Skin disease studies go deep: depression/inflammation insight

A recent paper from Miller and psychiatry chair Mark Rapaport looks at clinical trials testing an anti-inflammatory drug against psoriasis, to see whether participants’ depressive symptoms improved. Read more

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

epilepsy

More on NMDA receptor variants + epilepsy/ID

NMDA receptors are complex electrochemical machines, important for signaling between brain cells. Rare mutations in the corresponding genes cause epilepsy and intellectual disability.

Pre-M1 helices in multi-subunit NMDA receptor. Adapted from Ogden et al PLOS Genetics (2017).

In Emory’s Department of Pharmacology, the Traynelis and Yuan labs have been harvesting the vast amounts of information now available from public genome databases, to better understand how changes in the NMDA receptor genes relate to function. (Take a “deeper dive” into their November 2016 publication on this topic here.)

Their recent paper in PLOS Genetics focuses on a particular region in the NMDA receptor, called the pre-M1 helix (see figure). It also includes experiments on whether drugs now used for Alzheimer’s disease, such as memantine, could be repurposed to have beneficial effects for patients with certain mutations. The in vitro data reported here could inform clinical use. Read more

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Insane in the membrane – inflamed in the brain

Inflammation in the brain is a feature of several neurological diseases, ranging from Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s to epilepsy. Nick Varvel, a postdoc with Ray Dingledine’s lab at Emory, was recently presenting his research and showed some photos illustrating the phenomenon of brain inflammation in status epilepticus (prolonged life-threatening seizures).

The presentation was at a Center for Neurodegenerative Disease seminar; his research was also published in PNAS and at the 2016 Society for Neuroscience meeting.green-red-brain

Varvel was working with mice in which two different types of cells are marked by fluorescent proteins. Both of the cell types come originally from the blood and can be considered immune cells. However, one kind – marked with green — is in the brain all the time, and the red kind enters the brain only when there is an inflammatory breach of the blood brain barrier.

Both markers, CX3CR1 (green) and CCR2 (red), are chemokine receptors. Green fluorescent protein is selectively produced in microglia, which settle in the brain before birth and are thought to have important housekeeping/maintenance functions.

Monocytes, a distinct type of cell that is not usually in the brain in large numbers, are lit up red. Monocytes rush into the brain in status epilepticus, and in traumatic brain injury, hemorrhagic stroke and West Nile virus encephalitis, to name some other conditions where brain inflammation is also seen.

In the PNAS paper, Varvel and his colleagues include a cautionary note about using these mice for studying situations of more prolonged brain inflammation, such as neurodegenerative diseases: the monocytes may turn down production of the red protein over time, so it’s hard to tell if they’re still in the brain after several days.

Targeting CCR2 – good or bad? Depends on the disease model

The researchers make the case that “inhibiting brain invasion of CCR2+ monocytes could represent a viable method for alleviating several deleterious consequences of status epilepticus.” Read more

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Deep dive into NMDA receptor variation

The study of human genetics has often focused on mutations that cause disease. When it comes to genetic variations in healthy people, scientists knew they were out there, but didn’t have a full picture of their extent. That is changing with the emergence of resources such as the Exome Aggregation Consortium or ExAC, which combines sequences for the protein-coding parts of the genome from more than 60,000 people into a database that continues to expand.

ajhg-fig-2-092016

Rare mutations in the NMDA receptor genes cause epilepsy (GRIN2A) or intellectual disability (GRIN2B). Shown in blue are agonist binding domains of the receptors, where several disease-causing mutations can be found.

At Emory, the labs of Stephen Traynelis and Hongjie Yuan have published an analysis of ExAC data, focusing on the genes encoding two NMDA receptor subunits, GRIN2A and GRIN2B. These receptors are central to signaling between brain cells, and rare mutations in the corresponding genes cause epilepsy (GRIN2A) or intellectual disability (GRIN2B). GRIN2B mutations have also been linked with autism spectrum disorder.

steveandhongjie

Steve Traynelis and Hongjie Yuan

The new paper in the American Journal of Human Genetics makes a deep dive into ExAC data to explore the link between normal variation in the healthy population and regions of the proteins that harbor disease-causing mutations.

