Big data with heart, for psychiatric disorders

Heart rate variability can be used to monitor psychiatric Read more

Unlocking schizophrenia biology via genetics

A genetic risk factor for schizophrenia could be a key to unlock the biology of the complex Read more

Brain circuitry linked to social connection and desire to cuddle

Just like humans, prairie voles are capable of consistently forming social bonds with mating partners, a rare trait in the animal Read more

RNA

‘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.”

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Neuro Leave a comment

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

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Neuro Leave a comment

Moving urology beyond the PSA test

The PSA (prostate specific antigen) blood test has been criticized for years for driving men to seek biopsies and then definitive treatment for slow-growing cancers that may not pose a danger.

At the recent AUA meeting in New Orleans, urologist Martin Sanda presented results from research on tests that could allow the urology field to move beyond the PSA test as it is now. Winship magazine’s cover story has more on this topic.

Martin Sanda, MD is director of Winship Cancer Institute’s Prostate Cancer Program and chair of urology at Emory University School of Medicine

Right now, only about a sixth of men who have a biopsy based on the results of a PSA test have something that doctors agree should be called a cancer (a tumor with a Gleason score of seven or higher).

Sanda described studies on a urine test that could double that specificity, possibly eliminating unnecessary biopsies for many men. Read more

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Cancer Leave a comment

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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Mapping mRNAs in the brain

If the brain acts like a computer, which of the brain’s physical features store the information? Flashes of electricity may keep memories and sensations alive for the moment, but what plays the role that hard drives and CDs do for computers?

A simple answer could be: genes turning on and off, and eventually, neurons growing and changing their shapes. But it gets more complicated pretty quickly. Genes can be regulated at several levels:

  • at the level of transcription — whether messenger RNA gets made from a stretch of DNA in the cell’s nucleus
  • at the level of translation — whether the messenger RNA is allowed to make a protein
  • at the level of RNA localization — where the mRNAs travel within the cell

Each neuron has only two copies of a given gene but will have many dendrites that can have more or less RNA in them. That means the last two modes of regulation offer neurons much more capacity for storing information.

Gary Bassell, a cell biologist at Emory, and his colleagues have been exploring how RNA regulation works in neurons. They have developed special tools for mapping RNA, and especially, microRNA — a form of RNA that regulates other RNAs.

In the dendrites of neurons, FMRP seems to control where RNAs end up

In the dendrites of neurons, FMRP seems to control where RNAs end up

Fragile X mental retardation protein (FMRP), linked to the most common inherited form of mental retardation, appears to orchestrate RNA traffic in neurons. Bassell and pharmacologist Yue Feng recently received a grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Development to study FMRP’s regulation of RNA in greater detail. The grant was one of several at Emory funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s support for the NIH.

In the video interview above, Bassell explains his work on microRNAs in neurons. Below is a microscope image, provided by Bassell, showing the pattern of FMRP’s localization in neurons.

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