The time Anna stayed up all night

Almost precisely a decade ago, a young Atlanta lawyer named Anna was returning to work, after being treated for an extraordinary sleep disorder. Her story has been told here at Emory and by national media outlets. Fast forward a decade to Idiopathic Hypersomnia Awareness Week 2018 (September 3-9), organized by Hypersomnolence Australia. What this post deals with is essentially the correction of a date at the tail end of Anna’s story, but one with long-term implications Read more

Mini-monsters of cardiac regeneration

Jinhu Wang’s lab is not producing giant monsters. They are making fish with fluorescent hearts. Lots of cool Read more

Why is it so hard to do good science?

Last week, Lab Land put out a Twitter poll, touching on the cognitive distortions that make it difficult to do high-quality science. Lots of people (almost 50) responded! Thank you! We had to be vague about where all this came from, because it was before the publication of the underlying research paper. Ray Dingledine, in Emory’s Department of Pharmacology, asked us to do the Twitter poll first, to see what answers people would give. Dingledine’s Read more

Parkinson’s Disease

The blue spot: where seeds of destruction begin

Neuroscientist and geneticist David Weinshenker makes a case that the locus coeruleus (LC), a small region of the brainstem and part of the pons, is among the earliest regions to show signs of degeneration in both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. You can check it out in Trends in Neurosciences.

The LC is the main source of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine in the brain, and gets its name (Latin for “blue spot”) from the pigment neuromelanin, which is formed as a byproduct of the synthesis of norepinephrine and its related neurotransmitter dopamine. The LC has connections all over the brain, and is thought to be involved in arousal and attention, stress responses, learning and memory, and the sleep-wake cycle.

Cells in the locus coeruleus are lost in mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s. From Kelly et al Acta Neuropath. Comm. (2017) via Creative Commons

The protein tau is one of the toxic proteins tied to Alzheimer’s, and it forms intracellular tangles. Pathologists have observed that precursors to tau tangles can be found in the LC in apparently healthy people before anywhere else in the brain, sometimes during the first few decades of life, Weinshenker writes. A similar bad actor in Parkinson’s, alpha-synuclein, can also be detected in the LC before other parts of the brain that are well known for damage in Parkinson’s, such as the dopamine neurons in the substantia nigra.

“The LC is the earliest site to show tau pathology in AD and one of the earliest (but not the earliest) site to show alpha-synuclein pathology in PD,” Weinshenker tells Lab Land. “The degeneration of the cells in both these diseases is more gradual. It probably starts in the terminals/fibers and eventually the cell bodies die.” Read more

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Inflammation in PD hits the gut

Several groups studying Parkinson’s have had a hunch – a gut feeling, even – that intestinal inflammation is involved in driving the disease. Now Emory researchers led by Malu Tansey, PhD have some evidence from patient samples to back it up, published in the journal Movement Disorders.

IMP graduate student Madelyn Houser

German pathologist Heiko Braak has been honored by the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research for his theory, originally published in 2003, proposing that disease pathology – marked by aggregation of the toxic protein alpha-synuclein — may begin in the gastrointestinal tract and migrate from there to the central nervous system. This proposal was both provocative and influential in the Parkinson’s disease (PD) field. And Tansey herself has long been interested in the role of microglia, the immune cells resident in the brain, in PD.

The first author of the new paper, Immunology and Molecular Pathogenesis graduate student Madelyn Houser, notes that digestive problems such as constipation are frequently reported in PD patients. But what is the cause and what is effect? As neurologist Stewart Factor observed for a Emory Medicine article on PD’s non-motor symptoms: “A patient might tell me he’s had recurring constipation for 10 years, but he wouldn’t say anything to a neurologist about it until he starts having other symptoms.” Read more

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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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Emory neuro-researchers in Alzforum

Just a shoutout regarding Emory folks in Alzforum, the research news site focusing on Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative disorders.

Alzforum recently highlighted proteomics wizard Nick Seyfried’s presentation at a June meeting in Germany (Alzheimer’s Proteomics Treasure Trove). This includes work from the Emory ADRC and Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging that was published in Cell Systems in December: the first large-scale systems biology analysis of post-mortem brain proteins in Alzheimer’s. The idea is to have a fresh “unbiased” look at proteins involved in Alzheimer’s.

Also, neuroscientists Malu Tansey and Tom Kukar have been teaming up to provide detailed comments on papers being reported in Alzforum. Here’s one on inflammation related to gene alterations in frontotemporal dementia, and another on auto-immune responses in Parkinson’s.

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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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More pieces in Parkinson’s puzzle: VMAT2 and SV2C

The drug target VMAT2 has appeared in biomedical news lately because of a pair of FDA approvals. One medicine treats the iatrogenic movement disorder tardive dyskinesia, the first approved to do so, and the other is for symptoms of Huntington’s disease.

