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

Momentum at hypersomnia conference

A visitor might not realize this was a meeting devoted to people who experience excessive daytime sleepiness. The 2015 Hypersomnia Foundation Conference on Saturday was full of energy, with:

*more than 245 attendees, about twice as many people as last year’s conference

*medical experts from France, Wisconsin and Louisiana — in addition to Emory

*data from several recent clinical trials

*some signs of industry interest in hypersomnia

Hypersomnia is a sleep disorder in which individuals feel frequent or constant sleepiness and need to sleep for long portions of the day (more than 70 hours per week). It is distinct from other sleep disorders such as narcolepsy and sleep apnea, but its prevalence is still unclear. Conventional stimulants such as amphetamine or modafinil often can be used to treat the sleepiness, but some with hypersomnia find these drugs ineffective or hard to tolerate.

Previous research at Emory has shown that many individuals with hypersomnia have a substance in their spinal fluid that acts like a sleeping pill, enhancing the action of the neurotransmitter GABA. The identity of this mysterious substance is unknown, but Emory researchers report that they are close to identifying it. That could give hypersomnia a “molecular handle” similar to what narcolepsy has, with loss of hypocretin-producing neurons.

The terminology is still up in the air — keynote speaker Isabelle Arnulf from Paris said, “The term ‘idiopathic hypersomnia’ does not mean that you are an idiot.” Rather, she said, it means that even specialists can have trouble distinguishing hypersomnia from other sleep disorders, and “idiopathic” signifies that the detailed cause is still under investigation.

Read more

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Neuro Leave a comment

Microbiome enthusiasm at Emory

At what point did the human microbiome become such a hot topic?

When it was shown that babies born by Cesarean section are colonized with different bacteria than those born vaginally? With the cardiovascular studies of microbial byproducts of meat digestion? With the advent of fecal transplant as a proposed treatment for Clostricium difficile infection?

The bacteria and other microbes that live within the human body are thought to influence not only digestive health, but metabolic and autoimmune diseases as well, possibly even psychiatric and neurodevelopmental disorders. The field is being propelled by next-generation sequencing technology, and Nature had to publish an editorial guarding against hype (a major theme: correlation is not causation).

At Emory, investigators from several departments are involved in microbiome-related work, and the number is expanding, and assembling a comprehensive list is becoming more difficult. Researchers interested in the topic are planning Emory’s first microbiome symposium in November, organized by Jennifer Mulle (read her intriguing review on autism spectrum disorders and the microbiome).

Microbial genomics expert Tim Read, infectious diseases specialist Colleen Kraft and intestinal pathologist Andrew Neish have formed an Emory microbiome interest group with a listserv and seminars.

Microbiome symposium sponsors: ACTSI, Hercules Exposome Center, Emory University School of Medicine, Omega Biotek, CFDE, Ubiome. Read more

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Immunology, Neuro Leave a comment

Hypersomnia update: clarithromycin study

Screen Shot 2015-07-01 at 4.25.58 PM

From Emory Medicine, Spring 2013

A small clinical study of clarithromycin for the sleep disorder hypersomnia shows that the antibiotic can combat patients’ subjective experience of sleepiness, but it does not seem to improve reaction time measured in a video-game-type vigilance task.

The effects of clarithromycin in hypersomnia were first observed by Emory doctors when a pioneering patient (Anna Sumner, whose story is told in this Emory Medicine article) unexpectedly experienced sleeplessness when taking it for a respiratory infection.

The results of the study were published online by Annals of Neurology on June 10.

Lynn Marie Trotti, MD, David Rye, MD, PhD and colleagues from the Department of Neurology and Emory Sleep Center conducted the study, which involved 23 patients.

Advantages of clarithromycin:

  1. It’s inexpensive and widely available.
  2. It’s an option for people dealing with hypersomnia for whom other medications, such as modafinil, are not helpful or tolerable.
  3. It represents an alternative to flumazenil, the benzodiazepine antidote that has been shown to help some hypersomnia patients. Flumazenil used to be very scarce, and shortages occur (Hypersomnia Foundation/American Society of Health System Pharmacists).

Disadvantages of clarithromycin:

  1. It’s an antibiotic, so it probably changes intestinal bacteria.
  2. Chronic use could promote the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
  3. Most patients reported an altered sense of taste or smell. Some describe this as a metallic mouth sensation.

