The journey of a marathon sleeper

A marathon sleeper who got away left some clues for Emory and University of Florida scientists to Read more

A push for reproducibility in biomedical research

At Emory, several scientists are making greater efforts to push forward to improve scientific research and combat what is being called “the reproducibility crisis.” Guest post from Erica Read more

Exosomes as potential biomarkers of radiation exposure

Exosomes = potential biomarkers of radiation in the Read more

neurodegenerative disease

Tug of war between Parkinson’s protein and growth factors

Alpha-synuclein, a sticky and sometimes toxic protein involved in Parkinson’s disease (PD), blocks signals from an important brain growth factor, researchers have discovered.

The results were published this week in PNAS.

The finding adds to evidence that alpha-synuclein is a pivot for damage to brain cells in PD, and helps to explain why brain cells that produce the neurotransmitter dopamine are more vulnerable to degeneration.

Alpha-synuclein is a major component of Lewy bodies, the protein clumps that are a pathological sign of PD. Also, duplications of or mutations in the gene encoding alpha-synuclein drive some rare familial cases.

In the current paper, researchers led by Keqiang Ye, PhD demonstrated that alpha-synuclein binds and interferes with TrkB, the receptor for BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor). BDNF promotes brain cells’ survival and was known to be deficient in Parkinson’s patients. When applied to neurons, BDNF in turn sends alpha-synuclein away from TrkB.  [Ye’s team has extensively studied the pharmacology of 7,8-dihydroxyflavone, a TrkB agonist.]

A “tug of war” situation thus exists between alpha-synuclein and BDNF, struggling for dominance over TrkB. In cultured neurons and in mice, alpha-synuclein inhibits BDNF’s ability to protect brain cells from neurotoxins that mimic PD-related damage, Ye’s team found. Read more

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Drug discovery: Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s spurred by same enzyme

Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease are not the same. They affect different regions of the brain and have distinct genetic and environmental risk factors.

But at the biochemical level, these two neurodegenerative diseases start to look similar. That’s how Emory scientists led by Keqiang Ye, PhD, landed on a potential drug target for Parkinson’s.

Keqiang Ye, PhD

In both Alzheimer’s (AD) and Parkinson’s (PD), a sticky and sometimes toxic protein forms clumps in brain cells. In AD, the troublemaker inside cells is called tau, making up neurofibrillary tangles. In PD, the sticky protein is alpha-synuclein, forming Lewy bodies. Here is a thorough review of alpha-synuclein’s role in Parkinson’s disease.

Ye and his colleagues had previously identified an enzyme (asparagine endopeptidase or AEP) that trims tau in a way that makes it both more sticky and more toxic. In addition, they have found that AEP similarly processes beta-amyloid, another bad actor in Alzheimer’s, and drugs that inhibit AEP have beneficial effects in Alzheimer’s animal models.

In a new Nature Structural and Molecular Biology paper, Emory researchers show that AEP acts in the same way toward alpha-synuclein as it does toward tau.

“In Parkinson’s, alpha-synuclein behaves much like Tau in Alzheimer’s,” Ye says. “We reasoned that if AEP cuts Tau, it’s very likely that it will cut alpha-synuclein too.”

A particular chunk of alpha-synuclein produced by AEP’s scissors can be found in samples of brain tissue from patients with PD, but not in control samples, Ye’s team found.

In control brain samples AEP was confined to lysosomes, parts of the cell with a garbage disposal function. But in PD samples, AEP was leaking out of the lysosomes to the rest of the cell.

The researchers also observed that the chunk of alpha-synuclein generated by AEP is more likely to aggregate into clumps than the full length protein, and is more toxic when introduced into cells or mouse brains. In addition, alpha-synuclein mutated so that AEP can’t cut it is less toxic. Read more

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Amyloid vs tau? With this AD target, no need to choose

Keqiang Ye’s lab at Emory recently published a paper in Nature Communications that offers a two for one deal in Alzheimer’s drug discovery.

Periodically we hear suggestions that the amyloid hypothesis, the basis of much research on Alzheimer’s disease, is in trouble. Beta-amyloid is a toxic protein fragment that accumulates in extracellular brain plaques in Alzheimer’s, and genetics for early-onset Alzheimer’s point to a driver role for amyloid too.

