✍️ Author: Dr Eleni Christoforidou
🕒 Approximate reading time: 4 minutes
Viral vectors have revolutionised neuroscience research. They serve as tools to introduce foreign genetic material into cells, thereby enabling a plethora of experimental manipulations, from labelling specific neurons to modifying their function.
A viral vector is a virus that has been engineered to carry foreign genetic material into a host organism’s cells. These vectors capitalise on the natural ability of viruses to infect cells and hijack their machinery to replicate. However, in the context of research, viral vectors are modified to remove their disease-causing ability and to incorporate the genetic material of interest.
Different viral vectors are used in neuroscience research, each with its unique advantages:
Adenoviruses: Known for their high transduction efficiency and ability to infect both dividing and non-dividing cells, they're often used for short-term studies due to their transient gene expression.
Lentiviruses: These can infect both dividing and non-dividing cells and provide long-term gene expression, making them ideal for studies requiring lasting changes.
Adeno-associated viruses (AAVs): They are one of the most frequently used vectors in neuroscience due to their low immune response, long-term gene expression, and broad range of serotypes allowing specific targeting of different cell types.
The use of viral vectors in neuroscience is vast and varied:
Gene Therapy: Viral vectors can deliver genes to replace or supplement defective ones in neurodegenerative disorders, offering promise for therapeutic applications.
Neuronal Labelling: Viral vectors can introduce fluorescent proteins into neurons, allowing scientists to visualise and trace neural circuits.
Optogenetics: By delivering genes that encode for light-sensitive proteins, scientists can use light to control neuronal activity, a field known as optogenetics.
Chemogenetics: Viral vectors are used to introduce receptors that can be activated by specific drugs, allowing precise control over neuronal activity.
As we refine our ability to manipulate viral vectors and enhance their specificity, we open up new possibilities for understanding and treating brain disorders. From targeted therapies for neurodegenerative diseases to the revelation of complex neuronal circuits, the future of neuroscience is inextricably tied to these microscopic tools.
Viral vectors have dramatically expanded our capacity to explore the intricate workings of the brain. They exemplify the symbiotic relationship between neuroscience and virology, where our understanding of viruses has been harnessed to deepen our knowledge of the brain and its myriad disorders.