Simpler, more portable ECGs: Emory experts hosting computing challenge

Emory biomedical informatics specialists are hosting an international computing contest to support simpler, more potable electrocardiogram Read more

First (and massive) whole-genome study of IBD in African Americans

In African Americans, the genetic risk landscape for inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is very different from that of people with European ancestry, according to results of the first whole-genome study of IBD in African Americans. The authors say that future clinical research on IBD needs to take ancestry into account. Findings of the multi-center study, which analyzed the whole genomes of more than 1,700 affected individuals with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis and more than Read more

Emory researchers SNARE new Alzheimer’s targets

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. Thomas Wingo, MD Lead author Thomas Wingo and his team -- wife Aliza Wingo is first author – identified the targets by taking a new approach: tracing Read more

Alzheimer’s Disease

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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Beyond the usual suspects among Alzheimer’s proteins

If you’ve been paying attention to Alzheimer’s disease research, you’ve probably read a lot about beta-amyloid. It’s a toxic protein fragment that dominates the plaques that appear in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s. Many experimental therapies for Alzheimer’s target beta-amyloid, but so far, they’ve not proven effective.

That could be for several reasons. Maybe those treatments started too late to make a difference. But an increasing number of Alzheimer’s researchers are starting to reconsider the field’s emphasis on amyloid. Nature News has a feature this week explaining how the spotlight is shifting to the protein ApoE, encoded by the gene whose variation is responsible for the top genetic risk factor for Alzheimer’s.

In line with this trend, Emory’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center recently received a five-year, $7.2 million grant to go beyond the usual suspects like beta-amyloid. Emory will lead several universities in a project to comprehensively examine proteins altered in Alzheimer’s. You’ve heard of the Cancer Genome Atlas? Think of this as the Alzheimer’s Proteome Atlas, potentially addressing the same kind of questions about which changes are the drivers and which are the passengers.

Emory’s back-to-basics proteomics approach has already yielded some scientific fruit, uncovering changes in proteins involved in RNA splicing and processing. Also, the Nature feature also has some background on a clinical trial called TOMMORROW, which Emory’s ADRC is participating in.

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Seeing in triangles with grid cells

When processing what the eyes see, the brains of primates don’t use square grids, but instead use triangles, research from Yerkes neuroscientist Beth Buffalo’s lab suggests.

Elizabeth Buffalo, PhD

She and graduate student Nathan Killian recently published (in Nature) their description of grid cells, neurons in the entorhinal cortex that fire when the eyes focus on particular locations.

Their findings broaden our understanding of how visual information makes its way into memory. It also helps us grasp why deterioration of the entorhinal cortex, a region of the brain often affected early by Alzheimer’s disease, produces disorientation.

The Web site RedOrbit has an extended interview with Buffalo. An excerpt:

The amazing thing about grid cells is that the multiple place fields are in precise geometric relation to each other and form a tessellated array of equilateral triangles, a ‘grid’ that tiles the entire environment. A spatial autocorrelation of the grid field map produces a hexagonal structure, with 60º rotational symmetry. In 2008, grid cells were identified Gafas Ray Ban outlet in mice, in bats in 2011, and now our work has shown that grid cells are also present in the primate brain.

Please read the whole thing!

Grid cells fire at different rates depending on where the eyes are focused. Mapping that activity across the visual field produces triangular patterns.

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Tangled up with tau

Pathologist Keqiang Ye and his colleagues have identified a new potential drug target in Alzheimer’s disease. It’s called SRPK2 (serine-arginine protein kinase 2).

Keqiang Ye, PhD

Depleting this enzyme from the brain using genetic engineering tools alleviates cognitive impairment in an animal model of Alzheimer’s. The result suggests that drugs Cheap Oakleys that target this enzyme could be valuable in the treatment of Alzheimer’s, although additional studies on human brain samples are necessary to fully confirm the findings, Ye says.

The results were published Tuesday in Journal of Neuroscience. The first author is postdoctoral fellow Yi Hong.

Hong and colleagues found that SRPK2 has elevated activity in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s. It acts on tau, one of the two major toxic clumpy proteins in Alzheimer’s. (beta-amyloid is outside the cell and forms plaques, tau is inside and forms tangles). Previous research on SRPK2 indicated that it had something to do with RNA splicing, so its “entanglement” with tau is a surprise.

