Update on SIV remission studies

Recently presented insights on how an antibody used to treat intestinal diseases can suppress Read more

Granulins treasure not trash - potential FTD treatment strategy

Granulins are of interest to neuroscientists because mutations in the granulin gene cause frontotemporal dementia (FTD). However, the functions of granulins were previously Read more

Blood vessels and cardiac muscle cells off the shelf

How to steer induced pluripotent stem cells into becoming endothelial cells, which line blood Read more

Neuro

More on NMDA receptor variants + epilepsy/ID

NMDA receptors are complex electrochemical machines, important for signaling between brain cells. Rare mutations in the corresponding genes cause epilepsy and intellectual disability.

Pre-M1 helices in multi-subunit NMDA receptor. Adapted from Ogden et al PLOS Genetics (2017).

In Emory’s Department of Pharmacology, the Traynelis and Yuan labs have been harvesting the vast amounts of information now available from public genome databases, to better understand how changes in the NMDA receptor genes relate to function. (Take a “deeper dive” into their November 2016 publication on this topic here.)

Their recent paper in PLOS Genetics focuses on a particular region in the NMDA receptor, called the pre-M1 helix (see figure). It also includes experiments on whether drugs now used for Alzheimer’s disease, such as memantine, could be repurposed to have beneficial effects for patients with certain mutations. The in vitro data reported here could inform clinical use. Read more

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How estrogen modulates fear learning — molecular insight into PTSD in women

Low estrogen levels may make women more susceptible to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at some points in their menstrual cycles or lifetimes, while high estrogen levels may be protective.

New research from Emory University School of Medicine and Harvard Medical School provides insight into how estrogen changes gene activity in the brain to achieve its protective effects.

The findings, published in Molecular Psychiatry, could inform the design of preventive treatments aimed at reducing the risk of PTSD after someone is traumatized.

The scientists examined blood samples from 278 women from the Grady Trauma Project, a study of low-income Atlanta residents with high levels of exposure to violence and abuse. They analyzed maps of DNA methylation, a modification to the shape of DNA that is usually a sign of genes that are turned off.

The group included adult women of child-bearing age, in which estrogen rises and falls with the menstrual cycle, and women that had gone through menopause and had much lower estrogen levels.

“We knew that estrogen affects the activity of many genes throughout the genome,” says Alicia Smith, PhD, associate professor and vice chair of research in the Department of Gynecology and Obstetrics at Emory University School of Medicine. “But if you look at the estrogen-modulated sites that are also associated with PTSD, just one pops out.”

That site is located in a gene called HDAC4, known to be critical for learning and memory in mice. Genetic variation in HDAC4 among the women was linked to a lower level of HDAC4 gene activity and differences in their ability to respond to and recover from fear, and also differences in “resting state” brain imaging. Women with the same variation also showed stronger connections in activation between the amygdala and the cingulate cortex, two regions of the brain involved in fear learning. Read more

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Breath test for Parkinson’s?

Using one to see into the other. Left: canister for breath sample. Right: basal ganglia, a region of the brain usually affected by Parkinson’s.

Scientists think that it may be possible to detect signs of Parkinson’s disease through a breath test.

The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research is supporting a clinical study at Emory that will probe this idea. Neuro-immunologist Malu Tansey is working with Hygieia, a Georgia-based company that has developed technology for analyzing volatile organic compounds present in exhaled air.

From the MJFF’s blog:

By collecting and analyzing breath samples in 100 people (50 non-smoking early-stage PD patients and 50 age and sex-matched controls), the researchers hope to define a unique inflammatory PD-specific breath fingerprint that could be used to predict and monitor disease in combination with blood analyses of conventional or newly discovered biomarkers.

“We hypothesize that breath volatile organic compounds (BVOCs) fingerprinting can enable sensitive and specific measures of ongoing inflammation and other processes implicated in the development and/or progression of PD, and thus could represent an early detection tool,” Tansey says.

