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Genomics plus human intelligence

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Department of Neurology

Measuring sleepiness: alternatives to five naps

In a 2015 episode of The Simpsons, Homer is diagnosed with narcolepsy. Overwhelming sleepiness at the nuclear power plant lands him in the hospital. Sampling his spinal fluid (ouch!), Homer’s chuckling, deep-voiced doctor quickly performs a test for hypocretin, a brain chemical important for staying awake and regulating REM sleep.

Reality check: testing for hypocretin takes time, and is not currently available in the United States. Let’s talk about how sleep disorders such as narcolepsy and idiopathic hypersomnia are actually diagnosed: operationally, rather than biologically. The less flashy, but standard, way to assess patients is to ask them to take a series of five naps and see how fast they doze off, and how fast they go into REM sleep (the rapid eye movement dreaming phase).

This process, known as the Multiple Sleep Latency Test or MSLT, works pretty well for narcolepsy type 1, the more distinctive form of narcolepsy that includes cataplexy. And it’s hard to fake being sleepy enough to zonk out within a few minutes. But it has a bunch of problems, and dissatisfaction with the MSLT has been developing among sleep specialists for the last several years.

Lynn Marie Trotti, MD

At Emory, neurologists Lynn Marie Trotti and David Rye published an analysis of what I will call the “flip flop problem” in 2013, with others in the field following up more recently. The flip flop problem is: someone who takes the MSLT one day will frequently get another result if they take it again on a different day. Read more

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Neuro 1 Comment

‘Unbiased’ approaches to Alzheimer’s

In recent news stories about Alzheimer’s disease research, we noticed a word popping up: unbiased. Allan Levey, chair of Emory’s neurology department and head of Emory’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, likes to use that word too. It’s key to a “back to the drawing board” shift taking place in the Alzheimer’s field.

Last week’s announcement of a link between herpes viruses and Alzheimer’s, which Emory researchers contributed to, was part of this shift. Keep in mind: the idea that viral infection contributes to Alzheimer’s has been around a long time, and the Neuron paper doesn’t nail down causality.  

Still, here’s an example quote from National Institute on Aging director Richard Hodes: “This is the first study to provide strong evidence based on unbiased approaches and large data sets that lends support to this line of inquiry.”

What is the bias that needs to be wrung out of the science? The “amyloid hypothesis” has dominated drug development for the last several years. Amyloid is a main constituent of the plaques that appear in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s, so treatments that counteract amyloid’s accumulation should help, right? Unfortunately, antibodies against amyloid or inhibitors of enzymes that process it generally haven’t worked out in big clinical trials, although the possibility remains that they weren’t introduced early enough to have a decent effect. Read more

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Post-anesthetic inertia in IH

A recent paper from neurologists Lynn Marie Trotti and Donald Bliwise, with anesthesiologist Paul Garcia, substantiates a phenomenon discussed anecdotally in the idiopathic hypersomnia (IH) community. Let’s call it “post-anesthetic inertia.” People with IH say that undergoing general anesthesia made their sleepiness or disrupted sleep-wake cycles worse, sometimes for days or weeks. This finding is intriguing because it points toward a trigger mechanism for IH. And it pushes anesthesiologists to take IH diagnoses into account when planning patient care, just as is already done for myotonic dystrophy.

Lab Land obtained some confirmation from a couple IHers. One woman had surgery a couple of months ago and felt like the anesthetic was still in her system for weeks and she still didn’t feel right. Another reported “severe insomnia for months and it felt like every body system was completely scrambled.”

Where does this all come from? People with IH getting together and telling their stories. Journalist Virginia Hughes described a moment at the 2014 patient-organized IH meeting in Atlanta in her article “Wake No More”:

Andy Jenkins, the neuroscientist who developed the spinal fluid test, gave an impressively entertaining lecture on GABA receptors. “Why do we have more GABA activity?” somebody asked. Nobody knows, said Jenkins. One idea is that it’s triggered by anesthesia. Lloyd [Johnson, a meeting organizer from Australia] asked the audience how many of them believed their hypersomnia was the result of anesthesia. About one-quarter of the hands went up. “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa,” Jenkins said as he watched the sleepyheads* come alive.

