If we want to understand how the brain creates memories, and how genetic disorders distort the brain’s machinery, then the fragile X gene is an ideal place to start. That’s why the Stephen T. Warren Memorial Symposium, taking place November 28-29 at Emory, will be a significant event for those interested in neuroscience and genetics.
Stephen T. Warren, 1953-2021
Warren, the founding chair of Emory’s Department of Human Genetics, led an international team that discovered Read more
At a time when COVID-19 appears to be receding in much of Georgia, it’s worth revisiting the start of the pandemic in early 2020. Emory virologist Anne Piantadosi and colleagues have a paper in Viral Evolution on the earliest SARS-CoV-2 genetic sequences detected in Georgia.
Analyzing relationships between those virus sequences and samples from other states and countries can give us an idea about where the first COVID-19 infections in Georgia came from. We can draw Read more
Parents around the world can relax, knowing that their kids won’t inherit all of their stresses — at least at the DNA or epigenetic level. In an animal model, neuroscientists at Yerkes National Primate Research Center have shown they can reverse influences of parental stress by exposing parents to behavioral interventions following their own exposure to stress.
“These results in our mouse model are an important public health contribution because they provide optimism for applying similar interventional approaches in humans and breaking intergenerational cycles of stress,” says lead author Brian Dias. More information here.
The research was published in Biological Psychiatry, and is a continuation of Dias’ work with Kerry Ressler on this topic, which earned some attention in 2013. Note: the mice weren’t inheriting a fear as much as a sensitivity to a smell. Even so, it remains an intriguing example of how transgenerational (um, since the word “epigenetic” is so stretchy now) influences can be studied in a precise molecular way.
The phrase “viral vector” sounds ominous, like something from a movie about spies and internet intrigue. It refers to a practical delivery system for the gene of your choice. If you are a biomedical researcher and you want to tweak genes in a particular part of the body in an experimental animal, viral vectors are the way to go.
Viral vector-transduced retinal ganglion cell; dendrites and axons labeled with GFP. Courtesy Felix Struebling via Xinping Huang
Emory’s Viral Vector Core was started when eminent neuroscientist Kerry Ressler was at Emory and is now overseen by geneticist Peng Jin. Technical director Xinping Huang and her colleagues can produce high-titer viral vectors, lentivirus and AAV. Discuss with her the best choice. It may depend on the size of the genetic payload you want to deliver and whether you want the gene to integrate into the genome of the target cell.
As gene therapy and CRISPR/Cas9-style gene editing research progresses, we can anticipate demand for services such as those provided by the Viral Vector Core. [Clinical applications are close, but will not be dealt with in the same place!] Read more
Low estrogen levels may make women more susceptible to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at some points in their menstrual cycles or lifetimes, while high estrogen levels may be protective.
New research from Emory University School of Medicine and Harvard Medical School provides insight into how estrogen changes gene activity in the brain to achieve its protective effects.
The findings, published in Molecular Psychiatry, could inform the design of preventive treatments aimed at reducing the risk of PTSD after someone is traumatized.
The scientists examined blood samples from 278 women from the Grady Trauma Project, a study of low-income Atlanta residents with high levels of exposure to violence and abuse. They analyzed maps of DNA methylation, a modification to the shape of DNA that is usually a sign of genes that are turned off.
The group included adult women of child-bearing age, in which estrogen rises and falls with the menstrual cycle, and women that had gone through menopause and had much lower estrogen levels.
“We knew that estrogen affects the activity of many genes throughout the genome,” says Alicia Smith, PhD, associate professor and vice chair of research in the Department of Gynecology and Obstetrics at Emory University School of Medicine. “But if you look at the estrogen-modulated sites that are also associated with PTSD, just one pops out.”
That site is located in a gene called HDAC4, known to be critical for learning and memory in mice. Genetic variation in HDAC4 among the women was linked to a lower level of HDAC4 gene activity and differences in their ability to respond to and recover from fear, and also differences in “resting state” brain imaging. Women with the same variation also showed stronger connections in activation between the amygdala and the cingulate cortex, two regions of the brain involved in fear learning. Read more
Editorial note: Although the research team here is careful and confirms the findings in independent groups and in brain imaging and fear discrimination experiments, this is a preliminary result. More needs to be explored about how these genetic variants and others affect positive emotions.
