A novel approach to map induced activation of neuronal networks using chemogenetics and functional neuroimaging in rats: A proof-of-concept study on the mesocorticolimbic system

Theresia J M Roelofs, Jeroen P H Verharen, Geralda A F van Tilborg, Linde Boekhoudt, Annette van der Toorn, Johannes W de Jong, Mieneke C M Luijendijk, Willem M Otte, Roger A H Adan, Rick M Dijkhuizen
NeuroImage 2017 August 1, 156: 109-118
Linking neural circuit activation at whole-brain level to neuronal activity at cellular level remains one of the major challenges in neuroscience research. We set up a novel functional neuroimaging approach to map global effects of locally induced activation of specific midbrain projection neurons using chemogenetics (Designer Receptors Exclusively Activated by Designer Drugs (DREADD)-technology) combined with pharmacological magnetic resonance imaging (phMRI) in the rat mesocorticolimbic system. Chemogenetic activation of DREADD-targeted mesolimbic or mesocortical pathways, i.e. projections from the ventral tegmental area (VTA) to the nucleus accumbens (NAcc) or medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), respectively, induced significant blood oxygenation level-dependent (BOLD) responses in areas with DREADD expression, but also in remote defined neural circuitry without DREADD expression. The time-course of brain activation corresponded with the behavioral output measure, i.e. locomotor (hyper)activity, in the mesolimbic pathway-targeted group. Chemogenetic activation specifically increased neuronal activity, whereas functional connectivity assessed with resting state functional MRI (rs-fMRI) remained stable. Positive and negative BOLD responses distinctively reflected simultaneous ventral pallidum activation and substantia nigra pars reticulata deactivation, respectively, demonstrating the concept of mesocorticolimbic network activity with concurrent activation of the direct and indirect pathways following stimulation of specific midbrain projection neurons. The presented methodology provides straightforward and widely applicable opportunities to elucidate relationships between local neuronal activity and global network activity in a controllable manner, which will increase our understanding of the functioning and dysfunctioning of large-scale neuronal networks in health and disease.

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