Overcoming cardiac pacemaker "source-sink mismatch"

Instead of complication-prone electronic cardiac pacemakers, biomedical engineers at Georgia Tech and Emory envision the creation of “biological Read more

Hope Clinic part of push to optimize HIV vaccine components

Ten years ago, the results of the RV144 trial– conducted in Thailand with the help of the US Army -- re-energized the HIV vaccine field, which had been down in the Read more

Invasive cancer cells marked by distinctive mutations

What does it take to be a leader – of cancer cells? Adam Marcus and colleagues at Winship Cancer Institute are back, with an analysis of mutations that drive metastatic behavior among groups of lung cancer cells. The findings were published this week on the cover of Journal of Cell Science, and suggest pharmacological strategies to intervene against or prevent metastasis. Marcus and former graduate student Jessica Konen previously developed a technique for selectively labeling “leader” Read more

Neuro

Probing hyperexcitability in fragile X syndrome

Researchers at Emory University School of Medicine have gained insight into a feature of fragile X syndrome, which is also seen in other neurological and neurodevelopmental disorders.

In a mouse model of fragile X syndrome, homeostatic mechanisms that would normally help brain cells adjust to developmental changes don’t work properly. This helps explain why cortical hyperexcitability, which is linked to sensory sensitivity and seizure susceptibility, gradually appears during brain development.

Studying a model of fragile X syndrome, Emory researchers were looking at neurons displaying single spiking and multi-spiking behavior. 

These physiological insights could help guide clinical research and efforts at early intervention, the scientists say. The results were published Feb. 5 by Cell Reports (open access).

Fragile X syndrome is the most common inherited form of intellectual disability and a leading single-gene cause of autism. Individuals with fragile X syndrome often display sensory sensitivity and some — about 15 percent— have seizures.

Scientists’ explanation for these phenomena is cortical hyperexcitability, meaning that the response of the cortex (the outer part of the brain) to sensory input is more than typical. Cortical hyperexcitability has also been observed in the broader category of autism spectrum disorder, as well as migraine or after a stroke.

At Emory, graduate student Pernille Bülow forged a collaboration between Peter Wenner, PhD and Gary Bassell, PhD. Wenner, interested in homeostatic plasticity, and Bassell, an expert in fragile X neurobiology, wanted to investigate why a mechanism called homeostatic intrinsic plasticity does not compensate for the changes in the brain brought about in fragile X syndrome. More here.

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Nogueira’s trailblazing work on stroke recognized

Neurologist Raul Nogueira’s clinical research on thrombectomy, a life-saving intervention after ischemic stroke, is getting recognition – in non-traditional ways.

A group of Korean neurologists and radiologists recently analyzed the most mentioned neurointervention papers by “altmetrics.” Altmetrics measure the impact a research paper has by looking at online discussion – in international news media, blogs, Wikipedia and social media platforms, as well as attention from post-publication peer-review and patient advocacy groups.

Raul Noguiera, MD

As it turned out, one of Nogueira’s papers was the most mentioned and he was also an author on 12 of the 101 top articles. Nogueira was the first author of a 2018 paper in the New England Journal of Medicine, reporting on results from the DAWN trial. The study was a landmark, extending the time window for thrombectomy to 24 hours. Those treated with thrombectomy in addition to standard care regained significantly more functional independence after 90 days than those who received standard treatment only.

Another recent example that fits within altmetrics: The DAWN study was cited by the American Heart Association as a top research finding in stroke for 2018.

Nogueira is a professor of neurology, neurosurgery and radiology at Emory University School of Medicine and director of endovascular services at Grady Memorial Hospital’s Marcus Stroke & Neuroscience Center. Thrombectomy is the removal of a clot from a blood vessel in the brain – in this case, through a mechanical stent-retriever device.

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Vulnerability to stress – Tet by Tet

Geneticist Peng Jin and colleagues have a paper in Cell Reports this week that is part of a mini-boom in studying the Tet enzymes and their role in the brain. The short way to explain what Tet enzymes do is that they remove DNA methylation by oxidizing it out.

Methylation, a modification of DNA that generally shuts genes off, has been well-studied for decades. The more recent discovery of how cells remove methylation with the Tet enzymes opened up a question of what roles the transition markers have. It’s part of the field of epigenetics: the meaning of these modifications “above” the DNA sequence.