“With relatively few studies on genetic underpinnings of positive emotions, we face the challenges of a nascent research area,” the authors write.
“Resilience is a multidimensional phenomenon, and we were looking at just one aspect of it,” says first author Aliza Wingo. She worked with Kerry Ressler , now at Harvard, and Tanja Jovanovic and other members of the Grady Trauma Project team.
“Positive affect” is what the team was measuring, through responses on questionnaires. And the questions are asking for the extent that respondents feel a particular positive emotion in general, rather than that day or that week. Read more
The focus on PTSD co-occurring with depression. As the authors note, several studies looking at traumatized individuals found PTSD and depression together more often than they were present separately. This was true of Atlanta inner city residents in the Grady Trauma Project, veterans and survivors of the 2001 World Trade Center attack.
DICER: the gene whose activity is turned down in blood samples from people with PTSD plus depression. Its name evokes one of the three Fates in Greek mythology, Atropos, who cuts the thread of life. DICER is at the center of a cellular network of regulation, because it is part of the machinery that generates regulatory micro-RNAs.
The findings recapitulate work in mouse models of stress and its effects on the brain, with a connection to the many-tentacled Wnt signaling/adhesion protein beta-catenin.
Some past posts on the Grady Trauma Projectâ€™s scientific fruits follow. Read more
Now other scientistsÂ haveÂ substantiatedÂ a proposal that micro RNA in playing a role in sperm. See this story (“Sperm RNAs transmit stress”) from Kate Yandell in The ScientistÂ or this one from Rachel Zamzow at Spectrum, the Simons Foundation’s autism news site, for more. An added wrinkle is that thisÂ research showsÂ that descendantsÂ of stress-exposed mice show a muted response to stress.
This grant announcement from the American Heart Association caught Lab Land’s eye.Â All three of the scientists involved in this project, examining the connections between hypertension, inflammation and the sympathetic nervous system in PTSD, have Emory connections:
*Kerry Ressler, previously Emory Psychiatry/HHMI-supported/Yerkes-based lab/Grady Trauma Project, who moved this summer to Harvard’s McLean Hospital
Two feature articles in Nature this week on work by Emory scientists.
One is from Virginia Hughes (Phenomena/SFARI/MATTER), delving into Kerry Ressler’s and Brian Dias’ surprising discovery in mice that sensitivity to a smell can be inherited, apparently epigenetically. Coincidentally, Ressler will be giving next week’s Dean’s Distinguished Faculty lecture (March 12, 5:30 pm at the School of Medicine).
The short summary is: researchers at Yerkes National Primate Research Center found that when a mouse learns to become afraid of a certain odor, his or her pups will be more Gafas Ray Ban Baratas sensitive to that odor, even though the pups have never encountered it.Â Both the parent mouse and pups have more space in the smell-processing part of their brains, called the olfactory bulb, devoted to the odor to which they are sensitive.
[Note: a feature on a similar phenomenon, transgenerational inheritance of the effects of chemical exposure, appeared in Science this week]
Somehow information about the parent’s experiences is being inherited. But how? Brian Dias and Kerry Ressler are now pursuing followup experiments to firmly establish what’s going on. They discuss their research in this video:
The connection between stress and blood pressure seems like common sense. Of course experiencing stress — like a narrow miss in morning traffic or dealing with a stubborn, whiny child — raises someoneâ€™s blood pressure.
Try reversing the cause-and-effect relationship: not from brain to body, but instead from body to brain. Could medication for controlling blood pressure moderate the effects of severe stress, and thus aid in controlling PTSD symptoms or in preventing the development of PTSD after trauma?
They had found that traumatized civilians who take either of two classes of common blood pressure medications tend to have less severe post-traumatic stress symptoms. In particular, individuals taking ACE inhibitors (angiotensin converting enzyme)Â or ARBs (angiotensin receptor blockers)Â tended to have lower levels of hyperarousal and intrusive thoughts, and this effect was not observed with other blood pressure medications.
This was one of those observational findings that needs to be tested in an active way: â€œOK, people who are already taking more X experience less severe symptoms. But can we actually use X as an intervention?â€