A “Nano-Robot” Built Entirely from DNA to Explore Cell Processes

Scientists have designed a “nano-robot” made up of three DNA origami structures. © Gaëtan Bellot/Inserm

Constructing a tiny robot from DNA and using it to study cell processes invisible to the naked eye… You would be forgiven for thinking it is science fiction, but it is in fact the subject of serious research by scientists from Inserm, CNRS and Université de Montpellier at the Structural Biology Center in Montpellier[1]. This highly innovative “nano-robot” should enable closer study of the mechanical forces applied at microscopic levels, which are crucial for many biological and pathological processes. It is described in a new study published in Nature Communications.

Our cells are subject to mechanical forces exerted on a microscopic scale, triggering biological signals essential to many cell processes involved in the normal functioning of our body or in the development of diseases.

For example, the feeling of touch is partly conditional on the application of mechanical forces on specific cell receptors (the discovery of which was this year rewarded by the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine).

In addition to touch, these receptors that are sensitive to mechanical forces (known as mechanoreceptors) enable the regulation of other key biological processes such as blood vessel constriction, pain perception, breathing or even the detection of sound waves in the ear, etc.

The dysfunction of this cellular mechanosensitivity is involved in many diseases – for example, cancer: cancer cells migrate within the body by sounding and constantly adapting to the mechanical properties of their microenvironment. Such adaptation is only possible because specific forces are detected by mechanoreceptors that transmit the information to the cell cytoskeleton.

At present, our knowledge of these molecular mechanisms involved in cell mechanosensitivity is still very limited. Several technologies are already available to apply controlled forces and study these mechanisms, but they have a number of limitations. In particular, they are very costly and do not allow us to study several cell receptors at a time, which makes their use very time-consuming if we want to collect a lot of data.

DNA origami structures

In order to propose an alternative, the research team led by Inserm researcher Gaëtan Bellot at the Structural Biology Center (Inserm/CNRS/Université de Montpellier) decided to use the DNA origami method. This enables the self-assembly of 3D nanostructures in a pre-defined form using the DNA molecule as construction material. Over the last ten years, the technique has allowed major advances in the field of nanotechnology.

This enabled the researchers to design a “nano-robot” composed of three DNA origami structures. Of nanometric size, it is therefore compatible with the size of a human cell. It makes it possible for the first time to apply and control a force with a resolution of 1 piconewton, namely one trillionth of a Newton – with 1 Newton corresponding to the force of a finger clicking on a pen. This is the first time that a human-made, self-assembled DNA-based object can apply force with this accuracy.


The team began by coupling the robot with a molecule that recognizes a mechanoreceptor. This made it possible to direct the robot to some of our cells and specifically apply forces to targeted mechanoreceptors localized on the surface of the cells in order to activate them.

Such a tool is very valuable for basic research, as it could be used to better understand the molecular mechanisms involved in cell mechanosensitivity and discover new cell receptors sensitive to mechanical forces. Thanks to the robot, the scientists will also be able to study more precisely at what moment, when applying force, key signaling pathways for many biological and pathological processes are activated at cell level.

“The design of a robot enabling the in vitro and in vivo application of piconewton forces meets a growing demand in the scientific community and represents a major technological advance. However, the biocompatibility of the robot can be considered both an advantage for in vivo applications but may also represent a weakness with sensitivity to enzymes that can degrade DNA. So our next step will be to study how we can modify the surface of the robot so that it is less sensitive to the action of enzymes. We will also try to find other modes of activation of our robot using, for example, a magnetic field,” emphasizes Bellot.


[1] Also contributed to this research: the Institute of Functional Genomics (CNRS/Inserm/Université de Montpellier), the Max Mousseron Biomolecules Institute (CNRS/Université de Montpellier/ENSCM), the Paul Pascal Research Center (CNRS/Université de Bordeaux) and the Physiology and Experimental Medicine: Heart-Muscles laboratory (CNRS/Inserm/Université de Montpellier).