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Redirecting beta-amyloid production in Alzheimer’s

Pharmacologist Thomas Kukar is exploring a strategy to subtly redirect the enzyme that produces beta-amyloid, which makes up the plaques appearing in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.

Thomas Kukar, PhD

Preventing beta-amyloid production could be an ideal way to head off Alzheimer’s, but the reason why a subtle approach is necessary was illustrated last year by disappointing results from a phase III clinical trial. The experimental drug semagacestat was designed to block the enzyme gamma-secretase, which “chomps” on the amyloid precursor protein (APP), usually producing an innocuous fragment but sometimes producing toxic beta-amyloid.

Gamma-secretase also is involved in processing a bunch of other vital proteins, such as Notch, central to an important developmental signaling pathway. Scientists suspect that this is one of the reasons why trial participants who received semagacestat did worse on cognitive/daily function measures than controls and saw an increase in skin cancer, leading watchdogs to halt the study.

While a postdoc at Mayo Clinic Jacksonville and working with Todd Golde and Edward Koo, Kukar identified compounds – gamma-secretase modulators or GSM’s — that may offer an alternative.

“We are looking at a strategy that’s different from global gamma-secretase inhibition,” he says. “The approach is: don’t inhibit the enzyme overall, but instead modify its activity so that it makes less toxic products.”

Gamma-secretase chomps on amyloid precursor protein, and how it does so determines whether toxic beta-amyloid is produced. It also processes several other proteins important for brain function.

This line of inquiry started when it was discovered that some anti-inflammatory drugs also could reduce beta-amyloid production. Then, the crosslinkable probes Kukar was using to identify which part of the gamma-secretase fish was doing the chomping ended up binding the bait (APP). This suggested that drugs might be able to change how the enzyme acts on one protein, APP, but not others.

Now an assistant professor at Emory, he is examining in greater detail how gamma-secretase modulators work. Two recent papers he co-authored in Journal of Biological Chemistry show 1) how the proteins that gamma-secretase chews up are “anchored” in the membrane and 2) how selective GSM’s can be on amyloid precursor protein.

Although clinical studies of a “first generation” GSM, tarenflurbil, were also stopped after negative results, Kukar says GSM’s still haven’t really been tested adequately, since researchers do not know if the drugs are really having an effect on beta-amyloid levels in the brain. Newer compounds coming through the pharmaceutical pipeline are more potent and more able to get into the brain. While looking for more potent GSM’s is critical, Kukar says it’s equally as important to understand how gamma-secretase works to understand its biology.

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Default daydreaming linked to Alzheimer’s amyloid

Cut the daydreaming, and you can lessen the neurodegenerative burden on your brain? Surprising new research suggests that how we use our brains may influence which parts of the brain are most vulnerable to amyloid-beta (Aβ), which forms plaques in the brain in Alzheimer’s disease.

Lary Walker, PhD, has been investigating why amyloid accumulation seems to lead to Alzheimer's in humans but not non-human primates

In the June issue of Nature Neuroscience, Yerkes National Primate Research Center scientist Lary Walker and Mathias Jucker from the Hertie Institute for Clinical Brain Research in Tübingen, Germany summarize intriguing recent research on regional brain activity and Aβ accumulation.

Neuroscientists have described a set of interconnected brain regions called the “default mode network,” which appear to be activated during activities such as introspection, memory retrieval, daydreaming and imagination. When a person engages in an externally directed task, such as reading, playing a musical instrument, or solving puzzles, activity in the default network decreases.

The Nature Neuroscience paper, from David Holtzman and colleagues at Washington University St. Louis, suggests prolonged metabolic activation of the default-mode network in mice can render that system vulnerable to Aβ by accelerating Aβ deposition and plaque growth.

This line of research turns the “use it or lose it” idea upside-down. Use the default network too much, and the effect may be harmful. Walker and Jucker suggest why education, for example, appears to head off Alzheimer’s in epidemiological studies: by getting the brain involved in non-default/externally directed mode activity.

This idea has additional consequences that can be tested in the clinic. For example, by increasing metabolism in default-mode regions of the brain, prolonged wakefulness caused by sleep disorders might increase Aβ burden.

Walker and Jucker conclude: “Meanwhile, perhaps the best strategy for lessening soluble Aβ in the default mode network may be simply to work diligently, play hard and sleep well.”

