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Straight to the heart: direct reprogramming creates cardiac “tissue” in mice

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amygdala

Manipulating neurons with light

Welcome to a feature of Lab Land we hope to have on a regular basis! It’s where we explain a word or phrase that is a hot topic of discussion in the science online world and particularly relevant to research going on at Emory.

Optogenetics allows researchers to stimulate specific brain cells with light. It involves introducing light-sensitive proteins from algae into the brain cells of mice, and then using a fiber optic cable to apply a laser signal to the relevant region of the brain.

Optogenetics is a leap beyond previous genetic engineering techniques that made it possible to turn on (or delete) a gene by feeding a mouse some extraneous chemical, such as the antibiotic tetracycline or the anti-hormone tamoxifen. Instead of wondering how long it takes that chemical to make its way into the brain, scientists can literally flick a switch and see near-instantaneous and localized effects. Read more

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Neuro Leave a comment

Neurosurgery via genetics to modulate anxiety

If you hear someone talking about a stress hormone, they’re probably talking about cortisol. It’s released by the adrenal glands in stressful situations, whether you have to escape a bear or just give a speech. Cortisol is supposed to prepare the body for “fight or flight.”

Kerry Ressler, MD, PhD

Let’s step back a bit, and look at how the brain triggers cortisol production: through a peptide produced in the brain called CRF (corticotropin-releasing factor). CRF is elevated in several disorders such as depression and PTSD, and is also thought to be involved in drug and alcohol dependency.

Neurons that make CRF are found in locations all over the brain, so studying them can be tricky. Kerry Ressler and his colleagues have developed an intriguing tool for studying CRF. In the places where CRF is produced in a mouse’s brain, they can take out the gene of their choice.

Green spots (above) and blue staining (below) indicate where CRF is produced in the mouse brain.
PVN = hypothalamus, paraventricular nucleus
CeA = central amygdala

In a new paper in PNAS, postdoc Georgette Gafford and Ressler use this tool in a subtle way. They have mice where a gene for a GABA receptor, one of the main inhibitory receptors (brakes) in the nervous system, is deleted, but only in the CRF neurons. This basically has the effect of turning up the volume on CRF production in several parts of the brain. It appears that modulating GABA receptors is something that normally happens to regulate CRF production, but in this case, a restraint on these stress-sensitive cells has been taken off.

“These mice are normal in many ways – normal locomotor and pain responses and no difference in depressive-like behavior or Pavlovian fear conditioning. However, these mutants have increased anxiety-like behavior,” Gafford and Ressler write.

They also have “impaired extinction of conditioned fear,” meaning that they have trouble becoming NOT afraid of something, like a buzzing sound, to which they have been sensitized by shocks. This is analogous to PTSD in which patients remain afraid and aren’t able to successfully inhibit their prior fear learning, even after the context is now safe.  [A 2011 paper goes into more detail on this biological aspect of PTSD in a civilian population.]

“These data indicate that disturbance of this specific population of neurons causes increased anxiety and impaired fear extinction, and helps us to further understand mechanisms of fear- and anxiety-related disorders such as PTSD,” Ressler and Gafford write.

In the mutant mice, a drug that blocks CRF rescued their behavioral impairments. Some other recent investigations of mice with CRF overproduction in the brain revealed “surprising paradoxical effects.”

Drugs that block CRF have been in clinical trials, some with mixed results.  A trial now proceeding at Emory is evaluating a CRF antagonist in women with PTSD.

Ressler, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, is a Howard Hughes Medical Investigator, with a laboratory at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. He is also co-director of the Grady Trauma Project.

 

 

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Neuro Leave a comment

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

 

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Neuro Leave a comment