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 Read more

Mini-monsters of cardiac regeneration

Jinhu Wang’s lab is not producing giant monsters. They are making fish with fluorescent hearts. Lots of cool Read more

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 Read more

Cancer

Navigating monstrous anticancer obstacles

A new PNAS paper from geneticist Tamara Caspary’s lab identifies a possible drug target in medulloblastoma, the most common pediatric brain tumor. Come aboard to understand the obstacles this research seeks to navigate. Emory library link here.

Standard treatment for children with medulloblastoma consists of surgery in combination with radiation and chemotherapy. Alternatives are needed, because survivors can experience side effects such as neurocognitive impairment. One possibility has emerged in the last decade: inhibitors of the Hedgehog pathway, whose aberrant activation drives growth in medulloblastoma.

Medulloblastoma patients are caught “between Scylla and Charybdis”: facing a deadly disease, the side effects of radiation and/or existing Hedgehog inhibitors. From Wikimedia.

As this 2017 Oncotarget paper from St. Jude’s describes, Hedgehog inhibitors are no fun either. In adults, these agents cause muscle spasms, hair loss, distorted sense of taste, fatigue, and weight loss. In a pediatric clinical trial, the St. Jude group observed growth plate fusions, resulting in short stature. The drug described in the paper was approved in 2012 for basal cell carcinoma, a form of cancer whose growth is also driven by the Hedgehog pathway. Basal cell carcinoma is actually the most common form of human cancer, although it is often caught at an early stage that doesn’t require harsh treatment.

Caspary’s lab studies the Hedgehog pathway in early embryonic development. In the PNAS paper, former graduate student Sarah Bay and postdoc Alyssa Long show that targeting a downstream part of the Hedgehog pathway may be a way to avoid problems presented by both radiation/chemo and existing Hedgehog inhibitors. Read more

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Epilepsy pick up sticks

Imagine the game of pick up sticks. It’s hard to extract one stick from the pile without moving others. The same problem exists, in a much more complex way, in the brain. Pulling on one gene or neurotransmitter often nudges a lot of others.

Andrew Escayg, PhD

That’s why a recent paper from Andrew Escayg’s lab is so interesting. He studies genes involved in epilepsy. Several years ago, he showed that mice with mutations in the SCN8A gene have absence epilepsy, while also showing resistance to induced seizures. SCN8A is one of those sticks that touches many others. The gene encodes a voltage-gated sodium channel, involved in setting the thresholds for and triggering neurons’ action potentials. Mutating the gene in mice modifies sleep and even enhances spatial memory.

Escayg’s new paper, with first author Jennifer Wong, looks at the effect of “knocking down” SCN8A in the hippocampus in a mouse model of mesial temporal lobe epilepsy. This model doesn’t involve sodium channel genes; it’s generated by injection of a toxin (kainic acid) into the brain. The finding suggests that inhibiting SCN8A may be applicable to other forms of epilepsy. Escayg notes that mesial temporal lobe epilepsy is one of the most common forms of treatment-resistant epilepsy in adults.

Knocking down SCN8A in the hippocampus 24 hours after injection could prevent the development of seizures in 90 percent of the treated mice. “It is likely that selective reduction in Scn8a expression would have directly decreased neuronal excitability,” the authors write. It did not lead to increased anxiety levels or impaired learning/memory.

Currently, no available drugs target Scn8a specifically. However, antisense approaches for neurodegenerative diseases have been gaining ground – perhaps epilepsy could fit in.

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Vulnerability to cocaine uncovered in adolescent mouse brains

Editor’s note: Guest post from Neuroscience graduate student Brendan O’Flaherty. Companion paper to the Gourley lab’s recently published work on fasudil, habit modification and neuronal pruning.

An Emory study has discovered why teenager’s brains may be especially vulnerable to cocaine. Exposure to small amounts of cocaine in adolescence can disrupt brain development and impair the brain’s ability to change its own habits, the study suggests.

