work by Krashes et al., where he used DREADDs to drive to activity of AgRP neurones in vivo, and show the direct effect on feeding when these neurones are activated2. These papers were published towards the end of my PhD, and I was very keen to use these exciting new tools in my own research.

In fact, one of the first things I did in my postdoc was to help set up the use of targeted nanoinjections of AAV DREADD’s in our transgenic mice. It was only after a couple of successful experiments with DREADD’s that I even began to think about using optogenetics – I really wanted to develop the easier stages before jumping straight into the more advanced stuff.

Anyway, back to Atasoy’s paper. After some initial testing to make sure they can express ChR2 in AgRP neurones, and to demonstrate inhibitory input onto POMC neurones with electrophysiology, they take the optogenetic stimulation in vivo. They show, firstly, that you get increased food intake with coincident stimulation of AgRP and POMC neurones, demonstrating for the first time that the feeding drive for AgRP neurones is outside the Arcuate nucleus, ie. that the acute feeding action of AgRP neurones was not mediated by the suppression of POMC neurone activity (Figure 1).

But, if the acute feeding effects of AgRP neurones are not mediated by action on POMC neurones in the Arcuate, where are they mediated? Atasoy demonstrates the power of optogenetics for investigating neuronal circuits, by activating AgRP neurone terminals in awake behaving animals (Figure 2). Picking 2 areas with dense AgRP neurone terminals and known for controlling food intake, they target the PVH and the PBN. The results speak for themselves, with such a drastic response from the PVH, and nothing at all from the PBN.

There are more figures in this paper, but for me these were the most important findings. I think the power of optogenetics comes down to several factors, allowing us to overcome a number of the most challenging aspects of studying the brain:

  • High temporal precision – can get physiological responses instantly, and influence behaviours that rely on millisecond response times
  • Circuits – optogenetics allows us to investigate the neuronal circuitry involved in complex behaviours by stimulating neurotransmitter release in target areas
  • Stimulation patterns – the flashing light can be patterned to mimic neuronal firing patterns, which can produce differing behaviours even from an otherwise identical experiment

For those interested to read more, there is another early paper that really influenced my thoughts on optogenetics, which was a 2013 paper from Betley et al.3 For Part II, I’ll be investigating the next big advance in in vivo technology which has changed my approach to understanding energy balance.

1. Atasoy et al., Nature 488, 172-177 (2012) Deconstruction of a neural circuit for hunger.

2. Krashes et al., J Clin Invest 121(4), 1424-1428 (2011) Rapid, reversible activation of AgRP neurones drives feeding behaviour in mice.

3. Betley et al., Cell 155, 1337-1350 (2013) Parallel, redundant circuit organisation for homeostatic control of feeding behaviour.

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