Using Mechanical Tools Improves Our Language Skills


aires cérébrales liées au langage

The brain regions associated with language have increased during periods of technological boom, when the use of tools became more widespread. © Adobe stock


Our ability to understand the syntax of complex sentences is one of the most difficult language skills to acquire. In 2019, research had revealed a correlation between being particularly proficient in tool use and having good syntactic ability. A new study, by researchers from Inserm, CNRS, Université Claude Bernard Lyon 1 and Université Lumière Lyon 2 in collaboration with Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, has now shown that both skills rely on the same neurological resources, which are located in the same brain region. Furthermore, motor training using a tool improves our ability to understand the syntax of complex sentences and – vice-versa – syntactic training improves our proficiency in using tools. These findings could be applied clinically to support the rehabilitation of patients having lost some of their language skills. This study is published in November 2021 in the journal Science.

Language has long been considered a very complex skill, mobilizing specific brain networks. However, in recent years, scientists have revisited this idea.

Research suggests that brain areas, which control certain linguistic functions, such as the processing of word meanings, are also involved in controlling fine motor skills. However, brain imaging had not provided evidence of such links between language and the use of tools. Paleo-neurobiology[1] has also shown that the brain regions associated with language had increased in our ancestors during periods of technological boom, when the use of tools became more widespread.

When considering this data, research teams couldn’t help wondering: what if the use of certain tools, which involves complex movements, relies on the same brain resources as those mobilized in complex linguistic functions such as syntax?


Syntax exercises and use of tongs

In 2019, Inserm researcher Claudio Brozzoli in collaboration with CNRS researcher Alice C. Roy and their team had shown that individuals who are particularly proficient in the use of tools were also generally better at handling the finer points of Swedish syntax.

In order to explore the subject in greater depth, the same team, in collaboration with CNRS researcher Véronique Boulenger[1], developed a series of experiments that relied on brain imaging techniques (functional magnetic resonance imaging or MRI) and behavioral measurements. The participants were asked to complete several tests consisting of motor training using 30 cm-long pliers and syntax exercises in French. This enabled the scientists to identify the brain networks specific to each task, but also common to both tasks.

They discovered for the first time that the handling of the tool and the syntax exercises produced brain activations in common areas, with the same spatial distribution, in a region called the “basal ganglia”.


ganglions de la base

The handling of the tongs and the syntax exercises proposed to the participants produced activations in a region called “basal ganglia”. © Claudio Brozzoli


Cognitive training

Given that these two skill types use the same brain resources, is it possible to train one in order to improve the other? Does motor training with the mechanical tongs improve the understanding of complex phrases? In the second part of their study, the scientists looked at these issues and showed that this is indeed the case.

This time, the participants were asked to perform a syntactic comprehension task before and after 30 minutes of motor training with the pliers (see box for details of the experiment). With this, the researchers demonstrated that motor training with the tool leads to improved performance in syntactic comprehension exercises.

In addition, the findings show that the reverse is also true: training of language faculties, with exercises to understand sentences with complex structure, improved motor performance with the tool.

Motor training and syntax exercises

The motor training involved using the pliers to insert small pegs into holes that matched their shape but with differing orientations.

The syntax exercises which were completed before and after this training consisted of reading sentences with a simple syntax, such as “The scientist who admires the poet writes an article” or with a more complex syntax, such as “The scientist whom the poet admires writes an article.” Then the participants had to decide whether statements such as “The poet admires the scientist” were true or false. Sentences with the French object relative pronoun “que” are more difficult to process and therefore performance was generally poorer.

These experiments show that after motor training, the participants did better with the sentences that were considered to be more difficult. The control groups, which performed the same linguistic task but after motor training using their bare hands or no training at all, did not show such an improvement.

The scientists are now thinking about how to best apply these findings in the clinical setting. “We are currently devising protocols that could be put in place to support the rehabilitation and recovery of language skills of patients with relatively preserved motor faculties, such as young people with developmental language disorders. Beyond these innovative applications, these findings also give us an insight into how language has evolved throughout history. When our ancestors began to develop and use tools, this proficiency profoundly changed the brain and imposed cognitive demands that may have led to the emergence of certain functions such as syntax,” concludes Brozzoli.


