The journey we humans take from a single cell fertilized egg to a multi-cellular and hugely complex organism is nothing short of, well, miraculous. During that wondrous trip, our brains are formed… but how?

“We’ve found that cells communicate, even across long distances in the embryo, using bioelectrical signals, and they use this information to know where to form a brain and how big that brain should be,” Dr. Michael Levin, who directs the Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology at Tufts, stated in a press release.

While these bioelectrical signals control and instruct embryonic brain development, Levin’s research further demonstrates that if you were to manipulate these signals, genetic defects might be repaired and healthy brain tissue might be induced to grow in locations where ordinarily it does not. If you are feeling a bit squeamish right now, no worries! The research was conducted in embryos of Xenopus laevis, an African clawed frog, which shares some evolutionary traits with humans.

Voltage Patterns

Levin and his team are curious about and concentrate their research investigations on the signaling between cells and tissues that allow a biological system (including human beings) to generate and maintain a complex form and structure — a body. In particular, they focus on embryonic development. Importantly, unlike other research groups which may explore gene networks, say, they are studying voltages and ion flux.

Bioelectricity, in a word.

For the current study, Levin and his team studied embryos of frogs and subjected them to various illuminating experiments and tests. They discovered the bioelectric signals are orchestrated by changes in voltage difference across cell membranes — called cellular resting potential. Patterns of differential voltages across anatomical regions also influence bioelectric signaling. In turn, these patterns regulate the activity of two cell factors which possess the ability to reprogram cells — the power, even, to turn adult cells into stem cells.

“Bioelectrical signals are not simply the switch that turns the computer on or off, passively allowing it to perform its functions,” Levin states. “They actually carry important information, functioning like the software that enables the computer to carry out complex activities.”

While his previous work revealed bioelectrical influence in formation of the eye, limbs, and organs, Levin’s current research shows how embryonic voltage gradients instruct and direct the formation of the brain. In fact, bioelectricity and reprogramming factors work together, says Levin, and ultimately this duo regulates the fate of all tissue.

“We are working on applying these techniques in biomedical contexts, especially ion channel modulating drugs — electroceuticals — to repair defects and induce brain regeneration,” Levin stated. He warns additional study is needed to fully understand how electric signaling interacts with genetic networks.

Source: Vaibhav P, Lemire JM, Pare JF, Lin G, Levin M. Endogenous Gradients of Resting Potential Instructively Pattern Embryonic Neural Tissue via Notch Signaling and Regulation of Proliferation. Journal of Neuroscience. 2015.