In mice, inhibiting AEP hits two targets (amyloid and tau) with one shot

Unfortunately, anti-amyloid agents (either antibodies that sop up beta-amyloid or drugs that steer the body toward making less of it) have not shown clear positive effects in clinical trials.

That may be because the clinical trials started too late or the drugs weren’t dosed/delivered right, but there is a third possibility: modifying amyloid by itself is not enough.

Ye’s lab has been investigating an enzyme called AEP (asparagine endopeptidase), which he provocatively calls “delta secretase.” AEP is involved in processing both amyloid and tau, amyloid’s intracellular tangle-forming counterpart. Read more

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Provocative prions may protect yeast cells from stress

Prions have a notorious reputation. They cause neurodegenerative disease, namely mad cow/Creutzfeld-Jakob disease. And the way these protein particles propagate – getting other proteins to join the pile – can seem insidious.

Yet prion formation could represent a protective response to stress, research from Emory University School of Medicine and Georgia Tech suggests.

A yeast protein called Lsb2, which can trigger prion formation by other proteins, actually forms a “metastable” prion itself in response to elevated temperatures, the scientists report.

The results were published this week in Cell Reports.

Higher temperatures cause proteins to unfold; this is a major stress for yeast cells as well as animal cells, and triggers a “heat shock” response. Prion formation could be an attempt by cells to impose order upon an otherwise chaotic jumble of misfolded proteins, the scientists propose.

A glowing red clump can be detected in yeast cells containing a Lsb2 prion (left), because Lsb2 is hooked up to a red fluorescent protein. In other cells lacking prion activity (right), the Lsb2 fusion protein is diffuse.

“What we found suggests that Lsb2 could be the regulator of a broader prion-forming response to stress,” says Keith Wilkinson, PhD, professor of biochemistry at Emory University School of Medicine.

The scientists call the Lsb2 prion metastable because it is maintained in a fraction of cells after they return to normal conditions but is lost in other cells. Lsb2 is a short-lived, unstable protein, and mutations that keep it around longer increase the stability of the prions.

The Cell Reports paper was the result of collaboration between Wilkinson, Emory colleague Tatiana Chernova, PhD, assistant professor of biochemistry, and the laboratory of Yury Chernoff, PhD in Georgia Tech’s School of Biological Sciences.

“It’s fascinating that stress treatment may trigger a cascade of prion-like changes, and that the molecular memory of that stress can persist for a number of cell generations in a prion-like form,” Chernoff says.”Our further work is going to check if other proteins can respond to environmental stresses in a manner similar to Lsb2.” Read more

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Breath test for Parkinson’s?

Using one to see into the other. Left: canister for breath sample. Right: basal ganglia, a region of the brain usually affected by Parkinson’s.

Scientists think that it may be possible to detect signs of Parkinson’s disease through a breath test.

The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research is supporting a clinical study at Emory that will probe this idea. Neuro-immunologist Malu Tansey is working with Hygieia, a Georgia-based company that has developed technology for analyzing volatile organic compounds present in exhaled air.

From the MJFF’s blog:

By collecting and analyzing breath samples in 100 people (50 non-smoking early-stage PD patients and 50 age and sex-matched controls), the researchers hope to define a unique inflammatory PD-specific breath fingerprint that could be used to predict and monitor disease in combination with blood analyses of conventional or newly discovered biomarkers.

“We hypothesize that breath volatile organic compounds (BVOCs) fingerprinting can enable sensitive and specific measures of ongoing inflammation and other processes implicated in the development and/or progression of PD, and thus could represent an early detection tool,” Tansey says.

If results indicate moving forward, Tansey says it will be important to compare the breath sample method against blood tests for inflammatory markers. Other reports on the breath test approach for Parkinson’s have been encouraging. Read more

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HD monkeys display full spectrum of symptoms seen in humans

Transgenic Huntington’s disease monkeys display a full spectrum of symptoms resembling the human disease, ranging from motor problems and neurodegeneration to emotional dysregulation and immune system changes, scientists at Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University report.

The results, published online in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity, strengthen the case that transgenic Huntington’s disease monkeys could be used to evaluate emerging treatments (such as this) before launching human clinical trials.

