March for Science ATL: photos

Emory scientists and supporters of science were out in substantial numbers Saturday at the March for Science Atlanta in Candler Park. March organizers, many of whom came from the Emory research community, say they want to continue their advocacy momentum and community-building after the event’s Read more

How race + TBI experience affect views of informed consent

The upcoming HBO movie of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks reminds us that biomedical research has a complex legacy, when it comes to informed consent and people of color. A paper from Emory investigators touches on related issues important for conduct of clinical research Read more

Fecal transplant replants microbial garden

Emory physicians explain how FMT (fecal microbiota transplant) restores microbial balance when someone’s internal garden has been Read more

Neuro

Effects of cocaine exposure in adolescent rodents

Much of neuroscientist Shannon Gourley’s work focuses on the idea that adolescence is a vulnerable time for the developing brain. She and graduate student Lauren DePoy recently published a paper in Frontiers in Pharmacology showing that in adolescent rodents, cocaine exposure can cause the loss of dendritic arbors in part of the brain important for decision-making.

The researchers examined neurons in the orbitofrontal cortex, a region of the brain thought to be important for “linking reward to hedonic experience.” It was known that stimulants such as cocaine can cause the loss of dendritic spines: small protrusions that are critical for communication and interaction between neurons.

“To make an analogy, it’s like a tree losing some of its leaves,” Gourley writes. “Lauren’s work shows for the first time that if cocaine is given in adolescence, it can cause the loss of dendrite arbors – as if entire branches are being cut from the tree.”

The mice are exposed to cocaine over the course of five days in early adolescence, and then their behavior is studied in adulthood. This level of cocaine exposure leads to impairments in instrumental task reversal, a test where mice need to change their habits (which chamber they poke their noses into) to continue receiving food pellets.

The findings suggest a partial explanation for the increased risk of dependence in people who start using cocaine during adolescence.

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Going meta

Just before Thanksgiving, Slate writer Katy Waldman had a piece summarizing the growing body of evidence that linguistic metaphors reflect how we actually use our brains.

Emory neuroscientist Krish Sathian and his colleagues have been major contributors to this field (“conceptual metaphor theory”). In 2012, he and Simon Lacey published their brain imaging study, which found that when people listened to sentences involving touch metaphors (“having a rough day”), the parts of the brain involved in the sense of touch were activated. NPR’s Jon Hamilton talked about these findings with him in 2013.

At the recent Society for Neuroscience meeting, Sathian discussed his team’s ongoing work on how the brain processes metaphors that make references to body parts (head, face, arm, hand, leg, foot), as part of a nano symposium on language.

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Strategy to defend vs double hit at beginning of life

Chorioamnionitis is a complication of pregnancy: inflammation of the membranes surrounding the fetus, caused by a bacterial infection. It has the potential to inflict damage to the brain of the fetus, especially when combined with fetal hypoxia, and is a known risk factor for developing cerebral palsy.

Chia-Yi (Alex) Kuan and his team, who study fetal brain injury in the Department of Pediatrics, have a new paper in Journal of Neuroscience on a strategy for inhibiting fetal brain inflammation. Postdoctoral fellows Dianer Yang, Yu-Yo Sun and Siddhartha Kumar Bhaumik are co-first authors.

The researchers show that a type of immune cells called Th17 cells seems to be driving inflammation because the rest of the fetal immune system is still immature. A marker of Th17 cells is elevated in blood samples from human infants with chorioamnionitis, the researchers found. Th17 cells are thought to be important for both autoimmunity and anti-microbial responses.

A drug called fingolimod, which stops immune cells from circulating out of the lymph nodes, was effective in reducing inflammation-induced fetal brain injury in animal models. Fingolimod has been approved by the FDA for use with multiple sclerosis and has been studied in clinical trials of kidney transplantation. The authors write that it may be a potential add-on to hypothermia as a treatment for infants in danger of hypoxia + infection-induced brain damage.

