Update on SIV remission studies

Recently presented insights on how an antibody used to treat intestinal diseases can suppress Read more

Granulins treasure not trash - potential FTD treatment strategy

Granulins are of interest to neuroscientists because mutations in the granulin gene cause frontotemporal dementia (FTD). However, the functions of granulins were previously Read more

Blood vessels and cardiac muscle cells off the shelf

How to steer induced pluripotent stem cells into becoming endothelial cells, which line blood Read more

depression

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.”

Read more

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Heart, Immunology, Neuro Leave a comment

Sidestepping the placebo effect when studying depression

Research on depression must deal with a major obstacle: the placebo effect. This is the observation that patients improve in response to the sugar pills given as controls in clinical studies.

Clinical trial designers can incorporate various clever strategies to minimize the placebo effect, which is actually comprised of several statistical and psychological factors. Investigators can try to enhance, dissect or even “harness” them. [A recent piece in the New York Times from Jo Marchant focuses on the placebo effect in studies of pain relief.]

Emory psychiatrist Andrew Miller and his team have been developing a different approach over the last few years: studying symptoms of depression in people who are being treated for something else. This allows them to sidestep, at least partially, the cultural construct of depression, from William Styron to Peter Kramer to direct-to-consumer television ads.

Interferon alpha, a treatment used against hepatitis C virus infection and some forms of cancer, is a protein produced by the immune system that spurs inflammation. It also can induce symptoms of depression, such as fatigue and malaise. There are some slight differences with psychiatric depression, which Miller’s team describes here (less guilt!), but they conclude that there is a “high degree of overlap.”

Miller and his colleagues, including Jennifer Felger and Ebrahim Haroon, have documented how interferon-alpha-induced inflammation affects the brains of hepatitis C and cancer patients in several papers. That research, in turn, informs their more recent fruitful investigations of inflammation in the context of major depression. More on that soon.

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Immunology, Neuro Leave a comment

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

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Neuro Leave a comment

Inflammation linked to weakened reward circuits in depression

About one third of people with depression have high levels of inflammation markers in their blood. New research indicates that persistent inflammation affects the brain in ways that are connected with stubborn symptoms of depression, such as anhedonia, the inability to experience pleasure.

The results were published online on Nov. 10 in Molecular Psychiatry.

The findings bolster the case that the high-inflammation form of depression is distinct, and are guiding researchers’ plans to test treatments tailored for it.

Anhedonia is a core symptom of depression that is particularly difficult to treat, says lead author Jennifer Felger, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Emory University School of Medicine and Winship Cancer Institute.

“Some patients taking antidepressants continue to suffer from anhedonia,” Felger says. “Our data suggest that by blocking inflammation or its effects on the brain, we may be able to reverse anhedonia and help depressed individuals who fail to respond to antidepressants.”

In a study of 48 patients with depression, high levels of the inflammatory marker CRP (C-reactive protein) were linked with a “failure to communicate”, seen through brain imaging, between regions of the brain important for motivation and reward.

Emory researchers have found that high inflammation in depression is linked to a "failure to communicate" between two parts of the brain: the ventral striatum (VS, vertical cross section) and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC, horizontal).

Emory researchers have found that high inflammation in depression is linked to a “failure to communicate” between two parts of the brain: the ventral striatum (VS, vertical cross section) and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC, horizontal). Images from Felger et al, Molecular Psychiatry (2015).

Neuroscientists can infer that two regions of the brain talk to each other by watching whether they light up in magnetic resonance imaging at the same times or in the same patterns, even when someone is not doing anything in particular. They describe this as “functional connectivity.”

More here.

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Neuro Leave a comment

NMDA receptors: triple-quadruple axel

NMDA receptors are saddled with an unwieldy name, but they are some of the most important* signaling molecules in the brain, both for learning and memory and in neurological and psychiatric diseases.

Kasper Hansen, a postdoc from Stephen Traynelis’ lab who is establishing his own at the University of Montana, is lead author on a recent paper in Neuron, which could spur research on NMDA receptors’ pharmacological properties.

The NMDA receptors in the brain are actually mix-and-match assemblies of four subunits, and most of the time in the brain, three different proteins come together to make one receptor, the authors explain. In the laboratory, it has been easier to study simpler, more homogenous, but also more artificial constructs. Hansen and his colleagues developed a way to build replicas of the more complicated NMDA receptors found in the brain and probe their distinct responses to drugs. Read more

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Depression imaging test cited as real deal

Tired of hearing neuroscience, and brain imaging in particular, dismissed as trendy and overblown?