 

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Internationally Recognized Violinist Raises Money for Alzheimer’s Research

Virtuoso Robert McDuffie Performs at the Schwartz Center November 19

On November 19, world famous virtuoso Robert McDuffie will dedicate the Atlanta premiere performance of Philip Glass’ “The American Four Seasons” to the Emory Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (ADRC) and to his late father-in-law, Mack Taylor, who was a talented musician and business leader in the Atlanta community.

The event,  “A Family Affair” Dinner and Concert at Emory University, will honor Dr. Allan Levey, Director of the Emory ADRC and chair of the Neurology Department, and Dr. Stuart Zola, Associate Director of the ADRC and director of the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. Dinner guests will gather at the Carlos Museum and proceed to the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts for the concert featuring McDuffie.

The Taylor family, including Gretchen and Andrew Taylor, Camille and Robert McDuffie and Mary Rose Taylor, are serving as chairs of this inaugural event to acknowledge Alzheimer’s toll on the entire family.

Honorary Chairs Stuart Zola and Allan Levey, Directors of Emory ADRC

“I’m incredibly honored to dedicate my performance to Dr. Levey and his team of scientists at Emory’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center,” says McDuffie. “For 15 years, they took great care of my wonderful father-in-law Mack Taylor, who suffered from this dreadful disease.”

Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia among older adults, affects parts of the brain that control thinking, remembering and making decisions.

The incidence of Alzheimer’s is growing at an alarming rate. According to the CDC, it recently surpassed diabetes as the 6th leading cause of death among American adults. Funds raised will go toward education and collaboration so that others may learn and benefit from the work of Emory’s ADRC.

“Since millions of baby boomers are entering late adulthood, we expect the number of patients with Alzheimer’s disease to increase drastically over the next several decades,” says Levey. “We have an opportunity to build on the momentum of much exciting research progress in early identification of disease and development of many new treatment strategies that offer promise to slow its progression and lead to prevention.”

Emory’s ADRC is a National Institute on Aging funded center focused on clinical trials and research for Alzheimer’s disease. The only comprehensive program in Georgia and one of only 32 nationwide, the Emory ADRC is seeking cures through basic laboratory research, bringing new diagnostic methods and treatments into the clinic, and providing patients and their families with state-of-the-art care and access to cutting-edge advances.

The $150 tickets ($100 is tax deductible) are available at www.alumni.emory.edu/ADRC-AFamilyAffair or by calling 404-727-5713.

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Welcome to the heat: Alzheimer’s Breakthrough Ride

Thomas Kukar, a new Emory faculty member in pharmacology, is participating in a charity bicycle ride for Alzheimer’s disease research called the Alzheimer’s Breakthrough Ride. On Thursday and Friday, he will be riding from Oklahoma City, OK to Wichita, KS. Tomorrow’s ride is 100 miles, and it’s supposed to be 97°F in Wichita.

Thomas Kukar, PhD

Kukar’s willingness to take on this challenge indicates that he shouldn’t have too much trouble adjusting to Atlanta’s climate. He comes to Emory from the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville. There, he investigated potential drugs that could change how the body produces and processes beta-amyloid, a toxic protein fragment that builds up in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s.

The money raised by the bicycle ride goes to the Alzheimer’s Association.

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Alzheimer’s expert weighs in on proposed guidelines

Scans can show beta amyloid, a protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease (right)

For the first time in 25 years, medical experts are proposing new diagnostic criteria aimed at better and earlier detection of Alzheimer’s disease (AD).

The guidelines, proposed by the National Institute on Aging (NIA) and the Alzheimer’s Association, update and revise the current Alzheimer’s criteria with modern technologies and the latest research advances.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, an estimated 5.3 million Americans have AD, most of them 65 and older. The disease is thought to begin years, possibly even decades, before symptoms are noticeable. But there is no single, generally accepted way to identify the disease in its earliest stages before symptoms are evident.

The new diagnostic guidelines focus on advances in detecting biomarkers for the disease, such as substances found in spinal fluid or appearing on cutting-edge brain imaging scans conducted with PET or MRI.

Emphasis will be on diagnosing early stages of the disease as soon as possible so that patients can take measures to slow the progression or prevent further damage.

Read more

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