The new paper, in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, is more quantitative than that informal show of hands. In a way, it begins to question the basis for the term idiopathic hypersomnia, since idiopathic means “arising spontaneously or having no cause”. For some people surveyed in the paper, anesthesia was an exacerbating factor, if not the only factor.

Confusion or agitation post-anesthesia can happen in people who don’t have sleep disorders. What’s peculiar to the hypersomnolent group is how long sleepiness or disrupted sleep-wake cycles last — long after the anesthetic has left the body. The hypersomnolent group was mostly people with IH or narcolepsy type 2 (30 plus 15 out of 57). In the paper, people with restless legs syndrome were used as controls:

While patients in both groups were equally likely to report surgical complications and difficulty awakening from anesthesia, hypersomnolent patients were more likely to report worsened sleepiness (40% of the hypersomnolent group vs. 11% of the RLS group, p = 0.001) and worsening of their sleep disorder symptoms (40% of the hypersomnolent group vs. 9% of the RLS group, p = 0.0001).

Hypersomnolent patients who perceived their symptoms to worsen reported that symptoms had never returned to baseline in 66.7%, took months or years to return to baseline in 9.5%, and resolved in days to weeks in 23.8%.

Note: first author Vincent LaBarbera is now a neurology resident at Brown.

Mechanistic speculation

Several years ago, Emory researchers found that some IH patients appear to have a substance in their cerebrospinal fluid that acts similarly (but not quite the same) as a benzodiazepine drug. This still-mysterious substance enhances signaling by GABA, the major inhibitory neurotransmitter.

Inhaled anesthetics such as sevoflurane, as well as the injected anesthetic propofol, act by enhancing GABA too. So when someone undergoes general anesthesia, their GABA receptors are being pushed hard for an extended period of time. GABA signaling has a kind of global “dimmer switch” function as well as working through specific circuits in the brain to bring on anesthesia.

GABA receptors are complex, but they usually adjust to pressure. It explains development of tolerance to benzodiazepine drugs. GABA receptors also modulate in response to alcohol or women’s menstrual cycles (certain derivatives of progesterone, so-called “neurosteroids,” act on them). What may be happening after anesthesia is that GABA receptors of people with IH have trouble adjusting back, or may overshoot, perhaps because their internal clocks are less resilient.

The Emory authors conclude:

Because the half-life of anesthetic agents is generally short, any prolonged worsening of sleepiness post-procedure cannot easily be attributed to immediate GABA-mediated effects. Whether the putative long-term changes in hypersomnolence that we are detecting in our patients’ reports may be related to changes in GABA-related neural circuitry caused by anesthetic neurotoxicity or other mechanisms remains to be determined.

A similar interaction, with reversed polarity, may be occurring in post-partum depression.

*Lab Land has been told that sleepyhead is not a fully accepted term in the IH community.

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How much does idiopathic hypersomnia overlap with ME/CFS?

In everyday linguistic usage among non-specialists, sleepiness can blend together with tiredness and fatigue. Someone might feel “tired” after climbing a mountain or chopping down a tree, while “sleepiness” is different. Emory sleep scientists explore the pathological distinctions in a paper published in Journal of Sleep Research.

A team led by neurologists Lynn Marie Trotti and David Rye has been studying idiopathic hypersomnia (IH) for several years: people who experience excessive daytime sleepiness and “sleep drunkenness,” not explained by other medical conditions.

IH’s symptoms don’t usually include persistent muscle pain or a severe response to exertion. This separates the disorder from myalgic encephalomyelitis, also known as chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS). But there is some overlap, which is what neurology resident Caroline Maness, Trotti and colleagues report in the new paper. The authors use the official term SEID (systemic exertion intolerance disease), which was recommended by an Institute of Medicine panel in 2015, but hasn’t really stuck among those in the ME/CFS field.

Some people with IH have disclosed that they were previously diagnosed with ME/CFS. Outside of the sleepy vs tired issue, some people with IH report symptoms shared with ME/CFS, such as impaired circulation in their extremities in response to cold, or dizziness upon standing. Speculatively, this may point to a possible problem with the autonomic nervous system. Trotti and a collaborator at Stanford, Mitchell Miglis, are now examining this issue further.

