The journey of a marathon sleeper

A marathon sleeper who got away left some clues for Emory and University of Florida scientists to Read more

A push for reproducibility in biomedical research

At Emory, several scientists are making greater efforts to push forward to improve scientific research and combat what is being called “the reproducibility crisis.” Guest post from Erica Read more

Exosomes as potential biomarkers of radiation exposure

Exosomes = potential biomarkers of radiation in the Read more

Neuro

Sensory connections spill over in synesthesia

Neuroscientists at Emory University have found that people who experience a mixing of the senses, known as synesthesia, are more sensitive to associations everyone has between the sounds of words and visual shapes. The results are published in the European Journal of Neuroscience.

Synesthesia is a stable trait, and estimated to be present in 1 to 4 percent of people. It can be inherited, although the precise genes have not been identified. One of the most common forms of synesthesia is when people involuntarily see particular colors in connection with letters, numbers or sounds.

Many artists and composers have described their experiences with synesthesia. Children with synesthesia say sometimes that it is distracting when they are trying to read. Thus, understanding the origins of synesthesia may help people with dyslexia or other learning differences, or people who have lost their sight or hearing and are trying to engage in sensory substitution for rehabilitation.

Researchers led by neurologist Krish Sathian, MD, PhD, recruited 17 people with synesthesia, and asked them to take a form of the IAT (implicit association test). Known for its use probing social attitudes such as racial prejudice, the IAT can also assess “cross-modal correspondences.”

An example of a cross-modal correspondence is that we describe musical notes as being “high” or “low” – words that also signify relative positions in space. Another is that we think of some sounds such as “m” and “l” as soft, and are more likely to associate them with rounded shapes. Similarly, we connect hard sounds such as “k” and “t” with angular shapes.

“There’s been a debate about synesthesia,” Sathian says. “Are the associations synesthetes have just extreme versions of cross-modal correspondences that other people have, or are they qualitatively different?”

Sathian and his colleagues found that people with synesthesia were more sensitive to correspondences between the sounds of pseudowords — words without meaning in English — and rounded or angular shapes. Read more

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Strain differences in Zika infection genes

Scientists have revealed molecular differences between how the African and Asian strains of Zika virus infect neural progenitor cells. The results could provide insights into the Zika virus’ recent emergence as a global health emergency, and also point to inhibitors of the p53 pathway as potential leads for drugs that could protect brain cells from cell death.

The findings, from the Emory/Johns Hopkins/Florida State team that showed this spring that neural progenitor cells are particularly vulnerable to Zika infection (related paper), were published this week in Nucleic Acid Research. The manuscript was also posted on BioRxiv before publication.

Zika infection genes

Overlap in gene expression changes when neural progenitor cells are infected by African or Asian strains of Zika virus. Diagram from Nucleic Acids Research via Creative Commons.

Zika virus was first discovered in Uganda in the 1940s, and two distinct lineages of Zika diverged sometime in the second half of the 20th century: African and Asian. The strains currently circulating in the Western Hemisphere, which have been linked to microcephaly in infants and Guillain-Barre syndrome in adults, are more closely related to the Asian lineage.

The research team catalogued and compared genes turned on and off by Asian and African strains of Zika virus, as well as dengue virus, in human neural progenitor cells. The authors describe dengue as inducing more robust changes in gene expression than either strain of Zika. Although they show that dengue can infect neural progenitor cells like Zika can, dengue infection does not stunt the cells’ growth or lead to cell death.

“This shows that the differences between Zika and dengue are not at the level of being able to infect neural progenitors, but more about the harm Zika causes when it does infect those cells,” says senior author Peng Jin, PhD, professor of human genetics at Emory University School of Medicine. Read more

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Neuro 1 Comment

Cell therapy clinical trial in stroke

Emory neurosurgeon Robert Gross was recently quoted in a Tennessee newspaper article about a clinical trial of cell therapy for stroke. He used cautionary language to set expectations.

“We’re still in the very early exploratory phases of this type of work,” Gross told the Chattanooga Times Free Press. “In these cases, a significant area of the brain has been damaged, and simply putting a deposit of undifferentiated cells into the brain and magically thinking they will rewire the brain as good as new is naive. None of us think that.”

A more preliminary study (just 18 patients) using the same approach at Stanford and University of Pittsburgh was published this summer in Stroke, which says it was the “first reported intracerebral stem cell transplant study for stroke in North America.” The San Diego Union Tribune made an effort to be balanced in how the results were described:

Stroke patients who received genetically modified stem cells significantly recovered their mobility… Outcomes varied, but more than a third experienced significant benefit.