[1] A field in which scientists study the evolution of our ancestors’ brain anatomy.

[2] Involved in these findings are the Lyon Neuroscience Research Center (Inserm/CNRS/Université Claude Bernard Lyon 1) and the Dynamics of Language laboratory (CNRS/Université Lumière Lyon 2).

Chatbot for addressing COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy

ordinateurResearchers from the CNRS, INSERM, and ENS-PSL show that such an interface is indeed capable of swaying the vaccine-hesitant. © seth schwiet on Unsplash


  • A considerable fraction of the population is reluctant to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
  • French scientists have designed a chatbot that offers personalised responses to questions posed by the curious or hesitant—and have demonstrated its effectiveness.

What if a few minutes of interaction with a chatbot could effectively address vaccine concerns? In an article published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied (28 October 2021), researchers from the CNRS, INSERM, and ENS-PSL show that such an interface is indeed capable of swaying the vaccine-hesitant.

Vaccine hesitancy is one of the major challenges in containing the COVID-19 pandemic. Previous studies have revealed that mass communication—through short messages relayed by television or radio—is not a very effective means of persuading the hesitant. In contrast, discussing your particular concerns with an expert whom you trust can be more persuasive, but having a face-to-face talk with every vaccine-hesitant individual is impractical.

To overcome this problem, a team of cognitive scientists from the Institut Jean-Nicod (CNRS / ENS-PSL) and the Laboratoire de Neurosciences Cognitives et Computationnelles (INSERM / ENS-PSL) created a chatbot that provides users with answers to 51 common questions about COVID-19 vaccines.1

Chatbots have the advantage of offering quick, personalized Q and A sessions while reaching a large number of people.

The team tested their chatbot with 338 individuals and compared their reactions to those of a control group of 305 participants who only read a brief paragraph that gave information about COVID-19 vaccines. After a few minutes of interaction with the chatbot, the number of participants with positive views of vaccination increased by 37%. People were also more open to getting vaccinated after using the chatbot: declarations of vaccine refusal fell 20%. Such changes in attitude were negligible in the control group.

It remains to be shown whether the effects of chatbot interaction are lasting, and whether they are the same across age groups, and among those most resistant to vaccination.2

Nevertheless, this study has demonstrated that a chatbot can indirectly reach a very large audience: half of the experimental group later tried to persuade others to get vaccinated, with three-quarters of them stating they drew on information provided by the chatbot to do so.

These findings suggest that a chatbot regularly updated to reflect the latest vaccine science could be an effective tool to help reduce vaccine hesitancy.



1The questions were selected on the basis of surveys on reasons for vaccine hesitancy as well as articles about vaccine-related preconceptions. Their answers were prepared from scientific sources and approved by COVID-19 vaccine specialists.

2On average, the group of participants was younger and more educated than the overall population.

Weightlessness: A Challenge for Both the Body and the Brain!

Etude des mouvements

3D motion capture ©Inserm/Guénet, François


With one week to go before astronaut Thomas Pesquet sets out on his space mission Alpha, knowledge about how we adapt to gravity here on Earth is progressing. Researchers from Inserm and Université de Bourgogne within the Cognition, Action and Sensorimotor Plasticity (CAPS) laboratory are interested in how the movements that depend on this omnipresent force are carried out.

For the past 30 years, it was thought that the brain – responsible for motor control – worked to continuously compensate for the effects of gravity. In an initial study in 2016, the researchers had suggested that our brains use gravity to minimize the effort our muscles have to make. Those results were recently confirmed by new experiments conducted in collaboration with New York University on non-human primate models and humans, the findings of which have been published in Science Advances.


Our brain uses the effects of gravity to minimize the physical exertion required.

In order to perform our many activities, the movements of our limbs need to be precise. For a movement to be successful, the brain must generate muscle contractions by anticipating the environmental factors liable to affect that movement. One of the most important of these factors is gravity. The brain develops an internal representation of gravity that it can use to anticipate its effects on our body.


What is the purpose of this anticipation?

