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

amygdala

How estrogen modulates fear learning — molecular insight into PTSD in women

Low estrogen levels may make women more susceptible to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at some points in their menstrual cycles or lifetimes, while high estrogen levels may be protective.

New research from Emory University School of Medicine and Harvard Medical School provides insight into how estrogen changes gene activity in the brain to achieve its protective effects.

The findings, published in Molecular Psychiatry, could inform the design of preventive treatments aimed at reducing the risk of PTSD after someone is traumatized.

The scientists examined blood samples from 278 women from the Grady Trauma Project, a study of low-income Atlanta residents with high levels of exposure to violence and abuse. They analyzed maps of DNA methylation, a modification to the shape of DNA that is usually a sign of genes that are turned off.

The group included adult women of child-bearing age, in which estrogen rises and falls with the menstrual cycle, and women that had gone through menopause and had much lower estrogen levels.

“We knew that estrogen affects the activity of many genes throughout the genome,” says Alicia Smith, PhD, associate professor and vice chair of research in the Department of Gynecology and Obstetrics at Emory University School of Medicine. “But if you look at the estrogen-modulated sites that are also associated with PTSD, just one pops out.”

That site is located in a gene called HDAC4, known to be critical for learning and memory in mice. Genetic variation in HDAC4 among the women was linked to a lower level of HDAC4 gene activity and differences in their ability to respond to and recover from fear, and also differences in “resting state” brain imaging. Women with the same variation also showed stronger connections in activation between the amygdala and the cingulate cortex, two regions of the brain involved in fear learning. Read more

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Neuroscientists show hippocampus also has important role in emotional regulation

A region of the brain called the hippocampus is known for its role in memory formation. Scientists at Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University are learning more about another facet of hippocampal function: its importance in the regulation and expression of emotions, particularly during early development.

Using a nonhuman primate model, their findings provide insight into the mechanisms of human psychiatric disorders associated with emotion dysregulation, such as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and schizophrenia. The results were published online recently by the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.

“Our findings demonstrate that damage to the hippocampus early in life leads to increased anxiety-like behaviors in response to an unfamiliar human,” says research associate Jessica Raper, PhD, first author of the paper. “However, despite heightened anxious behavior, cortisol responses to the social stress were dampened in adulthood.”

The hormone cortisol modulates metabolism, the immune system and brain function in response to stress. Reduced hippocampal volume and lower cortisol response to stressors have been demonstrated as features of and risk factors for PTSD, Raper says. Also, the dampened daily rhythms of cortisol seen in the nonhuman primates with hippocampal damage resemble those reported in first-episode schizophrenia patients.

Follow-up studies could involve temporary interference with hippocampus function using targeted genetic techniques, she says. Read more

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Grady Trauma Project — DICER link to PTSD plus depression

Violence and trauma are certainly not gifts, but scientifically, the Grady Trauma Project keeps on giving, even after co-director Kerry Ressler’s 2015 move to Massachusetts. Research at Emory on the neurobiology of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) continues. This Nature Communications paper, published in December with VA-based psychiatrist Aliza Wingo as lead author, is an example.

Three interesting things about this paper:

  1. The focus on PTSD co-occurring with depression. As the authors note, several studies looking at traumatized individuals found PTSD and depression together more often than they were present separately. This was true of Atlanta inner city residents in the Grady Trauma Project, veterans and survivors of the 2001 World Trade Center attack.
  2. DICER: the gene whose activity is turned down in blood samples from people with PTSD plus depression. Its name evokes one of the three Fates in Greek mythology, Atropos, who cuts the thread of life. DICER is at the center of a cellular network of regulation, because it is part of the machinery that generates regulatory micro-RNAs.
  3. The findings recapitulate work in mouse models of stress and its effects on the brain, with a connection to the many-tentacled Wnt signaling/adhesion protein beta-catenin.

Some past posts on the Grady Trauma Project’s scientific fruits follow. Read more

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Brain surgery with a light touch

As part of reporting on neurosurgeon Robert Gross’s work with patients who have drug-resistant epilepsy, I interviewed a remarkable woman, Barbara Olds. She had laser ablation surgery for temporal lobe epilepsy in 2012, which drastically reduced her seizures and relieved her epilepsy-associated depression.

Emory Medicine’s editor decided to focus on deep brain stimulation, rather than ablative surgery, so Ms. Olds’ experiences were not part of the magazine feature. Still, talking with her highlighted some interesting questions for me.