This is my favorite analogy to explain the transition states, such as 5-hydroxymethylcytosine. They’re not really a new letter of the genetic alphabet – they’ve been there all along. We just didn’t see them before.

Imagine that you are an archeologist, studying an ancient civilization. The civilization’s alphabet contains a limited number of characters. However, an initial pass at recently unearthed texts was low-resolution, missing little doodads like the cedilla in French: Ç.

Are words with those marks pronounced differently? Do they have a different meaning?

The new Cell Reports paper shows that it matters what pen writes the little doodads. In mice, removing one Tet enzyme, Tet1, has the opposite effect from removing Tet2, when it comes to response to chronic stress. One perturbation (loss of Tet1) makes the mice more resistant to stress, while the other (loss of Tet2) has them more vulnerable. The researchers also picked up an interaction between Tet1 and HIF1-alpha, critical for regulation of cells’ response to hypoxia. Read more

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Circadian rhythms go both ways: in and from retina

In case you missed it, the 2017 Nobel Prize in Medicine marked the arrival of the flourishing circadian rhythm field. Emory Eye Center’s Mike Iuvone teamed up with Gianluca Tosini at Morehouse School of Medicine to probe how a genetic disruption of circadian rhythms affects the retina in mice.

Removal of the Bmal1 gene – an essential part of the body’s internal clock — from the retina in mice was known to disrupt the electrical response to light in the eye. The “master clock” in the body is set by the suprachiasmatic nucleus, part of the hypothalamus, which receives signals from the retina. Peripheral tissues, such as the liver and muscles, have their own clocks. The retina is not so peripheral to circadian rhythm, but its cellular clocks are important too.

What the new paper in PNAS shows is that removal of Bmal1 from the retina accelerates the deterioration of vision that comes with aging, but it also shows developmental effects – see below.

You might think: “OK, the mice have disrupted circadian rhythms for their whole lives, so that’s why their retinas are messed up.” But the Emory/Morehouse experimenters removed the Bmal1 gene from the retina only.

P. Michael Iuvone, PhD, director of vision research at Emory Eye Center

The authors write: “BMAL1 appears to play important roles in both cone development and cone viability during aging… Cones are known to be among the cells with highest metabolism within the body and therefore, alteration of metabolic processes within these cells is likely to affect their health status and viability.”

More from the official news release:

…Bmal1 removal significantly affects visual information processing and reduces the thickness of inner retinal layers. The absence of Bmal1 also affected visual acuity and contrast sensitivity. Another important finding was a significant age-related decrease in the number of cone photoreceptors (outer segments and nuclei) in mice lacking Bmal1, which suggests that these cells are directly affected by Bmal1 removal.

“When we genetically disrupted the circadian clocks in the retinas of mice, we found accelerated age-related cone photoreceptor death, similar to that in age-related macular degeneration in humans,” Iuvone says. “This loss of photoreceptor cones affects retinal responses to bright light.

“We also noted developmental effects in young mice,” Iuvone continues, “including abnormalities in rod bipolar cells that affected dim light responses. These findings have potential implications for pregnant shift workers and other women with sleep and circadian disorders, whose offspring might develop visual problems due to their mother’s circadian disruption.”

 

 

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‘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 week in Nature Neuroscience.

Mice partially lacking MIR-137 display learning and memory deficits, repetitive behaviors and impaired sociability. MIR-137 encodes a microRNA, which regulates hundreds of other genes, many of which are also connected to schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorder.

By treating mutant mice with papaverine, a vasodilator discovered in the 19th century, scientists could improve the performance of the mice on maze navigation and social behavior tests. Papaverine is an inhibitor of the enzyme Pde10a (phosphodiesterase 10a), which is elevated in mutant mice.

Papaverine is a component of opium, but it has a structure (and effects) that are different from opiates.

Other Pde10a inhibitors have been tested in schizophrenia clinical trials, but the new results suggest this group of compounds could have potential for some individuals with ASD, says senior author Peng Jin, PhD, professor of human genetics at Emory University School of Medicine.