If results indicate moving forward, Tansey says it will be important to compare the breath sample method against blood tests for inflammatory markers. Other reports on the breath test approach for Parkinson’s have been encouraging. Read more

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Four biomedical research topics to watch in 2017

HIV/AIDS

The example of the “Berlin patient,” the only person ever cured of HIV infection, has energized HIV/AIDS researchers around the world. They are exploring a variety of tactics to attack the HIV reservoir in infected people, ranging from gene editing to “kick and kill.” A host of Emory/Yerkes researchers are among those pushing this forward.

This past year, an Emory/NIAID team led by Tab Ansari showed that a gentle, antibody-based approach could suppress SIV infection in macaques for extended periods, which surprised many in the field. The human test of this approach is now underway at the National Institutes of Health.

On the preventive vaccine side, a large scale efficacy study recently begun in South Africa, the first in seven years. Geovax’s Emory-rooted technology continues to advance in clinical studies. Further back in the pipeline, Yerkes researchers are testing innovative approaches, such as Rama Amara’s milk-bacteria-based mucosal vaccine and the potent nanoparticle adjuvants developed by Bali Pulendran’s group.

Zika

Despite the World Health Organization’s declaration in November that the public health emergency is over, Zika infection is still driving brain-related birth defects in several countries. Expect to hear more about Zika epidemiology and vaccine research, including from Emory investigators, next year.

In contrast with HIV, which seems to escape from almost anything we or our immune systems throw at it, Zika is doable, scientists think. At a Vaccine Dinner Club talk in September, Harvard’s Dan Barouch made the case that Zika is a slam dunk, immunologically. Two big questions remain: does dengue get in the way? And can vaccine makers test quickly and distribute widely?

FMT for antibiotic-resistant infections

Emory physicians have been leaders in developing fecal microbiota transplant as a remedy for recurrent Clostridium dificile infection. This form of diarrhea, which can be life-threatening, sometimes arises as a result of antibiotics that wipe out the helpful bacteria that live in the intestines, paving the way for “C diff.”

Now the Emory team (Colleen Kraft/Tanvi Dhere/Aneesh Mehta/Rachel Friedman-Moraco) is testing whether FMT could prevent other antibiotic-resistant infections besides C diff. This approach will be examined in a group of patients that tends to have a lot of antibiotic exposure: kidney transplant recipients. The team’s first publication on this topic from 2014 is here. Read more

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How “twist my arm” engages the brain

Listening to metaphors involving arms or legs loops in a region of the brain responsible for visual perception of those body parts, scientists have discovered.

The finding, recently published in Brain & Language, is another example of how neuroscience studies are providing evidence for “grounded cognition” – the idea that comprehension of abstract concepts in the brain is built upon concrete experiences, a proposal whose history extends back millennia to Aristotle.

The EBA was shown in 2001 to respond selectively to images of the human body by Nancy Kanwisher and colleagues.

When study participants heard sentences that included phrases such as “shoulder responsibility,” “foot the bill” or “twist my arm”, they tended to engage a region of the brain called the left extrastriate body area or EBA.

The same level of activation was not seen when participants heard literal sentences containing phrases with a similar meaning, such as “take responsibility” or “pay the bill.”  The study included 12 right-handed, English-speaking people, and blood flow in their brains was monitored by functional MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).

“The EBA is part of the extrastriate visual cortex, and it was known to be involved in identifying body parts,” says senior author Krish Sathian, MD, PhD, professor of neurology, rehabilitation medicine, and psychology at Emory University.  “We found that the metaphor selectivity of the EBA matches its visual selectivity.” Read more

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Neuroscientists show hippocampus also has important role in emotional regulation

A region of the brain called the hippocampus is known for its role in memory formation. Scientists at Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University are learning more about another facet of hippocampal function: its importance in the regulation and expression of emotions, particularly during early development.

Using a nonhuman primate model, their findings provide insight into the mechanisms of human psychiatric disorders associated with emotion dysregulation, such as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and schizophrenia. The results were published online recently by the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.

“Our findings demonstrate that damage to the hippocampus early in life leads to increased anxiety-like behaviors in response to an unfamiliar human,” says research associate Jessica Raper, PhD, first author of the paper. “However, despite heightened anxious behavior, cortisol responses to the social stress were dampened in adulthood.”

