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Archive for the ‘Cerebrovascular and Neurodegenerative Diseases’ Category


Neuron clearing with age

Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP, Curator

LPBI

 

Brain Guardians Remove Dying Neurons

Salk scientists show how immune receptors clear dead and dysfunctional brain cells and how they might be targets for treating neurodegenerative diseases

By Salk Institute for Biological Studies

By adolescence, your brain already contains most of the neurons that you’ll have for the rest of your life. But a few regions continue to grow new nerve cells—and require the services of cellular sentinels, specialized immune cells that keep the brain safe by getting rid of dead or dysfunctional cells.

Now, Salk scientists have uncovered the surprising extent to which both dying and dead neurons are cleared away, and have identified specific cellular switches that are key to this process. The work was detailed in Nature on April 6, 2016.

https://youtu.be/bevh2BSuI0U

Video courtesy of the Salk Institute

“We discovered that receptors on immune cells in the brain are vital for both healthy and injured states,” says Greg Lemke, senior author of the work, a Salk professor of molecular neurobiology and the holder of the Françoise Gilot-Salk Chair. “These receptors could be potential therapeutic targets for neurodegenerative conditions or inflammation-related disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease.”

death in the brain

http://www.labmanager.com/media/Industry%20News%20Pics/April-2016/apr7-2016-salk-1-Death-in-the-brain.jpg

An accumulation of dead cells (green spots) is seen in the subventricular zone (SVZ)—a neurogenic region—of the brain in a mouse lacking the receptors Mer and Axl. (Blue staining marks all cells.) No green spots are seen in the SVZ from a normal mouse. IMAGE CREDIT: SALK INSTITUTE

Two decades ago, the Lemke lab discovered that immune cells express critical molecules called TAM receptors, which have since become a focus for autoimmune and cancer research in many laboratories. Two of the TAM receptors, dubbed Mer and Axl, help immune cells called macrophages act as garbage collectors, identifying and consuming the over 100 billion dead cells that are generated in a human body every day.

For the current study, the team asked if Mer and Axl did the same job in the brain. Specialized central nervous system macrophages called microglia make up about 10 percent of cells in the brain, where they detect, respond to and destroy pathogens. The researchers removed Axl and Mer in the microglia of otherwise healthy mice. To their surprise, they found that the absence of the two receptors resulted in a large pile-up of dead cells, but not everywhere in the brain. Cellular corpses were seen only in the small regions where the production of new neurons—neurogenesis—is observed.

Many cells die normally during adult neurogenesis, but they are immediately eaten by microglia. “It is very hard to detect even a single dead cell in a normal brain, because they are so efficiently recognized and cleared by microglia,” says Paqui G. Través, a co-first author on the paper and former Salk research associate. “But in the neurogenic regions of mice lacking Mer and Axl, we detected many such cells.”

When the researchers more closely examined this process by tagging the newly growing neurons in mice’s microglia missing Mer and Axl, they noticed something else interesting. New neurons that migrate to the olfactory bulb, or smell center, increased dramatically without Axl and Mer around. Mice lacking the TAM receptors had a 70 percent increase in newly generated cells in the olfactory bulb than normal mice.

https://youtu.be/jLAnUtCBUtU

Video courtesy of the Salk Institute

How—and to what extent—this unchecked new neural growth affects a mouse’s sense of smell is not yet known, according to Lemke, though it is an area the lab will explore. But the fact that so many more living nerve cells were able to migrate into the olfactory bulb in the absence of the receptors suggests that Mer and Axl have another role aside from clearing dead cells—they may actually also target living, but functionally compromised, cells.

“It appears as though a significant fraction of cell death in neurogenic regions is not due to intrinsic death of the cells but rather is a result of the microglia themselves, which are killing a fraction of the cells by engulfment,” says Lemke. “In other words, some of these newborn neuron progenitors are actually being eaten alive.”

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing in the healthy brain, Lemke adds. The brain produces more neurons than it can use and then prunes back the cells that aren’t needed. However, in an inflamed or diseased brain, the destruction of living cells may backfire.

Greg Lemke and Lawrence Fourgeaud

Greg Lemke and Lawrence Fourgeaud PHOTO CREDIT: SALK INSTITUTE    http://www.labmanager.com/media/Industry%20News%20Pics/April-2016/apr7-2016-salk-2-Greg-Lemke_Lawrence-Fourgeaud.jpg

The Lemke lab did one more series of experiments to understand the role of TAM receptors in disease: they looked at the activity of Axl and Mer in a mouse model of Parkinson’s disease. This model produces a human protein present in an inherited form of the disease that results in a slow degeneration of the brain. The team saw that Axl was far more active in this setting, consistent with other studies showing that increased Axl is a reliable indicator of inflammation in tissues.

the area of a brain lacking Mer and Axl

http://www.labmanager.com/media/Industry%20News%20Pics/April-2016/apr7-2016-salk-3-Trail-of-death-covercropped.jpg

In the area of a brain lacking Mer and Axl a ‘trail of death’ is apparent from the migratory pathway from the neurogenic region to the olfactory bulb (smell center of the brain). Blue staining marks all cells, and green spots are dead cells. No green spots are seen in the same section from a normal mouse. IMAGE CREDIT: SALK INSTITUTE

“It seems that we can modify the course of the disease in an animal model by manipulating Axl and Mer,” says Lawrence Fourgeaud, a co-first author on the paper and former Salk research associate. The team cautions that more research needs to be done to determine if modulating the TAM receptors could be a viable therapy for neurodegenerative disease involving microglia.

Other researchers on the paper were Yusuf Tufail, Humberto Leal-Bailey, Erin D. Lew, Patrick G. Burrola, Perri Callaway, Anna Zagórska and Axel Nimmerjahn of the Salk Institute; and Carla V. Rothlin of the Yale University School of Medicine.

The work was supported by the National Institutes of Health, the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the NomisH.N. and Frances C. Berger, Fritz B. Burns, HKT, WaittRita Allen, and Hearst foundations.

Related Article: How Neurons Lose Their Connections

Related Article: Beer Compound Could Help Fend Off Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Diseases

 

TAM receptors regulate multiple features of microglial physiology

Lawrence FourgeaudPaqui G. TravésYusuf TufailHumberto Leal-Bailey, …., Axel Nimmerjahn Greg Lemke
Nature 532:240–244 (14 April 2016).     http://dx.doi.org:/10.1038/nature17630

Microglia are damage sensors for the central nervous system (CNS), and the phagocytes responsible for routine non-inflammatory clearance of dead brain cells1. Here we show that the TAM receptor tyrosine kinases Mer and Axl2 regulate these microglial functions. We find that adult mice deficient in microglial Mer and Axl exhibit a marked accumulation of apoptotic cells specifically in neurogenic regions of the CNS, and that microglial phagocytosis of the apoptotic cells generated during adult neurogenesis3, 4 is normally driven by both TAM receptor ligands Gas6 and protein S5. Using live two-photon imaging, we demonstrate that the microglial response to brain damage is also TAM-regulated, as TAM-deficient microglia display reduced process motility and delayed convergence to sites of injury. Finally, we show that microglial expression of Axl is prominently upregulated in the inflammatory environment that develops in a mouse model of Parkinson’s disease6. Together, these results establish TAM receptors as both controllers of microglial physiology and potential targets for therapeutic intervention in CNS disease.

