Simpler, more portable ECGs: Emory experts hosting computing challenge

Emory biomedical informatics specialists are hosting an international computing contest to support simpler, more potable electrocardiogram Read more

First (and massive) whole-genome study of IBD in African Americans

In African Americans, the genetic risk landscape for inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is very different from that of people with European ancestry, according to results of the first whole-genome study of IBD in African Americans. The authors say that future clinical research on IBD needs to take ancestry into account. Findings of the multi-center study, which analyzed the whole genomes of more than 1,700 affected individuals with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis and more than Read more

Emory researchers SNARE new Alzheimer’s targets

Diving deep into Alzheimer’s data sets, a recent Emory Brain Health Center paper in Nature Genetics spots several new potential therapeutic targets, only one of which had been previous linked to Alzheimer’s. The Emory analysis was highlighted by the Alzheimer’s site Alzforum, gathering several positive comments from other researchers. Thomas Wingo, MD Lead author Thomas Wingo and his team -- wife Aliza Wingo is first author – identified the targets by taking a new approach: tracing Read more

neuroscience

Oxytocin delivery via nanoparticles

The neuropeptide oxytocin, known for promoting social interactions, has attracted interest as a possible treatment for autism spectrum disorder. A challenge is getting the molecule past the blood-brain barrier. Many clinical studies have used delivery via nasal spray, but even then, oxytocin doesn’t last long in the body and shows inconsistent effects.

Emory neuroscientist Andrew Escayg has been collaborating with Mercer/LSU pharmacologist Kevin Murnane on a nanoparticle delivery approach that could get around these obstacles. One of Escayg’s primary interests is epilepsy — specifically Dravet syndrome, a severe genetic form of epilepsy — and oxytocin has previously displayed anti-seizure properties in animal models.

Escayg and Murnane’s recent paper in Neurobiology of Disease shows that when oxytocin is packaged into nanoparticles, it can increase resistance to induced seizures and promote social behavior in a mouse model of Dravet syndrome.

This suggests properly delivered oxytocin could have benefits on both seizures and behavior. In addition to seizures, children and adults with Dravet syndrome often have autism – see this Spectrum News article on the connections.

Escayg reports he is planning a collaboration with oxytocin expert Larry Young at Yerkes, who Tweeted “This is a promising new area of oxytocin research” when the paper was published. Senior postdoc Jennifer Wong has already been working on extending the findings to other mouse models of epilepsy and adding data on spontaneous seizure frequency.

The nanoparticle approach could be used for other neuropeptides such as neuropeptide Y, proposed as a treatment mode for anxiety disorders/PTSD, and hypocretin, the missing molecule in narcolepsy. Murnane formed a company when he was at Mercer to develop the technology.

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Two birds with one stone: amygdala ablation for PTSD and epilepsy

The amygdala is a region of the brain known for its connections to emotional responses and fear memories, and hyperreactivity of the amygdala is associated with symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). That said, it’s quite a leap to design neurosurgical ablation of the amygdala to address someone’s PTSD. This type of irreversible intervention could only be considered because of the presence of another brain disorder: epilepsy.

In a case series published in Neurosurgery, Emory investigators describe how for their first patient with both refractory epilepsy and PTSD, observations of PTSD symptom reduction were fortuitous. However, in a second patient, before-and-after studies could be planned. In both, neurosurgical ablation of the amygdala significantly reduced PTSD symptoms as well as reducing seizure frequency.

Read more

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Fragile X: $8 million NIH grant supports next-generation neuroscience

Supported by a $8 million, five-year grant, an Emory-led team of scientists plans to investigate new therapeutic approaches to fragile X syndrome, the most common inherited intellectual disability and a major single-gene cause of autism.

Fragile X research represents a doorway to a better understanding of autism, and learning and memory. The field has made strides in recent years. Researchers have a good understanding of the functions of the FMR1 gene, which is silenced in fragile X syndrome.

Still, clinical trials based on that understanding have been unsuccessful, highlighting limitations of current mouse models. Researchers say the answer is to use “organoid” cultures that mimic the developing human brain.

The new grant continues support for the Emory Fragile X Center, first funded by the National Institutes of Health in 1997. The Center’s research program includes scientists from Emory as well as Stanford, New York University, Penn and the University of Southern California. The Emory Center will be one of three funded by the National Institutes of Health; the others are at Baylor College of Medicine and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

The co-directors for the Emory Fragile X Center are Peng Jin, PhD, chair of human genetics, and Stephen Warren, PhD, William Patterson Timmie professor and chair emeritus of human genetics. In the 1980s and 1990s, Warren led an international team that discovered the FMR1 gene and the mechanism of trinucleotide repeat expansion that silences the gene. This explained fragile X syndrome’s distinctive inheritance pattern, first identified by Emory geneticist Stephanie Sherman, PhD.