The hormone cortisol modulates metabolism, the immune system and brain function in response to stress. Reduced hippocampal volume and lower cortisol response to stressors have been demonstrated as features of and risk factors for PTSD, Raper says. Also, the dampened daily rhythms of cortisol seen in the nonhuman primates with hippocampal damage resemble those reported in first-episode schizophrenia patients.

Follow-up studies could involve temporary interference with hippocampus function using targeted genetic techniques, she says. Read more

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Insane in the membrane – inflamed in the brain

Inflammation in the brain is a feature of several neurological diseases, ranging from Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s to epilepsy. Nick Varvel, a postdoc with Ray Dingledine’s lab at Emory, was recently presenting his research and showed some photos illustrating the phenomenon of brain inflammation in status epilepticus (prolonged life-threatening seizures).

The presentation was at a Center for Neurodegenerative Disease seminar; his research was also published in PNAS and at the 2016 Society for Neuroscience meeting.green-red-brain

Varvel was working with mice in which two different types of cells are marked by fluorescent proteins. Both of the cell types come originally from the blood and can be considered immune cells. However, one kind – marked with green — is in the brain all the time, and the red kind enters the brain only when there is an inflammatory breach of the blood brain barrier.

Both markers, CX3CR1 (green) and CCR2 (red), are chemokine receptors. Green fluorescent protein is selectively produced in microglia, which settle in the brain before birth and are thought to have important housekeeping/maintenance functions.

Monocytes, a distinct type of cell that is not usually in the brain in large numbers, are lit up red. Monocytes rush into the brain in status epilepticus, and in traumatic brain injury, hemorrhagic stroke and West Nile virus encephalitis, to name some other conditions where brain inflammation is also seen.

In the PNAS paper, Varvel and his colleagues include a cautionary note about using these mice for studying situations of more prolonged brain inflammation, such as neurodegenerative diseases: the monocytes may turn down production of the red protein over time, so it’s hard to tell if they’re still in the brain after several days.

Targeting CCR2 – good or bad? Depends on the disease model

The researchers make the case that “inhibiting brain invasion of CCR2+ monocytes could represent a viable method for alleviating several deleterious consequences of status epilepticus.” Read more

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Oxytocin receptor levels predict comforting behavior in prairie voles

Different levels of a receptor for a hormone involved in social bonding may explain individual variation in offering comfort during stressful situations. Like humans, animals console each other in times of distress: monkeys hug and kiss, and prairie voles groom each other.

James Burkett, PhD

James Burkett, PhD

Emory postdoc James Burkett described his research on voles at a press conference on “The Neuroscience of Emotion and Social Behavior” at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego on Sunday. Here are Video (Burkett’s part is roughly from 4:50 to 9:00) and the scientific abstract.

Burkett’s presentation, on oxytocin-dependent comforting behavior in prairie voles, outlined an extension of his graduate work with Larry Young at Yerkes National Primate Research Center, which was published in Science in January 2016 and impressed oxytocin skeptic Ed Yong. Burkett, now in Gary Miller’s laboratory at Rollins School of Public Health, also masterminded a Reddit “Ask me anything” in February.

The rest of the Society for Neuroscience press release:

Previous research indicates oxytocin—a hormone that promotes social and maternal bonding—acts in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) of the prairie vole brain to encourage consoling behavior. In humans, the ACC activates when people see others in pain. Some degree of personal distress motivates comforting behaviors, but too much actually makes animals (including humans, chimpanzees, and rats) less likely to offer comfort.

Read more

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Nerve gas, angel dust and genetic epilepsy

Last week, Lab Land noticed similarities between two independent lines of research from the Escayg and Traynelis/Yuan labs at Emory. Both were published recently and deal with rare forms of genetic epilepsy, in which molecular understanding of the cause leads to individualized treatment, albeit with limited benefit.

Both conditions are linked to an excess of neuronal excitation, and both can be addressed using medications that have also been tested for Alzheimer’s. A critical difference is that memantine is FDA-approved for Alzheimer’s, but huperzine A is not.

