Two items relevant to long COVID

One of the tricky issues in studying in long COVID is: how widely do researchers cast their net? Initial reports acknowledged that people who were hospitalized and in intensive care may take a while to get back on their feet. But the number of people who had SARS-CoV-2 infections and were NOT hospitalized, yet experienced lingering symptoms, may be greater. A recent report from the United Kingdom, published in PLOS Medicine, studied more than Read more

All your environmental chemicals belong in the exposome

Emory team wanted to develop a standard low-volume approach that would avoid multiple processing steps, which can lead to loss of material, variable recovery, and the potential for Read more

Signature of success for an HIV vaccine?

Efforts to produce a vaccine against HIV/AIDS have been sustained for more than a decade by a single, modest success: the RV144 clinical trial in Thailand, whose results were reported in 2009. Now Emory, Harvard and Case Western Reserve scientists have identified a gene activity signature that may explain why the vaccine regimen in the RV144 study was protective in some individuals, while other HIV vaccine studies were not successful. The researchers think that this signature, Read more

memory

Memory screening using eye-tracking on mobile devices

Investigators at Emory Brain Health Center have developed a platform for evaluating visual memory, while someone views photos for a few minutes on an iPad.

Emory researchers, led by Goizuieta Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center director Allan Levey and biomedical informatics chair Gari Clifford, are working with the company Linus Health to develop the VisMET (Visuospatial Memory Eye-Tracking Test) technology further. Results from the most recent version were published in the journal IEEE Transaction on Biomedical Engineering, and the Emory/Linus team continues to refine the technology.

The goal is to screen people for memory issues, identifying those with mild cognitive impairment (MCI) or Alzheimer’s disease. The task — difficult to call it a test — was designed to be more efficient, easier to administer, and more enjoyable than tests currently used.

“We think this could be a sensitive and specific method for detecting visual memory impairment, and it’s convenient enough for use on a wider scale,” Levey says.

The VisMET technology is based on this observation. When someone with MCI or Alzheimer’s views a photo twice, and the photo has been changed the second time (example: an object in the scene has been removed), their eyes spend less time checking the new or missing element in the photo, compared with healthy people. This is because the regions of the brain that drive visual memory formation, such as the entorhinal cortex and hippocampus, are some of the earliest to deteriorate in MCI or Alzheimer’s.

Currently, when someone is evaluated for memory loss, they get a battery of “paper and pencil” tests to assess verbal memory. Researchers say the alternative of viewing photos on a tablet could be less intimidating for those taking the test, as well as easier to administer and score. The only instruction given to study participants was to enjoy the images.

“The current way memory tests are implemented can be stressful,” says software engineer Alvince Pongos, who is co-first author of the IEEE TBME paper, now at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research. “The difficulty of standard memory tests can lead to test-givers repeating task instructions many times, and to test-takers being confused and frustrated. If we design simpler tasks and make our tools available in the comfort of one’s home, then we remove barriers allowing more people to engage with their health information.”

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Probing visual memory at leisure

Emory Brain Health researchers have developed a computer program that passively assesses visual memory. An infrared eye tracker monitors eye movements, while the person being tested views a series of photos.

This approach, relatively unstrenuous for those whose memory is being assessed, is an alternative for the diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment or Alzheimer’s disease. It detects degeneration of the regions of the brain that govern visual memory (entorhinal cortex/hippocampus), which are some of the earliest to deteriorate.

The approach was published in Learning and Memory last year, but bioinformatics chair Gari Clifford discussed the project at a recent talk, and we felt it deserved more attention. First author Rafi Haque is a MD/PhD student in the Neuroscience program, with neurology chair/Goizueta ADRC director Allan Levey as senior author.

Eye tracking of people with MCI and Alzheimer’s shows they spend less time checking the new or missing element in the critical region of the photo, compared with healthy controls. Adapted from Haque et al 2019.

The entire test takes around 4 minutes on a standard 24 inch monitor (a follow-up publication on an iPad version is in the pipeline). Photos are presented twice a few minutes apart, and the second time, part of the photo is missing or new – see diagram above. Read more

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Give a zap to Emory brain research for #STATMadness

Next week, we will be asking the Emory research community to support Emory’s entry in a contest. It’s like “Battle of the Bands.” Whoever gets the loudest cheers wins. We have some intriguing neuroscience research. Please help!

STAT Madness is a “March Madness” style bracket competition, but with biomedical research advances as competitors. Universities or research institutes nominate their champions, research that was published the previous year.

Our entry for 2018:

Direct amygdala stimulation can enhance human memory

The findings, from Cory Inman, Jon Willie and colleagues from the Department of Neurosurgery and Joe Manns from Psychology, were the first published example of electrical brain stimulation in humans giving an event-specific boost to memory lasting overnight. The research was conducted with epilepsy patients undergoing an invasive procedure for seizure diagnosis. However, the technology could one day be incorporated into a device aimed at helping those with memory impairments, such as people with traumatic brain injury or neurodegenerative diseases.