Having just the right level of MIR-137 function is important. Previous studies of people with genetic deletions show that a loss of MIR-137 is connected with intellectual disability and autism spectrum disorder. The reverse situation, in which a genetic variation increases MIR-137 levels, appears to contribute to schizophrenia.

“It’s interesting to think about in the context of precision medicine,” Jin says. “Individuals with a partial loss of MIR137 – either genomic deletions or reduced expression — could potentially be candidates for treatment with Pde10a inhibitors.”

To create the mutant mice, Jin’s lab teamed up with Dahua Chen, PhD and Zhao-Qian Teng, PhD scientists at the State Key Laboratories of Stem Cell and Reproductive Biology and Membrane Biology, part of the Institute of Zoology, Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. Jin says that generating mice with a heritable disruption of MIR-137 was technically challenging, taking several years. Read more

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Cells in “little brain” have distinctive metabolic needs

Cells’ metabolic needs are not uniform across the brain, researchers have learned. “Knocking out” an enzyme that regulates mitochondria, cells’ miniature power plants, specifically blocks the development of the mouse cerebellum more than the rest of the brain.

The results were published in Science Advances.

“This finding will be tremendously helpful in understanding the molecular mechanisms underlying developmental disorders, degenerative diseases, and even cancer in the cerebellum,” says lead author Cheng-Kui Qu, MD, PhD, professor of pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine, Winship Cancer Institute and Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

The cerebellum or “little brain” was long thought to be involved mainly in balance and complex motor functions. More recent research suggests it is important for decision making and emotions. In humans, the cerebellum grows more than the rest of the brain in the first year of life and its development is not complete until around 8 years of age. The most common malignant brain tumor in children, medulloblastoma, arises in the cerebellum.

Qu and his colleagues have been studying an enzyme, PTPMT1, which controls the influx of pyruvate – a source of energy derived from carbohydrates – into mitochondria. They describe pyruvate as “the master fuel” for postnatal cerebellar development.

Cells can get energy by breaking down sugar efficiently, through mitochondria, or more wastefully in a process called glycolysis. Deleting PTPMT1 provides insight into which cells are more sensitive to problems with mitochondrial metabolism. A variety of mitochondrial diseases affect different parts of the body, but the brain is especially greedy for sugar; it never really shuts off metabolically. When someone is at rest, the brain uses a quarter of the body’s blood sugar, despite taking up just 2 percent of body weight in an adult. More here.

Also, see this 2017 item from Stanford on the cerebellum (Nature paper).

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Fragile X files — expanded

A genetic disorder caused by silencing of a gene on the X chromosome, fragile X syndrome affects about one child in 5,000, and is more common and more severe in boys. It often causes mild to moderate intellectual disabilities as well as behavioral and learning challenges.

Amy Talboy, MD

The gene responsible for fragile X syndrome, the most common inherited form of intellectual disability, was identified more than 25 years ago. Emory genetics chair Stephen Warren played a major role in achieving that milestone. His work led to insights into the molecular details of learning and memory, and nationwide clinical trials — which have a more complicated story.

Treating the molecular basis of a neurodevelopmental disorder, instead of simply addressing symptoms, is a lofty goal – one that remains unfulfilled. Now a new study, supported by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, is reviving a pharmacological strategy that Warren had a hand in developing.

“This is a very well thought out approach to studying changes in language and learning in children who are difficult to test,” says Amy Talboy, medical director of Emory’s Down Syndrome and Fragile X clinics, who is an investigator in the NINDS study. “It could change how we conduct these types of studies in the future.” Read more

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MSCs: what’s in a name?

At a recent symposium of cellular therapies held by the Department of Pediatrics, we noticed something. Scientists do not have consistent language to talk about a type of cells called “mesenchymal stem cells” or “mesenchymal stromal cells.” Within the same symposium, some researchers used the first term, and others used the second.

Guest speaker Joanne Kurtzberg from Duke discussed the potential use of MSCs to treat autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy, and hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy. Exciting stuff, although the outcomes of the clinical studies underway are still uncertain. In these studies, the mesenchymal stromal cells (the language Kurtzberg used) are derived from umbilical cord blood, not adult tissues.