ME/CFS has had a history of controversy. Despite its devastating impacts, some have viewed it as psychological or somehow unreal, and sufferers have felt neglected or maligned by mainstream medicine. The National Institutes of Health has made efforts to turn that situation around by investing in ME/CFS research, and there has been a surge of attention recently covering ME/CFS (Amy Maxmen items in Nature, Stanford magazine feature, Unrest documentary).

Trotti, Maness and colleagues didn’t set out to dive into ME/CFS – they explicitly label this paper a pilot study, and the results say more about the “hypersomnolent” group of patients they have been seeing for the last several years, rather than the broader ME/CFS population. Read more

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The journey of a marathon sleeper

A marathon sleeper who got away left some clues for Emory and University of Florida scientists to follow. What they found could provide benefits for patients with the genetic disease myotonic dystrophy (DM) and possibly the sleep disorder idiopathic hypersomnia (IH).

The classic symptom for DM is: someone has trouble releasing their grip on a doorknob. However, the disease does not only affect the muscles. Clinicians have recognized for years that DM can result in disabling daytime sleepiness and sometimes cognitive impairments. At the Myotonic Dystrophy Foundation meeting in September, a session was held gathering patient input on central nervous system (CNS) symptoms, so that future clinical trials could track those symptoms more rigorously.

Emory scientists are investigating this aspect of DM. Cell biology chair Gary Bassell was interested in the disease, because it’s a triplet repeat disorder, similar to fragile X syndrome, yet the CNS mechanisms and symptoms are very different. In DM, an expanded triplet or quadruplet repeat produces toxic RNA, which disrupts the process of RNA splicing, affecting multiple cell types and tissues.

Rye at San Francisco myotonic dystrophy meeting. Photo courtesy of Hypersomnia Foundation.

Neurologist and sleep specialist David Rye also has become involved. Recall Rye’s 2012 paper in Science Translational Medicine, which described a still-mysterious GABA-enhancing substance present in the spinal fluid of some super-sleepy patients. (GABA is a neurotransmitter important for regulating sleep.)

In seven of those patients, his team tested the “wake up” effects of flumazenil, conventionally used as an antidote to benzodiazepines. One of those patients was an Atlanta lawyer, whose recovery was later featured in the Wall Street Journal and on the Today Show. It turns out that another one of the seven, whose alertness increased in response to flumazenil, has DM.

In an overnight sleep exam, this man slept for 12 hours straight – the longest of the seven. But an IH diagnosis didn’t fit, because in the standard “take a nap five times” test, he didn’t doze off very quickly. He became frustrated with the stimulants he was given and sought treatment elsewhere, Rye says. Lab Land doesn’t have all the details of this patient’s history, but eventually he was diagnosed with DM, which clarified his situation. Read more

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Imaging sleep drunkenness: #IHAW2017

At some point, everyone has experienced a temporary groggy feeling after waking up called sleep inertia. Scientists know a lot about sleep inertia already, including how it impairs cognitive and motor abilities, and how it varies with the time of day and type of sleep that precedes it. They even have pictures of how the brain wakes up piece by piece.

People with idiopathic hypersomnia or IH display something that seems stronger, termed “sleep drunkenness,” which can last for hours. Czech neurologist Bedrich Roth, the first to identify IH as something separate from other sleep disorders, proposed sleep drunkenness as IH’s defining characteristic.

Note: Emory readers may recall the young Atlanta lawyer treated for IH by David Rye, Kathy Parker and colleagues several years ago. Our post today is part of IH Awareness Week® 2017.

Sleep drunkenness is what makes IH distinctive in comparison to narcolepsy, especially narcolepsy with cataplexy, whose sufferers tend to fall asleep quickly. Those with full body cataplexy can collapse on the floor in response to emotions such as surprise or amusement. In contrast, people with IH tend not to doze off so suddenly, but they do identify with the statement “Waking up is the hardest thing I do all day.”

At Emory, neurologist Lynn Marie Trotti and colleagues are in the middle of a brain imaging study looking at sleep drunkenness.

