Genomics plus human intelligence

The power of gene sequencing to solve puzzles when combined with human Read more

'Master key' microRNA has links to both ASD and schizophrenia

Recent studies of complex brain disorders such as schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have identified a few "master keys," risk genes that sit at the center of a network of genes important for brain function. Researchers at Emory and the Chinese Academy of Sciences have created mice partially lacking one of those master keys, called MIR-137, and have used them to identify an angle on potential treatments for ASD. The results were published this Read more

Shape-shifting RNA regulates viral sensor

OAS senses double-stranded RNA: the form that viral genetic material often takes. Its regulator is also Read more

Neuro

Neuroinflammation: a different way to look at Parkinson’s disease

Emory physiologist Malu Tansey and her colleagues are using recent insights into the role of inflammation in Parkinson’s disease to envision new treatments. One possible form this treatment strategy could take would be surprisingly simple, and comparable to medications that are approved for rheumatoid arthritis.

Malu Tansey, PhD

Understanding the role of inflammation in Parkinson’s requires a shift in focus. Many Parkinson’s researchers understandably emphasize the neurons that make the neurotransmitter dopamine. They’re the cells that are dying or already lost as the disease progresses, leading to tremors, motor difficulties and a variety of other symptoms.

But thinking about the role of inflammation in Parkinson’s means getting familiar with microglia, the immune system’s field reps within the brain. At first, it was thought that the profusion of microglia in the brains of Parkinson’s patients was just a side effect of neurodegeneration. The neurons die, and the microglia come in to try to clean up the debris.

Now it seems like microglia and inflammation might be one of the main events, if not the initiating event.

“Something about the neurons’ metabolic state, whether it’s toxins, oxidative stress, unfolded proteins, or a combination, makes them more sensitive. But inflammation, sustained by the presence of microglia, is what sends them over the edge,” Tansey says.

She says that several recent studies have led to renewed attention to this area:

  1. In vivo PET imaging using a probe for microglia has allowed scientists to see inflammation starting early in the progression of Parkinson’s (see figure below)
  2. Epidemiology studies show that taking ibuprofen regularly is linked to lower incidence of Parkinson’s
  3. Experiments with animal models of genetic susceptibility demonstrate that inflammatory agents like endotoxin can accelerate neurodegeneration
  4. Genomics screens have identified HLA-DR, an immune system gene, as a susceptibility marker for Parkinson’s (Emory’s Stewart Factor was a co-author on this paper)

Popping a few ibuprofen pills everyday for prevention and possibly damaging the stomach along the way is probably not going to work well, Tansey says. It should be possible to identify a more selective way to inhibit microglia, which may be able to inhibit disease progression after it has started.

Activated microglia in the midbrain and striatum of a Parkinson's patient

Targeting TNF (tumor necrosis factor), an important inflammatory signaling molecule, may be one way to go. Anti-TNF agents are already used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease. This January, Tansey and her co-workers published a paper showing that a gene therapy approach using decoy TNF can reduce neuronal loss in a rat model of Parkinson’s. More recently, her lab has also shown that targeting the gene RGS10 is another way to inhibit microglia and reduce neurodegeneration in the same models.

It is important to note that in the rat studies, they do surgery and put the gene therapy viral vector straight into the brain. She says it might possible to perform peripheral gene therapy with the microglia, or even anti-TNF medical therapy. In terms of mechanism, decoy (technically, dominant negative) TNF is more selective and may avoid the side effects, such as opportunistic infections, of existing anti-TNF agents.

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Neuro 1 Comment

Autism linked to hundreds of spontaneous genetic mutations

Emory genetic researchers Daniel Moreno De Luca, Christa Lese Martin and David Ledbetter were part of a team that produced a landmark result in autism genetics. The team identified hundreds of regions of the genome where spontaneous mutations are implicated in autism. Spontaneous mutations are those that arise for the first time in an individual, rather than being inherited from parents.

Christa Lese Martin, PhD

The team was led by Matthew State at Yale, and their results were published in the journal Neuron. Moreno De Luca discussed the topic in Spanish on a recent edition of the NPR program Science Friday. The June 10 segment was focused on autism genetics.

The team made an intriguing finding on a segment of chromosome 7. Deletion of the region is associated with Williams syndrome, where individuals can exhibit “striking verbal abilities, highly social personalities and an affinity for music.” Duplication of the same region, they found, is associated with autism.