Guest post from Brendan O’Flaherty

The results were published in the April 1, 2017 issue of Biological Psychiatry, by researchers at Yerkes National Primate Research Center.

Drug seeking habits play a major role in drug addiction, says senior author Shannon Gourley, PhD, assistant professor of pediatrics, psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University School of Medicine and Yerkes National Primate Research Center. The first author of the paper is former Emory graduate student Lauren DePoy, PhD.

When it comes to habits, cocaine is especially sneaky. Bad habits like drug use are already very difficult to change, but cocaine physically changes the brain, potentially weakening its ability to “override” bad habits. Although adults are susceptible to cocaine’s effects on habits, adolescent brains are especially vulnerable.

“Generally speaking, the younger you are exposed to cocaine in life, the more likely you are to have impaired decision making,” Gourley says.

Shannon Gourley, PhD, in lab

To understand why adolescent brains are especially vulnerable to cocaine, the researchers studied the effects of cocaine exposure on how the mice make decisions about food.

“I think it’s pretty amazing that we can actually talk to mice in a way that allows them to talk back,” Gourley says. “And then we can utilize a pretty tremendous biological toolkit to understand how the brain works.”

Researchers injected adolescent mice five times with either saline or cocaine. Both groups of animals then grew up without access to cocaine. Researchers then trained the mice to press two buttons, both of which caused food to drop into the cage. Since both buttons rewarded the mice equally, the mice pushed each button half the time.

Over time, pushing the two buttons equally could become a habit. To test this, the researchers then played a trick on the mice. When one of the buttons was exposed, the researchers starting giving the mice food pellets for free, instead of rewarding them for button-pressing.

“What the mouse should be learning is: ‘Ah hah, wait a minute, when I have access to this button I shouldn’t respond, because my responding doesn’t get me anything,‘” Gourley says. Read more

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The journey of a marathon sleeper

A marathon sleeper who got away left some clues for Emory and University of Florida scientists to follow. What they found could provide benefits for patients with the genetic disease myotonic dystrophy (DM) and possibly the sleep disorder idiopathic hypersomnia (IH).

The classic symptom for DM is: someone has trouble releasing their grip on a doorknob. However, the disease does not only affect the muscles. Clinicians have recognized for years that DM can result in disabling daytime sleepiness and sometimes cognitive impairments. At the Myotonic Dystrophy Foundation meeting in September, a session was held gathering patient input on central nervous system (CNS) symptoms, so that future clinical trials could track those symptoms more rigorously.

Emory scientists are investigating this aspect of DM. Cell biology chair Gary Bassell was interested in the disease, because it’s a triplet repeat disorder, similar to fragile X syndrome, yet the CNS mechanisms and symptoms are very different. In DM, an expanded triplet or quadruplet repeat produces toxic RNA, which disrupts the process of RNA splicing, affecting multiple cell types and tissues.

Rye at San Francisco myotonic dystrophy meeting. Photo courtesy of Hypersomnia Foundation.

Neurologist and sleep specialist David Rye also has become involved. Recall Rye’s 2012 paper in Science Translational Medicine, which described a still-mysterious GABA-enhancing substance present in the spinal fluid of some super-sleepy patients. (GABA is a neurotransmitter important for regulating sleep.)

In seven of those patients, his team tested the “wake up” effects of flumazenil, conventionally used as an antidote to benzodiazepines. One of those patients was an Atlanta lawyer, whose recovery was later featured in the Wall Street Journal and on the Today Show. It turns out that another one of the seven, whose alertness increased in response to flumazenil, has DM.

In an overnight sleep exam, this man slept for 12 hours straight – the longest of the seven. But an IH diagnosis didn’t fit, because in the standard “take a nap five times” test, he didn’t doze off very quickly. He became frustrated with the stimulants he was given and sought treatment elsewhere, Rye says. Lab Land doesn’t have all the details of this patient’s history, but eventually he was diagnosed with DM, which clarified his situation. Read more

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Skin disease studies go deep: depression/inflammation insight

The placebo effect plays a big role in clinical trials for mood disorders such as depression. Emory psychiatrist Andy Miller hit upon something several years ago that could clear a path around the placebo effect.