Read more

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Neuro Leave a comment

Redrawing the brain’s motor map

Neuroscientists at Emory have refined a map showing which parts of the brain are activated during head rotation, resolving a decades-old puzzle. Their findings may help in the study of movement disorders affecting the head and neck, such as cervical dystonia and head tremor.

The results were published in Journal of Neuroscience.

In landmark experiments published in the 1940s and 50s, Canadian neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield and colleagues determined which parts of the motor cortex controlled the movements of which parts of the body.

Penfield stimulated the brain with electricity in patients undergoing epilepsy surgery, and used the results to draw a “motor homunculus”: a distorted representation of the human body within the brain. Penfield assigned control of the neck muscles to a region between those that control the fingers and face, a finding inconsistent with some studies that came later.

Using modern functional MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), researchers at Emory University School of Medicine have shown that the neck’s motor control region in the brain is actually between the shoulders and trunk, a location that more closely matches the arrangement of the body itself.

“We can’t be that hard on Penfield, because the number of cases where he was able to study head movement was quite limited, and studying head motion as he did, by applying an electrode directly to the brain, creates some challenges,” says lead author Buz Jinnah, MD, professor of neurology, human genetics and pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine. Read more

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Neuro Leave a comment

Do Alzheimer’s proteins share properties with prions?

If you’ve come anywhere near Alzheimer’s research, you’ve come across the “amyloid hypothesis” or “amyloid cascade hypothesis.”

This is the proposal that deposition of amyloid-beta, a major protein ingredient of the plaques that accumulate in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients, is a central event in the pathology of the disease. Lots of supporting evidence exists, but several therapies that target beta-amyloid, such as antibodies, have failed in large clinical trials.

Jucker_Walker_May_2014

Lary Walker and Matthias Jucker in Tübingen, 2014

In a recent Nature News article, Boer Deng highlights an emerging idea in the Alzheimer’s field that may partly explain why: not all forms of aggregated amyloid-beta are the same. Moreover, some “strains” of amyloid-beta may resemble spooky prions in their ability to spread within the brain, even if they can’t infect other people (important!).

Prions are the “infectious proteins” behind diseases such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy. They fold into a particular structure, aggregate and then propagate by attracting more proteins into that structure.

Lary Walker at Yerkes National Primate Research Center has been a key proponent of this provocative idea as it applies to Alzheimer’s. To conduct key experiments supporting the prion-like properties of amyloid-beta, Walker has been collaborating with Matthias Jucker in Tübingen, Germany and spent four months there on a sabbatical last year. Their paper, describing how aggregated amyloid-beta is “seeded” and spreads through the brain in mice, was recently published in Brain Pathology.
Read more

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Neuro Leave a comment

Happy birthday, spinal cord neurons

Congratulations to JoAnna Anderson, postdoctoral fellow in Francisco Alvarez’ lab, for winning the Best Image contest, part of the Postdoctoral Research Symposium taking place Thursday. We will have explanations of the second and third place images Thursday and Friday.

The brief description of Anderson’s image is: “EdU birthdating of V1 inhibitory interneurons in the postnatal day 5 lumbar spinal cord.” But how did all those colors get in there and what do they mean? Alvarez explains:

The work is about finding the times of neurogenesis of the many inhibitory neurons that pattern motor output in the ventral horn of the spinal cord, so that our muscles contract in a coordinated manner to achieve the desired movements.

For example, when one muscle contracts, the muscle with the opposite action on the same joint will be inhibited. Anderson and her fellow postdoc Andre Rivard have been studying the development of the V1 neurons that carry out this inhibition.

AndersonJoAnnaThe image shows a slice of a 5 day old mouse’s spinal cord, and we can see individual cells. Some of the neurons are producing fluorescent proteins: one of the proteins is red, the other is green, and where both proteins are present, a yellow or orange color can be seen. The red and the green colors are indicators for two genes, Engrailed-1 and FoxP2, respectively, both of which regulate neurons’ development.

In addition, the white spots at the top come from EdU (5-ethynyl-2’-deoxyuridine), a chemical that impersonates a building block of DNA well enough to get incorporated into cells when they are dividing. It is helpful to remember that neurons are cells that have stopped dividing. Giving embryos a pulse of EdU is a way to mark the point at which progenitor cells mature and become neurons.