Initially, the researchers thought that the brain continuously compensated for the effects of gravity to achieve movements undisturbed by them. Recent studies by researchers from Université de Bourgogne and Inserm at the CAPS laboratory in collaboration with a team from New York University (Dora E. Angelaki, Professor of Neuroscience at the Tandon School of Engineering – New York) challenge this idea. The researchers hypothesized that anticipating the effects of gravity allows us to plan movements that use those effects on our bodies to minimize our muscular exertion.

To confirm this theory, the research team recorded the activations that the brain sends to the muscles. These recordings were made in non-human primates and humans performing horizontal and vertical arm movements.

The information obtained show that the brain sends electrical commands that activate and deactivate the muscles in a very precise way – phenomena that last just a few milliseconds – in order to harness the effects of gravity to accelerate our downward movements and decelerate our upward movements. These findings were observed in both the non-human primates and humans.

This observation supports the hypothesis of profound nervous system adaptation to its environment. 

In the long term, this new knowledge could be put to use in various fields such as movement assistance for people with disabilities or the programming of humanoid robot movements.

Huntington’s Disease: Exploring the Avenue of a Potential Neuroprotective Treatment


Huntington’s disease is a rare and hereditary neurodegenerative disorder. A striatal neuron expresses the causative mutant huntingtin protein (red), which accumulates in the nucleus (blue) to form an aggregate of huntingtin and other proteins, including ubiquitin (yellow). © Frédéric Saudou


Huntington’s disease is a hereditary disorder that causes degeneration of the neurons involved in cognitive, motor and psychiatric functions. While existing treatments address the symptoms and relieve certain aspects of the disease, they cannot alter its course. Researchers from Inserm, Université Grenoble Alpes and Grenoble Alpes University Hospital at the Grenoble Institute of Neuroscience are hoping to remedy this. They are studying a new therapeutic approach in the hope of offering patients the first neuroprotective treatment – one that protects neurons – in the years to come. The therapeutic molecule in question has shown promising results in mice and is currently undergoing preclinical evaluation. Their research has been published in Science Advances.

Huntington’s disease is a rare and hereditary neurodegenerative disorder. It usually begins between the ages of 30 and 50 and manifests with cognitive disorders, psychiatric disorders and uncontrolled movements that worsen over time until death some 20 years later. In France, this condition affects around 18,000 people: 6,000 already have symptoms, whereas around 12,000 carry the mutated gene and will develop symptoms later. The team of Frédéric Saudou, Director of the Grenoble Institute of Neuroscience (Inserm/Université Grenoble Alpes/Grenoble Alpes University Hospital), is working on a new therapeutic approach in an attempt to provide solutions for these patients.

The disease is caused by an abnormality on the gene coding for the protein huntingtin, which interacts with and regulates the activity of at least 400 other proteins involved in various cell functions, including the transport of molecules. This abnormality leads to a reduction in the transport of a key molecule, BDNF, in the brain between the cortex and the striatum. The role of this molecule is to promote the survival of neurons and ensure the connections between them. This reduced transport therefore causes the death of neurons in these brain regions.

“Long before symptoms develop, a reduction in BDNF transport is observed. This molecule is essential for the survival of neurons and for neural connections between the cortex and striatum – two regions involved, among other things, in mood and movement control,” explains Saudou, a professor at Université Grenoble Alpes and Grenoble Alpes University Hospital.

The researcher and his colleagues therefore thought that restoring its circulation would at least afford the brain partial protection from neuron death.


A molecule to restore BDNF transport

In collaboration with Inserm Research Director Sandrine Humbert, Saudou and his team had previously shown that BDNF is transported within vesicles made up of numerous proteins, including huntingtin. In this new study, the researchers identified an enzyme that regulates the transport of these BDNF vesicles by controlling a cell mechanism known as “palmitoylation.” By increasing palmitoylation with the help of a molecule called ML348, they were able to restore the transport of BDNF vesicles.

Several in vitro experiments on human neurons and in vivo experiments on mice have shown that ML384 crosses the blood-brain barrier and restores BDNF traffic from the cortex to the striatum. When administered in a mouse model of the disease, it reversed the symptoms.

