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


Insight into brain + learning via ‘friend of fragile X’ gene

We can learn a lot about somebody from the friends they hang out with. This applies to people and also to genes and proteins. Emory scientists have been investigating a gene that we will call — spoiler alert — “Friend of fragile X.”

Fragile X syndrome is the most common inherited form of intellectual disability, studied by research teams around the world with drug discovery and clinical trials in mind. It is caused by a disruption of the gene FMR1.

In an independent form of inherited intellectual disability found in a small number of Iranian families, a gene called ZC3H14 is mutated. Two papers from Ken Moberg, PhD, associate professor of cell biology, Anita Corbett, PhD, professor of biology and colleagues show that FMR1 and ZC3H14 are, in effect, friends.

The findings provide new insight into the function of FMR1 as well as ZC3H14; the evidence comes from experiments performed in fruit flies and mice. The most recent paper is in the journal Cell Reports (open access), published this week.

The scientists found that the proteins encoded by FMR1 and ZC3H14 stick together in cells and they hang out in the same places. The two proteins have related functions: they both regulate messenger RNA in neurons, which explains their importance for learning and memory.

The fragile X protein (FMRP) was known to control protein production in response to signals arriving in neurons, but the Cell Reports paper shows that FMRP is also regulating the length of  “tails” attached to messenger RNAs – something scientists did not realize, even after years of studying FMRP and fragile X, Moberg says.

To be sure, FMRP interacts with many proteins and appears to be a critical gatekeeper. Emory geneticist Peng Jin, who has conducted his share of research on this topic, says that “FMRP must be very social and has a lot of friends.” More here.

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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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BAI1: a very multifunctional protein

Everything is connected, especially in the brain. A protein called BAI1 involved in limiting the growth of brain tumors is also critical for spatial learning and memory, researchers have discovered.

Mice missing BAI1 have trouble learning and remembering where they have been. Because of the loss of BAI1, their neurons have changes in how they respond to electrical stimulation, and subtle alterations in parts of the cell needed for information processing.

The findings may have implications for developing treatments for neurological diseases, because BAI1 is part of a protein regulatory network neuroscientists think is connected with autism spectrum disorders.

The results were published online March 9 in Journal of Clinical Investigation.

Erwin Van Meir, PhD, and his colleagues at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University have been studying BAI1 (brain-specific angiogenesis inhibitor 1) for several years. Part of the BAI1 protein can stop the growth of new blood vessels, which growing cancers need. Normally highly active in the brain, the BAI1 gene is lost or silenced in brain tumors, suggesting that it acts as a tumor suppressor.

The researchers were surprised to find that the brains of mice lacking the BAI1 gene looked normal anatomically. They didn’t develop tumors any faster than normal, and they didn’t have any alterations in their blood vessels, which the researchers had anticipated based on BAI1’s role in regulating blood vessel growth. What they did have was problems with spatial memory.

Read more

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Many colors in the epigenetic palette

Methylation, an epigenetic modification to DNA, can be thought of as a highlighting pen applied to DNA’s text, adding information but not changing the actual letters of the text.

Are you still with me on the metaphors? If so, consider this wrinkle. (If not, more explanation here.)

Emory geneticist Peng Jin and his colleagues have been a key part of the discovery in the last few years that methylation comes in several colors. His lab has been mapping where 5-hydroxymethylcytosine or 5hmC appears in the genome and inferring how it functions. 5-hmC is particularly abundant in the brain.D5405-2

Methylation, in the form of 5-methylcytosine or 5mC, is both a control button for turning genes off and a sign of their off state. 5hmC looks like 5mC, except it has an extra oxygen. That could be a tag for a removal, or a signal that a gene is poised to be turned on.

Two recent papers on this topic:

Please recall that an enriched environment (exercise and mental stimulation) is good for learning and memory, for young and old. In the journal Genomics, Jin and his team show that exposing mice to an enriched environment  — a running wheel and a variety of toys — leads to a 60 percent reduction in 5hmC in the hippocampus, a region of the brain critical for learning and memory.  The changes in 5hmC were concentrated in genes having to do with axon guidance. Hat tip to the all-things-epigenetic site Epigenie.