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v532/n7598/carousel/nature17630-f1.jpg

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v532/n7598/carousel/nature17630-f2.jpg

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http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v532/n7598/carousel/nature17630-sf3.jpg

 

 

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CRISPR/Cas9, Familial Amyloid Polyneuropathy ( FAP) and Neurodegenerative Disease


CRISPR/Cas9, Familial Amyloid Polyneuropathy ( FAP) and Neurodegenerative Disease

Curator: Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP

 

CRISPR/Cas9 and Targeted Genome Editing: A New Era in Molecular Biology

https://www.neb.com/tools-and-resources/feature-articles/crispr-cas9-and-targeted-genome-editing-a-new-era-in-molecular-biology

The development of efficient and reliable ways to make precise, targeted changes to the genome of living cells is a long-standing goal for biomedical researchers. Recently, a new tool based on a bacterial CRISPR-associated protein-9 nuclease (Cas9) from Streptococcus pyogenes has generated considerable excitement (1). This follows several attempts over the years to manipulate gene function, including homologous recombination (2) and RNA interference (RNAi) (3). RNAi, in particular, became a laboratory staple enabling inexpensive and high-throughput interrogation of gene function (4, 5), but it is hampered by providing only temporary inhibition of gene function and unpredictable off-target effects (6). Other recent approaches to targeted genome modification – zinc-finger nucleases [ZFNs, (7)] and transcription-activator like effector nucleases [TALENs (8)]– enable researchers to generate permanent mutations by introducing doublestranded breaks to activate repair pathways. These approaches are costly and time-consuming to engineer, limiting their widespread use, particularly for large scale, high-throughput studies.

The Biology of Cas9

The functions of CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) and CRISPR-associated (Cas) genes are essential in adaptive immunity in select bacteria and archaea, enabling the organisms to respond to and eliminate invading genetic material. These repeats were initially discovered in the 1980s in E. coli (9), but their function wasn’t confirmed until 2007 by Barrangou and colleagues, who demonstrated that S. thermophilus can acquire resistance against a bacteriophage by integrating a genome fragment of an infectious virus into its CRISPR locus (10).

Three types of CRISPR mechanisms have been identified, of which type II is the most studied. In this case, invading DNA from viruses or plasmids is cut into small fragments and incorporated into a CRISPR locus amidst a series of short repeats (around 20 bps). The loci are transcribed, and transcripts are then processed to generate small RNAs (crRNA – CRISPR RNA), which are used to guide effector endonucleases that target invading DNA based on sequence complementarity (Figure 1) (11).

Figure 1. Cas9 in vivo: Bacterial Adaptive Immunity

https://www.neb.com/~/media/NebUs/Files/Feature%20Articles/Images/FA_Cas9_Fig1_Cas9InVivo.png

In the acquisition phase, foreign DNA is incorporated into the bacterial genome at the CRISPR loci. CRISPR loci is then transcribed and processed into crRNA during crRNA biogenesis. During interference, Cas9 endonuclease complexed with a crRNA and separate tracrRNA cleaves foreign DNA containing a 20-nucleotide crRNA complementary sequence adjacent to the PAM sequence. (Figure not drawn to scale.)

https://www.neb.com/~/media/NebUs/Files/Feature%20Articles/Images/FA_Cas9_GenomeEditingGlossary.png

One Cas protein, Cas9 (also known as Csn1), has been shown, through knockdown and rescue experiments to be a key player in certain CRISPR mechanisms (specifically type II CRISPR systems). The type II CRISPR mechanism is unique compared to other CRISPR systems, as only one Cas protein (Cas9) is required for gene silencing (12). In type II systems, Cas9 participates in the processing of crRNAs (12), and is responsible for the destruction of the target DNA (11). Cas9’s function in both of these steps relies on the presence of two nuclease domains, a RuvC-like nuclease domain located at the amino terminus and a HNH-like nuclease domain that resides in the mid-region of the protein (13).

To achieve site-specific DNA recognition and cleavage, Cas9 must be complexed with both a crRNA and a separate trans-activating crRNA (tracrRNA or trRNA), that is partially complementary to the crRNA (11). The tracrRNA is required for crRNA maturation from a primary transcript encoding multiple pre-crRNAs. This occurs in the presence of RNase III and Cas9 (12).

During the destruction of target DNA, the HNH and RuvC-like nuclease domains cut both DNA strands, generating double-stranded breaks (DSBs) at sites defined by a 20-nucleotide target sequence within an associated crRNA transcript (11, 14). The HNH domain cleaves the complementary strand, while the RuvC domain cleaves the noncomplementary strand.

The double-stranded endonuclease activity of Cas9 also requires that a short conserved sequence, (2–5 nts) known as protospacer-associated motif (PAM), follows immediately 3´- of the crRNA complementary sequence (15). In fact, even fully complementary sequences are ignored by Cas9-RNA in the absence of a PAM sequence (16).

Cas9 and CRISPR as a New Tool in Molecular Biology

The simplicity of the type II CRISPR nuclease, with only three required components (Cas9 along with the crRNA and trRNA) makes this system amenable to adaptation for genome editing. This potential was realized in 2012 by the Doudna and Charpentier labs (11). Based on the type II CRISPR system described previously, the authors developed a simplified two-component system by combining trRNA and crRNA into a single synthetic single guide RNA (sgRNA). sgRNAprogrammed Cas9 was shown to be as effective as Cas9 programmed with separate trRNA and crRNA in guiding targeted gene alterations (Figure 2A).

To date, three different variants of the Cas9 nuclease have been adopted in genome-editing protocols. The first is wild-type Cas9, which can site-specifically cleave double-stranded DNA, resulting in the activation of the doublestrand break (DSB) repair machinery. DSBs can be repaired by the cellular Non-Homologous End Joining (NHEJ) pathway (17), resulting in insertions and/or deletions (indels) which disrupt the targeted locus. Alternatively, if a donor template with homology to the targeted locus is supplied, the DSB may be repaired by the homology-directed repair (HDR) pathway allowing for precise replacement mutations to be made (Figure 2A) (17, 18).

Cong and colleagues (1) took the Cas9 system a step further towards increased precision by developing a mutant form, known as Cas9D10A, with only nickase activity. This means it cleaves only one DNA strand, and does not activate NHEJ. Instead, when provided with a homologous repair template, DNA repairs are conducted via the high-fidelity HDR pathway only, resulting in reduced indel mutations (1, 11, 19). Cas9D10A is even more appealing in terms of target specificity when loci are targeted by paired Cas9 complexes designed to generate adjacent DNA nicks (20) (see further details about “paired nickases” in Figure 2B).