Extra note: you may have seen similar neuroscience research in a recent Nature Communications paper, which was described in the New York Times. Cory Inman had some comments below — he and neurosurgeon Robert Gross were co-authors:

The localization to the left lateral temporal cortex was interesting, because it hadn’t been identified as a region that modulates episodic or hippocampus-dependent memory. [The Emory authors stimulated the amygdala.] The more recent paper found a similar size of memory enhancement, with a slightly different and harder memory task of free recall, using “closed-loop” stimulation based on whether the brain is in a ‘bad’ encoding state. It’s possible that closed-loop stimulation could be used with the amygdala as well. 

Emory’s first opponoent is University of California, San Francisco. We are about half way down on the right side of the bracket.

As far as voting, you can fill out a whole bracket or you can just vote for Emory, along with other places you may feel an allegiance to. The contest will go several rounds. The first round begins on February 26. If Emory advances, then people will be able to continue voting for us starting March 2.

At the moment, you can sign up to be reminded to vote with an email address at:
https://signup.statnews.com/stat-madness

Starting Monday, February 26, you can follow the 2018 STAT Madness bracket and vote here:
https://www.statnews.com/feature/stat-madness/bracket/

Please share on social media using the hashtag #statmadness2018.

STAT is a life sciences-focused news site, launched in 2015 by the owner of the Boston Globe. It covers medical research and biotech nationally and internationally. Emory took part in 2017’s contest, with Tab Ansari’s groundbreaking work on SIV remission, a collaboration with Tony Fauci’s lab at NIAID.

 

 

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Insight into brain + learning via ‘friend of fragile X’ gene

We can learn a lot about somebody from the friends they hang out with. This applies to people and also to genes and proteins. Emory scientists have been investigating a gene that we will call — spoiler alert — “Friend of fragile X.”

Fragile X syndrome is the most common inherited form of intellectual disability, studied by research teams around the world with drug discovery and clinical trials in mind. It is caused by a disruption of the gene FMR1.

In an independent form of inherited intellectual disability found in a small number of Iranian families, a gene called ZC3H14 is mutated. Two papers from Ken Moberg, PhD, associate professor of cell biology, Anita Corbett, PhD, professor of biology and colleagues show that FMR1 and ZC3H14 are, in effect, friends.

The findings provide new insight into the function of FMR1 as well as ZC3H14; the evidence comes from experiments performed in fruit flies and mice. The most recent paper is in the journal Cell Reports (open access), published this week.

The scientists found that the proteins encoded by FMR1 and ZC3H14 stick together in cells and they hang out in the same places. The two proteins have related functions: they both regulate messenger RNA in neurons, which explains their importance for learning and memory.

The fragile X protein (FMRP) was known to control protein production in response to signals arriving in neurons, but the Cell Reports paper shows that FMRP is also regulating the length of  “tails” attached to messenger RNAs – something scientists did not realize, even after years of studying FMRP and fragile X, Moberg says.

To be sure, FMRP interacts with many proteins and appears to be a critical gatekeeper. Emory geneticist Peng Jin, who has conducted his share of research on this topic, says that “FMRP must be very social and has a lot of friends.” More here.

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Brain surgery with a light touch

As part of reporting on neurosurgeon Robert Gross’s work with patients who have drug-resistant epilepsy, I interviewed a remarkable woman, Barbara Olds. She had laser ablation surgery for temporal lobe epilepsy in 2012, which drastically reduced her seizures and relieved her epilepsy-associated depression.

Emory Medicine’s editor decided to focus on deep brain stimulation, rather than ablative surgery, so Ms. Olds’ experiences were not part of the magazine feature. Still, talking with her highlighted some interesting questions for me.

Emory neuropsychologist Dan Drane, who probes the effects of epilepsy surgery on memory and language abilities, had identified Olds as a good example of how the more precise stereotactic laser ablation procedure pioneered by Gross can preserve those cognitive functions, in contrast to an open resection. Read more

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BAI1: a very multifunctional protein

Everything is connected, especially in the brain. A protein called BAI1 involved in limiting the growth of brain tumors is also critical for spatial learning and memory, researchers have discovered.

Mice missing BAI1 have trouble learning and remembering where they have been. Because of the loss of BAI1, their neurons have changes in how they respond to electrical stimulation, and subtle alterations in parts of the cell needed for information processing.

The findings may have implications for developing treatments for neurological diseases, because BAI1 is part of a protein regulatory network neuroscientists think is connected with autism spectrum disorders.

The results were published online March 9 in Journal of Clinical Investigation.

