Researchers interested in Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases are focusing their attention on microglia, cells that are part of the immune system in the brain.
Author Donna Jackson Nakazawa titled her recent book on microglia “The Angel and the Assassin,” based on the cells’ dual nature; they can be benign or malevolent, either supporting neuronal health or driving harmful inflammation. Microglia resemble macrophages in their dual nature, but microglia are renewed within the brain, unlike macrophages, which are white blood cells that infiltrate into the brain from outside.
At Emory, neurologist Srikant Rangaraju’s lab recently published a paper in PNAS on a promising drug target on microglia: Kv1.3 potassium channels. Overall, the results strengthen the case for targeting Kv1.3 potassium channels as a therapeutic approach for Alzheimer’s.
Kv1.3 potassium channels have also been investigated as potential therapeutic targets in autoimmune disorders, since they are expressed on T cells as well as microglia. The peptide dalazatide, based on a toxin from the venom of the Caribbean sea anemone Stichodactyla helianthus, is being developed by the Ohio-based startup TEKv Therapeutics. The original venom peptide needed to be modified to make it more selective toward the right potassium channels – more about that here.
It appears that Kv1.3 levels on microglia increase in response to exposure to amyloid-beta, the toxic protein fragment that accumulates in the brain in Alzheimer’s, and Kv1.3 may be an indicator that microglia are turning to the malevolent side.
In the Emory paper, researchers showed that Kv1.3 potassium channels are present on a subset of microglia isolated from Alzheimer’s patients’ brains. They also used bone marrow transplant experiments to show that the immune cells in mouse brain that express Kv1.3 channels are microglia (internal brain origin), not macrophages (transplantable w/ bone marrow).
Diving deep into Alzheimer’s data sets, a recent Emory Brain Health Center paper in Nature Genetics spots several new potential therapeutic targets, only one of which had been previous linked to Alzheimer’s. The Emory analysis was highlighted by the Alzheimer’s site Alzforum, gathering several positive comments from other researchers.
Lead author Thomas Wingo and his team — wife Aliza Wingo is first author – identified the targets by taking a new approach: tracing connections between proteins that are altered in abundance in patients’ brains and risk genes identified through genome-wide association studies.
The list of 11 genes/proteins named as “consistent with being causal” may be contributing to AD pathogenesis through various mechanisms: vesicular trafficking, inflammation, lipid metabolism and hypertension. We asked Wingo which ones he wanted to highlight, and he provided this comment:
“The most interesting genes, to me, are the ones involved in the SNARE complex (in the paper, STX4 and STX6) and the others involved in vesicular trafficking. There is already a deep body of literature that describe a role for some of these components in AD, and I’m hopeful providing specific targets might be useful to those studies.”
A simplistic way to look at the mechanism of Alzheimer’s disease is: proteins build up in the brain, in the form of amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. The functions of neurons and other brain cells are thought to be impaired by bits of beta-amyloid floating around.
Inside neurons, the SNARE complex is the core of the machinery that pushes vesicles to fuse with the cell membrane. Neurons communicate with each other by having vesicles inside the cell – bags full of neurotransmitters – release their contents. They’re like tiny packets of pepper or other spices that make the neuron next door sneeze. In Alzheimer’s, amyloid oligomers have been reported to block SNARE complex assembly, which may explain aspects of impaired cognition.
Investigators at Emory Brain Health Center have developed a platform for evaluating visual memory, while someone views photos for a few minutes on an iPad.
Emory researchers, led by Goizuieta Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center director Allan Levey and biomedical informatics chair Gari Clifford, are working with the company Linus Health to develop the VisMET (Visuospatial Memory Eye-Tracking Test) technology further. Results from the most recent version were published in the journal IEEE Transaction on Biomedical Engineering, and the Emory/Linus team continues to refine the technology.
The goal is to screen people for memory issues, identifying those with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or Alzheimer’s disease. The task — difficult to call it a test — was designed to be more efficient, easier to administer, and more enjoyable than tests currently used.
“We think this could be a sensitive and specific method for detecting visual memory impairment, and it’s convenient enough for use on a wider scale,” Levey says.
The VisMET technology is based on this observation. When someone with MCI or Alzheimer’s views a photo twice, and the photo has been changed the second time (example: an object in the scene has been removed), their eyes spend less time checking the new or missing element in the photo, compared with healthy people. This is because the regions of the brain that drive visual memory formation, such as the entorhinal cortex and hippocampus, are some of the earliest to deteriorate in MCI or Alzheimer’s.
“The current way memory tests are implemented can be stressful,” says software engineer Alvince Pongos, who is co-first author of the IEEE TBME paper, now at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research. “The difficulty of standard memory tests can lead to test-givers repeating task instructions many times, and to test-takers being confused and frustrated. If we design simpler tasks and make our tools available in the comfort of one’s home, then we remove barriers allowing more people to engage with their health information.”
Emory Brain Health researchers have developed a computer program that passively assesses visual memory. An infrared eye tracker monitors eye movements, while the person being tested views a series of photos.
This approach, relatively unstrenuous for those whose memory is being assessed, is an alternative for the diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s disease. It detects degeneration of the regions of the brain that govern visual memory (entorhinal cortex/hippocampus), which are some of the earliest to deteriorate.
The approach was published in Learning and Memory last year, but bioinformatics chair Gari Clifford discussed the project at a recent talk, and we felt it deserved more attention. First author Rafi Haque is a MD/PhD student in the Neuroscience program, with neurology chair/Goizueta ADRC director Allan Levey as senior author.
Eye tracking of people with MCI and Alzheimer’s shows they spend less time checking the new or missing element in the critical region of the photo, compared with healthy controls. Adapted from Haque et al 2019.
The entire test takes around 4 minutes on a standard 24 inch monitor (a follow-up publication on an iPad version is in the pipeline). Photos are presented twice a few minutes apart, and the second time, part of the photo is missing or new – see diagram above. Read more
Just a shoutout regarding Emory folks in Alzforum, the research news site focusing on Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative disorders.
Alzforum recently highlighted proteomics wizard Nick Seyfried’s presentation at a June meeting in Germany (Alzheimer’s Proteomics Treasure Trove). This includes work from the Emory ADRC and Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging that was published in Cell Systems in December: the first large-scale systems biology analysis of post-mortem brain proteins in Alzheimer’s. The idea is to have a fresh “unbiased” look at proteins involved in Alzheimer’s.
An experimental anti-inflammatory drug has positive effects on neuron function and amyloid plaques in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease, Emory neuroscientists report. The findings are published in the journal Neurobiology of Disease.
Inflammation’s presence in Alzheimer’s is well established, but it is usually thought of as an accelerator, rather than an initiating cause. While everybody argues about the amyloid hypothesis, there’s a case to be made for intervening against the inflammation. Exactly how is an open question.
The drug tested, called XPro1595, targets the inflammatory signaling molecule tumor necrosis factor (TNF). Commercialized drugs such as etanercept and infliximab, used to treat autoimmune diseases, also block TNF. However, XPro1595 only interferes with the soluble form of TNF and is supposed to have less of an effect on overall immune function.
Senior author Malu Tansey (pictured) and her colleagues say that interfering with TNF could have direct effects on neurons, as well as indirect effects on the immune cells infiltrating the brain. They write that “the most promising finding in our study” is the ability of XPro1595 to restore long-term potentiation or LTP, which is impaired in the Alzheimer’s model mice. Read more
It’s sweet, it’s safe, and it looks like it could save neurons. What is it? Trehalose.
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.
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.
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