The third variant is a nuclease-deficient Cas9 (dCas9, Figure 2C) (21). Mutations H840A in the HNH domain and D10A in the RuvC domain inactivate cleavage activity, but do not prevent DNA binding (11, 22). Therefore, this variant can be used to sequence-specifically target any region of the genome without cleavage. Instead, by fusing with various effector domains, dCas9 can be used either as a gene silencing or activation tool (21, 23–26). Furthermore, it can be used as a visualization tool. For instance, Chen and colleagues used dCas9 fused to Enhanced Green Fluorescent Protein (EGFP) to visualize repetitive DNA sequences with a single sgRNA or nonrepetitive loci using multiple sgRNAs (27).

Figure 2. CRISPR/Cas9 System Applications

https://www.neb.com/~/media/NebUs/Files/Feature%20Articles/Images/FA_Cas9_Fig2_Cas9forGenomeEditing.png?device=modal

  1. Wild-type Cas9 nuclease site specifically cleaves double-stranded DNA activating double-strand break repair machinery. In the absence of a homologous repair template non-homologous end joining can result in indels disrupting the target sequence. Alternatively, precise mutations and knock-ins can be made by providing a homologous repair template and exploiting the homology directed repair pathway.
    B. Mutated Cas9 makes a site specific single-strand nick. Two sgRNA can be used to introduce a staggered double-stranded break which can then undergo homology directed repair.
    C. Nuclease-deficient Cas9 can be fused with various effector domains allowing specific localization. For example, transcriptional activators, repressors, and fluorescent proteins.

Targeting Efficiency and Off-target Mutations

Targeting efficiency, or the percentage of desired mutation achieved, is one of the most important parameters by which to assess a genome-editing tool. The targeting efficiency of Cas9 compares favorably with more established methods, such as TALENs or ZFNs (8). For example, in human cells, custom-designed ZFNs and TALENs could only achieve efficiencies ranging from 1% to 50% (29–31). In contrast, the Cas9 system has been reported to have efficiencies up to >70% in zebrafish (32) and plants (33), and ranging from 2–5% in induced pluripotent stem cells (34). In addition, Zhou and colleagues were able to improve genome targeting up to 78% in one-cell mouse embryos, and achieved effective germline transmission through the use of dual sgRNAs to simultaneously target an individual gene (35).

A widely used method to identify mutations is the T7 Endonuclease I mutation detection assay (36, 37) (Figure 3). This assay detects heteroduplex DNA that results from the annealing of a DNA strand, including desired mutations, with a wildtype DNA strand (37).

Figure 3. T7 Endonuclease I Targeting Efficiency Assay

https://www.neb.com/~/media/NebUs/Files/Feature%20Articles/Images/FA_Cas9_Fig3_T7Assay_TargetEfficiency.png

Genomic DNA is amplified with primers bracketing the modified locus. PCR products are then denatured and re-annealed yielding 3 possible structures. Duplexes containing a mismatch are digested by T7 Endonuclease I. The DNA is then electrophoretically separated and fragment analysis is used to calculate targeting efficiency.

Another important parameter is the incidence of off-target mutations. Such mutations are likely to appear in sites that have differences of only a few nucleotides compared to the original sequence, as long as they are adjacent to a PAM sequence. This occurs as Cas9 can tolerate up to 5 base mismatches within the protospacer region (36) or a single base difference in the PAM sequence (38). Off-target mutations are generally more difficult to detect, requiring whole-genome sequencing to rule them out completely.

Recent improvements to the CRISPR system for reducing off-target mutations have been made through the use of truncated gRNA (truncated within the crRNA-derived sequence) or by adding two extra guanine (G) nucleotides to the 5´ end (28, 37). Another way researchers have attempted to minimize off-target effects is with the use of “paired nickases” (20). This strategy uses D10A Cas9 and two sgRNAs complementary to the adjacent area on opposite strands of the target site (Figure 2B). While this induces DSBs in the target DNA, it is expected to create only single nicks in off-target locations and, therefore, result in minimal off-target mutations.

By leveraging computation to reduce off-target mutations, several groups have developed webbased tools to facilitate the identification of potential CRISPR target sites and assess their potential for off-target cleavage. Examples include the CRISPR Design Tool (38) and the ZiFiT Targeter, Version 4.2 (39, 40).

Applications as a Genome-editing and Genome Targeting Tool

Following its initial demonstration in 2012 (9), the CRISPR/Cas9 system has been widely adopted. This has already been successfully used to target important genes in many cell lines and organisms, including human (34), bacteria (41), zebrafish (32), C. elegans (42), plants (34), Xenopus tropicalis (43), yeast (44), Drosophila (45), monkeys (46), rabbits (47), pigs (42), rats (48) and mice (49). Several groups have now taken advantage of this method to introduce single point mutations (deletions or insertions) in a particular target gene, via a single gRNA (14, 21, 29). Using a pair of gRNA-directed Cas9 nucleases instead, it is also possible to induce large deletions or genomic rearrangements, such as inversions or translocations (50). A recent exciting development is the use of the dCas9 version of the CRISPR/Cas9 system to target protein domains for transcriptional regulation (26, 51, 52), epigenetic modification (25), and microscopic visualization of specific genome loci (27).

The CRISPR/Cas9 system requires only the redesign of the crRNA to change target specificity. This contrasts with other genome editing tools, including zinc finger and TALENs, where redesign of the protein-DNA interface is required. Furthermore, CRISPR/Cas9 enables rapid genome-wide interrogation of gene function by generating large gRNA libraries (51, 53) for genomic screening.

The Future of CRISPR/Cas9

The rapid progress in developing Cas9 into a set of tools for cell and molecular biology research has been remarkable, likely due to the simplicity, high efficiency and versatility of the system. Of the designer nuclease systems currently available for precision genome engineering, the CRISPR/Cas system is by far the most user friendly. It is now also clear that Cas9’s potential reaches beyond DNA cleavage, and its usefulness for genome locus-specific recruitment of proteins will likely only be limited by our imagination.

 

Scientists urge caution in using new CRISPR technology to treat human genetic disease

By Robert Sanders, Media relations | MARCH 19, 2015
http://news.berkeley.edu/2015/03/19/scientists-urge-caution-in-using-new-crispr-technology-to-treat-human-genetic-disease/

http://news.berkeley.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/crispr350.jpg

The bacterial enzyme Cas9 is the engine of RNA-programmed genome engineering in human cells. (Graphic by Jennifer Doudna/UC Berkeley)

A group of 18 scientists and ethicists today warned that a revolutionary new tool to cut and splice DNA should be used cautiously when attempting to fix human genetic disease, and strongly discouraged any attempts at making changes to the human genome that could be passed on to offspring.

Among the authors of this warning is Jennifer Doudna, the co-inventor of the technology, called CRISPR-Cas9, which is driving a new interest in gene therapy, or “genome engineering.” She and colleagues co-authored a perspective piece that appears in the March 20 issue of Science, based on discussions at a meeting that took place in Napa on Jan. 24. The same issue of Science features a collection of recent research papers, commentary and news articles on CRISPR and its implications.    …..