Miller and his colleagues have been looking at the connection between inflammation and depression, whose evolutionary dimensions we have previously explored. They’ve examined the ability of inflammation-inducing treatments for hepatitis C and cancer to trigger symptoms of depression, and have shown that the anti-inflammatory drug infliximab (mainly used for rheumatoid arthritis) can resolve some cases of treatment-resistant depression. [Lots of praise for Miller in this September 2017 Nature Medicine feature.]

A recent paper in Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics from Miller and psychiatry chair Mark Rapaport looks at clinical trials testing an anti-inflammatory drug against psoriasis, to see whether participants’ depressive symptoms improved. This sidesteps a situation where doctors’ main targets are the patients’ moods.

When it comes to approving new antidepressants, the FDA is still probably going to want a frontal assault on depression, despite provisions in the 21st Century Cures Act to broaden the types of admissible evidence.

“These studies emphasize how difficult it is to interpret findings when these drugs are treating more than one problem,” Miller says. “Better to have a simpler study with just depression.”

Still, this line of research could clarify who could benefit from anti-inflammatory treatments and illuminate viable biomarkers and pathways. Two studies now underway at Emory specifically recruit patients with high levels of the inflammatory marker CRP, which Miller’s previous study showed was helpful in predicting response to infliximab.

The new paper results from a collaboration with Eli Lilly. Lilly’s ixekizumab (commercial name: Taltz) is an antibody against the cytokine IL-17A, used to treat moderate to severe psoriasis. Taltz was approved by the FDA in 2016, after clinical trials published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Read more

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New insight into how brain cells die in Alzheimer’s and FTD

Removal of a regulatory gene called LSD1 in adult mice induces changes in gene activity that look unexpectedly like Alzheimer’s disease, scientists have discovered.

Researchers also discovered that LSD1 protein is perturbed in brain samples from humans with Alzheimer’s disease and frontotemporal dementia (FTD). Based on their findings in human patients and mice, the research team is proposing LSD1 as a central player in these neurodegenerative diseases and a drug target.

David Katz, PhD

The results were published Oct. 9 in Nature Communications.

In the brain, LSD1 (lysine specific histone demethylase 1) maintains silence among genes that are supposed to be turned off. When the researchers engineered mice that have the LSD1 gene snipped out in adulthood, the mice became cognitively impaired and paralyzed. Plenty of neurons were dying in the brains of LSD1-deleted mice, although other organs seemed fine. However, they lacked aggregated proteins in their brains, like those thought to drive Alzheimer’s disease and FTD.

“In these mice, we are skipping the aggregated proteins, which are usually thought of as the triggers of dementia, and going straight to the downstream effects,” says David Katz, PhD, assistant professor of cell biology at Emory University School of Medicine. Read more

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Tug of war between Parkinson’s protein and growth factors

Alpha-synuclein, a sticky and sometimes toxic protein involved in Parkinson’s disease (PD), blocks signals from an important brain growth factor, researchers have discovered.

The results were published this week in PNAS.

The finding adds to evidence that alpha-synuclein is a pivot for damage to brain cells in PD, and helps to explain why brain cells that produce the neurotransmitter dopamine are more vulnerable to degeneration.

Alpha-synuclein is a major component of Lewy bodies, the protein clumps that are a pathological sign of PD. Also, duplications of or mutations in the gene encoding alpha-synuclein drive some rare familial cases.

In the current paper, researchers led by Keqiang Ye, PhD demonstrated that alpha-synuclein binds and interferes with TrkB, the receptor for BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor). BDNF promotes brain cells’ survival and was known to be deficient in Parkinson’s patients. When applied to neurons, BDNF in turn sends alpha-synuclein away from TrkB.  [Ye’s team has extensively studied the pharmacology of 7,8-dihydroxyflavone, a TrkB agonist.]