By repeating the experiment at different dates, the researchers can see that FoxP2 positive green cells are generated after the FoxP2 negative red cells. Both types of cells are derived from the same progenitors, but in different cell cycles. Read more

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Neuro Leave a comment

Congratulations to AAAS Mass Media fellows

Two Emory graduate students, Anzar Abbas and Katie Strong, will be spending the summer testing their communication skills as part of the AAAS Mass Media fellowship program. The program is supposed to promote science communication by giving young scientists a taste of what life is like at media organizations around the country. Both of Emory’s fellows have already gained some experience in this realm.

Abbas, a Neuroscience student who recently joined brain imaging number cruncher Shella Keilholz‘s lab, will be at Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He is part of the group that recently revived the Science Writers at Emory publication In Scripto.

Strong, a Chemistry student working with Dennis Liotta on selective NMDA receptor drugs, will be at the Sacramento Bee. She has been quite prolific at the American Journal of Bioethics Neuroscience and its Neuroethics Blog.

(Thanks to Ian Campbell, a previous AAAS Mass Media fellow from Emory who worked at the Oregonian, for notifying me on this!)

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Neuro, Uncategorized Leave a comment

Risk triangle: immune gene, insecticide, Parkinson’s

Genetic variation and exposure to pesticides both appear to affect risk for Parkinson’s disease. A new study has found a connection between these two risk factors, in a way that highlights a role for immune responses in progression of the disease.

The results are published in the inaugural issue of NPJ Parkinson’s Disease.

The findings implicate a type of pesticide called pyrethroids, which are found in the majority of commercial household insecticides, and are being used more in agriculture as other insecticides are being phased out. Although pyrethroids are neurotoxic for insects, exposure to them is generally considered safe for humans by federal authorities.

The study is the first making the connection between pyrethroid exposure and genetic risk for Parkinson’s, and thus needs follow-up investigation, says co-senior author Malu Tansey, PhD, associate professor of physiology at Emory University School of Medicine.

The genetic variation the team probed, which has been previously tied to Parkinson’s in larger genome-wide association studies, was in a non-coding region of a MHC II (major histocompatibility complex class II) gene, part of a group of genes that regulate the immune system.

“We did not expect to find a specific association with pyrethroids,” Tansey says. “It was known that acute exposure to pyrethroids could lead to immune dysfunction, and that the molecules they act on can be found in immune cells; now we need to know more about how longer-term exposure affects the immune system in a way that increases risk for Parkinson’s.”

“There is already ample evidence that brain inflammation or an overactive immune system can drive the progression of Parkinson’s. What we think may be happening here is that environmental exposures may be altering some people’s immune responses, in a way that promotes chronic inflammation in the brain.”

For this study, Emory investigators led by Tansey and Jeremy Boss, PhD, chair of microbiology and immunology, teamed up with Stewart Factor, DO, head of Emory’s Comprehensive Parkinson’s Disease Center, and public health researchers from UCLA led by Beate Ritz, MD, PhD. The first author of the paper is MD/PhD student George T. Kannarkat.

The UCLA researchers used a California state geographical database covering 30 years of pesticide use in agriculture. They defined exposure based on proximity (someone’s work and home addresses), but did not measure levels of pesticides in the body. Pyrethroids are thought to decay relatively quickly, especially in sunlight, with half-lives in soil of days to weeks. Read more

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Immunology, Neuro Leave a comment

Fragile X syndrome: building a case for a treatment strategy

New research in mice strengthens a potential strategy for treating fragile X syndrome, the most common inherited form of intellectual disability and a major single-gene cause of autism spectrum disorder.

The results, published April 23 in Cell Reports, suggest that a drug strategy targeting a form of the enzyme PI3 (phosphoinositide-3) kinase could improve learning and behavioral flexibility in people with fragile X syndrome. The PI3 kinase strategy represents an alternative to one based on drugs targeting mGluR5 glutamate receptors, which have had difficulty showing benefits in clinical trials.

Research led by Emory scientists Gary Bassell, PhD and Christina Gross, PhD had previously found that the p110β form of PI3 kinase is overactivated in the brain in a mouse fragile X model, and in blood cells from human patients with fragile X syndrome.

Now they have shown that dialing back PI3 kinase overactivation by using genetic tools can alleviate some of the cognitive deficits and behavioral alterations observed in the mouse model. Drugs that target the p110β form of PI3 kinase are already in clinical trials for cancer.

“Further progress in this direction could lead to a clinical trial in fragile X,” says Bassell, who is chair of Cell Biology at Emory University School of Medicine. “The next step is to test whether this type of drug can be effective in the mouse model and in human patient cells.” Read more

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Neuro Leave a comment