'Master key' microRNA has links to both ASD and schizophrenia

Recent studies of complex brain disorders such as schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have identified a few "master keys," risk genes that sit at the center of a network of genes important for brain function. Researchers at Emory and the Chinese Academy of Sciences have created mice partially lacking one of those master keys, called MIR-137, and have used them to identify an angle on potential treatments for ASD. The results were published this Read more

Shape-shifting RNA regulates viral sensor

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Gary Bassell

Fragile X files — expanded

A genetic disorder caused by silencing of a gene on the X chromosome, fragile X syndrome affects about one child in 5,000, and is more common and more severe in boys. It often causes mild to moderate intellectual disabilities as well as behavioral and learning challenges.

Amy Talboy, MD

The gene responsible for fragile X syndrome, the most common inherited form of intellectual disability, was identified more than 25 years ago. Emory genetics chair Stephen Warren played a major role in achieving that milestone. His work led to insights into the molecular details of learning and memory, and nationwide clinical trials — which have a more complicated story.

Treating the molecular basis of a neurodevelopmental disorder, instead of simply addressing symptoms, is a lofty goal – one that remains unfulfilled. Now a new study, supported by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, is reviving a pharmacological strategy that Warren had a hand in developing.

“This is a very well thought out approach to studying changes in language and learning in children who are difficult to test,” says Amy Talboy, medical director of Emory’s Down Syndrome and Fragile X clinics, who is an investigator in the NINDS study. “It could change how we conduct these types of studies in the future.” Read more

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Fragile X: preclinical portfolio for PI3k drug strategy

Research in mice shows that a pharmacological strategy can alleviate multiple behavioral and cellular deficiencies in a mouse model of fragile X syndrome (FXS), the most common inherited form of intellectual disability and a major single-gene cause of autism spectrum disorders.

The results were published online last week by Neuropsychopharmacology, and were presented at the NFXF International Fragile X Conference in Cincinnati.

When the compound GSK6A was given to mice lacking the Fmr1 gene, an established animal model of fragile X syndrome, it relieved symptomatic behaviors, such as impaired social interactions and inflexible decision making, which can be displayed by humans with fragile X syndrome.

The findings indicate that treatment with GSK6A or a similar compound could be a viable strategy for addressing cognitive and behavioral problems in fragile X syndrome; this would need to be tested directly in clinical trials. GSK6A inhibits one particular form of a cellular signaling enzyme: the p110β form of PI3 (phosphoinositide-3) kinase. A closely related p110β inhibitor is already in clinical trials for cancer.

Video from the iBook “Basic Science Breakthroughs: Fragile X Syndrome”. Narration by Emory genetics chair Stephen Warren, whose team identified the gene responsible for fragile X.

“Our results suggest that p110β inhibitors can be repurposed for fragile X syndrome, and they have implications for other subtypes of autism spectrum disorders that are characterized by similar alterations of this pathway,” says Gary Bassell, PhD, professor and chair of cell biology at Emory University School of Medicine.

“Right now, no proven efficient treatments are available for fragile X syndrome that are targeted to the disease mechanism,” says Christina Gross, PhD, from Cincinnati Children’s. “We think that p110β is an appropriate target because it is directly regulated by FMRP, and it is overactivated in both mouse models and patient cell lines.”

The paper represents a collaboration between three laboratories: two at Emory led by Bassell and Shannon Gourley, PhD, and one at Cincinnati Children’s, led by Gross. Gourley is based at Yerkes National Primate Research Center; see this earlier item on her collaboration with Bassell here.

While the researchers are discussing clinical trials of p110β inhibitors in fragile X syndrome, they say that long-term studies in animals are needed to ensure that undesirable side effects do not appear. More here.

With respect to clinical trials, the fragile X community has been disappointed before. Based on encouraging studies in mouse models, drugs targeting mGluR5 glutamate receptors were tested in adolescents and adults. mGluR5 drugs did not show clear benefits; recent re-evaluation suggests the choice of outcome measures, the ages of study participants and drug tolerance may have played a role.

Warren played a major role in developing the mGluR5 approach and Emory investigators were part of those studies. More recently, clinical trials for one of the mGluR5 medications were revived in younger children and Emory is a participating site. Also, see this 2016 discussion in Spectrum with Elizabeth Berry-Kravis on the fragile X mouse model; Bassell, Gross and Gourley have made some inroads on the limitations Berry-Kravis describes.

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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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Unlocking schizophrenia biology via genetics

Kristen Thomas, PhD, now a postdoctoral fellow at St Jude Children’s Research Hospital

Schizophrenia genetics and its complexities are beginning to yield to large genome-wide studies. One of the recently identified top risk loci, miR 137, can be seen as a master key that unlocks other doors. The Mir 137 locus encodes a micro RNA that regulated hundreds of other genes, and several of those are also linked to schizophrenia.

