Molecular picture of how antiviral drug molnupiravir works

A cryo-EM structure showing how the antiviral drug molnupiravir drug Read more

Straight to the heart: direct reprogramming creates cardiac “tissue” in mice

New avenues for a quest many cardiologists have pursued: repairing the damaged heart like patching a Read more

The future of your face is plastic

An industrial plastic stabilizer becomes a skin Read more

anxiety

Social isolation and the adolescent brain

We can’t read Emory neuroscientist Shannon Gourley’s papers on social isolation in adolescent mice, without thinking about how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting children and teenagers. Much of the experimental work was completed before the pandemic began. Still, in the future, researchers will be studying the effects of the pandemic on children, in terms of depression and anxiety, or effects on relationships and education. They could look to neuroscience studies such as Gourley’s for insights into brain mechanisms.

What will the social isolation of the pandemic mean for developing brains?

In the brain, social isolation interferes with the pruning of dendritic spines, the structures that underly connections between neurons. One might think that more dendritic spines are good, but the brain is like a sculpture taking shape – the spines represent processes that are refined as humans and animals mature.

Mice with a history of social isolation have higher spine densities in regions of the brain relevant to decision-making, such as the prefrontal cortex, the Emory researchers found.

In a recently published review, Gourley and her co-authors, former graduate student Elizabeth Hinton and current MD/PhD Dan Li, say that more research is needed on whether non-social enrichment, such as frequent introduction of new toys, can compensate for or attenuate the effects of social isolation.

This research is part of an effort to view adolescent mental health problems, such as depression, obesity or substance abuse, through the prism of decision-making. The experiments distinguish between goal-oriented behaviors and habits. For humans, this might suggest choices about work/school, food, or maybe personal hygiene. But in a mouse context, this consists of having them poke their noses in places that will get them tasty food pellets, while they decode the information they have been given about what to expect. 

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Stage fright: don’t get over it, get used to it

Stage fright: don’t get over it, get used to it, advises Emory neuroscientist Anwesha Banerjee in her recent talk at TEDx Decatur. Many can feel empathy with the situation Banerjee describes. It was her first public presentation eight years ago, facing “a room full of scientists, who for whatever reason, did not look very happy that day.”

“What if I fail in front of the crowd? What if everybody thinks I’m an idiot?”

That feeling of scrutiny might have an evolutionary relationship to the fear of being eaten by a predator, she speculates.

Through participating in Toastmasters International, she has made public speaking more of a habit. She contrasts the two parts of the brain: the amygdala, tuner of emotional responses, with the basal ganglia, director of habits.

“I still get stage fright,” she says. “In fact, I have it right now, thinking how all you predators might try to eat me up! But my brain pays less attention to it.”

Banerjee is a postdoctoral scientist in cell biologist Gary Bassell’s lab, studying myotonic dystrophy. In 2017, she was funded by the Myotonic Dystrophy Foundation to create a mouse model of the neurological/sleep symptoms of myotonic dystrophy.

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How metabolic syndrome interacts with stress – mouse model

Emory researchers recently published a paper in Brain, Behavior and Immunity on the interaction between psychological stress and diet-induced metabolic syndrome in a mouse model.

“The metabolic vulnerability and inflammation associated with conditions present in metabolic syndrome may share common risk factors with mood disorders. In particular, an increased inflammatory state is recognized to be one of the main mechanisms promoting depression,” writes lead author Betty Rodrigues, a postdoc in Malu Tansey’s lab in the Department of Physiology.

This model may be useful for identification of possible biomarkers and therapeutic targets to treat metabolic syndrome and mood disorders. As a follow-up, Tansey reports that her team is investigating the protective effects of an anti-inflammatory agent on both the brain and the liver using the same model.

Metabolic syndrome and stress have a complex interplay throughout the body, the researchers found. For example, psychological stress by itself does not affect insulin or cholesterol levels, but it does augment them when combined with a high-fat, high-fructose diet. In contrast, stress promotes adaptive anti-inflammatory markers in the hippocampus (part of the brain), but those changes are wiped out by a high-fat, high-fructose diet.

The findings show synergistic effects by diet and stress on gut permeability promoted by inflammation, and the biliverdin pathway. Biliverdin, a product of heme breakdown, is responsible for a greenish color sometimes seen in bruises.

“Stress and high-fat high-fructose diet promoted disturbances in biliverdin, a metabolite associated with insulin resistance,” Rodrigues writes. “To the best of our knowledge, our results reveal for the first time evidence for the synergistic effect of diet and chronic psychological stress affecting the biliverdin pathway.”

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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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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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