What condition? Dravet syndrome/GEFS+ Epilepsy-aphasia syndrome
What gene is mutated? SCN1A – sodium ion channel GRIN2A – NMDA receptor subunit
What is the beneficial drug? Huperzine A Memantine
How does the drug work? Acetylcholinesterase inhibitor NMDA receptor antagonist
Other drugs that use the same mechanism Alzheimer’s medications such as donepezil

Irreversible + stronger: insecticides, nerve gas

Ketamine, phencyclidine (aka PCP)
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Deep dive into NMDA receptor variation

The study of human genetics has often focused on mutations that cause disease. When it comes to genetic variations in healthy people, scientists knew they were out there, but didn’t have a full picture of their extent. That is changing with the emergence of resources such as the Exome Aggregation Consortium or ExAC, which combines sequences for the protein-coding parts of the genome from more than 60,000 people into a database that continues to expand.

ajhg-fig-2-092016

Rare mutations in the NMDA receptor genes cause epilepsy (GRIN2A) or intellectual disability (GRIN2B). Shown in blue are agonist binding domains of the receptors, where several disease-causing mutations can be found.

At Emory, the labs of Stephen Traynelis and Hongjie Yuan have published an analysis of ExAC data, focusing on the genes encoding two NMDA receptor subunits, GRIN2A and GRIN2B. These receptors are central to signaling between brain cells, and rare mutations in the corresponding genes cause epilepsy (GRIN2A) or intellectual disability (GRIN2B). GRIN2B mutations have also been linked with autism spectrum disorder.

steveandhongjie

Steve Traynelis and Hongjie Yuan

The new paper in the American Journal of Human Genetics makes a deep dive into ExAC data to explore the link between normal variation in the healthy population and regions of the proteins that harbor disease-causing mutations.

In addition, the paper provides a detailed look at how 25 mutations that were identified in individuals with neurologic disease actually affect the receptors. For some patients, this insight could potentially guide anticonvulsant treatment with a repurposed Alzheimer’s medication. Also included are three new mutations from patients identified by whole exome sequencing, one in GRIN2A and two in GRIN2B.

“This is one of the first analyses like this, where we’re mapping the spectrum of variation in a gene onto the structure of the corresponding protein,” says Traynelis, PhD, professor of pharmacology at Emory University School of Medicine. “We’re able to see that the disease mutations cluster where variation among the healthy population disappears.”

Heat map of agonist binding domain for GRIN2A.

Heat map of agonist binding domain for GRIN2A. From Swanger et al AJHG (2016).

Postdoctoral fellow Sharon Swanger, PhD is first author of the paper, and Yuan, MD, PhD, assistant professor of pharmacology, is co-senior author.

It’s not always obvious, looking at the sequence of a given mutation, how it’s going to affect NMDA receptor function. Only introducing the altered gene into cells and studying protein function in the lab provides that information, Traynelis says.

NMDA receptors are complicated machines: mutations can affect how well they bind their ligands (glutamate and glycine), how they open and shut, or how they are processed onto the cell surface. On top of that complexity, mutations that make the receptors either stronger or weaker can both lead the brain into difficulty; within each gene, both types of mutation are associated with similar disorders. With some GRIN2A mutations, the functional changes identified in the lab were quite strong, but the effect on the brain was less dramatic (mild intellectual disability or speech disorder), suggesting that other genetic factors contribute to outcomes.

Clinical relevance

Traynelis and Yuan previously collaborated with the NIH’s Undiagnosed Disease Program to show that the Alzheimer’s medication memantine can be repurposed as an anticonvulsant, for a child with intractable epilepsy coming from a mutation in the GRIN2A gene. (Nature Communications, Annals of Clinical and Translational Neurology)

Memantine is an NMDA receptor antagonist, aimed at counteracting the overactivation of the receptor caused by the mutation. Memantine has also been used to treat children with epilepsy associated with mutations in the related GRIN2D gene. However, memantine doesn’t work on all activating mutations, and could have effects on the unmutated NMDA receptors in the brain as well. Traynelis reports that his clinical colleagues are developing guidelines for physicians on the use of memantine for children with GRIN gene mutations.

This study and related investigations were supported by funding from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (R01HD082373), the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (R24NS092989), the Atlanta Clinical & Translational Science Institute (UL1TR000454), and CURE Epilepsy: Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy.

 

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