Earlier this month, Emory’s chair of cell biology Gary Bassell and former graduate student Kristen Thomas published a paper in Cell Reports analyzing how perturbing Mir 137 affects signaling in neurons. Inhibiting Mir 137 blocked neurons’ responses to neuregulin and BDNF, well-known growth factors.

“We think a particularly interesting aspect of our paper is that it links miR137, neuregulin and ErbB4 receptor: three molecules with known genetic risk for schizophrenia,” Bassell writes. Read more

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‘Matchmaker’ role for protein behind SMA

Motor neurons connect the spinal cord to the muscles. They can be a meter long in adult humans. SMA (spinal muscular atrophy) affects approximately 1 in 10,000 babies. It impairs the ability to move and breathe, and in its most severe form, kills before the age of two.

A puzzling question has lurked behind SMA (spinal muscular atrophy), the leading genetic cause of death in infants.

The disorder leads to reduced levels of the SMN (survival of motor neurons) protein, which is thought to be involved in processing RNA, something that occurs in every cell in the body. So why does interfering with a process that happens everywhere affect motor neurons first?

Scientists at Emory University School of Medicine have been building a case for an answer. It’s because motor neurons have long axons. And RNA must be transported to the end of the axons for motor neurons to survive and keep us moving, eating and breathing.

Now the Emory researchers have a detailed picture for what they think the SMN protein is doing, and how its deficiency causes problems in SMA patients’ cells. The findings are published in Cell Reports.

Wilfried Rossoll, PhD in the lab.

“Our model explains the specificity — why motor neurons are so vulnerable to reductions in SMN,” says Wilfried Rossoll, PhD, assistant professor of cell biology at Emory University School of Medicine [and soon moving to the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville]. “What’s new is that we have a mechanism.”

Rossoll and his colleagues showed that the SMN protein is acting like a “matchmaker” for messenger RNA that needs partners to transport it into the cell axon.

RNA carries messages from DNA, huddled in the nucleus, to the rest of the cell so that proteins can be produced locally. But RNA can’t do that on its own, Rossoll says. In the paper, the scientists call SMN a “molecular chaperone.” That means SMN helps RNA hook up with processing and transport proteins, but doesn’t stay attached once the connections are made.

“It loads the truck, but it’s not on the truck,” Rossoll says. [Read the rest of Emory’s press release here.]

He also tells me that even though the two diseases affect very different age groups, SMA and ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) have two things in common: they both affect motor neurons and they both involve proteins that transport RNA. He says an emerging idea in the field is that SMA represents a problem of “hypo-assembly” while ALS is a problem of “hyper-assembly.”

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Fragile X regulation is a finely tuned machine

A PNAS paper published Monday demonstrates the kinds of insights that can be gleaned from a large scale sequencing project examining the fragile X gene.

Most children (boys, usually) who have fragile X syndrome have a particular mutation. An expanded “triplet repeat” stretch of DNA, which is outside the protein-coding region of the gene, puts the entire gene to sleep.

At Emory, geneticist Steve Warren, cell biologist Gary Bassell and colleagues have been identifying less common changes in the fragile X gene by looking in boys who are developmentally delayed, but don’t have the triplet repeat expansion. The first author of the paper is former postdoc Joshua Suhl, now at Booz Allen Hamilton in Massachusetts.

The authors describe two half-brothers who have the same genetic variant, which changes how production of the FMRP protein is regulated. These examples show that the fragile X gene is so central to how neurons function that several kinds of genetic glitches in it can make this finely tuned machine break down.

“This is a hot area and not much is known about it,” Warren says. Read more

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Fragile X syndrome: building a case for a treatment strategy

New research in mice strengthens a potential strategy for treating fragile X syndrome, the most common inherited form of intellectual disability and a major single-gene cause of autism spectrum disorder.

The results, published April 23 in Cell Reports, suggest that a drug strategy targeting a form of the enzyme PI3 (phosphoinositide-3) kinase could improve learning and behavioral flexibility in people with fragile X syndrome. The PI3 kinase strategy represents an alternative to one based on drugs targeting mGluR5 glutamate receptors, which have had difficulty showing benefits in clinical trials.

Research led by Emory scientists Gary Bassell, PhD and Christina Gross, PhD had previously found that the p110β form of PI3 kinase is overactivated in the brain in a mouse fragile X model, and in blood cells from human patients with fragile X syndrome.

Now they have shown that dialing back PI3 kinase overactivation by using genetic tools can alleviate some of the cognitive deficits and behavioral alterations observed in the mouse model. Drugs that target the p110β form of PI3 kinase are already in clinical trials for cancer.