Emory neuropsychologist Dan Drane, who probes the effects of epilepsy surgery on memory and language abilities, had identified Olds as a good example of how the more precise stereotactic laser ablation procedure pioneered by Gross can preserve those cognitive functions, in contrast to an open resection. Read more

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Maturing brain flips function of amygdala in regulating stress hormones

In contrast to evidence that the amygdala stimulates stress responses in adults, researchers at Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University have found that the amygdala has an inhibitory effect on stress hormones during the early development of nonhuman primates.

The results are published this week in Journal of Neuroscience.

The amygdala is a region of the brain known to be important for responses to threatening situations and learning about threats. Alterations in the amygdala have been reported in psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety disorders like PTSD, schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorder. However, much of what is known about the amygdala comes from research on adults.

“Our findings fit into an emerging theme in neuroscience research: that during childhood, there is a switch in amygdala function and connectivity with other brain regions, particularly the prefrontal cortex,” says Mar Sanchez, PhD, neuroscience researcher at Yerkes and associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University School of Medicine. The first author of the paper is postdoctoral fellow Jessica Raper, PhD.

Some notable links on the amygdala:

*An effort to correct simplistic views of amygdala as the “fear center” of the brain

*Collection of papers mentioning patient SM, an adult human with an amygdala lesion

*Recent Nature Neuroscience paper on amygdala’s role in appetite control

*Evidence for changing amygdala-prefrontal connectivity in humans during development Read more

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The classic epilepsy surgery case

The epilepsy patient Henry Molaison, known for most of the 20th century as H.M., is one of the most famous in neuroscience. His case played an important role in telling scientists about structures of the brain that are important for forming short-term and long-term memories.

To control H.M.’s epilepsy, neurosurgeon William Scoville http://www.raybandasoleit.com/ removed much of the hippocampi, amygdalae and nearby regions on both sides of his brain. After the surgery, H.M. suffered from severe anterograde amnesia, meaning that he could not commit new events to explicit memory. However, other forms of his memory were intact, such as short-term working memory and motor skills.Henry_Gustav_1

This classic case helps us understand the advances that neurosurgeons at Emory are achieving today. The surgeries now used to treat some medication-resistant forms of epilepsy are similar to what was performed on H.M., although they are considerably less drastic. Usually tissue on only one side of the brain is removed. Still, there can be cognitive side effects: loss of visual or verbal memory abilities, and deficiencies in the ability to name or recognize objects, places or people.

Neurosurgeon Robert Gross has been a pioneer in testing a more precise procedure, selective laser amygdalohippocampotomy (SLAH), which appears to control seizures while having less severe side effects. Neuropsychologist Daniel Drane reported at the recent American Epilepsy Society meeting on outcomes from a series of SLAH surgeries performed at Emory.

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Manipulating neurons with light

Welcome to a feature of Lab Land we hope to have on a regular basis! It’s where we explain a word or phrase that is a hot topic of discussion in the science online world and particularly relevant to research going on at Emory.

Optogenetics allows researchers to stimulate specific brain cells with light. It involves introducing light-sensitive proteins from algae into the brain cells of mice, and then using a fiber optic cable to apply a laser signal to the relevant region of the brain.

Optogenetics is a leap beyond previous genetic engineering techniques that made it possible to turn on (or delete) a gene by feeding a mouse some extraneous chemical, such as the antibiotic tetracycline or the anti-hormone tamoxifen. Instead of wondering how long it takes that chemical to make its way into the brain, scientists can literally flick a switch and see near-instantaneous and localized effects. Read more

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Neurosurgery via genetics to modulate anxiety

If you hear someone talking about a stress hormone, they’re probably talking about cortisol. It’s released by the adrenal glands in stressful situations, whether you have to escape a bear or just give a speech. Cortisol is supposed to prepare the body for “fight or flight.”

Kerry Ressler, MD, PhD

Let’s step back a bit, and look at how the brain triggers cortisol production: through a peptide produced in the brain called CRF (corticotropin-releasing factor). CRF is elevated in several disorders such as depression and PTSD, and is also thought to be involved in drug and alcohol dependency.

Neurons that make CRF are found in locations all over the brain, so studying them can be tricky. Kerry Ressler and his colleagues have developed an intriguing tool for studying CRF. In the places where CRF is produced in a mouse’s brain, they can take out the gene of their choice.

Green spots (above) and blue staining (below) indicate where CRF is produced in the mouse brain.
PVN = hypothalamus, paraventricular nucleus
CeA = central amygdala

In a new paper in PNAS, postdoc Georgette Gafford and Ressler use this tool in a subtle way. They have mice where a gene for a GABA receptor, one of the main inhibitory receptors (brakes) in the nervous system, is deleted, but only in the CRF neurons. This basically has the effect of turning up the volume on CRF production in several parts of the brain. It appears that modulating GABA receptors is something that normally happens to regulate CRF production, but in this case, a restraint on these stress-sensitive cells has been taken off.

