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

The secrets of a new Alzheimer’s secretase

The title of Keqiang Ye’s recent Nature Communications paper contains a provocative name for an enzyme: delta-secretase.

Just from its name, one can tell that a secretase is involved in secreting something. In this case, that something is beta-amyloid, the toxic protein fragment that tends to accumulate in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease.

Aficionados of Alzheimer’s research may be familiar with other secretases. Gamma-secretase was the target of some once-promising drugs that failed in clinical trials, partly because they also inhibit Notch signaling, important for development and differentiation in several tissues. Now beta-secretase inhibitors are entering Alzheimer’s clinical trials, with similar concerns about side effects.

Many Alzheimer’s researchers have studied gamma- and beta-secretases, but a review of the literature reveals that so far, only Ye and his colleagues have used the term delta-secretase.

This enzyme previously was called AEP, for asparagine endopeptidase. AEP appears to increase activity in the brain with aging and cleaves APP (amyloid precursor protein) in a way that makes it easier for the real bad guy, beta-secretase, to produce bad beta-amyloid.*At Alzforum, Jessica Shugart describes the enzyme this way:

Like a doting mother, AEP cuts APP into bite-sized portions for toddler BACE1 [beta-secretase] to chew on, facilitating an increase in beta-amyloid production. Read more

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Inflammation linked to weakened reward circuits in depression

About one third of people with depression have high levels of inflammation markers in their blood. New research indicates that persistent inflammation affects the brain in ways that are connected with stubborn symptoms of depression, such as anhedonia, the inability to experience pleasure.

The results were published online on Nov. 10 in Molecular Psychiatry.

The findings bolster the case that the high-inflammation form of depression is distinct, and are guiding researchers’ plans to test treatments tailored for it.

Anhedonia is a core symptom of depression that is particularly difficult to treat, says lead author Jennifer Felger, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University School of Medicine and Winship Cancer Institute.

“Some patients taking antidepressants continue to suffer from anhedonia,” Felger says. “Our data suggest that by blocking inflammation or its effects on the brain, we may be able to reverse anhedonia and help depressed individuals who fail to respond to antidepressants.”

In a study of 48 patients with depression, high levels of the inflammatory marker CRP (C-reactive protein) were linked with a “failure to communicate”, seen through brain imaging, between regions of the brain important for motivation and reward.

Emory researchers have found that high inflammation in depression is linked to a "failure to communicate" between two parts of the brain: the ventral striatum (VS, vertical cross section) and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC, horizontal).

Emory researchers have found that high inflammation in depression is linked to a “failure to communicate” between two parts of the brain: the ventral striatum (VS, vertical cross section) and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC, horizontal). Images from Felger et al, Molecular Psychiatry (2015).

Neuroscientists can infer that two regions of the brain talk to each other by watching whether they light up in magnetic resonance imaging at the same times or in the same patterns, even when someone is not doing anything in particular. They describe this as “functional connectivity.”

More here.

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Fragile X regulation is a finely tuned machine

A PNAS paper published Monday demonstrates the kinds of insights that can be gleaned from a large scale sequencing project examining the fragile X gene.

Most children (boys, usually) who have fragile X syndrome have a particular mutation. An expanded “triplet repeat” stretch of DNA, which is outside the protein-coding region of the gene, puts the entire gene to sleep.

At Emory, geneticist Steve Warren, cell biologist Gary Bassell and colleagues have been identifying less common changes in the fragile X gene by looking in boys who are developmentally delayed, but don’t have the triplet repeat expansion. The first author of the paper is former postdoc Joshua Suhl, now at Booz Allen Hamilton in Massachusetts.

The authors describe two half-brothers who have the same genetic variant, which changes how production of the FMRP protein is regulated. These examples show that the fragile X gene is so central to how neurons function that several kinds of genetic glitches in it can make this finely tuned machine break down.

“This is a hot area and not much is known about it,” Warren says. Read more

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Gabbing about GABA — implications for hypersomnia treatments

Anesthesiologist Paul Garcia and his colleagues are presenting two posters at the Society of Neuroscience meeting this week, whose findings may raise concerns about two non-stimulant drugs Emory sleep specialists have studied for the treatment of hypersomnia: flumazenil and clarithromycin.

For both, the data is in vitro only, so caution is in order and more investigation may be needed.

With flumazenil, Garcia and colleagues found that when neurons are exposed to a low dose for 24 hours, the cells increase expression of some GABA receptor forms.

This could be part of a mechanism for tolerance. I heard some anecdotes describing how flumazenil’s wake-promoting effects wear off over time at the Hypersomnia Foundation conference in July, but it’s not clear how common the phenomenon is.

Flumazenil’s utility in hypersomnia became known after the pioneering experience of Anna Sumner, who has reported being able to use the medicine for years. See this 2013 story in Emory Medicine. Read more

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Epigenetic inheritance via sperm RNA

In 2013, Brian Dias (at Yerkes) and Kerry Ressler (now at Harvard) described a surprising example of epigenetic inheritance.

They found that a mouse, exposed to a smell in combination with stress, could transmit the resulting sensitivity to that smell to its offspring. At the time, there wasn’t a lot of information about mechanism.

Now other scientists have substantiated a proposal that micro RNA in playing a role in sperm. See this story (“Sperm RNAs transmit stress”) from Kate Yandell in The Scientist or this one from Rachel Zamzow at Spectrum, the Simons Foundation’s autism news site, for more. An added wrinkle is that this research shows that descendants of stress-exposed mice show a muted response to stress.