Gary Miller, PhD

When Emory folks see VMAT2, they should think of two things: the neurotransmitter dopamine, and Parkinson’s research conducted by Gary Miller and his colleagues. They have made a case that activators of VMAT2 would be beneficial in Parkinson’s, but the drugs in the news were inhibitors, and presumably would make Parkinson’s worse.

VMAT2 (vesicular monoamine transporter 2) is responsible for transporting dopamine into synaptic vesicles, tiny packages for delivery. As Miller’s lab has shown, mice deficient in VMAT2 can be a model for the non-motor and motor aspects of Parkinson’s. In these mice, not only are certain nervous system functions impaired, but the dopamine packaging problem inflicts damage on the neurons.

Miller’s more recent work on a related molecule called SV2C is puzzling, but intriguing. The gene encoding SV2C had attracted attention because of its connection to the striking ability of cigarette smoking to reduce Parkinson’s risk, possibly mediated by nicotine’s effect on dopamine in the brain.

I say puzzling because SV2C’s role in brain cells can’t be described as easily as VMAT2’s. Read more

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Parkinson’s disease: hold the AMPs

Pathologist Keqiang Ye and colleagues recently published a paper in PNAS that may have implications for Parkinson’s disease pathology and treatment strategies.

The protein alpha-synuclein is a bad actor in PD (nice explainer from Michael J. Fox Foundation); it’s a major constituent of Lewy bodies, the protein clumps that appear in PD patients’ brains, and there is a genetic link too. Alpha-synuclein seems to bring other proteins into the clumps, which may disrupt neuron function.

In particular, it sequesters PIKE-L, an inhibitor of AMP kinase, leading to AMP kinase hyperactivation and cell death. AMP kinase is a metabolic regulator activated by metformin, a common treatment for diabetes. So activating AMP kinase in some situations can be good for your body; however for the neurons affected by alpha-synuclein, activating it too much is bad.

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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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Emory labs on LabTV

This summer, video producers from the web site LabTV came to two laboratories at Emory. We are pleased to highlight the first crop of documentary-style videos.

LabTV features hundreds of young researchers from universities and institutes around the United States, who tell the public about themselves and their research. The videos include childhood photos and explanations from the scientists about what they do and what motivates them. Screen Shot 2015-12-18 at 9.14.51 AM

The two Emory labs are: Malu Tansey’s lab in the Department of Physiology, which studies the intersection of neuroscience and immunology, focusing on neurodegenerative disease, and Mike Davis’ lab in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory, which is developing regenerative approaches and technologies for heart disease in adults and children. Read more

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Risk triangle: immune gene, insecticide, Parkinson’s

Genetic variation and exposure to pesticides both appear to affect risk for Parkinson’s disease. A new study has found a connection between these two risk factors, in a way that highlights a role for immune responses in progression of the disease.

The results are published in the inaugural issue of NPJ Parkinson’s Disease.

The findings implicate a type of pesticide called pyrethroids, which are found in the majority of commercial household insecticides, and are being used more in agriculture as other insecticides are being phased out. Although pyrethroids are neurotoxic for insects, exposure to them is generally considered safe for humans by federal authorities.

The study is the first making the connection between pyrethroid exposure and genetic risk for Parkinson’s, and thus needs follow-up investigation, says co-senior author Malu Tansey, PhD, associate professor of physiology at Emory University School of Medicine.

The genetic variation the team probed, which has been previously tied to Parkinson’s in larger genome-wide association studies, was in a non-coding region of a MHC II (major histocompatibility complex class II) gene, part of a group of genes that regulate the immune system.

“We did not expect to find a specific association with pyrethroids,” Tansey says. “It was known that acute exposure to pyrethroids could lead to immune dysfunction, and that the molecules they act on can be found in immune cells; now we need to know more about how longer-term exposure affects the immune system in a way that increases risk for Parkinson’s.”

“There is already ample evidence that brain inflammation or an overactive immune system can drive the progression of Parkinson’s. What we think may be happening here is that environmental exposures may be altering some people’s immune responses, in a way that promotes chronic inflammation in the brain.”

For this study, Emory investigators led by Tansey and Jeremy Boss, PhD, chair of microbiology and immunology, teamed up with Stewart Factor, DO, head of Emory’s Comprehensive Parkinson’s Disease Center, and public health researchers from UCLA led by Beate Ritz, MD, PhD. The first author of the paper is MD/PhD student George T. Kannarkat.

The UCLA researchers used a California state geographical database covering 30 years of pesticide use in agriculture. They defined exposure based on proximity (someone’s work and home addresses), but did not measure levels of pesticides in the body. Pyrethroids are thought to decay relatively quickly, especially in sunlight, with half-lives in soil of days to weeks. Read more

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