Nomenclature matters, because a recent editorial in Nature calls for the term “stem cell” not to be used for mesenchymal (whatever) cells. They are often isolated from bone marrow or fat. MSCs are thought have the potential to become cells such as fibroblasts, cartilage, bone and fat. But most of their therapeutic effects appear to come from the growth factors and RNA-containing exosomes they secrete, rather than their ability to directly replace cells in damaged tissues.

The Nature editorial argues that “wildly varying reports have helped MSCs to acquire a near-magical, all-things-to-all-people quality in the media and in the public mind,” and calls for better characterization of the cells and more rigor in clinical studies.

At Emory, gastroenterologist Subra Kugathasan talked about his experience with MSCs in inflammatory bowel diseases. Hematologist Edwin Horwitz discussed his past work with MSCs on osteogenesis imperfecta. And Georgia Tech-based biomedical engineer Krishnendu Roy pointed out the need to reduce costs and scale up, especially if MSCs start to be used at a higher volume.

Several of the speakers were supported by the Marcus Foundation, which has a long-established interest in autism, stroke, cerebral palsy and other neurological conditions.

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The time Anna stayed up all night

Almost precisely a decade ago, a young Atlanta lawyer named Anna was returning to work, after being treated for an extraordinary sleep disorder. Her story has been told here at Emory and by national media outlets.

Fast forward a decade to Idiopathic Hypersomnia Awareness Week 2018 (September 3-9), organized by Hypersomnolence Australia. What this post deals with is essentially the correction of a date at the tail end of Anna’s story, but one with long-term implications for many people with difficult-to-treat sleep disorders.

In the summer of 2008, Anna Sumner (now Pieschel) was planning on getting back to her life and career. A few years before, she had been diagnosed with a condition with a frustrating name: idiopathic hypersomnia. It means “she sleeps a lot and we don’t know why.”

Neurologist David Rye and nurse practitioner Kathy Parker had treated Anna first with conventional stimulants, which were spectacularly unsatisfactory. See this 2013 Emory Medicine story for details. Parker and Rye eventually landed on something less conventional: flumazenil, an antidote for sedatives that was scarce and difficult to administer. After wrangling with the FDA and with flumazenil’s manufacturer, a longer-term solution came into view. At that time, Anna was unique: the only person taking flumazenil chronically for a sleep disorder.

Then she developed bronchitis. She lost her voice, which was a problem for someone whose professional role sometimes takes her to court. To treat her bronchitis, Anna’s internist had prescribed the antibiotic clarithromycin, known commercially as Biaxin. After taking it, she developed insomnia and couldn’t sleep for three days. She left frantic messages for neurologist Lynn Marie Trotti, who had become her main sleep specialist.

“This had never happened to me before,” she recalled recently. “I was concerned that it was some bizarre individual reaction to the medication.”

In our original Emory Medicine story, this event was described as taking place in 2010. That date was incorrect.  Read more

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Why is it so hard to do good science?

Last week, Lab Land put out a Twitter poll, touching on the cognitive distortions that make it difficult to do high-quality science. Lots of people (almost 50) responded! Thank you!

We had to be vague about where all this came from, because it was before the publication of the underlying research paper. Ray Dingledine, in Emory’s Department of Pharmacology, asked us to do the Twitter poll first, to see what answers people would give. Dingledine’s paper in eNeuro is now published, so we can explain.

Raymond Dingledine, PhD

The paper is titled “Why Is It So Hard To Do Good Science?” Basically, Dingledine argues, our cognitive biases get in the way. eNeuro summarizes the take-home message this way: “Improving experimental design and statistical analyses alone will not solve the reproducibility crisis in science.”

When designing their experiments, Dingledine says, scientists need to take account of “the law of small numbers”—the distortions random variation can introduce when sample sizes are small – along with other cognitive biases.

In the 1960s and 1970s, psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky demonstrated that people tend to engage in “fast thinking” — relying on preconceived notions and emotions — when making decisions in the face of new information. In his update of this research, Dingledine found that scientists of all career stages are subject to the same biases as undergraduates when interpreting data.

The findings reinforce the roles that two inherent intuitions play in scientific decision-making: our drive to create a coherent narrative from new data regardless of its quality or relevance, and our inclination to seek patterns in data whether they exist or not. Moreover, we do not always consider how likely a result is regardless of its P-value. Read more

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