“Fragile X research is a consistent strength for Emory, stretching across several departments, based on groundbreaking work from Steve and Stephanie,” Jin says. “Now we have an opportunity to apply the knowledge we and our colleagues have gained to test the next generation of treatments.”

Fragile X researchers from three Emory departments, following COVID-19 spacing guidelines in the laboratory. From left to right: Peng Jin, Gary Bassell, Zhexing Wen and Nisha Raj.

Looking ahead, a key element of the Center’s research will involve studying the human brain in “disease in a dish” models, says Gary Bassell, PhD, chair of cell biology. Nisha Raj, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in Bassell’s lab, has been studying how FMR1 regulates localized protein synthesis at the brain’s synapses.

“What we’re learning is that there may be different RNA targets in human and mouse cells,” he says. “There’s a clear need to regroup and incorporate human cells into the research.”

Microscope images of fragile X human brain organoids, courtesy of Zhexing Wen. Green represents cytoplasmic Nestin while red represents nuclear Sox2; both are markers for neural progenitor cells.
Microscope image of fragile X human brain organoids, courtesy of Zhexing Wen. Green represents cytoplasmic Nestin while red represents nuclear Sox2; both are markers for neural progenitor cells. 

Center investigator Zhexing Wen, PhD, has developed techniques for culturing brain organoids (image above), which reproduce features of human brain development in miniature. Wen, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, cell biology and neurology at Emory, has used organoids to model other disorders, such as schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease. 

The organoids are formed from human brain cells, coming from induced pluripotent stem cells, which are in turn derived from patient-donated tissues. Emory’s Laboratory of Translational Cell Biology, directed by Bassell, has developed several lines of induced pluripotent stem cells from fragile X syndrome patients.

“All of the investigators are sharing these valuable resources and collaborating on multiple projects,” Bassell says.

Principal investigators in the Emory Fragile X Center are Jin, Warren, Bassell, and Wen, along with Eric Klann, PhD at New York University, Lu Chen, PhD, and 2013 Nobel Prize winner Thomas Südhof, MD. Chen and Südhof are neuroscientists at Stanford.

Co-investigators include biostatistician Hao Wu, PhD and geneticist Emily Allen, PhD at Emory, neuroscientist Guo-li Ming, MD, PhD, at University of Pennsylvania, and biomedical engineer Dong Song, PhD, at University of Southern California.
 
Allen, Warren and Jin are part of an additional grant to Baylor, Emory and University of Michigan investigators, who are focusing on FXTAS (fragile X-associated tremor-ataxia syndrome) and FXPOI (fragile X-associated primary ovarian insufficiency). These are conditions that affect people with fragile X premutations.

Fragile X syndrome is caused by a genetic duplication on the X chromosome, a “triplet repeat” in which a portion of the gene (CGG) gets repeated again and again. Fragile X syndrome affects about one child in 5,000, and is more common and more severe in boys. It often causes mild to moderate intellectual disabilities as well as behavioral and learning challenges. About a third of children affected have characteristics of autism, such as problems with eye contact, social anxiety, and delayed speech. 
 
The award for the Emory Fragile X Center is administered by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, with funding from the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.

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Hedgehog pathway outside cilia

Emory geneticist Tamara Caspary is an expert on the Hedgehog pathway, critical for brain development. In particular, she and her colleagues have been studying a gene that is part of the Hedgehog pathway called Arl13b, which is mutated in Joubert syndrome, affecting development of the cerebellum and brain stem.

The Arl13b protein was known to be enriched in primary cilia, tiny hair-like cellular structures with a signaling/navigation function in neuronal development. However Caspary’s lab, in a collaboration with Frederic Charron’s group in Montreal, has found that Arl13b can also function outside cilia: in axons and growth cones.

The Hedgehog pathway has several roles, some in specifying what embryonic cells will become, and others in terms of guiding growing axons, the scientists conclude in their new paper in Cell Reports.

“Arl13b regulates Shh [Sonic Hedgehog] signaling through two mechanisms: a cilia-associated one to specify cell fate and a cilia localization-independent one to guide axons,” they write.  A related preprint, confirming Arl13b’s extra-ciliary role in mouse development, has been posted on bioRxiv.

