New insight into how brain cells die in Alzheimer's and FTD

(Epi)genetic hallucinations induced by loss of LSD1 resemble Alzheimer's. Another surprise: LSD1 aggregates in Alzheimer's brain, looking like Tau Read more

2B4: potential immune target for sepsis survival

Emory immunologists have identified a potential target for treatments aimed at reducing mortality in sepsis, an often deadly reaction to Read more

EHR data superior for studying sepsis

Analysis of EHR data says sepsis rates and mortality have been holding steady, contrary to what is suggested by after-the-fact Read more

BDNF

Tug of war between Parkinson’s protein and growth factors

Alpha-synuclein, a sticky and sometimes toxic protein involved in Parkinson’s disease (PD), blocks signals from an important brain growth factor, researchers have discovered.

The results were published this week in PNAS.

The finding adds to evidence that alpha-synuclein is a pivot for damage to brain cells in PD, and helps to explain why brain cells that produce the neurotransmitter dopamine are more vulnerable to degeneration.

Alpha-synuclein is a major component of Lewy bodies, the protein clumps that are a pathological sign of PD. Also, duplications of or mutations in the gene encoding alpha-synuclein drive some rare familial cases.

In the current paper, researchers led by Keqiang Ye, PhD demonstrated that alpha-synuclein binds and interferes with TrkB, the receptor for BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor). BDNF promotes brain cells’ survival and was known to be deficient in Parkinson’s patients. When applied to neurons, BDNF in turn sends alpha-synuclein away from TrkB.  [Ye’s team has extensively studied the pharmacology of 7,8-dihydroxyflavone, a TrkB agonist.]

A “tug of war” situation thus exists between alpha-synuclein and BDNF, struggling for dominance over TrkB. In cultured neurons and in mice, alpha-synuclein inhibits BDNF’s ability to protect brain cells from neurotoxins that mimic PD-related damage, Ye’s team found. Read more

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Manipulating motivation in mice

Emory researchers have identified molecular mechanisms that regulate motivation and persistence in mice. Their findings could have implications for intervention in conditions characterized by behavioral inflexibility, such as drug abuse and depression.

Scientists showed that by manipulating a particular growth factor in one region of the brain, they could tune up or down a mouse’s tendency to persist in seeking a reward. In humans, this region of the brain is located just behind the eyes and is called the medial orbitofrontal cortex or mOFC.

“When we make decisions, we often need to gauge the value of a reward before we can see it — for example, will lunch at a certain restaurant be better than lunch at another, or worth the cost,” says Shannon Gourley, PhD, assistant professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at Emory University School of Medicine. “We think the mOFC is important for calculating value, particularly when we have to imagine the reward, as opposed to having it right in front of us.”

The results were published Wednesday in Journal of Neuroscience.

Shannon Gourley, PhD

Being able to appropriately determine the value of a perceived reward is critical in goal-directed decision making, a component of drug-seeking and addiction-related behaviors. While scientists already suspected that the medial orbitofrontal cortex was important for this type of learning and decision-making, the specific genes and growth factors were not as well-understood.

The researchers focused on brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that supports the survival and growth of neurons in the brain. BDNF is known to play key roles in long-term potentiation and neuronal remodeling, both important in learning and memory tasks. Variations in the human gene that encodes BDNF have been linked with several psychiatric disorders.

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Are TrkB agonists ready for translation into the clinic?

Our recent news item on Emory pathologist Keqiang Ye’s obesity-related research (Molecule from trees helps female mice only resist weight gain) understates how many disease models the proto-drug he and his colleagues have discovered, 7,8-dihydroxyflavone, can be beneficial in. We do mention that Ye’s partners in Australia and Shanghai are applying to begin phase I clinical trials with a close relative of 7,8-dihydroxyflavone in neurodegenerative diseases.

Ye’s 2010 PNAS paper covered models of Parkinson’s, stroke and seizure. Later publications take on animal models of depression, Alzheimer’s, fear learning, hearing loss and peripheral nerve injury. Although those findings begin to sound too good to be true, outside laboratories have been confirming the results (not 100 percent positive, but nothing’s perfect).  Plenty of drugs don’t make it from animal models into the clinic, but this is a solid body of work so far.

 

 

 

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Hunting for potential diabetes drugs

Pathologist Keqiang Ye and his colleagues have been prolific in finding small molecules able to mimic the action of the brain growth factor BDNF. Aiming to export that success to similar molecules (that is, other receptor tyrosine kinases), they have been searching for potential drugs able to substitute for insulin.

Diabetes drugs Januvia (sitagliptin) and Lantus (insulin analog) are top 20 drugs, both in terms of dollars and monthly prescriptions, and the inconvenience of insulin injection is well known, so the business potential is clear.

A paper published in the journal Diabetes in April describes Ye’s team’s identification of a compound called chaetochromin A, which was originally isolated by Japanese researchers studying toxins found in moldy rice. Chaetochromin A can drive down blood sugar in normal, type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes mouse models, the authors show.

See here for another compound identified in Ye’s lab with similar properties.

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Hypoxia is bad, except when it’s good

Randy Trumbower and his colleagues in Emory’s Department of Rehabilitation Medicine recently published a study showing that “daily intermittent hypoxia,” combined with walking exercise, can help patients with incomplete spinal cord injury walk for longer times. What is it about being deprived of oxygen for short periods that has a positive effect?

