Combining CRISPR/Cas9 and brain imaging: from genes to molecules to networks


Receptors, transporters and ion channels are important targets for therapy development in neurological diseases including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, schizophrenia and major depression. Several receptors and ion channels identified by next generation sequencing may be involved in disease initiation and progression but their mechanistic role in pathogenesis is often poorly understood. Gene editing and in vivo imaging approaches will help to identify the molecular and functional role of these targets and the consequence of their regional dysfunction on whole brain level. Here, we combine CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing with in vivo positron emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate the direct link between genes, molecules, and the brain connectome. The extensive knowledge of the Slc18a2 gene encoding the vesicular monoamine transporter (VMAT2), involved in the storage and release of dopamine, makes it an excellent target for studying the gene networks relationships while structurally preserving neuronal integrity and function. We edited the Slc18a2 in the substantia nigra pars compacta of adult rats and used in vivo molecular imaging besides behavioral, histological, and biochemical assessments to characterize the CRISPR/Cas9-mediated VMAT2 knockdown. Simultaneous PET/fMRI was performed to investigate molecular and functional brain alterations. We found that stage-specific adaptations of brain functional connectivity follow the selective impairment of presynaptic dopamine storage and release. Our study reveals that recruiting different brain networks is an early response to the dopaminergic dysfunction preceding neuronal cell loss. Our combinatorial approach is a novel tool to investigate the impact of specific genes on brain molecular and functional dynamics which will help to develop tailored therapies for normalizing brain function. The method can easily be transferred to higher-order species allowing for a direct comparison of the molecular imaging findings.

Competing Interest Statement

The authors have declared no competing interest.

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