Erwin Van Meir, PhD, and his colleagues at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University have been studying BAI1 (brain-specific angiogenesis inhibitor 1) for several years. Part of the BAI1 protein can stop the growth of new blood vessels, which growing cancers need. Normally highly active in the brain, the BAI1 gene is lost or silenced in brain tumors, suggesting that it acts as a tumor suppressor.

The researchers were surprised to find that the brains of mice lacking the BAI1 gene looked normal anatomically. They didn’t develop tumors any faster than normal, and they didn’t have any alterations in their blood vessels, which the researchers had anticipated based on BAI1’s role in regulating blood vessel growth. What they did have was problems with spatial memory.

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Many colors in the epigenetic palette

Methylation, an epigenetic modification to DNA, can be thought of as a highlighting pen applied to DNA’s text, adding information but not changing the actual letters of the text.

Are you still with me on the metaphors? If so, consider this wrinkle. (If not, more explanation here.)

Emory geneticist Peng Jin and his colleagues have been a key part of the discovery in the last few years that methylation comes in several colors. His lab has been mapping where 5-hydroxymethylcytosine or 5hmC appears in the genome and inferring how it functions. 5-hmC is particularly abundant in the brain.D5405-2

Methylation, in the form of 5-methylcytosine or 5mC, is both a control button for turning genes off and a sign of their off state. 5hmC looks like 5mC, except it has an extra oxygen. That could be a tag for a removal, or a signal that a gene is poised to be turned on.

Two recent papers on this topic:

Please recall that an enriched environment (exercise and mental stimulation) is good for learning and memory, for young and old. In the journal Genomics, Jin and his team show that exposing mice to an enriched environment  — a running wheel and a variety of toys — leads to a 60 percent reduction in 5hmC in the hippocampus, a region of the brain critical for learning and memory.  The changes in 5hmC were concentrated in genes having to do with axon guidance. Hat tip to the all-things-epigenetic site Epigenie.

In Genes and Development, structural biologist Xiaodong Cheng and colleagues demonstrate that two regulatory proteins that bind DNA (Egr1 and WT1) respond primarily to oxidation of their target sequences rather than methylation. These proteins like plain old C and 5mC equally, but they don’t like 5hmC or other oxidized forms of 5mC. “Gene activity could plausibly be controlled on a much finer scale by these modifications than simply ‘on or ‘off’,” the authors write.

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The classic epilepsy surgery case

The epilepsy patient Henry Molaison, known for most of the 20th century as H.M., is one of the most famous in neuroscience. His case played an important role in telling scientists about structures of the brain that are important for forming short-term and long-term memories.

To control H.M.’s epilepsy, neurosurgeon William Scoville http://www.raybandasoleit.com/ removed much of the hippocampi, amygdalae and nearby regions on both sides of his brain. After the surgery, H.M. suffered from severe anterograde amnesia, meaning that he could not commit new events to explicit memory. However, other forms of his memory were intact, such as short-term working memory and motor skills.Henry_Gustav_1

This classic case helps us understand the advances that neurosurgeons at Emory are achieving today. The surgeries now used to treat some medication-resistant forms of epilepsy are similar to what was performed on H.M., although they are considerably less drastic. Usually tissue on only one side of the brain is removed. Still, there can be cognitive side effects: loss of visual or verbal memory abilities, and deficiencies in the ability to name or recognize objects, places or people.

Neurosurgeon Robert Gross has been a pioneer in testing a more precise procedure, selective laser amygdalohippocampotomy (SLAH), which appears to control seizures while having less severe side effects. Neuropsychologist Daniel Drane reported at the recent American Epilepsy Society meeting on outcomes from a series of SLAH surgeries performed at Emory.

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Seeing in triangles with grid cells

When processing what the eyes see, the brains of primates don’t use square grids, but instead use triangles, research from Yerkes neuroscientist Beth Buffalo’s lab suggests.

Elizabeth Buffalo, PhD

She and graduate student Nathan Killian recently published (in Nature) their description of grid cells, neurons in the entorhinal cortex that fire when the eyes focus on particular locations.

Their findings broaden our understanding of how visual information makes its way into memory. It also helps us grasp why deterioration of the entorhinal cortex, a region of the brain often affected early by Alzheimer’s disease, produces disorientation.

The Web site RedOrbit has an extended interview with Buffalo. An excerpt:

The amazing thing about grid cells is that the multiple place fields are in precise geometric relation to each other and form a tessellated array of equilateral triangles, a ‘grid’ that tiles the entire environment. A spatial autocorrelation of the grid field map produces a hexagonal structure, with 60º rotational symmetry. In 2008, grid cells were identified Gafas Ray Ban outlet in mice, in bats in 2011, and now our work has shown that grid cells are also present in the primate brain.

Please read the whole thing!

Grid cells fire at different rates depending on where the eyes are focused. Mapping that activity across the visual field produces triangular patterns.

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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

 

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