“Identifying emotional and immune symptoms in the HD monkeys, along with previous studies demonstrating their cognitive deficits and fine motor problems, suggest the HD monkey model embodies the full array of symptoms similar to human patients with the disease,” says Yerkes research associate Jessica Raper, PhD, lead author of the paper. Read more

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A sweet brain preserver: trehalose

It’s sweet, it’s safe, and it looks like it could save neurons. What is it? Trehalose.

Trehalose molecule

Trehalose is a natural sugar.

This natural sugar is used in the food industry as a preservative and flavor enhancer (it’s in Taco Bell’s meat filling). And curiously, medical researchers keep running into trehalose when they’re looking for ways to fight neurodegenerative diseases.

A recent example from Emory’s Department of Pharmacology: Chris Holler, Thomas Kukar and colleagues were looking for drugs that might boost human cells’ production of progranulin (PGRN), a growth factor that keeps neurons healthy. Mutations in the progranulin gene are a common cause of frontotemporal dementia.

The Emory scientists discovered two leads: a class of compounds called mTOR inhibitors — the transplant drug rapamycin is one — and trehalose. The team decided to concentrate on trehalose because it increased PGRN levels in neuronal and non-neuronal cell types, unlike the mTOR inhibitors. Their results were published at the end of June in Molecular Neurodegeneration.

The team confirmed their findings by examining the effects of trehalose on cells derived from patients with progranulin mutations. This paper is the first to include results from Emory’s Laboratory of Translational Cell Biology, which was established in 2012 to facilitate this type of “disease in a dish” approach. Cell biologists Charles Easley, Wilfried Rossoll and Gary Bassell from the LTCB, and neurologists Chad Hales and William Hu from the Center for Neurodegenerative Disease are co-authors.

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Insight into broken record genetic diseases

Those of us who are old enough to remember vinyl records will recall how a scratch can cause the same sounds to repeat many times. A similar type of genetic glitch causes neurodegenerative diseases such as Huntington’s and several forms of spinocerebellar ataxia.

Huntington’s and the spinocerebellar ataxias are known as “polyglutamine” diseases. In each, the affected gene has a stretch where the same three DNA letters are repeated several times — more than usual. As a result, the protein encoded by the affected gene has a patch, where only the building block glutamine can be found, disrupting that protein’s usual functions in the body.

Geneticist Xiao-Jiang Li and colleagues recently published a paper in Cell Reports that may explain why more aggressive juvenile-onset forms of polyglutamine diseases have different symptoms and pathology. Read more

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Do Alzheimer’s proteins share properties with prions?

If you’ve come anywhere near Alzheimer’s research, you’ve come across the “amyloid hypothesis” or “amyloid cascade hypothesis.”

This is the proposal that deposition of amyloid-beta, a major protein ingredient of the plaques that accumulate in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients, is a central event in the pathology of the disease. Lots of supporting evidence exists, but several therapies that target beta-amyloid, such as antibodies, have failed in large clinical trials.

Jucker_Walker_May_2014

Lary Walker and Matthias Jucker in Tübingen, 2014

In a recent Nature News article, Boer Deng highlights an emerging idea in the Alzheimer’s field that may partly explain why: not all forms of aggregated amyloid-beta are the same. Moreover, some “strains” of amyloid-beta may resemble spooky prions in their ability to spread within the brain, even if they can’t infect other people (important!).

Prions are the “infectious proteins” behind diseases such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy. They fold into a particular structure, aggregate and then propagate by attracting more proteins into that structure.

Lary Walker at Yerkes National Primate Research Center has been a key proponent of this provocative idea as it applies to Alzheimer’s. To conduct key experiments supporting the prion-like properties of amyloid-beta, Walker has been collaborating with Matthias Jucker in Tübingen, Germany and spent four months there on a sabbatical last year. Their paper, describing how aggregated amyloid-beta is “seeded” and spreads through the brain in mice, was recently published in Brain Pathology.
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Parkinson’s drug discovery: visit the dopamine container store

In a recent PNAS paper, Gary Miller and colleagues at Rollins School of Public Health outline a potential therapeutic approach to Parkinson’s disease that I’m going to call the Container Store approach.

If you have a mess in your kitchen or basement workshop, you might need more or better containers to hold your tools. Analogously, problems in Parkinson’s disease can be traced back to a lack of effective containers for the brain communication chemical dopamine.

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