In this Sunday’s review section of the New York Times, Nobel Prize winner Eric Kandel cited research by Emory psychiatrist Helen Mayberg and colleagues (published in JAMA Psychiatry) as a good example of research with potential for substantive impact for the treatment of mental illness:

 In a recent study of people with depression, Professor Mayberg gave each person one of two types of treatment: cognitive behavioral therapy, a form of psychotherapy that trains people to view their feelings in more positive terms, or an antidepressant medication. She http://www.raybani.com/ found that people who started with below-average baseline activity in the right anterior insula responded well to cognitive behavioral therapy, but not to the antidepressant. People with above-average activity responded to the antidepressant, but not to cognitive behavioral therapy. Thus, Professor Mayberg found that she could predict a depressed person’s response to specific treatments from the baseline activity in the right anterior insula.

These results show us four very important things about the biology of mental disorders. First, the neural circuits disturbed by psychiatric disorders are likely to be very complex. Second, we can identify specific, measurable markers of a mental disorder, and those biomarkers can predict the outcome of two different treatments: psychotherapy and medication. Third, psychotherapy is a biological treatment, a brain therapy. It produces lasting, detectable physical changes in our brain, much as learning does. And fourth, the effects of psychotherapy can be studied empirically…

National Institutes of Mental Health director Thomas Insel also has commented on the technique’s clinical potential.

“For the treatment of mental disorders, brain imaging Ray Ban outlet remains primarily a research tool, yet these results demonstrate how it may be on the cusp of aiding in clinical decision-making,” Insel said in a NIMH press release earlier this summer.

In addition, author David Dobbs and blogger Neurocritic both delve into the details of Mayberg’s work.

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Neuro Leave a comment

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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AHA meeting highlights — an Emory-centric view

Poring over the abundance of information presented at major scientific meetings is like trying to drink from a firehose.  Imposing an Emory-centric filter on this year’s American Heart Association Scientific Sessions meeting in Los Angeles, here are three highlights, with a shoutout to the AHA journal Circulation, which provides a database of meeting abstracts.

Alginate encapsulation, a therapeutic delivery tactic to get stem cells to stay in the heart

Presenter Rebecca Levit, MD, a postdoc in cardiology division chair W. Robert Taylor’s laboratory, was a finalist for an Early Career Investigator Award.

 Stem cell therapies for myocardial repair have shown promise in preclinical trials, but lower than expected retention and viability of transplanted cells. In an effort to improve this, we employed an alginate encapsulation strategy for human mesenchymal stem cells (hMSCs) and attached them to the heart with a biocompatible PEG hydrogel patch in a rat MI model. Encapsulation allows for diffusion of pro-angiogenic cytokines and growth factors made by the hMSCs while maintaining them at the site of implantation…Alginate encapsulated hMSCs attached to the heart with a hydrogel patch resulted in a highly significant improvement in left ventricular function after acute myocardial infarction. The mechanism for this markedly enhanced effect appears to be increased cell survival and retention.

 Note: alginate already has a wide variety of uses, for example in culinary arts and to make dental impressions.

suPAR, a biomarker connected with depression, inflammation and cardiovascular outcomes. Step back, C-reactive protein

Depression, inflammation (Manocha, Vaccarino)

Cardiovascular outcomes (Eapen, Quyyumi)

Coronary microvascular dysfunction (Corban, Samady)

Predicting mental-stress myocardial ischemia via a public speaking test

A study probing myocardial ischemia (a lack of blood flow to the heart) induced by psychological stress, described in this Emory Public Health article. The presentation by Ronnie Ramadan examines physiological responses to a public speaking test as a way of predicting more severe problems.

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Heart Leave a comment

Heart and depression: learning from twins

Just like diabetes and hypertension, depression is a prevalent medical condition that is highly treatable. However, if ignored, it appears to increase the risk for heart disease. Researchers at Emory are continuing studies related to the link between depression and heart disease as a result of a 2-year, $1.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) through the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Lead investigator, Viola Vaccarino, MD, PhD, professor of cardiology at Emory School of Medicine, is looking at the relationship between depression and heart disease, specifically researching the potential mechanisms.

Vaccarino says although depression has been implicated as a risk factor for heart disease for many years, there is still question whether this is a causal association or whether there are other reasons why people who are depressed may be more likely to get heart disease. Clarification of these mechanisms will improve our understanding of the disease and ultimately point to more effective primary prevention strategies for the identification and treatment of high-risk individuals.

Vaccarino and her team will study twin males born between 1946 and 1956 from the Vietnam Era Twin Registry comparing one twin who has depression and one who does not. She says this is almost a natural experiment, allowing researchers to separate out genetics and influences from the environment or behavior.

Vaccarino will be looking at myocardial blood flow measured with PET, a common imaging technique of the heart. It can quantify exactly how much blood is going to the coronary arteries in the heart and carefully determine if depression is associated with decreased blood flow to the heart.

This grant builds on a previous project looking at the same population of twins and allows researchers to bring these twins back and compare two time points. Researchers measured myocardial blood flow with PET a few years ago and will now be able to monitor progression of heart disease over time

Learn more about Emory’s stimulus grant funding.

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