Daniel Moreno De Luca, MD MSc

Companion studies also shed light on the question of why boys are more likely to develop autism than girls, and begin to outline a network of genes whose activity is altered in the brains of individuals with autism.

Ledbetter is now chief scientific officer at Geisinger Health in Pennsylvania.

 

 

 

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Default daydreaming linked to Alzheimer’s amyloid

Cut the daydreaming, and you can lessen the neurodegenerative burden on your brain? Surprising new research suggests that how we use our brains may influence which parts of the brain are most vulnerable to amyloid-beta (Aβ), which forms plaques in the brain in Alzheimer’s disease.

Lary Walker, PhD, has been investigating why amyloid accumulation seems to lead to Alzheimer's in humans but not non-human primates

In the June issue of Nature Neuroscience, Yerkes National Primate Research Center scientist Lary Walker and Mathias Jucker from the Hertie Institute for Clinical Brain Research in Tübingen, Germany summarize intriguing recent research on regional brain activity and Aβ accumulation.

Neuroscientists have described a set of interconnected brain regions called the “default mode network,” which appear to be activated during activities such as introspection, memory retrieval, daydreaming and imagination. When a person engages in an externally directed task, such as reading, playing a musical instrument, or solving puzzles, activity in the default network decreases.

The Nature Neuroscience paper, from David Holtzman and colleagues at Washington University St. Louis, suggests prolonged metabolic activation of the default-mode network in mice can render that system vulnerable to Aβ by accelerating Aβ deposition and plaque growth.

This line of research turns the “use it or lose it” idea upside-down. Use the default network too much, and the effect may be harmful. Walker and Jucker suggest why education, for example, appears to head off Alzheimer’s in epidemiological studies: by getting the brain involved in non-default/externally directed mode activity.

This idea has additional consequences that can be tested in the clinic. For example, by increasing metabolism in default-mode regions of the brain, prolonged wakefulness caused by sleep disorders might increase Aβ burden.

Walker and Jucker conclude: “Meanwhile, perhaps the best strategy for lessening soluble Aβ in the default mode network may be simply to work diligently, play hard and sleep well.”

 

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Neuro 2 Comments

Brain enhancement: can and should we do it?

The Emory Center for Ethics and Emory’s Neuroscience Graduate Program recently co-hosted a symposium discussing the ethics of brain-enhancing technologies, both electronic and pharmacological.

Georgia Tech biomedical engineer Steve Potter explained his work harnessing the behavior of neurons grown on a grid of electrodes. The neurons, isolated from rats, produce bursts of electrical signals in various patterns, which can be “tuned” by the inputs they receive.

“The cells want to form circuits and wire themselves up,” he said.

As for future opportunities, he cited the technique of deep brain stimulation as well as clinical trials in progress, including one testing technology developed by the company Neuropace that monitors the brain’s electrical activity for the purpose of suppressing epileptic seizures. Similar technology is being developed to help control prosthetic limbs and could also promote recovery from brain injury or stroke, he said. Eventually, electrical stimulation that is not modulated according to feedback from the brain will be seen as an overly blunt instrument, even “barbaric,” he said.

Mike Kuhar, a neuroscientist at Yerkes National Primate Research Center, introduced the topic of cognitive enhancers or “smart drugs.” He described one particular class of proposed cognitive enhancers, called ampakines, which appear to improve functioning on certain tasks without stimulating signals throughout the brain. Kuhar questioned whether “smart drugs” pose unique challenges, compared to other types of drugs. From a pharmacology perspective, he said there is less distinction between therapy and enhancement, compared to a perspective imposed by regulators or insurance companies. He described three basic concerns: safety (avoiding toxicity or unacceptable side effects), freedom (lack of coercion from governments or employers) and fairness.

“Every drug has side effects,” he said. “There has to be a balance between the benefits versus the risks, and regulation plays an important role in that.”

He identified antidepressants and treatments for attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder or the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease as already raising similar issues. The FDA has designated mild cognitive impairment associated with aging as an open area for pharmaceutical development, he noted.

James Hughes, a sociologist from Trinity College and executive director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, welcomed new technologies that he said could not only treat disease, but also enhance human capabilities and address social challenges such as criminal rehabilitation. However, he did identify potential “Ulysses problems”, where users of new technologies would need to exercise control and judgment.

In contrast, historian and Judaic scholar Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, from Arizona State University, decried an “overly mechanistic and not culturally-based understanding of what it means to be human.” She described transhumanism as a utopian extension of 19th century utilitarianism as expounded by thinkers such as Jeremy Bentham.