Injecting ML348 reduced the motor and psychiatric behavioral disorders, allowing the mice to regain activity close to that of their healthy counterparts,” explains Saudou. What is more, this molecule improves BDNF transport in human neurons derived from induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) from Huntington’s patients, demonstrating that this molecule is potentially capable of having an effect in humans.

Following this proof of concept, the researcher and his team will move on to the preclinical testing phase to evaluate, using cell and animal models, the behavior of the molecule in the body, its safety, and identify effective doses. The ultimate goal is to develop a drug for patients. If these results are confirmed, this molecule could become the first “neuroprotective” treatment for Huntington’s disease, sparing certain neurons from degeneration and perhaps slowing its progression.

A New Method for Unlocking the Mysteries of Life

To better characterize molecular interactions, researchers must also look at molecular chirality. © Valérie Gabelica

Understanding the three-dimensional structure of DNA and RNA and how they interact with other molecules is necessary for the advancement of biomedical research and drug development. A team led by Inserm researcher Valérie Gabelica at the Nucleic acids: natural and artificial regulation laboratory (ARNA, Inserm/CNRS/Université de Bordeaux)[1] has developed an innovative method pairing mass spectrometry with circularly polarized light, enabling better characterization of these different molecular interactions. This new technique is described in a study published in the journal Science.

A technique widely used in physics and biology laboratories, and also in forensic science to analyze chemical and biological samples, mass spectrometry measures the masses of each molecule in a sample, thereby providing information on how they interact and associate with each other.

Inserm researcher Valérie Gabelica and her team at the ARNA laboratory (Inserm/CNRS/Université de Bordeaux)1 are studying how short DNA and RNA sequences fold in three dimensions and interact with other molecules. To do this, they use mass spectrometry, which gives them valuable insights into how DNA and RNA associate structurally with proteins or pharmaceutical molecules, for example.

However, to better characterize these molecular interactions, the scientists must also look at molecular chirality. A molecule is said to be “chiral” when its 3D structure cannot be superimposed onto its mirror image. Due to its helical shape, DNA is therefore a chiral molecule.

Determining the chirality of a molecule is important for understanding its biological interactions with DNA and proteins – the molecules of living organisms.

Given that measuring molecular weight provides no information on chirality, the use of another technique, circularly polarized light[2], is necessary to study the 3D structure of molecules.

In a study published in Science, the researcher and her team describe a novel tool for studying chirality and how DNA and molecules assemble: a “2-in-1” method pairing a mass spectrometer and a laser that produces circularly polarized light.

Therapeutic prospects

The use of such a technique could open up new biomedical research avenues, particularly in neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s.

Indeed, several studies have shown that upstream of the protein aggregation process that forms senile plaques in the brain, the proteins form small complexes known as oligomers, which could be even more toxic. Applying the method developed by the researchers would make it possible to improve our understanding of when these oligomers change their 3D structure, in order to explore the role they play in disease exacerbation and plaque formation.

Another practical application is drug development. For example, if the target of a drug is a chiral protein, it is also important to characterize the chirality of the drug in order to find out more about its potential interactions.

“In the 1960s, thalidomide, a drug taken by many pregnant women to reduce nausea, caused severe birth defects in their babies. In fact, one of the images of this molecule in the mirror was anti-nausea, the other was toxic. A more in-depth study of the molecular structure and chirality would have prevented this,” emphasizes Gabelica.

By pushing back hard on the frontiers of mass spectrometry and facilitating the study of molecule chirality, this research is particularly innovative and opens up very broad prospects in the field of biomedical research.


[1] The IECB research support unit (CNRS/Université de Bordeaux/Inserm) also participated in this work.