A prudent path forward for genomic engineering and germline gene modification

David Baltimore1,  Paul Berg2, …., Jennifer A. Doudna4,10,*, et al.
http://science.sciencemag.org/content/early/2015/03/18/science.aab1028.full
Science  19 Mar 2015.  http://dx.doi.org:/10.1126/science.aab1028

 

Correcting genetic defects

Scientists today are changing DNA sequences to correct genetic defects in animals as well as cultured tissues generated from stem cells, strategies that could eventually be used to treat human disease. The technology can also be used to engineer animals with genetic diseases mimicking human disease, which could lead to new insights into previously enigmatic disorders.

The CRISPR-Cas9 tool is still being refined to ensure that genetic changes are precisely targeted, Doudna said. Nevertheless, the authors met “… to initiate an informed discussion of the uses of genome engineering technology, and to identify proactively those areas where current action is essential to prepare for future developments. We recommend taking immediate steps toward ensuring that the application of genome engineering technology is performed safely and ethically.”

 

Amyloid CRISPR Plasmids and si/shRNA Gene Silencers

http://www.scbt.com/crispr/table-amyloid.html

Santa Cruz Biotechnology, Inc. offers a broad range of gene silencers in the form of siRNAs, shRNA Plasmids and shRNA Lentiviral Particles as well as CRISPR/Cas9 Knockout and CRISPR Double Nickase plasmids. Amyloid gene silencers are available as Amyloid siRNA, Amyloid shRNA Plasmid, Amyloid shRNA Lentiviral Particles and Amyloid CRISPR/Cas9 Knockout plasmids. Amyloid CRISPR/dCas9 Activation Plasmids and CRISPR Lenti Activation Systems for gene activation are also available. Gene silencers and activators are useful for gene studies in combination with antibodies used for protein detection.    Amyloid CRISPR Knockout, HDR and Nickase Knockout Plasmids

 

CRISPR-Cas9-Based Knockout of the Prion Protein and Its Effect on the Proteome


Mehrabian M, Brethour D, MacIsaac S, Kim JK, Gunawardana C.G, Wang H, et al.
PLoS ONE 2014; 9(12): e114594. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0114594

The molecular function of the cellular prion protein (PrPC) and the mechanism by which it may contribute to neurotoxicity in prion diseases and Alzheimer’s disease are only partially understood. Mouse neuroblastoma Neuro2a cells and, more recently, C2C12 myocytes and myotubes have emerged as popular models for investigating the cellular biology of PrP. Mouse epithelial NMuMG cells might become attractive models for studying the possible involvement of PrP in a morphogenetic program underlying epithelial-to-mesenchymal transitions. Here we describe the generation of PrP knockout clones from these cell lines using CRISPR-Cas9 knockout technology. More specifically, knockout clones were generated with two separate guide RNAs targeting recognition sites on opposite strands within the first hundred nucleotides of the Prnp coding sequence. Several PrP knockout clones were isolated and genomic insertions and deletions near the CRISPR-target sites were characterized. Subsequently, deep quantitative global proteome analyses that recorded the relative abundance of>3000 proteins (data deposited to ProteomeXchange Consortium) were undertaken to begin to characterize the molecular consequences of PrP deficiency. The levels of ∼120 proteins were shown to reproducibly correlate with the presence or absence of PrP, with most of these proteins belonging to extracellular components, cell junctions or the cytoskeleton.

http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article/figure/image?size=inline&id=info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0114594.g001

http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article/figure/image?size=inline&id=info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0114594.g003

 

Development and Applications of CRISPR-Cas9 for Genome Engineering

Patrick D. Hsu,1,2,3 Eric S. Lander,1 and Feng Zhang1,2,*
Cell. 2014 Jun 5; 157(6): 1262–1278.   doi:  10.1016/j.cell.2014.05.010

Recent advances in genome engineering technologies based on the CRISPR-associated RNA-guided endonuclease Cas9 are enabling the systematic interrogation of mammalian genome function. Analogous to the search function in modern word processors, Cas9 can be guided to specific locations within complex genomes by a short RNA search string. Using this system, DNA sequences within the endogenous genome and their functional outputs are now easily edited or modulated in virtually any organism of choice. Cas9-mediated genetic perturbation is simple and scalable, empowering researchers to elucidate the functional organization of the genome at the systems level and establish causal linkages between genetic variations and biological phenotypes. In this Review, we describe the development and applications of Cas9 for a variety of research or translational applications while highlighting challenges as well as future directions. Derived from a remarkable microbial defense system, Cas9 is driving innovative applications from basic biology to biotechnology and medicine.

The development of recombinant DNA technology in the 1970s marked the beginning of a new era for biology. For the first time, molecular biologists gained the ability to manipulate DNA molecules, making it possible to study genes and harness them to develop novel medicine and biotechnology. Recent advances in genome engineering technologies are sparking a new revolution in biological research. Rather than studying DNA taken out of the context of the genome, researchers can now directly edit or modulate the function of DNA sequences in their endogenous context in virtually any organism of choice, enabling them to elucidate the functional organization of the genome at the systems level, as well as identify causal genetic variations.

Broadly speaking, genome engineering refers to the process of making targeted modifications to the genome, its contexts (e.g., epigenetic marks), or its outputs (e.g., transcripts). The ability to do so easily and efficiently in eukaryotic and especially mammalian cells holds immense promise to transform basic science, biotechnology, and medicine (Figure 1).

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4343198/bin/nihms659174f1.jpg

For life sciences research, technologies that can delete, insert, and modify the DNA sequences of cells or organisms enable dissecting the function of specific genes and regulatory elements. Multiplexed editing could further allow the interrogation of gene or protein networks at a larger scale. Similarly, manipulating transcriptional regulation or chromatin states at particular loci can reveal how genetic material is organized and utilized within a cell, illuminating relationships between the architecture of the genome and its functions. In biotechnology, precise manipulation of genetic building blocks and regulatory machinery also facilitates the reverse engineering or reconstruction of useful biological systems, for example, by enhancing biofuel production pathways in industrially relevant organisms or by creating infection-resistant crops. Additionally, genome engineering is stimulating a new generation of drug development processes and medical therapeutics. Perturbation of multiple genes simultaneously could model the additive effects that underlie complex polygenic disorders, leading to new drug targets, while genome editing could directly correct harmful mutations in the context of human gene therapy (Tebas et al., 2014).

Eukaryotic genomes contain billions of DNA bases and are difficult to manipulate. One of the breakthroughs in genome manipulation has been the development of gene targeting by homologous recombination (HR), which integrates exogenous repair templates that contain sequence homology to the donor site (Figure 2A) (Capecchi, 1989). HR-mediated targeting has facilitated the generation of knockin and knockout animal models via manipulation of germline competent stem cells, dramatically advancing many areas of biological research. However, although HR-mediated gene targeting produces highly precise alterations, the desired recombination events occur extremely infrequently (1 in 106–109 cells) (Capecchi, 1989), presenting enormous challenges for large-scale applications of gene-targeting experiments.