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Acidity of aging leads to new Alzheimer’s drug target

Pathologist Keqiang Ye and his colleagues have been studying the functions of an enzyme called AEP, or asparagine endopeptidase, in the brain. AEP is activated by acidic conditions, such as those induced by stroke or seizure.

AEP is a protease. That means it acts as a pair of scissors, snipping pieces off other proteins. In 2008, his laboratory published a paper in Molecular Cell describing how AEP’s acid-activated snipping can unleash other enzymes that break down brain cells’ DNA.

Following a hunch that AEP might be involved in neurodegenerative diseases, Ye’s team has discovered that AEP also acts on tau, which forms neurofibrillary tangles in Alzheimer’s disease.

“We were looking for additional substrates for AEP,” Ye says. “We knew it was activated by acidosis. And we had read in the literature that the aging brain tends to be more acidic, especially in Alzheimer’s.”

The findings, published in Nature Medicine in October, point to AEP as a potential target for drugs that could slow the advance of Alzheimer’s, and may also lead to improved diagnostic tools. Read more

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Explainer: the locus coeruleus

The locus coeruleus is a part of the brain that has been getting a lot of attention recently from Emory neuroscience researchers.

The locus coeruleus is the biggest source of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine in the brain. Located deep in the brainstem, it has connections all over the brain, and is thought to be involved in arousal and attention, stress, memory, the sleep-wake cycle and balance.

Researchers interested in neurodegenerative disease want to look at the locus coeruleus because it may be one of the first structures to degenerate in diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. In particular, the influential studies of German neuro-anatomist Heiko Braak highlight the locus coeruleus as a key “canary in the coal mine” indicator of neurodegeneration.

That’s why neurologist Dan Huddleston, working with biomedical imaging specialists Xiangchuan Chen and Xiaoping Hu and colleagues at Emory, has been developing a method for estimating the volume of the locus coeruleus by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Their procedure uses MRI tuned in such a way to detect the pigment neuromelanin (see panel), which accumulate in both the locus coeruleus and in the substantia nigra. Read more

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Clot dissolver tPA’s tardy twin could aid in stroke recovery

Emory researchers led by neurologist Manuel Yepes, MD have identified a protein released by neurons while the brain is recovering from a stroke. The results were published online today in Journal of Neuroscience.

The protein, called urokinase-type plasminogen activator or uPA, has been approved by the FDA to dissolve blood clots in the lungs. It has been tested in clinical trials in some countries as a treatment for acute stroke.

The Emory team’s findings suggest that in stroke, uPA’s benefits may extend beyond the time when doctors’ principal goal is dissolving the blood clot that is depriving the brain of blood.
Instead, uPA appears to help brain cells recover from the injuries induced by loss of blood flow. Treating mice with uPA after an experimental stroke can improve their recovery of motor function, the researchers found.

Read more

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Revisiting landmark folate-autism study

Geneticist Joe Cubells is doing some monumental work re-examining a Chinese study of folic acid supplementation during pregnancy and its impact on autism risk. He is also the Medical Director at the Emory Autism Center. Please see SFARI to check it out.

 

 

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Many colors in the epigenetic palette

Methylation, an epigenetic modification to DNA, can be thought of as a highlighting pen applied to DNA’s text, adding information but not changing the actual letters of the text.

Are you still with me on the metaphors? If so, consider this wrinkle. (If not, more explanation here.)

Emory geneticist Peng Jin and his colleagues have been a key part of the discovery in the last few years that methylation comes in several colors. His lab has been mapping where 5-hydroxymethylcytosine or 5hmC appears in the genome and inferring how it functions. 5-hmC is particularly abundant in the brain.D5405-2

Methylation, in the form of 5-methylcytosine or 5mC, is both a control button for turning genes off and a sign of their off state. 5hmC looks like 5mC, except it has an extra oxygen. That could be a tag for a removal, or a signal that a gene is poised to be turned on.