[2]Light is a wave. It is described by signals that oscillate in space and time: electric and magnetic fields. These two fields have a direction, the magnetic field is perpendicular to the electric field. When light is circularly polarized, the electric field changes orientation along the beam and describes a spiral. The magnetic field is always perpendicular to the electric field

Music or Speech? The Brain is Divided…

Photo by Thanos Pal on Unsplash

When it comes to recognizing a melody or understanding a spoken sentence, the human brain does not mobilize its hemispheres in an equivalent way. Although the concept is recognized by scientists, there had been no physiological or neural explanation for the phenomenon until now. A team co-led by Inserm researcher Benjamin Morillon at the Institute of Systems Neuroscience (Inserm/Aix-Marseille Université) in collaboration with researchers at Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital of McGill University has been able to show that, due to different receptivities to the components of sound, the left auditory cortex neurons participate in the recognition of speech, whereas the right auditory cortex neurons participate in that of music. These findings, to be published in the journal Science, suggest that the respective specializations of the brain hemispheres for music and speech enable the nervous system to optimize the processing of sound signals for communication purposes.

Sound is produced from a complex set of air vibrations, which, when reaching the cochlea of the inner ear, are distinguished according to their speed. At any given moment, slow vibrations are being translated into deep sounds and rapid vibrations into high-pitched ones. As a result, sound can be represented according to two dimensions: spectral (frequency) and temporal (time).

These two auditory dimensions are fundamental because it is their simultaneous combination that stimulates the neurons of the auditory cortex. The latter are thought to discriminate sounds that are relevant for individuals, such as those used for communication enabling people to talk to and understand each other.

In humans, speech and music constitute the main uses of sound and the most complex on the cognitive level. The left hemisphere is primarily implicated in the recognition of speech, whereas the right hemisphere is primarily implicated in that of music. However, until now little was known about the physiological and neural reasons for this asymmetry.

A team co-led by Inserm researcher Benjamin Morillon at the Institute of Systems Neuroscience (Inserm/Aix-Marseille Université) in collaboration with researchers at Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital of McGill University used an innovative approach to understand how speech and music are decoded within each of the human brain hemispheres.

The researchers recorded 10 sentences sung by a soprano to 10 new melodies composed especially for the experiment. These 100 recordings, in which melody and speech are dissociated, were then distorted by decreasing the amount of information present in each dimension of the sound. Forty-nine participants were asked to listen to pairs of these distorted recordings, and to determine whether they were identical in terms of speech content and melody. The experiment was conducted in French and English speakers to see whether the results were reproducible in different languages.

A demonstration of the audio test proposed to the participants is available here: temporal modulations/

The research team found that for both languages, when the temporal information was distorted, participants had trouble distinguishing the speech content, but not the melody. Conversely, when the spectral information was distorted, they had trouble distinguishing the melody, but not the speech.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of the participants’ neural activity showed that in the left auditory cortex the activity varied according to the sentence presented but remained relatively stable from one melody to another, whereas in the right auditory cortex the activity varied according to the melody presented but remained relatively stable from one sentence to another.

What is more, they found that degradation of the temporal information affected only the neural activity in the left auditory cortex, whereas degradation of the spectral information only affected neural activity in the right auditory cortex. Finally, the participants’ performance in the recognition task could be predicted simply by observing the neural activity of these two areas.

Original a capella extract (bottom left) and its spectrogram (above, in blue) broken down according to the amount of spectral and temporal information (center). The right and left cerebral auditory cortexes (right) decode melody and speech respectively.

“These findings indicate that in each brain hemisphere, neural activity depends on the type of sound information, specifies Morillon. While temporal information is secondary for recognizing a melody, it is essential for the correct recognition of speech. Conversely, while spectral information is secondary for recognizing speech, it is essential for recognizing a melody. “

The neurons in the left auditory cortex are therefore considered to be primarily receptive to speech thanks to their superior temporal information processing capacity, whereas those in the right auditory cortex are considered to be receptive to music thanks to their superior spectral information processing capacity. “Hemispheric specialization could be the nervous system’s way of optimizing the respective processing of the two communication sound signals that are speech and music,” concludes Morillon.

This research was supported by a Banting fellowship to Philippe Albouy, grants from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research to Robert J. Zatorre, ANR-16-CONV-0002 (ILCB) and ANR-11-LABX-0036 (BLRI) funding and the Excellence Initiative of Aix-Marseille Université (A*MIDEX).”