In addition, the paper provides a detailed look at how 25 mutations that were identified in individuals with neurologic disease actually affect the receptors. For some patients, this insight could potentially guide anticonvulsant treatment with a repurposed Alzheimer’s medication. Also included are three new mutations from patients identified by whole exome sequencing, one in GRIN2A and two in GRIN2B.

“This is one of the first analyses like this, where we’re mapping the spectrum of variation in a gene onto the structure of the corresponding protein,” says Traynelis, PhD, professor of pharmacology at Emory University School of Medicine. “We’re able to see that the disease mutations cluster where variation among the healthy population disappears.”

Heat map of agonist binding domain for GRIN2A.

Heat map of agonist binding domain for GRIN2A. From Swanger et al AJHG (2016).

Postdoctoral fellow Sharon Swanger, PhD is first author of the paper, and Yuan, MD, PhD, assistant professor of pharmacology, is co-senior author.

It’s not always obvious, looking at the sequence of a given mutation, how it’s going to affect NMDA receptor function. Only introducing the altered gene into cells and studying protein function in the lab provides that information, Traynelis says.

NMDA receptors are complicated machines: mutations can affect how well they bind their ligands (glutamate and glycine), how they open and shut, or how they are processed onto the cell surface. On top of that complexity, mutations that make the receptors either stronger or weaker can both lead the brain into difficulty; within each gene, both types of mutation are associated with similar disorders. With some GRIN2A mutations, the functional changes identified in the lab were quite strong, but the effect on the brain was less dramatic (mild intellectual disability or speech disorder), suggesting that other genetic factors contribute to outcomes.

Clinical relevance

Traynelis and Yuan previously collaborated with the NIH’s Undiagnosed Disease Program to show that the Alzheimer’s medication memantine can be repurposed as an anticonvulsant, for a child with intractable epilepsy coming from a mutation in the GRIN2A gene. (Nature Communications, Annals of Clinical and Translational Neurology)

Memantine is an NMDA receptor antagonist, aimed at counteracting the overactivation of the receptor caused by the mutation. Memantine has also been used to treat children with epilepsy associated with mutations in the related GRIN2D gene. However, memantine doesn’t work on all activating mutations, and could have effects on the unmutated NMDA receptors in the brain as well. Traynelis reports that his clinical colleagues are developing guidelines for physicians on the use of memantine for children with GRIN gene mutations.

This study and related investigations were supported by funding from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (R01HD082373), the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (R24NS092989), the Atlanta Clinical & Translational Science Institute (UL1TR000454), and CURE Epilepsy: Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy.

 

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The buzz of consciousness and how seizures disrupt it

These days, it sounds a bit old-fashioned to ask the question: “Where is consciousness located in the brain?” The prevailing thinking is that consciousness lives in the network, rather than in one particular place. Still, neuroscientists sometimes get an intriguing glimpse of a critical link in the network.

A recent paper in the journal Epilepsy & Behavior describes an epilepsy patient who had electrodes implanted within her brain at Emory University Hospital, because neurologists wanted to understand where her seizures were coming from and plan possible surgery. Medication had not controlled her seizures and previous surgery elsewhere had not either.

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MRI showing electrode placement. Yellow outline indicates the location of the caudate and thalamus. Image from Leeman-Markowsi et al, Epilepsy & Behavior (2015).

During intracranial EEG monitoring, implanted electrodes detected a pattern of signals coming from one part of the thalamus, a central region of the brain. The pattern was present when the patient was conscious, and then stopped as soon as seizure activity made her lose awareness.

The pattern of signals had a characteristic frequency – around 35 times per second – so it helps to think of the signal as an auditory tone. Lead author Beth Leeman-Markowski, director of EUH’s Epilepsy Monitoring Unit at the time when the patient was evaluated, describes the signal as a “buzz.”