The newspaper articles made us curious about what these cells actually are. They’re mesenchymal stromal cells, engineered with an extra modified Notch gene. That extra gene drives them to make more supportive factors for neurons, but it doesn’t turn them into neurons. Read more

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HD monkeys display full spectrum of symptoms seen in humans

Transgenic Huntington’s disease monkeys display a full spectrum of symptoms resembling the human disease, ranging from motor problems and neurodegeneration to emotional dysregulation and immune system changes, scientists at Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University report.

The results, published online in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity, strengthen the case that transgenic Huntington’s disease monkeys could be used to evaluate emerging treatments (such as this) before launching human clinical trials.

“Identifying emotional and immune symptoms in the HD monkeys, along with previous studies demonstrating their cognitive deficits and fine motor problems, suggest the HD monkey model embodies the full array of symptoms similar to human patients with the disease,” says Yerkes research associate Jessica Raper, PhD, lead author of the paper. Read more

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A sweet brain preserver: trehalose

It’s sweet, it’s safe, and it looks like it could save neurons. What is it? Trehalose.

Trehalose molecule

Trehalose is a natural sugar.

This natural sugar is used in the food industry as a preservative and flavor enhancer (it’s in Taco Bell’s meat filling). And curiously, medical researchers keep running into trehalose when they’re looking for ways to fight neurodegenerative diseases.

A recent example from Emory’s Department of Pharmacology: Chris Holler, Thomas Kukar and colleagues were looking for drugs that might boost human cells’ production of progranulin (PGRN), a growth factor that keeps neurons healthy. Mutations in the progranulin gene are a common cause of frontotemporal dementia.

The Emory scientists discovered two leads: a class of compounds called mTOR inhibitors — the transplant drug rapamycin is one — and trehalose. The team decided to concentrate on trehalose because it increased PGRN levels in neuronal and non-neuronal cell types, unlike the mTOR inhibitors. Their results were published at the end of June in Molecular Neurodegeneration.

The team confirmed their findings by examining the effects of trehalose on cells derived from patients with progranulin mutations. This paper is the first to include results from Emory’s Laboratory of Translational Cell Biology, which was established in 2012 to facilitate this type of “disease in a dish” approach. Cell biologists Charles Easley, Wilfried Rossoll and Gary Bassell from the LTCB, and neurologists Chad Hales and William Hu from the Center for Neurodegenerative Disease are co-authors.

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Four take-home thoughts on NGLY1

Please check out our feature in Emory Medicine magazine about two sisters with NGLY1 deficiency. This rare genetic disorder was identified only a few years ago, and now a surge of research is directed toward uncovering its mysteries.

  1. The Stinchcombs are amazing. Seth Mnookin’s July 2014 piece in the New Yorker, and especially, his comments at the end of an interview with The Open Notebook drove me to contact them. “The father cares for the two girls with this disease full time. The mother is working insane hours. And while all this is going on, they’re the most good-natured … I don’t know, they just seem like they’re happy.”
  1. Several research teams around the world are investigating NGLY1 deficiency and potential remedies. For the magazine article, I talked with Emory geneticist Michael Gambello, Hudson Freeze at Sanford Burnham and Lynne Wolfe at the NIH Undiagnosed Diseases Program. Even more: the Grace Science Foundation, established by the Wilsey family, is supporting research at Retrophin/Notre Dame and Gladstone/UCSF. The independent Perlstein lab is investigating NGLY1 deficiency in fruit flies (reminiscent of Emory research from a decade ago on Fragile X syndrome).
  1. There’s a long road ahead for rare genetic disorders such as NGLY1 deficiency. That’s why the title that EM editor Mary Loftus came up with, “In time to help Jessie,” is so poignant. When I read Abby Goodnough’s New York Times piece on RCDP, which is a rare inherited bone disease that also involves seizures, I thought: “That could be NGLY1 in ten years.” Still, progress is possible, as demonstrated by this recent NEJM report on exome sequencing and neurometabolic disorders from British Columbia.