Human Textiles to Repair Blood Vessels

The researchers use extracellular matrix sheets to make yarn – a bit like that used to make clothing fabric. ©Nicolas L’Heureux

The leading cause of mortality worldwide, cardiovascular diseases claim over 17 million lives each year, according to World Health Organization estimates. To open up new research avenues into this serious public health problem, Inserm researcher Nicolas L’Heureux and his team at the Tissue Bioengineering unit (Inserm/Université de Bordeaux) are developing “human textiles” from collagen in order to repair damaged blood vessels. An innovation described in the journal Acta Biomaterialia, which still has to pass through several stages before it can be tested in humans.

What if we could replace a patient’s damaged blood vessels with brand new ones produced in a laboratory? This is the challenge set by Inserm researcher Nicolas L’Heureux, who is working on the human extracellular matrix – the structural support of human tissues that is found around practically all of the body’s cells.

In a study published in Acta Biomaterialia, L’Heureux and his colleagues at the Tissue Bioengineering unit (Inserm/Université de Bordeaux) describe how they have cultivated human cells in the laboratory to obtain extracellular matrix deposits high in collagen – a structural protein that constitutes the mechanical scaffold of the human extracellular matrix. “We have obtained thin but highly robust extracellular matrix sheets that can be used as a construction material to replace blood vessels”, explains L’Heureux.


Made entirely from biological material, these blood vessels would have the advantage of being well tolerated by all patients.© Nicolas L’Heureux

The researchers then cut these sheets to form yarn – a bit like that used to make fabric for clothing. “The resulting yarn can be woven, knitted or braided into various forms. Our main objective is to use this yarn to make assemblies which can replace the damaged blood vessels”, adds L’Heureux.

Made entirely from biological material, these blood vessels would also have the advantage of being well-tolerated by all patients. Given that collagen does not vary from individual to individual, it is not expected that the body will consider these vessels as foreign bodies to be rejected.

The researchers would now like to refine their techniques used to produce these “human textiles” before moving on to animal testing, in order to validate this last hypothesis. If these are conclusive, this could lead to clinical trials.

“Brain Map” paves the way for Personalized Medicine

Adobe Stock

Using cerebral imaging, connections between the various brain regions can be visualized. These connections form a veritable “map” of its structure, specific to each individual. A team led by Christophe Bernard, Inserm researcher, and Viktor Jirsa at the Institute of Systems Neuroscience (Inserm/Aix-Marseille Université), has shown that having the knowledge of these “maps” is enough to predict not just brain function but also the potential development and treatment of neurological diseases. Their findings have been published in PNAS.

Over the previous three decades, rapid progress in brain imaging has enabled major advances in the field of neurosciences. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), has paved the way for a deeper understanding of the brain and of the mechanisms of certain diseases.

Using MRI, researchers can access the general organization of the brain and more particularly the map of the neural connections between its different regions – a bit like a map of the roads that link various towns. “This map is unique to each individual and is more accurate than even a fingerprint”, highlights Inserm researcher Christophe Bernard. To pursue this analogy, neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s and epilepsy are associated with a reorganization of the “maps”: the connections between brain regions are modified and some “roads” disappear.

While it is possible to accurately visualize the brain of each individual after using MRI to obtain a map of its connections, is it also possible, just from this map, to accurately predict its function and the potential development of diseases, as well as their treatment? Is it enough just to have a knowledge of this “map” to make these types of personalized predictions for patients?

The “Virtual Brain”

These are questions that Bernard, researcher at the Institute of Systems Neuroscience (Inserm/Aix-Marseille Université) and his colleagues have tried to answer in a new study published in PNAS. They began their research by using brain imaging techniques to visualize very precisely the connections between the brain regions of several mice.


Mapping the brain connections of a mouse makes it possible to predict its brain activity. Results obtained following virtualization of mouse brains using The Virtual Brain platform. Credits: Christophe Bernard

Based on these “maps”, they then created virtual models of the brain of each mouse using a technology called The Virtual Brain[1], in collaboration with researchers from Technion in Israel. In each of these virtual brains, the researchers generated electrical activity, mimicking what happens in a real brain.