Genome Editing Technologies Exploit Endogenous DNA Repair Machinery

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4343198/bin/nihms659174f2.gif

To overcome these challenges, a series of programmable nuclease-based genome editing technologies have been developed in recent years, enabling targeted and efficient modification of a variety of eukaryotic and particularly mammalian species. Of the current generation of genome editing technologies, the most rapidly developing is the class of RNA-guided endonucleases known as Cas9 from the microbial adaptive immune system CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats), which can be easily targeted to virtually any genomic location of choice by a short RNA guide. Here, we review the development and applications of the CRISPR-associated endonuclease Cas9 as a platform technology for achieving targeted perturbation of endogenous genomic elements and also discuss challenges and future avenues for innovation.   ……

Figure 4   Natural Mechanisms of Microbial CRISPR Systems in Adaptive Immunity

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4343198/bin/nihms659174f4.gif

……  A key turning point came in 2005, when systematic analysis of the spacer sequences separating the individual direct repeats suggested their extrachromosomal and phage-associated origins (Mojica et al., 2005Pourcel et al., 2005Bolotin et al., 2005). This insight was tremendously exciting, especially given previous studies showing that CRISPR loci are transcribed (Tang et al., 2002) and that viruses are unable to infect archaeal cells carrying spacers corresponding to their own genomes (Mojica et al., 2005). Together, these findings led to the speculation that CRISPR arrays serve as an immune memory and defense mechanism, and individual spacers facilitate defense against bacteriophage infection by exploiting Watson-Crick base-pairing between nucleic acids (Mojica et al., 2005Pourcel et al., 2005). Despite these compelling realizations that CRISPR loci might be involved in microbial immunity, the specific mechanism of how the spacers act to mediate viral defense remained a challenging puzzle. Several hypotheses were raised, including thoughts that CRISPR spacers act as small RNA guides to degrade viral transcripts in a RNAi-like mechanism (Makarova et al., 2006) or that CRISPR spacers direct Cas enzymes to cleave viral DNA at spacer-matching regions (Bolotin et al., 2005).   …..

As the pace of CRISPR research accelerated, researchers quickly unraveled many details of each type of CRISPR system (Figure 4). Building on an earlier speculation that protospacer adjacent motifs (PAMs) may direct the type II Cas9 nuclease to cleave DNA (Bolotin et al., 2005), Moineau and colleagues highlighted the importance of PAM sequences by demonstrating that PAM mutations in phage genomes circumvented CRISPR interference (Deveau et al., 2008). Additionally, for types I and II, the lack of PAM within the direct repeat sequence within the CRISPR array prevents self-targeting by the CRISPR system. In type III systems, however, mismatches between the 5′ end of the crRNA and the DNA target are required for plasmid interference (Marraffini and Sontheimer, 2010).  …..

In 2013, a pair of studies simultaneously showed how to successfully engineer type II CRISPR systems from Streptococcus thermophilus (Cong et al., 2013) andStreptococcus pyogenes (Cong et al., 2013Mali et al., 2013a) to accomplish genome editing in mammalian cells. Heterologous expression of mature crRNA-tracrRNA hybrids (Cong et al., 2013) as well as sgRNAs (Cong et al., 2013Mali et al., 2013a) directs Cas9 cleavage within the mammalian cellular genome to stimulate NHEJ or HDR-mediated genome editing. Multiple guide RNAs can also be used to target several genes at once. Since these initial studies, Cas9 has been used by thousands of laboratories for genome editing applications in a variety of experimental model systems (Sander and Joung, 2014). ……

The majority of CRISPR-based technology development has focused on the signature Cas9 nuclease from type II CRISPR systems. However, there remains a wide diversity of CRISPR types and functions. Cas RAMP module (Cmr) proteins identified in Pyrococcus furiosus and Sulfolobus solfataricus (Hale et al., 2012) constitute an RNA-targeting CRISPR immune system, forming a complex guided by small CRISPR RNAs that target and cleave complementary RNA instead of DNA. Cmr protein homologs can be found throughout bacteria and archaea, typically relying on a 5 site tag sequence on the target-matching crRNA for Cmr-directed cleavage.

Unlike RNAi, which is targeted largely by a 6 nt seed region and to a lesser extent 13 other bases, Cmr crRNAs contain 30–40 nt of target complementarity. Cmr-CRISPR technologies for RNA targeting are thus a promising target for orthogonal engineering and minimal off-target modification. Although the modularity of Cmr systems for RNA-targeting in mammalian cells remains to be investigated, Cmr complexes native to P. furiosus have already been engineered to target novel RNA substrates (Hale et al., 20092012).   ……

Although Cas9 has already been widely used as a research tool, a particularly exciting future direction is the development of Cas9 as a therapeutic technology for treating genetic disorders. For a monogenic recessive disorder due to loss-of-function mutations (such as cystic fibrosis, sickle-cell anemia, or Duchenne muscular dystrophy), Cas9 may be used to correct the causative mutation. This has many advantages over traditional methods of gene augmentation that deliver functional genetic copies via viral vector-mediated overexpression—particularly that the newly functional gene is expressed in its natural context. For dominant-negative disorders in which the affected gene is haplosufficient (such as transthyretin-related hereditary amyloidosis or dominant forms of retinitis pigmentosum), it may also be possible to use NHEJ to inactivate the mutated allele to achieve therapeutic benefit. For allele-specific targeting, one could design guide RNAs capable of distinguishing between single-nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) variations in the target gene, such as when the SNP falls within the PAM sequence.

 

 

CRISPR/Cas9: a powerful genetic engineering tool for establishing large animal models of neurodegenerative diseases

Zhuchi Tu, Weili Yang, Sen Yan, Xiangyu Guo and Xiao-Jiang Li

Molecular Neurodegeneration 2015; 10:35  http://dx.doi.org:/10.1186/s13024-015-0031-x

Animal models are extremely valuable to help us understand the pathogenesis of neurodegenerative disorders and to find treatments for them. Since large animals are more like humans than rodents, they make good models to identify the important pathological events that may be seen in humans but not in small animals; large animals are also very important for validating effective treatments or confirming therapeutic targets. Due to the lack of embryonic stem cell lines from large animals, it has been difficult to use traditional gene targeting technology to establish large animal models of neurodegenerative diseases. Recently, CRISPR/Cas9 was used successfully to genetically modify genomes in various species. Here we discuss the use of CRISPR/Cas9 technology to establish large animal models that can more faithfully mimic human neurodegenerative diseases.

Neurodegenerative diseases — Alzheimer’s disease(AD),Parkinson’s disease(PD), amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Huntington’s disease (HD), and frontotemporal dementia (FTD) — are characterized by age-dependent and selective neurodegeneration. As the life expectancy of humans lengthens, there is a greater prevalence of these neurodegenerative diseases; however, the pathogenesis of most of these neurodegenerative diseases remain unclear, and we lack effective treatments for these important brain disorders.

