Portrait of Professor Nako Nakatsuka

Seminar title: Aptamer Biosensors to Unlock the Mysteries of Brain Chemistry

Seminar abstract: One of the ongoing grand challenges in science is to understand fundamental brain function. Looking back almost a century ago to the 1930s, the “War of the Soups and the Sparks” was a debate about how neurons communicate. The dispute was between the rapidly advancing fields of neuropharmacology (soups) and electrophysiology (sparks). The main controversial question was whether the main mode of signal transmission between neurons was electrical or chemical. Decades later, we recognize the importance of both.

While researchers often place significant focus on electrical recordings from neurons (e.g., Elon Musk’s Neuralink), eavesdropping on chemical signaling is far from trivial. The limited advancement of neurochemical sensing is due to the challenge of differentiating similarly structured neurochemicals in a sea of interfering molecules in the complex brain environment. Further, in complex milieu, nonspecific binding leads to biofouling of sensor surfaces that conceal specific signals. This gap in neurotechnology hinders progress for applied research in psychiatric and neurodegenerative diseases such as depression or Alzheimer’s.

To tackle this challenge, we work at the intersection of chemistry, engineering, and neuroscience, to develop novel biosensors that can monitor neurochemical flux in clinically relevant environments. We integrate unique single-stranded DNA sequences (or aptamers) designed to capture neurotransmitters specifically, on electronic biosensing platforms. Aptamers are chemically synthesized and engineered for binding a specific target, which facilitates reproducibility and stability in biological samples. We demonstrate the capacity to sense serotonin and dopamine in real time with nanoscale resolution from live biological systems.

Speaker biography: Nako Nakatsuka was raised in Tokyo, Japan and moved to the United States to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry at Fordham University in the Bronx, New York. She then moved to Los Angeles, California to pursue her Ph.D. at UCLA and worked in the labs of Professors Anne Andrews and Paul Weiss. In her Ph.D., she designed and developed DNA aptamer-based electronic biosensors for small-molecule sensing in complex environments. In 2018, Nako received the ETH Zürich postdoctoral fellowship and joined the Laboratory of Biosensors and Bioelectronics led by Professor Janos Vörös.

Currently as a senior scientist at ETH Zürich, she is interfacing neurotransmitter-specific aptamer-modified nanopores with biological systems such as live neurons.

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