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Optic nerve reaching out

Congratulations to Ying Li, MD, PhD, 3rd place winner of the Best Image contest held as part of the Emory Postdoctoral Research Symposium, which takes place next week (Thursday, May 19). Li is in Eldon Geisert’s lab, and provided Lab Land this description:

“Like a benevolent overseer of the cosmos, the epicenter of the optic nerve appears to extend a axon reassuringly to the small, seemingly lowly single ganglion cell, reminding us that every cell matters.”i-6FBNVsV-X3

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Manipulating motivation in mice

Emory researchers have identified molecular mechanisms that regulate motivation and persistence in mice. Their findings could have implications for intervention in conditions characterized by behavioral inflexibility, such as drug abuse and depression.

Scientists showed that by manipulating a particular growth factor in one region of the brain, they could tune up or down a mouse’s tendency to persist in seeking a reward. In humans, this region of the brain is located just behind the eyes and is called the medial orbitofrontal cortex or mOFC.

“When we make decisions, we often need to gauge the value of a reward before we can see it — for example, will lunch at a certain restaurant be better than lunch at another, or worth the cost,” says Shannon Gourley, PhD, assistant professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at Emory University School of Medicine. “We think the mOFC is important for calculating value, particularly when we have to imagine the reward, as opposed to having it right in front of us.”

The results were published Wednesday in Journal of Neuroscience.

Shannon Gourley, PhD

Being able to appropriately determine the value of a perceived reward is critical in goal-directed decision making, a component of drug-seeking and addiction-related behaviors. While scientists already suspected that the medial orbitofrontal cortex was important for this type of learning and decision-making, the specific genes and growth factors were not as well-understood.

The researchers focused on brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that supports the survival and growth of neurons in the brain. BDNF is known to play key roles in long-term potentiation and neuronal remodeling, both important in learning and memory tasks. Variations in the human gene that encodes BDNF have been linked with several psychiatric disorders.

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More on Alzheimer’s-blood pressure link

Emory’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center recently announced a grant that will support studies on the connections between blood pressure regulation and Alzheimer’s disease. It focuses on the roles of the renin-angiotensin system, the targets of common blood pressure medications, and endothelial cells, which line blood vessels.

Research on that theme is already underway at Emory. Malu Tansey is leading a large project funded by the National Institute on Aging ($3.4 million) with a similar title: “Inflammation and Renin-Angiotensin System Dysfunction as Risk Factors for Alzheimer’s Disease.” Co-investigators are Felicia Goldstein and Lary Walker at Emory and Christopher Norris at the University of Kentucky.

Both studies build on evidence that molecules that control blood pressure and inflammation also drive progression of Alzheimer’s disease, including work by Emory’s Whitney Wharton and Ihab Hajjar. They had found in an observational study that people who take medications targeting the renin-angiotensin system have a lower risk of progressing from mild cognitive impairment to Alzheimer’s.

Wharton is gearing up to test that idea more directly in an interventional study with the generic angiotensin receptor blocker telmisartan. This study is part of a Part the Cloud initiative supported by the Alzheimer’s Association.

Tansey’s project has started bearing fruit in an animal model of Alzheimer’s, according to this Keystone meeting report from Alzforum. Last summer, her graduate student Kathryn Macpherson described initial findings on the effects of an anti-inflammatory (anti-TNF) agent, which also has positive effects in a Parkinson’s model, and her plans to investigate the effects of high-sugar, high-fat diet.

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Two Emory connections for Zika brain research

Emory researchers were part of a recent advance in understanding how the Zika virus harms the developing brain. The research was published March 4 in Cell Stem Cell. 

Emory geneticist Peng Jin and his colleagues were part of a rapidly assembled research team, including scientists from Johns Hopkins and Florida State University, that showed the Zika virus can infect neural progenitor cells critical for brain development.

The research suggests a potential explanation for the cases of microcephaly seen in Latin America during the Zika outbreak. While it does not prove the direct link between Zika and microcephaly, it is a first step that shows where the virus may be doing the most damage.

The team showed that the Zika virus infects a type of neural stem cell that gives rise to the brain’s cerebral cortex. The researchers used neural progenitor cells, formed from induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). The scientists showed that the virus infects neural progenitor cells more readily than iPSCs or immature neurons.

Zhexing Wen, PhD

The role of Jin’s lab was to analyze how the patterns of gene activity in neuronal cells were altered by Zika infection. Jin reports the team is continuing to examine the differences between the effects of Zika and other related viruses such as dengue and West Nile.

In addition, Lab Land recently learned that one of the scientists from Johns Hopkins, Zhexing Wen, was recruited to Emory as faculty and will start in June. His research won’t be all about Zika — in Guo-li Ming’s lab, Wen gained experience using iPSCs to model complex brain disorders such as schizophrenia. Read more

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