CRISPR/Cas9,  Non-human primates,  Neurodegenerative diseases,  Animal model

There are a number of excellent reviews covering different types of neurodegenerative diseases and their genetic mouse models [812]. Investigations of different mouse models of neurodegenerative diseases have revealed a common pathology shared by these diseases. First, the development of neuropathology and neurological symptoms in genetic mouse models of neurodegenerative diseases is age dependent and progressive. Second, all the mouse models show an accumulation of misfolded or aggregated proteins resulting from the expression of mutant genes. Third, despite the widespread expression of mutant proteins throughout the body and brain, neuronal function appears to be selectively or preferentially affected. All these facts indicate that mouse models of neurodegenerative diseases recapitulate important pathologic features also seen in patients with neurodegenerative diseases.

However, it seems that mouse models can not recapitulate the full range of neuropathology seen in patients with neurodegenerative diseases. Overt neurodegeneration, which is the most important pathological feature in patient brains, is absent in genetic rodent models of AD, PD, and HD. Many rodent models that express transgenic mutant proteins under the control of different promoters do not replicate overt neurodegeneration, which is likely due to their short life spans and the different aging processes of small animals. Also important are the remarkable differences in brain development between rodents and primates. For example, the mouse brain takes 21 days to fully develop, whereas the formation of primate brains requires more than 150 days [13]. The rapid development of the brain in rodents may render neuronal cells resistant to misfolded protein-mediated neurodegeneration. Another difficulty in using rodent models is how to analyze cognitive and emotional abnormalities, which are the early symptoms of most neurodegenerative diseases in humans. Differences in neuronal circuitry, anatomy, and physiology between rodent and primate brains may also account for the behavioral differences between rodent and primate models.

 

Mitochondrial dynamics–fusion, fission, movement, and mitophagy–in neurodegenerative diseases

Hsiuchen Chen and David C. Chan
Human Molec Gen 2009; 18, Review Issue 2 R169–R176
http://dx.doi.org:/10.1093/hmg/ddp326

Neurons are metabolically active cells with high energy demands at locations distant from the cell body. As a result, these cells are particularly dependent on mitochondrial function, as reflected by the observation that diseases of mitochondrial dysfunction often have a neurodegenerative component. Recent discoveries have highlighted that neurons are reliant particularly on the dynamic properties of mitochondria. Mitochondria are dynamic organelles by several criteria. They engage in repeated cycles of fusion and fission, which serve to intermix the lipids and contents of a population of mitochondria. In addition, mitochondria are actively recruited to subcellular sites, such as the axonal and dendritic processes of neurons. Finally, the quality of a mitochondrial population is maintained through mitophagy, a form of autophagy in which defective mitochondria are selectively degraded. We review the general features of mitochondrial dynamics, incorporating recent findings on mitochondrial fusion, fission, transport and mitophagy. Defects in these key features are associated with neurodegenerative disease. Charcot-Marie-Tooth type 2A, a peripheral neuropathy, and dominant optic atrophy, an inherited optic neuropathy, result from a primary deficiency of mitochondrial fusion. Moreover, several major neurodegenerative diseases—including Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s disease—involve disruption of mitochondrial dynamics. Remarkably, in several disease models, the manipulation of mitochondrial fusion or fission can partially rescue disease phenotypes. We review how mitochondrial dynamics is altered in these neurodegenerative diseases and discuss the reciprocal interactions between mitochondrial fusion, fission, transport and mitophagy.

 

Applications of CRISPR–Cas systems in Neuroscience

Matthias Heidenreich  & Feng Zhang
Nature Rev Neurosci 2016; 17:36–44   http://dx.doi.org:/10.1038/nrn.2015.2

Genome-editing tools, and in particular those based on CRISPR–Cas (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeat (CRISPR)–CRISPR-associated protein) systems, are accelerating the pace of biological research and enabling targeted genetic interrogation in almost any organism and cell type. These tools have opened the door to the development of new model systems for studying the complexity of the nervous system, including animal models and stem cell-derived in vitro models. Precise and efficient gene editing using CRISPR–Cas systems has the potential to advance both basic and translational neuroscience research.
Cellular neuroscience
, DNA recombination, Genetic engineering, Molecular neuroscience

Figure 3: In vitro applications of Cas9 in human iPSCs.close

http://www.nature.com/nrn/journal/v17/n1/carousel/nrn.2015.2-f3.jpg

a | Evaluation of disease candidate genes from large-population genome-wide association studies (GWASs). Human primary cells, such as neurons, are not easily available and are difficult to expand in culture. By contrast, induced pluripo…

  1. Genome-editing Technologies for Gene and Cell Therapy

Molecular Therapy 12 Jan 2016

  1. Systematic quantification of HDR and NHEJ reveals effects of locus, nuclease, and cell type on genome-editing

Scientific Reports 31 Mar 2016

  1. Controlled delivery of β-globin-targeting TALENs and CRISPR/Cas9 into mammalian cells for genome editing using microinjection

Scientific Reports 12 Nov 2015

 

Alzheimer’s Disease: Medicine’s Greatest Challenge in the 21st Century

https://www.physicsforums.com/insights/can-gene-editing-eliminate-alzheimers-disease/

The development of the CRISPR/Cas9 system has made gene editing a relatively simple task.  While CRISPR and other gene editing technologies stand to revolutionize biomedical research and offers many promising therapeutic avenues (such as in the treatment of HIV), a great deal of debate exists over whether CRISPR should be used to modify human embryos. As I discussed in my previous Insight article, we lack enough fundamental biological knowledge to enhance many traits like height or intelligence, so we are not near a future with genetically-enhanced super babies. However, scientists have identified a few rare genetic variants that protect against disease.  One such protective variant is a mutation in the APP gene that protects against Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive decline in old age. If we can perfect gene editing technologies, is this mutation one that we should be regularly introducing into embryos? In this article, I explore the potential for using gene editing as a way to prevent Alzheimer’s disease in future generations. Alzheimer’s Disease: Medicine’s Greatest Challenge in the 21st Century Can gene editing be the missing piece in the battle against Alzheimer’s? (Source: bostonbiotech.org) I chose to assess the benefit of germline gene editing in the context of Alzheimer’s disease because this disease is one of the biggest challenges medicine faces in the 21st century. Alzheimer’s disease is a chronic neurodegenerative disease responsible for the majority of the cases of dementia in the elderly. The disease symptoms begins with short term memory loss and causes more severe symptoms – problems with language, disorientation, mood swings, behavioral issues – as it progresses, eventually leading to the loss of bodily functions and death. Because of the dementia the disease causes, Alzheimer’s patients require a great deal of care, and the world spends ~1% of its total GDP on caring for those with Alzheimer’s and related disorders. Because the prevalence of the disease increases with age, the situation will worsen as life expectancies around the globe increase: worldwide cases of Alzheimer’s are expected to grow from 35 million today to over 115 million by 2050.

Despite much research, the exact causes of Alzheimer’s disease remains poorly understood. The disease seems to be related to the accumulation of plaques made of amyloid-β peptides that form on the outside of neurons, as well as the formation of tangles of the protein tau inside of neurons. Although many efforts have been made to target amyloid-β or the enzymes involved in its formation, we have so far been unsuccessful at finding any treatment that stops the disease or reverses its progress. Some researchers believe that most attempts at treating Alzheimer’s have failed because, by the time a patient shows symptoms, the disease has already progressed past the point of no return.