In Genes and Development, structural biologist Xiaodong Cheng and colleagues demonstrate that two regulatory proteins that bind DNA (Egr1 and WT1) respond primarily to oxidation of their target sequences rather than methylation. These proteins like plain old C and 5mC equally, but they don’t like 5hmC or other oxidized forms of 5mC. “Gene activity could plausibly be controlled on a much finer scale by these modifications than simply ‘on or ‘off’,” the authors write.

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The classic epilepsy surgery case

The epilepsy patient Henry Molaison, known for most of the 20th century as H.M., is one of the most famous in neuroscience. His case played an important role in telling scientists about structures of the brain that are important for forming short-term and long-term memories.

To control H.M.’s epilepsy, neurosurgeon William Scoville http://www.raybandasoleit.com/ removed much of the hippocampi, amygdalae and nearby regions on both sides of his brain. After the surgery, H.M. suffered from severe anterograde amnesia, meaning that he could not commit new events to explicit memory. However, other forms of his memory were intact, such as short-term working memory and motor skills.Henry_Gustav_1

This classic case helps us understand the advances that neurosurgeons at Emory are achieving today. The surgeries now used to treat some medication-resistant forms of epilepsy are similar to what was performed on H.M., although they are considerably less drastic. Usually tissue on only one side of the brain is removed. Still, there can be cognitive side effects: loss of visual or verbal memory abilities, and deficiencies in the ability to name or recognize objects, places or people.

Neurosurgeon Robert Gross has been a pioneer in testing a more precise procedure, selective laser amygdalohippocampotomy (SLAH), which appears to control seizures while having less severe side effects. Neuropsychologist Daniel Drane reported at the recent American Epilepsy Society meeting on outcomes from a series of SLAH surgeries performed at Emory.

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Seeing in triangles with grid cells

When processing what the eyes see, the brains of primates don’t use square grids, but instead use triangles, research from Yerkes neuroscientist Beth Buffalo’s lab suggests.

Elizabeth Buffalo, PhD

She and graduate student Nathan Killian recently published (in Nature) their description of grid cells, neurons in the entorhinal cortex that fire when the eyes focus on particular locations.

Their findings broaden our understanding of how visual information makes its way into memory. It also helps us grasp why deterioration of the entorhinal cortex, a region of the brain often affected early by Alzheimer’s disease, produces disorientation.

The Web site RedOrbit has an extended interview with Buffalo. An excerpt:

The amazing thing about grid cells is that the multiple place fields are in precise geometric relation to each other and form a tessellated array of equilateral triangles, a ‘grid’ that tiles the entire environment. A spatial autocorrelation of the grid field map produces a hexagonal structure, with 60º rotational symmetry. In 2008, grid cells were identified Gafas Ray Ban outlet in mice, in bats in 2011, and now our work has shown that grid cells are also present in the primate brain.

Please read the whole thing!

Grid cells fire at different rates depending on where the eyes are focused. Mapping that activity across the visual field produces triangular patterns.

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Blue pill or red pill? Brains need both for memory consolidation

In the 1999 film The Matrix, the character Neo is offered a choice between a blue pill (to forget) and a red pill (to remember). If only neuroscience was that simple! It may be that neurons need both red and blue, possibly an elaborate dance of molecules, for a fragile memory to lodge itself in the brain.

Neuroscientists Kimberly Maguschak and Kerry Ressler provide a glimpse into this process with their recent paper in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Ressler is both a psychiatrist and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute-supported researcher with a laboratory at Yerkes National Primate Research Center. Maguschak completed her doctorate at Emory and is now a postdoc with Guoping Feng at MIT.

The research is a follow-up on their work probing the role of beta-catenin in fear memory formation. We previously described this protein as acting “like a Velcro strap”, attaching cells’ internal skeletons to proteins on their external membranes that help them adhere to other cells. If brain cells need to change shape and form new connections for memories to be consolidated, we can see how this kind of molecule would be important.

Beta-catenin is also central to a signaling circuit that maintains stem cells and prods an embryo to separate into front and back or top and bottom. This circuit is called “Wnt” (the name is a fusion of the fruit fly gene wingless and a cancer-promoting gene discovered in mice, originally called Int-1).