Two recent papers on this topic:

Please recall that an enriched environment (exercise and mental stimulation) is good for learning and memory, for young and old. In the journal Genomics, Jin and his team show that exposing mice to an enriched environment  — a running wheel and a variety of toys — leads to a 60 percent reduction in 5hmC in the hippocampus, a region of the brain critical for learning and memory.  The changes in 5hmC were concentrated in genes having to do with axon guidance. Hat tip to the all-things-epigenetic site Epigenie.

In Genes and Development, structural biologist Xiaodong Cheng and colleagues demonstrate that two regulatory proteins that bind DNA (Egr1 and WT1) respond primarily to oxidation of their target sequences rather than methylation. These proteins like plain old C and 5mC equally, but they don’t like 5hmC or other oxidized forms of 5mC. “Gene activity could plausibly be controlled on a much finer scale by these modifications than simply ‘on or ‘off’,” the authors write.

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Nobel Prize for place cells + grid cells

Congratulations to John O’Keefe, May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser for receiving the 2014 Nobel Prize in Medicine. The prize is for discovering “the brain’s navigation system”: place cells, cells in the hippocampus which are active whenever a rat is in a particular place, and grid cells, cells in the entorhinal cortex which are active when the animal is at multiple locations in a grid pattern.

Former Yerkes researcher Beth Buffalo and her graduate student Nathan Killian were the first to directly detect, via electrode recordings, grid cells in the brains of non-human primates. Buffalo is now at the University of Washington and Killian is at Harvard Medical School.

A significant difference about their experiments was that they could identify grid cells when monkeys were moving their eyes, suggesting that primates don’t have to actually visit a place to construct the same kind of mental map. Another aspect of grid cells in non-human primates not previously seen with rodents is that the cells’ responses change when monkeys are seeing an image for the second time.

Following that report, grid cells were also directly detected in human epilepsy patients. The Mosers themselves noted in a 2014 review, “It will be interesting to see whether the same cells that respond to visual movement in monkeys also respond to locomotion, or whether there is a separate system of grid cells that is responsive to locomotion.”

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PTH for stroke: stem cells lite

I’d like to highlight a paper in PLOS One from anesthesiologists Shan Ping Yu and Ling Wei’s group that was published earlier this year. [Sorry for missing it then!] They are investigating potential therapies for stroke, long a frustrating area of clinical research. The “clot-busting” drug tPA remains the only FDA-approved therapy, despite decades of work on potential neuroprotective agents.

Yu’s team takes a different tactic. They seek to bolster the brain’s recovery powers after stroke by mobilizing endogenous progenitor cells. I will call this approach “stem cells lite.”

journal.pone.0087284.g006

PTH appears to encourage new neurons in recovery in a mouse model of ischemic stroke. Green = recent cell division, red = neuronal marker

It is similar to that taken by cardiologist Arshed Quyyumi and colleagues with peripheral artery disease: use a growth factor (GM-CSF), which is usually employed for another purpose, to get the body’s own regenerative agents to emerge from the bone marrow.

In this case, Yu’s team was using parathyroid hormone (PTH), which is an FDA-approved treatment for osteoporosis. They administered it, beginning one hour after loss of blood flow, in a mouse model of ischemic stroke. They found that daily treatment with PTH spurs production of endogenous regenerative factors in the stroke-affected area of the brain. They observed both increased new neuron formation and sensorimotor functional recovery. However, PTH does not pass through the blood-brain barrier and does not change the size of the stroke-affected area, the researchers found.

The conclusion of the paper hints at their next steps:

As this is the first report on this PTH therapy for ischemic stroke for the demonstration of the efficacy and feasibility, PTH treatment was initiated at 1 hr after stroke followed by repeated administrations for 6 days. We expect that even more delayed treatment of PTH, e.g. several hrs after stroke, can be beneficial in promoting chronic angiogenesis and other tissue repair processes. This possibility, however, remains to be further evaluated in a more translational investigation.

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