While research towards a cure continues, researchers have sought effective ways to prevent Alzheimer’s disease. Although some studies show that mental and physical exercise may lower ones risk of Alzheimer’s disease, approximately 60-80% of the risk for Alzheimer’s disease appears to be genetic. Thus, if we’re serious about prevention, we may have to act at the genetic level. And because the brain is difficult to access surgically for gene therapy in adults, this means using gene editing on embryos.

Reference https://www.physicsforums.com/insights/can-gene-editing-eliminate-alzheimers-disease/

 

Utilising CRISPR to Generate Predictive Disease Models: a Case Study in Neurodegenerative Disorders


Dr. Bhuvaneish.T. Selvaraj  – Scottish Centre for Regenerative Medicine

http://www.crisprsummit.com/utilising-crispr-to-generate-predictive-disease-models-a-case-study-in-neurodegenerative-disorders

  • Introducing the latest developments in predictive model generation
  • Discover how CRISPR is being used to develop disease models to study and treat neurodegenerative disorders
  • In depth Q&A session to answer your most pressing questions

 

Turning On Genes, Systematically, with CRISPR/Cas9

http://www.genengnews.com/gen-news-highlights/turning-on-genes-systematically-with-crispr-cas9/81250697/

 

Scientists based at MIT assert that they can reliably turn on any gene of their choosing in living cells. [Feng Zhang and Steve Dixon]  http://www.genengnews.com/media/images/GENHighlight/Dec12_2014_CRISPRCas9GeneActivationSystem7838101231.jpg

With the latest CRISPR/Cas9 advance, the exhortation “turn on, tune in, drop out” comes to mind. The CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing system was already a well-known means of “tuning in” (inserting new genes) and “dropping out” (knocking out genes). But when it came to “turning on” genes, CRISPR/Cas9 had little potency. That is, it had demonstrated only limited success as a way to activate specific genes.

A new CRISPR/Cas9 approach, however, appears capable of activating genes more effectively than older approaches. The new approach may allow scientists to more easily determine the function of individual genes, according to Feng Zhang, Ph.D., a researcher at MIT and the Broad Institute. Dr. Zhang and colleagues report that the new approach permits multiplexed gene activation and rapid, large-scale studies of gene function.

The new technique was introduced in the December 10 online edition of Nature, in an article entitled, “Genome-scale transcriptional activation by an engineered CRISPR-Cas9 complex.” The article describes how Dr. Zhang, along with the University of Tokyo’s Osamu Nureki, Ph.D., and Hiroshi Nishimasu, Ph.D., overhauled the CRISPR/Cas9 system. The research team based their work on their analysis (published earlier this year) of the structure formed when Cas9 binds to the guide RNA and its target DNA. Specifically, the team used the structure’s 3D shape to rationally improve the system.

In previous efforts to revamp CRISPR/Cas9 for gene activation purposes, scientists had tried to attach the activation domains to either end of the Cas9 protein, with limited success. From their structural studies, the MIT team realized that two small loops of the RNA guide poke out from the Cas9 complex and could be better points of attachment because they allow the activation domains to have more flexibility in recruiting transcription machinery.

Using their revamped system, the researchers activated about a dozen genes that had proven difficult or impossible to turn on using the previous generation of Cas9 activators. Each gene showed at least a twofold boost in transcription, and for many genes, the researchers found multiple orders of magnitude increase in activation.

After investigating single-guide RNA targeting rules for effective transcriptional activation, demonstrating multiplexed activation of 10 genes simultaneously, and upregulating long intergenic noncoding RNA transcripts, the research team decided to undertake a large-scale screen. This screen was designed to identify genes that confer resistance to a melanoma drug called PLX-4720.

“We … synthesized a library consisting of 70,290 guides targeting all human RefSeq coding isoforms to screen for genes that, upon activation, confer resistance to a BRAF inhibitor,” wrote the authors of the Nature paper. “The top hits included genes previously shown to be able to confer resistance, and novel candidates were validated using individual [single-guide RNA] and complementary DNA overexpression.”

A gene signature based on the top screening hits, the authors added, correlated with a gene expression signature of BRAF inhibitor resistance in cell lines and patient-derived samples. It was also suggested that large-scale screens such as the one demonstrated in the current study could help researchers discover new cancer drugs that prevent tumors from becoming resistant.

More at –  http://www.genengnews.com/gen-news-highlights/turning-on-genes-systematically-with-crispr-cas9/81250697/

 

Susceptibility and modifier genes in Portuguese transthyretin V30M amyloid polyneuropathy: complexity in a single-gene disease
Miguel L. Soares1,2, Teresa Coelho3,6, Alda Sousa4,5, …, Maria Joa˜o Saraiva2,5 and Joel N. Buxbaum1
Human Molec Gen 2005; 14(4): 543–553   http://dx.doi.org:/10.1093/hmg/ddi051
https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Isabel_Conceicao/publication/8081351_Susceptibility_and_modifier_genes_in_Portuguese_transthyretin_V30M_amyloid_polyneuropathy_complexity_in_a_single-gene_disease/links/53e123d70cf2235f352733b3.pdf

Familial amyloid polyneuropathy type I is an autosomal dominant disorder caused by mutations in the transthyretin (TTR ) gene; however, carriers of the same mutation exhibit variability in penetrance and clinical expression. We analyzed alleles of candidate genes encoding non-fibrillar components of TTR amyloid deposits and a molecule metabolically interacting with TTR [retinol-binding protein (RBP)], for possible associations with age of disease onset and/or susceptibility in a Portuguese population sample with the TTR V30M mutation and unrelated controls. We show that the V30M carriers represent a distinct subset of the Portuguese population. Estimates of genetic distance indicated that the controls and the classical onset group were furthest apart, whereas the late-onset group appeared to differ from both. Importantly, the data also indicate that genetic interactions among the multiple loci evaluated, rather than single-locus effects, are more likely to determine differences in the age of disease onset. Multifactor dimensionality reduction indicated that the best genetic model for classical onset group versus controls involved the APCS gene, whereas for late-onset cases, one APCS variant (APCSv1) and two RBP variants (RBPv1 and RBPv2) are involved. Thus, although the TTR V30M mutation is required for the disease in Portuguese patients, different genetic factors may govern the age of onset, as well as the occurrence of anticipation.

Autosomal dominant disorders may vary in expression even within a given kindred. The basis of this variability is uncertain and can be attributed to epigenetic factors, environment or epistasis. We have studied familial amyloid polyneuropathy (FAP), an autosomal dominant disorder characterized by peripheral sensorimotor and autonomic neuropathy. It exhibits variation in cardiac, renal, gastrointestinal and ocular involvement, as well as age of onset. Over 80 missense mutations in the transthyretin gene (TTR ) result in autosomal dominant disease http://www.ibmc.up.pt/~mjsaraiv/ttrmut.html). The presence of deposits consisting entirely of wild-type TTR molecules in the hearts of 10– 25% of individuals over age 80 reveals its inherent in vivo amyloidogenic potential (1).