“These mice are normal in many ways – normal locomotor and pain responses and no difference in depressive-like behavior or Pavlovian fear conditioning. However, these mutants have increased anxiety-like behavior,” Gafford and Ressler write.

They also have “impaired extinction of conditioned fear,” meaning that they have trouble becoming NOT afraid of something, like a buzzing sound, to which they have been sensitized by shocks. This is analogous to PTSD in which patients remain afraid and aren’t able to successfully inhibit their prior fear learning, even after the context is now safe.  [A 2011 paper goes into more detail on this biological aspect of PTSD in a civilian population.]

“These data indicate that disturbance of this specific population of neurons causes increased anxiety and impaired fear extinction, and helps us to further understand mechanisms of fear- and anxiety-related disorders such as PTSD,” Ressler and Gafford write.

In the mutant mice, a drug that blocks CRF rescued their behavioral impairments. Some other recent investigations of mice with CRF overproduction in the brain revealed “surprising paradoxical effects.”

Drugs that block CRF have been in clinical trials, some with mixed results.  A trial now proceeding at Emory is evaluating a CRF antagonist in women with PTSD.

Ressler, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, is a Howard Hughes Medical Investigator, with a laboratory at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. He is also co-director of the Grady Trauma Project.

 

 

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Blue pill or red pill? Brains need both for memory consolidation

In the 1999 film The Matrix, the character Neo is offered a choice between a blue pill (to forget) and a red pill (to remember). If only neuroscience was that simple! It may be that neurons need both red and blue, possibly an elaborate dance of molecules, for a fragile memory to lodge itself in the brain.

Neuroscientists Kimberly Maguschak and Kerry Ressler provide a glimpse into this process with their recent paper in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Ressler is both a psychiatrist and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute-supported researcher with a laboratory at Yerkes National Primate Research Center. Maguschak completed her doctorate at Emory and is now a postdoc with Guoping Feng at MIT.

The research is a follow-up on their work probing the role of beta-catenin in fear memory formation. We previously described this protein as acting “like a Velcro strap”, attaching cells’ internal skeletons to proteins on their external membranes that help them adhere to other cells. If brain cells need to change shape and form new connections for memories to be consolidated, we can see how this kind of molecule would be important.

Beta-catenin is also central to a signaling circuit that maintains stem cells and prods an embryo to separate into front and back or top and bottom. This circuit is called “Wnt” (the name is a fusion of the fruit fly gene wingless and a cancer-promoting gene discovered in mice, originally called Int-1).

Maguschak and Ressler wanted to assess the role Wnt signals play in learning and memory. The model system was the same as in their previous work: if mice are electrically shocked just after they hear a certain tone, they gradually learn to fear that tone, and they show that fear by freezing.

Kerry Ressler, MD, PhD

Maguschak saw that in the amygdala, a part of the brain important for fear responses, Wnt genes are turned down during the learning process temporarily but then come back on. If the mice only hear the tone or only get the shock, the genes’ activities don’t change significantly.

She then introduced proteins that perturb Wnt signaling directly into the amygdala. Extra Wnt injected before training, while it didn’t stop the mice from learning to fear the tone, made that training less likely to “stick.” Two days later, the mice that received Wnt didn’t seem to fear the tone as much.

Here’s the possibly confusing part: a Wnt inhibitor also impaired fear memory consolidation. In effect, both blue and red pills actually interfered with how well memories endured. The authors suggest this is because Wnt signals have to be turned down during fear memory formation but then turned back up so those memories can solidify. The Wnt signals seem to go along with the adhesive interactions of beta-catenin. It looks like beta-catenin’s stickiness also needs to be tuned down and then back up.

The off-then-on-again requirement Maguschak and Ressler observe is reminiscent of results from cell biologist James Zheng’s lab. He and his colleagues saw that the actin cytoskeleton needed to be weakened and then stabilized during long-term potentiation, an enhancement of connections between neurons thought to lie behind learning and memory.

Several laboratories have identified potential drugs that modify beta-catenin/Wnt. These new results suggest that the timing of when and how to use such drugs to enhance memory may critically important to consider, Ressler says.

“To interfere with memory formation after trauma or enhance memory formation in people with dementia, researchers will clearly need to attend to the full complexity of the dynamics of synaptic plasticity and memory,” he says.

A nifty link to an animation of Wnt signaling

 

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