 

 

 

 

 

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Stage fright: don’t get over it, get used to it

Stage fright: don’t get over it, get used to it, advises Emory neuroscientist Anwesha Banerjee in her recent talk at TEDx Decatur. Many can feel empathy with the situation Banerjee describes. It was her first public presentation eight years ago, facing “a room full of scientists, who for whatever reason, did not look very happy that day.”

“What if I fail in front of the crowd? What if everybody thinks I’m an idiot?”

That feeling of scrutiny might have an evolutionary relationship to the fear of being eaten by a predator, she speculates.

Through participating in Toastmasters International, she has made public speaking more of a habit. She contrasts the two parts of the brain: the amygdala, tuner of emotional responses, with the basal ganglia, director of habits.

“I still get stage fright,” she says. “In fact, I have it right now, thinking how all you predators might try to eat me up! But my brain pays less attention to it.”

Banerjee is a postdoctoral scientist in cell biologist Gary Bassell’s lab, studying myotonic dystrophy. In 2017, she was funded by the Myotonic Dystrophy Foundation to create a mouse model of the neurological/sleep symptoms of myotonic dystrophy.

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Designer drugs as tools for studying brain development in non-human primates

To investigate the functions of regions within the brain, developmental neuroscience studies have often relied on permanent lesions. As an alternative to permanent lesions, scientists at Yerkes National Primate Research Center sought to test whether chemogenetic techniques could be applied to produce a transient inhibition of the amygdala, well known for regulating emotional responses, in infant non-human primates.

Their findings were recently published online by eNeuro, an open access journal of the Society for Neuroscience.

Amygdala — image from NIMH

Chemogenetics is a way of engineering cells so that they selectively respond to designer drugs, which have minimal effects elsewhere in the brain. It involves injection of a viral vector carrying genes encoding receptors responsive to the designer drug – in this case, clozapine-N-oxide, a metabolite of the antipsychotic clozapine. The technique has mostly been tested in rodents.

“This proof-of-principle study is the first to demonstrate that chemogenetic tools can be used in young infant nonhuman primates to address developmental behavioral neuroscience questions,” says Jessica Raper, PhD, first author of the eNeuro paper and a research associate at Yerkes. “Considering its reversibility and reduced invasiveness, this technique holds promise for developmental studies in which more invasive techniques cannot be employed.” Read more

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GRIN families join together for neuroscience

Editor’s note: This post was a collaboration with MMG graduate student Megan Hockman.

They were brought together by their children’s epilepsies, and by rapid advances in genetic sequencing. Only a few years ago, these families would have been isolated, left to deal with their children’s seizures and neurological problems on their own. Now, they’ve organized themselves and are shaping the future of research.

Agonist binding domains of NMDA receptors, where several disease-causing mutations can be found. Adapted from Swanger et al, AJHG (2016).

In mid-September, parents of children affected by variations in GRIN genes gathered at Emory Conference Center to meet with scientists to discuss current research. GRIN disorders occur because of mutations in genes encoding NMDA receptors, which play key roles in memory, learning and neuronal development. NMDA receptors are a type of receptor for glutamate, the main excitatory neurotransmitter in the brain. The receptors themselves are encoded by multiple genes and assemble into tetramers. When their function is altered by mutations in one of these genes, symptoms appear in infancy or early childhood, usually including epilepsy and developmental delay.

The conference was the first time several patient advocacy groups oriented around GRIN-related disorders had met together, says Denise Rehner, president of the CureGRIN Foundation and mother of an affected child. For parents, this was an opportunity to connect with each other and advocacy groups, and to interact with scientists. For researchers, it was a chance to hear from those who are being impacted by their studies, and to discuss better ways to share data.

“We got a chance to explain to all the stakeholders – patient groups, foundations, companies – exactly what we do,” said Emory neuroscientist and conference organizer Stephen Traynelis, director of the Center for Functional Evaluation of Rare Variants. Traynelis and colleague Hongjie Yuan have been tracking the direct impacts of mutations on the function of the NMDA receptor. In doing so, they plan work with clinicians to compile registries, linking specific functional data to patient symptoms.

In addition to understanding underlying mechanisms and outcomes of GRIN disorders, researchers want to figure out how to treat affected children with existing drugs. Several options exist for targeting NMDA receptors, such as dextromethorphan (a cough suppressant) or memantine, approved for symptoms of Alzheimer’s. Traynelis and Yuan previously collaborated with the Undiagnosed Disease Program (now the Undiagnosed Disease Network) at the National Institutes of Health to investigate memantine as a treatment for a child with a GRIN2A mutation, showing that the drug could reduce seizure burden in one patient. Read more

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Probing hyperexcitability in fragile X syndrome

Researchers at Emory University School of Medicine have gained insight into a feature of fragile X syndrome, which is also seen in other neurological and neurodevelopmental disorders.