“That buzz has something to do with maintenance of consciousness,” she says. 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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DBS for drug-resistant epilepsy

Space considerations in print forced us to slim down the feature on deep brain stimulation for drug resistant epilepsy, which appears in the Spring 2015 issue of Emory Medicine. While I encourage you to please read our story profiling playwright Paula Moreland, here are some take-away points:

*Surgery is a viable option for many patients with drug-resistant epilepsy, but not all of them, because the regions of the brain where the seizures start can have important functions. (Look for an upcoming post describing a patient I met for whom the surgical option was helpful.)

*Deep brain stimulation can reduce seizure frequency and improve quality of life for patients with drug-resistant epilepsy.

*In the large clinical trials on deep brain stimulation for epilepsy that have been run so far (SANTE and RNS), most participants do not see their seizures eliminated. Ms. Moreland is an exception.  Read more

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Recording seizures from within the brain

To go along with the (new) Spring 2015 Emory Medicine magazine set of features on deep brain stimulation for depression, movement disorders and epilepsy, here is a fascinating 2013 case report from Emory neurosurgeon Robert Gross and colleagues. The first author is electrical engineer Otis Smart.

It’s an example of the kinds of insights that can be obtained from implantable electrical stimulation devices, which can record signals from seizures inside the brain over long periods of time (more than a year).

As the authors write, “the technology can record brain activity while the patient is in a more naturalistic environment than a hospital, becoming an invasive ambulatory EEG.” Read more

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Neuro 1 Comment

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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Monitoring the brain’s temperature

It’s been a little while since we had an Intriguing Image. This video illustrates a surgical technique for the treatment of medication-resistant temporal lobe epilepsy.

In this procedure, which is designed to minimize cognitive side effects, the surgeon carefully uses a laser probe to heat and ablate the regions of the brain doctors think are important for seizures. Magnetic resonance imaging allows the temperature in the brain to be precisely monitored. The video was provided by Robert Gross, MD, PhD, and accompanies an upcoming paper in the journal Neurosurgery. More discussion of this procedure here and here.

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Valproate: epigenetic solvent

Oncologist Johann Brandes and colleagues from Winship Cancer Institute have a recent study on the preventive effects of valproate, now prescribed for epilepsy and bipolar disorder, against head and neck cancer.

Published in Cancer, it was a clever example of number crunching, using data from the Veterans’ Administration. If you want to know about the anticancer effects of a widely used drug, check who’s already taking it for another reason (25,000 veterans were taking it). The results suggest that valproate – OR a drug that works with a similar mechanism – might be used to prevent head and neck cancer in patients who are at high risk. Also see this related paper from Brandes and colleagues on chemoprevention in lung cancer.

However, any examination of valproate should take into account neurologist Kim Meador’s work on antiepileptic drugs taken by pregnant women — he was at Emory for several years but recently moved to Stanford. His work with the NEAD study definitively showed that valproate, taken during pregnancy, increases the risk of birth defects and intellectual disability in children.

There’s even more about valproate: it might help tone-deaf adults learn to differentiate musical tones, according to one study. It has been used to enhance the reprogramming of somatic cells into induced pluripotent stem cells. It seems that valproate just shakes things up, turning on genes that have been off, erasing decisions that cells have already made.

Valproate is a tricky drug, with several modes of action: it blocks sodium channels, enhances the effects of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA, and inhibits histone deacetylases. Although the first two may be contributing to the antiepileptic effects, the last one may be contributing to longer-lasting changes. Histone deacetylases are a way a cell keeps genes turned off; inhibit them and you loosen things up, allowing the remodeling of chromatin and unearthing genes that were silenced.

In tumors, genes that prevent runaway growth are silenced. It may be that valproate is loosening chromatin enough to allow the growth control machinery to reemerge, although the effects observed in the Brandes paper are specific for head and neck cancer, and not other forms of cancer. The data suggest that valproate has a preventive effect with respect to smoking-related cancers and not viral-related cancers.

With adults at high risk of cancer recurrence, side effects from valproate may be more acceptable than in other situations. Even so, with follow-up research, it may be possible to isolate where the anticancer effects of valproate come from – that is, which histone deacetylase in particular is responsible – find a more specific drug, and avoid potential broad side effects.

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