This research was puzzling at first (at least to your correspondent) because “daily intermittent hypoxia” is a good description of the gasping and snorting interruptions of sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea is a very common condition that increases the risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, heart attack and stroke. On the other side of the coin, many endurance athletes have been harnessing the body’s ability to adapt to low oxygen levels — so-called altitude training — to increase their performance for years.

So we have an apparent clash: hypoxia is bad, except when it’s good. Looking closely, there are some critical differences between sleep apnea and therapeutic hypoxia. The dose makes the poison, right? Read more

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Dissecting how chronic stress leads to depression

How can we study depression and antidepressants in animals? They can’t talk and tell us how they’re feeling. Previously, researchers have used the model of “behavioral despair,” with examples of the forced swimming test or the tail suspension test.

Shannon Gourley, PhD

Several psychiatrists have been arguing that a new framework is needed, which better simulates aspects of depression in humans, such as the variety of behavioral changes and the several week time period needed for antidepressants to function. This new framework could help illuminate how depression develops, and lead to new antidepressants that are effective for more people.

Shannon Gourley, who recently joined the Emory-Children’s Pediatric Research Center has been taking the approach of examining the lack of motivation and self-defeating behavior that are integral parts of depression.

The Pediatric Research Center is an effort led by Emory University and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, including partnerships with the Georgia Institute of Technology and Morehouse School of Medicine.

Note: Gretchen Neigh in psychiatry/physiology has been doing work with a similar theme, looking at the effects of adolescent social stress in animal models.

Gourley, neuroscience graduate student Andrew Swanson and their colleagues at Yale, where Gourley was a postdoc with Jane Taylor and Tony Koleske, have a new paper in PNAS on this topic. In particular, they dissect how chronic stress – or exposure to the stress hormone corticosterone – can produce loss of motivation and impaired decision making.

First, the researchers found that exposing rodents to cheap oakleys corticosterone shut off a growth factor called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) in the frontal cortex, a region of the brain important for planning and goal-directed behavior. BDNF nourishes neurons and helps keep them alive.

To confirm that BDNF was important in this region of the brain, researchers selectively silenced the gene for BDNF only in the frontal cortex. Both mice exposed to stress hormones and the BDNF-altered mice showed reduced motivation to earn food rewards. Mice would ordinarily press a lever dozens of times to get a food pellet, but the BDNF-altered animals would stop trying earlier – the “break point” is 2/3 as high.

“Depression is a leading cause of unemployment because people are unable to break out of self-defeating behavioral patterns and to muster the motivation to engage with the world. If we can better understand how to treat these symptoms, we can effect better outcomes for individuals suffering from depression,” Gourley says. “The BDNF deficiency alone could account for the loss of motivation that individuals with depression suffer.”

However, she reports her team was surprised that the loss of BDNF could not account for another aspect of depression: cyclical self-defeating behavior. They modeled this by asking whether mice continue to press a lever for a food reward even when the reward is no longer available.

“When we made the discovery that reduced BDNF could not account for all of the depression symptoms that we study, we took a step back and looked at the stress response system,” Gourley says.

Stress hormone exposure impairs the ability of mice to switch away from fruitless behaviors, but loss of BDNF in the frontal cortex does not. Here, the stress response system itself was the culprit. When her team temporarily blocked the ability of mice to shut off their stress response systems using the drug mifepristone, mice had impaired decision-making. However, their motivation to obtain rewards was not altered. When the drug wore off, they returned to normal.

Gourley says the implication is that effective antidepressants need to be able to attack not one, but two physiological systems: they need to increase levels of BDNF, and they need to help the stress system recover so that it can shut itself off better. A classic trycyclic antidepressant, amitriptyline, can do both and was effective in treating both the motivation and decision making parts of depression in animal models.

The use of tricyclic antidepressants is limited because of side effects and overdose potential. In addition, another challenge in treating depression is that current antidepressants only begin to work after several weeks or months of treatment. This is thought to be because it takes several weeks for these drugs—which act only indirectly on BDNF—to restore BDNF levels back to normal.

New compounds that act directly on BDNF’s receptor TrkB, such as those identified and tested by Emory researcher Keqiang Ye, could be promising in the development of new approaches to depression, Gourley says.

She and her team also showed that a drug called riluzole, which acts indirectly but rapidly on BDNF systems, has antidepressant effects in the animal models. Riluzole is currently in use to treat ALS, and reportedly has antidepressant effects in humans. Clinical trials with riluzole in the context of depression are underway.

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A new class of brain-protecting drugs

Pathologist Keqiang Ye has made a series of discoveries recently, arising from his investigations of substances that can mimic the growth factor BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor).

BDNF is a protein produced by the brain that pushes neurons to withstand stress and make new connections. Some neuroscientists have described BDNF as “Miracle Gro for brain cells.”

“BDNF has been studied extensively for its ability to protect neurons vulnerable to degeneration in several diseases, such as ALS, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease,” Ye says. “The trouble with BDNF is one of delivery. It’s a protein, so it can’t cross the blood-brain barrier and degrades quickly.”

Working with Ye, postdoctoral fellow Sung-Wuk Jang identified a compound called 7,8-dihydroxyflavone that can duplicate BDNF’s effects on neurons and can protect them against damage in animal models of seizure, stroke and Parkinson’s disease. The compound’s selective effects suggest that it could be the founder of a new class of brain-protecting drugs. The results were published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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