In a mouse model of fragile X syndrome, homeostatic mechanisms that would normally help brain cells adjust to developmental changes don’t work properly. This helps explain why cortical hyperexcitability, which is linked to sensory sensitivity and seizure susceptibility, gradually appears during brain development.

Studying a model of fragile X syndrome, Emory researchers were looking at neurons displaying single spiking and multi-spiking behavior. 

These physiological insights could help guide clinical research and efforts at early intervention, the scientists say. The results were published Feb. 5 by Cell Reports (open access).

Fragile X syndrome is the most common inherited form of intellectual disability and a leading single-gene cause of autism. Individuals with fragile X syndrome often display sensory sensitivity and some — about 15 percent— have seizures.

Scientists’ explanation for these phenomena is cortical hyperexcitability, meaning that the response of the cortex (the outer part of the brain) to sensory input is more than typical. Cortical hyperexcitability has also been observed in the broader category of autism spectrum disorder, as well as migraine or after a stroke.

At Emory, graduate student Pernille Bülow forged a collaboration between Peter Wenner, PhD and Gary Bassell, PhD. Wenner, interested in homeostatic plasticity, and Bassell, an expert in fragile X neurobiology, wanted to investigate why a mechanism called homeostatic intrinsic plasticity does not compensate for the changes in the brain brought about in fragile X syndrome. More here.

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Vulnerability to stress – Tet by Tet

Geneticist Peng Jin and colleagues have a paper in Cell Reports this week that is part of a mini-boom in studying the Tet enzymes and their role in the brain. The short way to explain what Tet enzymes do is that they remove DNA methylation by oxidizing it out.

Methylation, a modification of DNA that generally shuts genes off, has been well-studied for decades. The more recent discovery of how cells remove methylation with the Tet enzymes opened up a question of what roles the transition markers have. It’s part of the field of epigenetics: the meaning of these modifications “above” the DNA sequence.

This is my favorite analogy to explain the transition states, such as 5-hydroxymethylcytosine. They’re not really a new letter of the genetic alphabet – they’ve been there all along. We just didn’t see them before.

Imagine that you are an archeologist, studying an ancient civilization. The civilization’s alphabet contains a limited number of characters. However, an initial pass at recently unearthed texts was low-resolution, missing little doodads like the cedilla in French: Ç.

Are words with those marks pronounced differently? Do they have a different meaning?

The new Cell Reports paper shows that it matters what pen writes the little doodads. In mice, removing one Tet enzyme, Tet1, has the opposite effect from removing Tet2, when it comes to response to chronic stress. One perturbation (loss of Tet1) makes the mice more resistant to stress, while the other (loss of Tet2) has them more vulnerable. The researchers also picked up an interaction between Tet1 and HIF1-alpha, critical for regulation of cells’ response to hypoxia. Read more

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Cells in “little brain” have distinctive metabolic needs

Cells’ metabolic needs are not uniform across the brain, researchers have learned. “Knocking out” an enzyme that regulates mitochondria, cells’ miniature power plants, specifically blocks the development of the mouse cerebellum more than the rest of the brain.

The results were published in Science Advances.

“This finding will be tremendously helpful in understanding the molecular mechanisms underlying developmental disorders, degenerative diseases, and even cancer in the cerebellum,” says lead author Cheng-Kui Qu, MD, PhD, professor of pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine, Winship Cancer Institute and Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

The cerebellum or “little brain” was long thought to be involved mainly in balance and complex motor functions. More recent research suggests it is important for decision making and emotions. In humans, the cerebellum grows more than the rest of the brain in the first year of life and its development is not complete until around 8 years of age. The most common malignant brain tumor in children, medulloblastoma, arises in the cerebellum.

Qu and his colleagues have been studying an enzyme, PTPMT1, which controls the influx of pyruvate – a source of energy derived from carbohydrates – into mitochondria. They describe pyruvate as “the master fuel” for postnatal cerebellar development.

Cells can get energy by breaking down sugar efficiently, through mitochondria, or more wastefully in a process called glycolysis. Deleting PTPMT1 provides insight into which cells are more sensitive to problems with mitochondrial metabolism. A variety of mitochondrial diseases affect different parts of the body, but the brain is especially greedy for sugar; it never really shuts off metabolically. When someone is at rest, the brain uses a quarter of the body’s blood sugar, despite taking up just 2 percent of body weight in an adult. More here.

Also, see this 2017 item from Stanford on the cerebellum (Nature paper).

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