“Further progress in this direction could lead to a clinical trial in fragile X,” says Bassell, who is chair of Cell Biology at Emory University School of Medicine. “The next step is to test whether this type of drug can be effective in the mouse model and in human patient cells.” Read more

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Regrouping on fragile X drug strategies

Fragile X syndrome has many fascinating aspects:

* the complex inheritance pattern

* its status as the most common inherited form of intellectual disability and a major single-gene cause of autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

*the importance of the RNA-binding protein FMRP as a regulator of synaptic plasticity in neurons

*the potential applicability of drugs developed for fragile X for other forms of ASD

Readers interested in neurodevelopment disorders may want to check out this Nature Reviews Drug Discovery piece, which chews over some setbacks in clinical research on fragile X. Emory researchers have a strong connection with the drug strategies used in the recent clinical trials, but have also been working on alternative approaches. Read more

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Rethinking the role of an aggregation-prone protein in ALS

Anyone studying neuroscience will notice that many neurodegenerative diseases seem to have their own sticky, possibly toxic protein. This protein tends to aggregate, or clump together, in or near the cells affected by the disease.

Picture a glass of milk left in a warm place for several days. Yuck. That is the macro version of the microscopic clumps scientists believe are bothering the brain. For many diseases, there is a debate: are the clumps by themselves toxic to neurons, or a byproduct of something else killing the cells?

Parkinson’s disease has one of the pesky proteins: alpha-synuclein. Alzheimer’s disease has two: beta-amyloid outside cells and tau inside. ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) has at least three.*

One of them, TDP-43, is found in protein aggregates in most forms of ALS, both familial and sporadic. Mutations in the TDP-43 gene also account for a small fraction of both familial and sporadic forms of ALS. This suggests that even the normal protein can create problems, but a mutated version can accelerate the disease. In addition, TDP-43 aggregates have been connected with other diseases such as frontotemporal dementia.

Again, it’s not clear whether the aggregates themselves are toxic, or whether it’s more a matter of TDP-43, which appears to regulate RNA processing, is not doing what it’s supposed to in the cell.

TDP-43 protein is mobile within motor neurons.

Emory cell biologists Claudia Fallini and Wilfried Rossoll have been probing the effects of tweaking TDP-43 levels in motor neurons, the cell type vulnerable to degeneration in ALS. They find that motor neurons may be more sensitive to changes in TDP-43 levels than other neurons, which may explain why ALS selectively affects motor neurons.

The results were published in Human Molecular Genetics.

Fallini was able to obtain a movie of fluorescently-tagged TDP-43 “granules” moving around in live motor neurons. Importantly: this is healthy/functional, not aggregated/ toxic protein. The finding that TDP-43 is mobile implies that it has something to do with transporting RNAs around the cell, rather than only functioning in the nucleus.

“Our data point to the hypothesis that TDP-43 increased localization in the cytoplasm is the early trigger of toxicity, followed by protein aggregation,” Fallini says. “Because motor neurons are unique neurons due to their high degree of polarization, we believe they might be more sensitive to alterations in TDP-43 functions in the cytoplasm or the axon.”

In particular, the researchers found that elevated levels of TDP-43 provoke motor neurons to shut down axon outgrowth. They focused on a role for the C-terminal end of TDP-43 in this effect.

“Nobody had looked at TDP-43 specifically in motor neurons before,” she says. “Our paper for the first time shows the localization and axonal transport of TDP-43, and the effects of TDP-43 altered levels on motor neuron morphology.”

*Another ALS protein, SOD1 (superoxide dismutase), apparently forms toxic aggregates when mutated in some cases of familial ALS. At Emory, Terrell Brotherton and Jonathan Glass have been investigating these forms of SOD. The third protein, FUS, has similar properties to TDP-43.

 

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Fragile X protein: one toggle switch, many circuits

The fragile X protein — missing in the most common inherited form of intellectual disability — plays a central role in neurons and how they respond to external signals. Cell biologist Gary Bassell and his colleagues have been examining how the fragile X protein (FMRP) acts as a “toggle switch.”

Gary Bassell, PhD

FMRP controls the activity of several genes by holding on to the RNAs those genes encode. When neurons get an electrochemical signal from the outside, FMRP releases the RNAs, allowing the RNAs to be made into protein, and facilitating changes in the neurons linked to learning and memory.

The Bassell lab’s new paper in Journal of Neuroscience reveals the role of another player in this process. The first author is postdoctoral fellow Vijay Nalavadi.

The researchers show that neurons modify FMRP with ubiquitin, the cellular equivalent of a tag for trash pickup, after receiving an external signal. In general, cells attach ubiquitin to proteins so that the proteins get eaten up by the proteasome, the cellular trash disposal bin. Here, neurons are temporarily getting rid of FMRP, prolonging the effects of the external signal.

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