“Is the brain simply a computational machine?” she asked.

The use of military metaphors – such as “the war on cancer” – in the context of mental illness creates the false impression that everything is correctable or even perfectable, she said.

Emory neuroscience program director Yoland Smith said he wants ethics to become a strong component of Emory’s neuroscience program, with similar discussions and debates to come in future years.

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Links between autism and epilepsy

An article in the April 2011 issue of Nature Medicine highlights the mechanistic overlap between autism and epilepsy.

By studying how rare genetic conditions known to coincide with both epilepsy and autism—such as Rett syndrome, fragile X syndrome and tuberous sclerosis—unfold at an early age, neuroscientists are finding that both disorders may alter some of the same neural receptors, signaling molecules and proteins involved in the development of brain cell synapses.

Gary Bassell, PhD

Emory cell biologist Gary Bassell and his colleagues have been taking exactly this approach. Recently they published a paper in Journal of Neuroscience, showing that the protein missing in fragile X syndrome, FMRP, regulates expression of an ion channel linked to epilepsy. This could provide a partial explanation for the link between fragile X syndrome and epilepsy.

The Nature Medicine article also mentions a drug strategy, targeting the mTOR pathway, which Bassell’s group has been exploring with fragile X syndrome.

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New Biological Pathway Identified for PTSD

Emory MedicalHorizon

High blood levels of a hormone produced in response to stress are linked to post-traumatic stress disorder in women but not men, a study from researchers at Emory University and the University of Vermont has found.

The results were published in the Feb. 24 issue of Nature.

The hormone, called PACAP (pituitary adenylate cyclase-activating polypeptide), is known to act throughout the body and the brain, modulating central nervous system activity, metabolism, blood pressure, pain sensitivity and immune function. The identification of PACAP as an indicator of PTSD may lead to new diagnostic tools and eventually, to new treatments for anxiety disorders.


Video on YouTube

“Few biological markers have been available for PTSD or for psychiatric diseases in general,” says first author Kerry Ressler, MD, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University School of Medicine and a researcher at Yerkes National Primate Research Center. “These results give us a new window into the biology of PTSD.”

Read more @ emoryhealthsciences.org.

Posted on by Wendy Darling in Neuro Leave a comment

BPH, Inflammation and Depression: Chicken or the Egg

Data collected during a recent study by researchers at Emory University School of Medicine and published in the journal Urology, show a significant link between benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) and depression.

Researchers have been aware for a long time that depression is a common illness that accompanies inflammatory diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer.  Recent evidence has suggested that depression also might be associated with BPH, another disease with inflammatory components.

Studies have not directly examined the relationship between depression and BPH explains study investigator, Viraj A. Master, MD, associate director in the Department of Urology at Emory. “BPH and depression both affect a significant number of men worldwide. This is the first study to show a direct association between the two illnesses.”

Study data showed that almost three-quarters of the participants without depression presented with mild or moderate symptoms, while more than two thirds of the depressed patients had moderate or severe symptoms.

The data raises questions about whether the severity of symptoms is due to depression, or if the depression is causing the symptoms to worsen, says lead author, Timothy V. Johnson, MD. He points out that several studies have demonstrated depression in the setting of cardiovascular disease and cancer actually worsens these chronic disease states.

The study also raises the question of whether or not the depression simply causes patients to perceive their symptoms to be much worse than patients with the same degree of illness.

The researchers stress that further studies are imperative to address comorbid depression in the presence of BPH so that treatment can be appropriately managed.

Timothy V. Johnson, lead author, was an Emory School of Medicine student when the trial was conducted. Johnson is currently a resident at Columbus Regional Hospital in Columbus, Ga.

Other investigators include Ammara Abbasi, Samantha S. Ehrlich, Renee S. Kleris, Siri L. Chirumamilla, Evan D. Schoenberg, Ashli Owen-Smith, Charles L. Raison and Virag A. Master from the Departments of Urology and Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University School of Medicine, and the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Health Education at Emory University Rollins School of Public Health.

Posted on by Wendy Darling in Neuro Leave a comment

Brain chemical linked to migraines could be anxiety target

Neuroscientist Michael Davis, PhD, and his colleagues have devoted years to mapping out the parts of the brain responsible for driving fear and anxiety. In a recent review article, they describe the differences between fear and anxiety in this way:

Fear is a generally adaptive state of apprehension that begins rapidly and dissipates quickly once the threat is removed (phasic fear). Anxiety is elicited by less specific and less predictable threats, or by those that are physically or psychologically more distant (sustained fear).