“We want to find out if sleep drunkenness in IH is the same as what happens to healthy people with sleep inertia and is more pronounced, or whether it’s something different,” Trotti says. Read more

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Granulins treasure not trash – potential FTD treatment strategy

Emory University School of Medicine researchers have developed tools that enable them to detect small proteins called granulins for the first time inside cells. Granulins are of interest to neuroscientists because mutations in the granulin gene cause frontotemporal dementia (FTD). However, the functions of granulins were previously unclear.

FTD is an incurable neurodegenerative disease and the most common type of dementia in people younger than 60. Genetic variants in the granulin gene are also a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, suggesting this discovery may have therapeutic potential for a broad spectrum of age-related neurodegenerative diseases.

The results were published August 9 by the journal eNeuro (open access).

Thomas Kukar, PhD

Some neuroscientists believed that granulins were made outside cells, and even could be toxic under certain conditions. But with the newly identified tools, the Emory researchers can now see granulins inside cells within lysosomes, which are critical garbage disposal and recycling centers. The researchers now propose that granulins have important jobs in the lysosome that are necessary to maintain brain health, suppress neuroinflammation, and prevent neurodegeneration.

Problems with lysosomes appear in several neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

“A lysosomal function for granulins is exciting and novel.  We believe it may provide an explanation why decreased levels of granulins are linked to multiple neurodegenerative diseases, ranging from frontotemporal dementia to Alzheimer’s,” says senior author Thomas Kukar, PhD, assistant professor of pharmacology and neurology and the Emory University Center for Neurodegenerative Disease. Read more

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Mitochondrial blindness — Newman’s Emory story

Neuro-ophthalmologist Nancy Newman’s 2017 Dean’s Distinguished Faculty Lecture and Award were unexpectedly timely. Her talk on Tuesday was a tour of her career and mitochondrial disorders affecting vision, culminating in a description of gene therapy clinical trials for the treatment of Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy.

The sponsor of those studies, Gensight Biologics, recently presented preliminary data on a previous study of their gene therapy at the American Academy of Neurology meeting in April. Two larger trials (REVERSE and RESCUE) are ongoing.

Despite all the progress, there are still several puzzles connected with mitochondrial diseases affecting vision and particularly Leber’s, the first human disease linked to mitochondrial DNA mutations by Douglas Wallace at Emory in the 1980s.

Newman called Leber’s an “ideal laboratory” for studying mitochondrial diseases of vision, because deterioration of vision in Leber’s tends to happen to one eye first, presenting a window of opportunity to deliver treatment to the other eye. Read more

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Enhanced verbal abilities in the congenitally blind

A recent paper in Experimental Brain Research from Emory neuroscientist Krish Sathian and colleagues demonstrates that congenitally blind study participants displayed superior verbal, but not spatial abilities, when compared to their sighted counterparts. This may reflect both greater reliance on verbal information, and the recruitment of the visual cortex for verbal tasks.

Sathian’s team has also been investigating, through brain imaging studies, whether the visual cortex is involved in the processing of metaphors (2016 SFN abstract) in the congenitally blind. They previously showed that blind study participants were better at identifying rotated objects by touch. Read more

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How “twist my arm” engages the brain

Listening to metaphors involving arms or legs loops in a region of the brain responsible for visual perception of those body parts, scientists have discovered.

The finding, recently published in Brain & Language, is another example of how neuroscience studies are providing evidence for “grounded cognition” – the idea that comprehension of abstract concepts in the brain is built upon concrete experiences, a proposal whose history extends back millennia to Aristotle.

The EBA was shown in 2001 to respond selectively to images of the human body by Nancy Kanwisher and colleagues.

When study participants heard sentences that included phrases such as “shoulder responsibility,” “foot the bill” or “twist my arm”, they tended to engage a region of the brain called the left extrastriate body area or EBA.

The same level of activation was not seen when participants heard literal sentences containing phrases with a similar meaning, such as “take responsibility” or “pay the bill.”  The study included 12 right-handed, English-speaking people, and blood flow in their brains was monitored by functional MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).

“The EBA is part of the extrastriate visual cortex, and it was known to be involved in identifying body parts,” says senior author Krish Sathian, MD, PhD, professor of neurology, rehabilitation medicine, and psychology at Emory University.  “We found that the metaphor selectivity of the EBA matches its visual selectivity.” Read more

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