Note for Emory readers: Dias is scheduled to give a Frontiers in Neuroscience talk on Friday.

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Tools for illuminating brain function make their own light

Optogenetics has taken neuroscience by storm in recent years because the technique allows scientists to study the brain conveniently in animals, activating or inhibiting selected groups of neurons at the flip of a switch.  Most often, scientists use a fiber optic cable to deliver light into the brain.

Researchers at Emory and Georgia Tech have developed tools that could allow neuroscientists to put aside the fiber optic cable, and use a glowing protein from coral as the light source instead.

Biomedical engineering student Jack Tung and neurosurgeon/neuroscientist Robert Gross, MD, PhD have dubbed these tools “inhibitory luminopsins” because they inhibit neuronal activity both in response to light and to a chemical supplied from outside.

A demonstration of the luminopsins’ capabilities was published September 24 in the journal Scientific Reports.  The authors show that these tools enabled them to modulate neuronal firing, both in culture and in vivo, and modify the behavior of live animals.

Tung and Gross are now using inhibitory luminopsins to study ways to halt or prevent seizure activity in animals.

“We think that this approach may be particularly useful for modeling treatments for generalized seizures and seizures that involve multiple areas of the brain,” Tung says. “We’re also working on making luminopsins responsive to seizure activity: turning on the light only when it is needed, in a closed-loop feedback controlled fashion.” More here. Read more

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Trio with Emory roots probing PTSD-hypertension links

This grant announcement from the American Heart Association caught Lab Land’s eye. All three of the scientists involved in this project, examining the connections between hypertension, inflammation and the sympathetic nervous system in PTSD, have Emory connections:

*Kerry Ressler, previously Emory Psychiatry/HHMI-supported/Yerkes-based lab/Grady Trauma Project, who moved this summer to Harvard’s McLean Hospital

Related finding that emerged from the Grady Trauma Project: Blood pressure drugs linked with lower PTSD symptoms

*Paul Marvar, who worked with both David Harrison and Kerry Ressler at Emory, and is now at George Washington University

Related item on Marvar’s work: Immune cells required for stress-induced rise in blood pressure in animals

*Jeanie Park, kidney specialist who is here now! The grant is exploring the relationship between the sympathetic nervous system, regulation of blood pressure and PTSD.

2015 TV interview with Park on her chronic kidney disease research

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Insight into broken record genetic diseases

Those of us who are old enough to remember vinyl records will recall how a scratch can cause the same sounds to repeat many times. A similar type of genetic glitch causes neurodegenerative diseases such as Huntington’s and several forms of spinocerebellar ataxia.

Huntington’s and the spinocerebellar ataxias are known as “polyglutamine” diseases. In each, the affected gene has a stretch where the same three DNA letters are repeated several times — more than usual. As a result, the protein encoded by the affected gene has a patch, where only the building block glutamine can be found, disrupting that protein’s usual functions in the body.

Geneticist Xiao-Jiang Li and colleagues recently published a paper in Cell Reports that may explain why more aggressive juvenile-onset forms of polyglutamine diseases have different symptoms and pathology. Read more

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The buzz of consciousness and how seizures disrupt it

These days, it sounds a bit old-fashioned to ask the question: “Where is consciousness located in the brain?” The prevailing thinking is that consciousness lives in the network, rather than in one particular place. Still, neuroscientists sometimes get an intriguing glimpse of a critical link in the network.

A recent paper in the journal Epilepsy & Behavior describes an epilepsy patient who had electrodes implanted within her brain at Emory University Hospital, because neurologists wanted to understand where her seizures were coming from and plan possible surgery. Medication had not controlled her seizures and previous surgery elsewhere had not either.

ElectrodesSmaller

MRI showing electrode placement. Yellow outline indicates the location of the caudate and thalamus. Image from Leeman-Markowsi et al, Epilepsy & Behavior (2015).

During intracranial EEG monitoring, implanted electrodes detected a pattern of signals coming from one part of the thalamus, a central region of the brain. The pattern was present when the patient was conscious, and then stopped as soon as seizure activity made her lose awareness.

The pattern of signals had a characteristic frequency – around 35 times per second – so it helps to think of the signal as an auditory tone. Lead author Beth Leeman-Markowski, director of EUH’s Epilepsy Monitoring Unit at the time when the patient was evaluated, describes the signal as a “buzz.”

“That buzz has something to do with maintenance of consciousness,” she says. Read more

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Regenerative Engineering & Medicine highlights

Last week on Friday, Lab Land attended the annual Regenerative Engineering & Medicine center get-together to hear about progress in this exciting area.

During his talk, Tony Kim of Georgia Tech mentioned a topic that Rose Eveleth recently explored in The Atlantic: why aren’t doctors using amazing “nanorobots” yet? Or as Kim put it, citing a recent review, “So many papers and so few drugs.”

[A summary: scaling up is difficult, testing pharmacokinetics, toxicity and efficacy is difficult, and so is satisfying the FDA.]

The talks Friday emerged from REM seed grants; many paired an Emory medical researcher with a Georgia Tech biomedical engineer. All of these projects take on challenges in delivering regenerative therapies: getting cells or engineered particles to the right place in the body.

For example, cardiologist W. Robert Taylor discussed the hurdles his team had encountered in scaling up his cells-in-capsules therapies for cardiovascular diseases to pigs, in collaboration with Luke Brewster. The pre-pig phase of this research is discussed in more detail here and here. Read more

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