Michael Davis is an investigator at Yerkes National Primate Research Center and Emory School of Medicine

A host of their studies suggest that one part of the brain, the amygdala, is instrumental in producing “phasic fear,” while the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BNST) is important for “sustained fear.”

In a new report in the Journal of Neuroscience, Davis’ team describes the effects of a brain communication chemical, which is known primarily for its role in driving migraine headaches, in enhancing anxiety.

“This is the first study to show a role of this peptide, in a brain area we’ve identified as being important for anxiety.  This could lead to new drug targets to selectively reduce anxiety,” Davis says.

His team found that introducing calcitonin gene-related peptide (CGRP) into rats’ BNSTs can increase the anxiety they experience from loud noises or light, in that they startle more and avoid well-lit places. This peptide appears to activate other parts of the brain including the amygdala, hypothalamus and brainstem, producing fear-related symptoms.

Slice of rat brain showing the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BNST) and the central amygdala (Ce)

If Davis and his colleagues block CGRP’s function by introducing a short, decoy version of CGRP into the BNST, the reverse does not happen: the rats are not more relaxed. However, the short version does block the startle-enhancing effects of a smelly chemical produced by foxes that scientists use to heighten anxiety-like behavior in rats. This suggests that interfering with CGRP can reduce fear-related symptoms in situations where the rats are already under stress.

“Blockade of CGRP receptors may thus represent a novel therapeutic target for the treatment of stress-induced anxiety and related psychopathologies such as post-traumatic stress disorder,” says the paper’s first author, postdoctoral fellow Kelly Sink.

In fact, experimental drugs that work against CGRP are already in clinical trials to treat migraine headaches. But first, Sink reports that she and her colleagues are examining the relationship between CGRP and the stress hormone CRF (corticotropin-releasing factor) — another target of pharmacological interest — in the parts of the brain important for fear responses.

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Neuro 1 Comment

National Academy of Sciences recognizes Yerkes Primate Center neuroscientist

Elizabeth A. Buffalo, PhD

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has recognized 13 individuals with awards acknowledging extraordinary scientific achievements in the areas of biology, chemistry, physics, economics and psychology.

Elizabeth A. Buffalo, PhD, a researcher at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, is one of two recipients of the Troland Research Awards. Buffalo is being honored for innovative, multidisciplinary study of the hippocampus and the neural basis of memory. Troland Research Awards of $50,000 are given annually to recognize unusual achievement by young investigators and to further empirical research in experimental psychology.

The recipients will be honored in a ceremony on Sunday, May 1, during the NAS 148th annual meeting.

Posted on by Holly Korschun in Neuro Leave a comment

Shedding light on the vitamin D-Parkinson’s connection

Vitamin D may be called a vitamin, but it’s not. That’s because we can make it by exposing our skin to sunshine. So, technically that makes vitamin D a hormone–a steroid hormone to be exact. In fact, we get most of our exposure to vitamin D directly from sunshine and some from foods such as milk, fortified orange juice and oily fishes like salmon.

But no matter what you call it or where you get it, vitamin D is vital to growth, development and maintenance of our cells. Doctors have known for decades that vitamin D promotes calcium uptake and bone formation, but evidence is accumulating that it regulates the immune system and the development of the nervous system. Growing evidence suggests a link between low vitamin D levels and Parkinson’s disease, but whether this is a cause-and-effect relationship is unknown.

Marian Evatt, MD

That’s why Emory neurologist Marian Evatt, MD, and her colleagues are conducting a clinical trial exploring the effects of vitamin D supplementation on patients with Parkinson’s disease who have low vitamin D levels. The study also includes further epidemiological studies of vitamin D in Parkinson’s disease.

Parkinson’s disease affects nerve cells in several parts of the brain, particularly those that use the chemical messenger dopamine to control movement. The most common symptoms of Parkinson’s disease are tremor, stiffness and slowness of movement.

“Vitamin D has become associated with many chronic diseases: diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and some of the autoimmune diseases, including multiple sclerosis,” says Evatt. “But we haven’t yet determined the specific effect of vitamin D in specific conditions because it has such broad effects.”

To hear Evatt talk about what vitamin D is, what it does, and why we need it, please go to Emory’s latest Sound Science podcast.

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