This enabled them to study which brain regions communicate together – findings that were compared with the experimental data obtained using functional imaging from each mouse in a resting state. The researchers were thus able to show that having a knowledge of the “map” of each mouse is sufficient to explain the brain activity of that same mouse as seen using functional imaging. They were also able to show which connections make each brain unique.

Although these findings remain to be validated in humans, they are already paving the way for the personalized medicine of the future. “Our research validates the strategy of patient brain virtualization in order to explore, using a computer, the optimal therapeutic strategies prior to their personalized transfer. We can imagine that the ability to predict the development of certain diseases in an individual based on the unique map of their brain will enable us to envisage prevention strategies and personalized therapeutic options”, Bernard highlights.

[1] The Virtual Brain, a neuroinformatics platform developed by Viktor Jirsa at the Institute of Systems Neuroscience (Inserm/Aix-Marseille Université) in collaboration with Randy McIntosh (Baycrest Centre, Toronto) and Petra Ritter (Charité, Berlin), is used to create individual brain models. Currently being evaluated in patients with drug-resistant epilepsy, it can, for example – following virtualization of the patient’s brain – explore and predict the best form of neurosurgery to cure such epilepsy.

Restoring Sight: the Artificial Retina Shows Growing Promise


Restoring sight to patients with age-related macular degeneration (AMD) or retinitis pigmentosa has become an increasingly likely prospect over recent years, with many researchers working to develop an artificial retina. In a new study, a team from Institut de la Vision (Inserm-CNRS- Sorbonne Université) led by Inserm researcher Serge Picaud has used animal models to show that a device made by the firm Pixium Vision could induce high-resolution visual perception. Their findings, published in Nature Biomedical Engineering, have paved the way for clinical trials in humans.

Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is characterized by deterioration of the retina that can lead to central vision loss. This highly incapacitating condition is thought to affect up to 30% of people over the age of 75. For years, several groups of researchers have been working on the development of an artificial retina that could restore eyesight – not just to these patients but also to those with retinitis pigmentosa. 

The retina is made up of light-sensitive cells (photoreceptors) whose purpose is to transform the light signals received by the eye into electrical signals sent to the brain. It is these cells that are destroyed during the course of the aforementioned diseases, the outcome of which can be blindness. The principle of the artificial retina – which is implanted beneath the patient’s own retina – is simple: to act as a substitute for these photoreceptors. Its electrodes stimulate the retinal neurons to send messages to the brain.

Two devices of this type, Argus II (Second sight, USA) and Retina Implant (AG, Germany), are already in widespread use. “Nevertheless, these companies are gradually withdrawing from the market, particularly because the results seen in patients have been insufficient for targeting the device at those with AMD. The patients managed to see light signals but those able to distinguish letters were very much in the minority”, emphasizes Serge Picaud. 

Implantation in patients 

Reinventing the device to increase its performance: this is the aim of the Picaud and his colleagues. Supported by Pixium Vision, their artificial retina is wireless and less complex, unlike previous devices. In addition, this implant introduces a local return of the current, thereby enabling better resolution of the images perceived by the eye. Finally, the image is projected onto the implant by infrared stimulation that activates photodiodes connected to electrodes, enabling more direct stimulation of the retinal neurons.

In a study published in Nature Biomedical Engineering, Picaud and his colleagues tested this device on non-human primates, demonstrating that it can restore significant visual acuity. In vitro tests showed first of all that each pixel activates different cells in the retina. This selectivity is expressed in the form of very high resolution, such that implanted animals can perceive the activation of just one of the implant’s pixels in a behavior test.

The high resolution of these implants led to the device being fitted in five French patients with AMD, for whom initial results show a gradual restoration of central vision. They are able to perceive light signals and some can even identify sequences of letters, with growing rapidity over time.

“The objective now is to conduct a Phase 3 trial in a larger group of patients with AMD. If the artificial retina works for them, there is no reason why it should not work in patients with retinitis pigmentosa – a disease also related to photoreceptor degeneration”, concludes Picaud.