Maguschak and Ressler wanted to assess the role Wnt signals play in learning and memory. The model system was the same as in their previous work: if mice are electrically shocked just after they hear a certain tone, they gradually learn to fear that tone, and they show that fear by freezing.

Kerry Ressler, MD, PhD

Maguschak saw that in the amygdala, a part of the brain important for fear responses, Wnt genes are turned down during the learning process temporarily but then come back on. If the mice only hear the tone or only get the shock, the genes’ activities don’t change significantly.

She then introduced proteins that perturb Wnt signaling directly into the amygdala. Extra Wnt injected before training, while it didn’t stop the mice from learning to fear the tone, made that training less likely to “stick.” Two days later, the mice that received Wnt didn’t seem to fear the tone as much.

Here’s the possibly confusing part: a Wnt inhibitor also impaired fear memory consolidation. In effect, both blue and red pills actually interfered with how well memories endured. The authors suggest this is because Wnt signals have to be turned down during fear memory formation but then turned back up so those memories can solidify. The Wnt signals seem to go along with the adhesive interactions of beta-catenin. It looks like beta-catenin’s stickiness also needs to be tuned down and then back up.

The off-then-on-again requirement Maguschak and Ressler observe is reminiscent of results from cell biologist James Zheng’s lab. He and his colleagues saw that the actin cytoskeleton needed to be weakened and then stabilized during long-term potentiation, an enhancement of connections between neurons thought to lie behind learning and memory.

Several laboratories have identified potential drugs that modify beta-catenin/Wnt. These new results suggest that the timing of when and how to use such drugs to enhance memory may critically important to consider, Ressler says.

“To interfere with memory formation after trauma or enhance memory formation in people with dementia, researchers will clearly need to attend to the full complexity of the dynamics of synaptic plasticity and memory,” he says.

A nifty link to an animation of Wnt signaling


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Smart mice, clever names and some context

This week a variety of media outlets and science-oriented Web sites had fun with research at Emory — published recently in PNAS — investigating a gene that appears to limit some forms of learning and memory.

Mice with a disabled RGS14 gene remembered objects in their cages more easily and learned to navigate water mazes better, pharmacologist John Hepler and his colleagues found. Since the presence of a functional RGS14 gene holds mice back mentally, Hepler and his colleagues have been jokingly calling it “the Homer Simpson gene.”

This description struck a chord; the Atlantic magazine even embellished the story with a video showing the “D’oh”-ey cartoon character evolving from a single cell into a human couch potato.

It’s important to recognize that smart mice are not so surprising to scientists anymore. Back in 1999, scientists at Princeton announced the creation of “Doogie Howser” mice (named after a precocious doctor from another TV series). These critters performed better than normal lab mice in some of the same tests that Hepler’s team used to evaluate the RGS14-deleted mice.

One important difference: the Doogie mice had all their normal genes, and were overproducing a NMDA receptor gene involved in helping neurons communicate. Still, as a helpful 2009 round-up in Nature Reviews Neuroscience explains, scientists have found several single-gene knock-out mice that do better on tests of learning and memory. Many of these genetic alterations affect the process of long term potentiation, a process where neurons that get stimulated at the same time have the connections between them grow stronger.

RGS14 is turned on primarily in the CA2 region of the hippocampus

What makes the RGS14 gene an intriguing case is that it’s primarily turned on in the enigmatic CA2 region of the hippocampus. The CA2 region is normally relatively resistant to long-term potentiation and is also more hardy in situations of stroke or seizure.

Hepler observes that the vasopressin receptor 1b gene is also turned on predominantly in the CA2 region, and seems to be involved in aggression and social memory. He and his colleagues are planning to examine whether the RGS14-disabled mice have altered capabilities in those areas. Conveniently, Larry Young’s laboratory at Yerkes National Primate Research Center has been investigating the functions of vasopressin receptors in voles.

One last note: scientists in Spain have reported in Science that they can generate a variety of smart mice by putting the RGS14 gene on overdrive in a part of the brain where it’s not usually turned on. So whatever precise function RGS14 has, it doesn’t always dumb things down.

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