Australian first recording of a human neuron

Friday 02 October 2020

A collaboration between the Queensland Brain Institute at the University of Queensland and Mater Research has seen the first ever recording of a human neuron in Australia.

Using brain tissue donated from a tumour removal surgery at Mater Hospital South Brisbane the sample was transported to the Queensland Brain Institute where researcher Professor Stephen Williams and Neurologist Dr Lisa Gillinder were able to do the recording.

“We collected the sample on Monday 24 August with the help of Neurosurgeon Dr Robert Campbell. The tissue was rapidly transported to the laboratory in St Lucia where it was thinly sectioned and viewed under a high-power microscope,” Lisa said.

“The team then successfully performed the first multi-site electrical recording from a human neuron in Australia. This recording is significant as it begins to answer long standing questions about how information is processed in the human brain, specifically by cortical neurons.

“The ability of the team to do multi-site recordings of cellular activity will mean researchers no longer have to rely on translational data from animal models, which is vital given there are likely fundamental differences between species.”  

Professor Williams said surprisingly, the team found that the thin dendrites of human neocortical neurons are highly electrically active, and capable of generating spikes, which influenced neuronal output.

“This is exciting, as dendritic spikes are thought to convey enormous computational flexibility to the function of neurons. This finding suggests that the capacity of individual human neocortical neurons to process and transform synaptic inputs into their electrical output is more complex than previously thought. Future research will focus on characterising the repertoire of computations these neurons utilise, and the mechanisms that underlie them,” Stephen said.

“This work will have significant value in progressing future research to understand human brain physiology and enable the development of more robust research hypotheses about how the human brain functions and how this function is disturbed in disease. 

“By investigating neurons as the fundamental building blocks of electrical activity and computation in the healthy human brain, studies such as these have the incomparable capacity to inform our understanding of diseases involving altered or disrupted neural activity such as epilepsy.”

The researchers said multidisciplinary studies such as these are dependent on the generous and expert contributions of many people, from a broad spectrum of roles, and they are incredibly grateful to the teams who have been supportive and enthusiastic from the outset.

“This collaboration between Mater Research and the University of Queensland presents a rare opportunity to further our understanding of human brain function, and we hope it will continue strongly into the future,” Stephen said.