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The research provides a new tool to understand how the brain works (Image: IBEC).

Closer to a functional atlas of the brain

Scientists from the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia at the Barcelona Science Park have developed a technique that enables them to work out the specific function of a neuronal receptor according to its location in the brain. The study, published in PNAS, is based on the activation of photoswitchable drugs with micrometric precision and offers new opportunities in neurobiology.


Schizophrenia, depression, myasthenia… Many neurological diseases are due to the malfunctioning of a neuronal receptor. These proteins, also known as neuroreceptors, are responsible for sending and detecting neurotransmitters, chemical substances that allow communication between neurons.

The different types of neuroreceptors and their location in the nervous system are well characterised. However, their function can vary depending on their location within the neuron or in different regions of the brain. Up to now, no method has enabled experts to distinguish these differences.

Now, scientists from the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC) have developed a technique to determine the role of a neuroreceptor with high spatial and temporal precision. This method, transferrable to other receptors and proteins, provides a new tool to understand how the brain works.

This innovative methodology opens the door to mapping a functional atlas of the brain. “There are already atlases of the brain, three-dimensional maps that allow us to know its anatomy and what neuroreceptors there are in each region”, explains Pau Gorostiza, ICREA research professor and head of the Nanoprobes and Nanoswitches Group at IBEC that led the study. “But we still don’t know what roles the same type of receptor can play in different regions of the brain. Our study takes new steps in the development of a functional atlas of the brain, a tool as powerful as it is necessary for neurobiology.”

► Reference article: Pittolo et al. “Reversible silencing of endogenous receptors in intact brain tissue using two-photon pharmacology“. PNAS, 2019. DOI:

► More information: IBEC website [+]