A “tug of war” situation thus exists between alpha-synuclein and BDNF, struggling for dominance over TrkB. In cultured neurons and in mice, alpha-synuclein inhibits BDNF’s ability to protect brain cells from neurotoxins that mimic PD-related damage, Ye’s team found. Read more

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Imaging sleep drunkenness: #IHAW2017

At some point, everyone has experienced a temporary groggy feeling after waking up called sleep inertia. Scientists know a lot about sleep inertia already, including how it impairs cognitive and motor abilities, and how it varies with the time of day and type of sleep that precedes it. They even have pictures of how the brain wakes up piece by piece.

People with idiopathic hypersomnia or IH display something that seems stronger, termed “sleep drunkenness,” which can last for hours. Czech neurologist Bedrich Roth, the first to identify IH as something separate from other sleep disorders, proposed sleep drunkenness as IH’s defining characteristic.

Note: Emory readers may recall the young Atlanta lawyer treated for IH by David Rye, Kathy Parker and colleagues several years ago. Our post today is part of IH Awareness Week® 2017.

Sleep drunkenness is what makes IH distinctive in comparison to narcolepsy, especially narcolepsy with cataplexy, whose sufferers tend to fall asleep quickly. Those with full body cataplexy can collapse on the floor in response to emotions such as surprise or amusement. In contrast, people with IH tend not to doze off so suddenly, but they do identify with the statement “Waking up is the hardest thing I do all day.”

At Emory, neurologist Lynn Marie Trotti and colleagues are in the middle of a brain imaging study looking at sleep drunkenness.

“We want to find out if sleep drunkenness in IH is the same as what happens to healthy people with sleep inertia and is more pronounced, or whether it’s something different,” Trotti says. Read more

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Enhancing the brain’s clean up crews

Enhancing the brain’s own clean-up crews could be a strategy for handling the toxic proteins driving several neurodegenerative diseases, new research suggests.

Astrocytes, an abundant supportive cell type in the brain, are better than neurons at disposing of mutant huntingtin, the toxic protein that drives Huntington’s disease pathology, Xiao-Jiang Li and colleagues report in this week’s PNAS.

One reason why astrocytes are better at toxic protein defense than neurons is: they have less of an inhibitory protein called HspBP1. The scientists show that using CRISPR/Cas9 to “knock down” HspBP1 can help neurons get rid of mutant huntingtin and reduce early pathological signs.

Read more

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Granulins treasure not trash – potential FTD treatment strategy

Emory University School of Medicine researchers have developed tools that enable them to detect small proteins called granulins for the first time inside cells. Granulins are of interest to neuroscientists because mutations in the granulin gene cause frontotemporal dementia (FTD). However, the functions of granulins were previously unclear.

FTD is an incurable neurodegenerative disease and the most common type of dementia in people younger than 60. Genetic variants in the granulin gene are also a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, suggesting this discovery may have therapeutic potential for a broad spectrum of age-related neurodegenerative diseases.

The results were published August 9 by the journal eNeuro (open access).

Thomas Kukar, PhD

Some neuroscientists believed that granulins were made outside cells, and even could be toxic under certain conditions. But with the newly identified tools, the Emory researchers can now see granulins inside cells within lysosomes, which are critical garbage disposal and recycling centers. The researchers now propose that granulins have important jobs in the lysosome that are necessary to maintain brain health, suppress neuroinflammation, and prevent neurodegeneration.

Problems with lysosomes appear in several neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

“A lysosomal function for granulins is exciting and novel.  We believe it may provide an explanation why decreased levels of granulins are linked to multiple neurodegenerative diseases, ranging from frontotemporal dementia to Alzheimer’s,” says senior author Thomas Kukar, PhD, assistant professor of pharmacology and neurology and the Emory University Center for Neurodegenerative Disease. Read more

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