FAP was initially described in Portuguese (2) where, until recently, the TTR V30M has been the only pathogenic mutation associated with the disease (3,4). Later reports identified the same mutation in Swedish and Japanese families (5,6). The disorder has since been recognized in other European countries and in North American kindreds in association with V30M, as well as other mutations (7).

TTR V30M produces disease in only 5–10% of Swedish carriers of the allele (8), a much lower degree of penetrance than that seen in Portuguese (80%) (9) or in Japanese with the same mutation. The actual penetrance in Japanese carriers has not been formally established, but appears to resemble that seen in Portuguese. Portuguese and Japanese carriers show considerable variation in the age of clinical onset (10,11). In both populations, the first symptoms had originally been described as typically occurring before age 40 (so-called ‘classical’ or early-onset); however, in recent years, more individuals developing symptoms late in life have been identified (11,12). Hence, present data indicate that the distribution of the age of onset in Portuguese is continuous, but asymmetric with a mean around age 35 and a long tail into the older age group (Fig. 1) (9,13). Further, DNA testing in Portugal has identified asymptomatic carriers over age 70 belonging to a subset of very late-onset kindreds in whose descendants genetic anticipation is frequent. The molecular basis of anticipation in FAP, which is not mediated by trinucleotide repeat expansions in the TTR or any other gene (14), remains elusive.

Variation in penetrance, age of onset and clinical features are hallmarks of many autosomal dominant disorders including the human TTR amyloidoses (7). Some of these clearly reflect specific biological effects of a particular mutation or a class of mutants. However, when such phenotypic variability is seen with a single mutation in the gene encoding the same protein, it suggests an effect of modifying genetic loci and/or environmental factors contributing differentially to the course of disease. We have chosen to examine age of onset as an example of a discrete phenotypic variation in the presence of the particular autosomal dominant disease-associated mutation TTR V30M. Although the role of environmental factors cannot be excluded, the existence of modifier genes involved in TTR amyloidogenesis is an attractive hypothesis to explain the phenotypic variability in FAP. ….

ATTR (TTR amyloid), like all amyloid deposits, contains several molecular components, in addition to the quantitatively dominant fibril-forming amyloid protein, including heparan sulfate proteoglycan 2 (HSPG2 or perlecan), SAP, a plasma glycoprotein of the pentraxin family (encoded by the APCS gene) that undergoes specific calcium-dependent binding to all types of amyloid fibrils, and apolipoprotein E (ApoE), also found in all amyloid deposits (15). The ApoE4 isoform is associated with an increased frequency and earlier onset of Alzheimer’s disease (Ab), the most common form of brain amyloid, whereas the ApoE2 isoform appears to be protective (16). ApoE variants could exert a similar modulatory effect in the onset of FAP, although early studies on a limited number of patients suggested this was not the case (17).

In at least one instance of senile systemic amyloidosis, small amounts of AA-related material were found in TTR deposits (18). These could reflect either a passive co-aggregation or a contributory involvement of protein AA, encoded by the serum amyloid A (SAA ) genes and the main component of secondary (reactive) amyloid fibrils, in the formation of ATTR.

Retinol-binding protein (RBP), the serum carrier of vitamin A, circulates in plasma bound to TTR. Vitamin A-loaded RBP and L-thyroxine, the two natural ligands of TTR, can act alone or synergistically to inhibit the rate and extent of TTR fibrillogenesis in vitro, suggesting that RBP may influence the course of FAP pathology in vivo (19). We have analyzed coding and non-coding sequence polymorphisms in the RBP4 (serum RBP, 10q24), HSPG2 (1p36.1), APCS (1q22), APOE (19q13.2), SAA1 and SAA2 (11p15.1) genes with the goal of identifying chromosomes carrying common and functionally significant variants. At the time these studies were performed, the full human genome sequence was not completed and systematic singlenucleotide polymorphism (SNP) analyses were not available for any of the suspected candidate genes. We identified new SNPs in APCS and RBP4 and utilized polymorphisms in SAA, HSPG2 and APOE that had already been characterized and shown to have potential pathophysiologic significance in other disorders (16,20–22). The genotyping data were analyzed for association with the presence of the V30M amyloidogenic allele (FAP patients versus controls) and with the age of onset (classical- versus late-onset patients). Multilocus analyses were also performed to examine the effects of simultaneous contributions of the six loci for determining the onset of the first symptoms.  …..

The potential for different underlying models for classical and late onset is supported by the MDR analysis, which produces two distinct models when comparing each class with the controls. One could view the two onset classes as unique diseases. If this is the case, then the failure to detect a single predictive genetic model is consistent with two related, but different, diseases. This is exactly what would be expected in such a case of genetic heterogeneity (28). Using this approach, a major gene effect can be viewed as a necessary, but not sufficient, condition to explain the course of the disease. Analyzing the cases but omitting from the analysis of phenotype the necessary allele, in this case TTR V30M, can then reveal a variety of important modifiers that are distinct between the phenotypes.

The significant comparisons obtained in our study cohort indicate that the combined effects mainly result from two and three-locus interactions involving all loci except SAA1 and SAA2 for susceptibility to disease. A considerable number of four-site combinations modulate the age of onset with SAA1 appearing in a majority of significant combinations in late-onset disease, perhaps indicating a greater role of the SAA variants in the age of onset of FAP.

The correlation between genotype and phenotype in socalled simple Mendelian disorders is often incomplete, as only a subset of all mutations can reliably predict specific phenotypes (34). This is because non-allelic genetic variations and/or environmental influences underlie these disorders whose phenotypes behave as complex traits. A few examples include the identification of the role of homozygozity for the SAA1.1 allele in conferring the genetic susceptibility to renal amyloidosis in FMF (20) and the association of an insertion/deletion polymorphism in the ACE gene with disease severity in familial hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (35). In these disorders, the phenotypes arise from mutations in MEFV and b-MHC, but are modulated by independently inherited genetic variation. In this report, we show that interactions among multiple genes, whose products are confirmed or putative constituents of ATTR deposits, or metabolically interact with TTR, modulate the onset of the first symptoms and predispose individuals to disease in the presence of the V30M mutation in TTR. The exact nature of the effects identified here requires further study with potential application in the development of genetic screening with prognostic value pertaining to the onset of disease in the TTR V30M carriers.

If the effects of additional single or interacting genes dictate the heterogeneity of phenotype, as reflected in variability of onset and clinical expression (with the same TTR mutation), the products encoded by alleles at such loci could contribute to the process of wild-type TTR deposition in elderly individuals without a mutation (senile systemic amyloidosis), a phenomenon not readily recognized as having a genetic basis because of the insensitivity of family history in the elderly.

 

Safety and Efficacy of RNAi Therapy for Transthyretin Amyloidosis

Coelho T, Adams D, Silva A, et al.
N Engl J Med 2013;369:819-29.    http://dx.doi.org:/10.1056/NEJMoa1208760

Transthyretin amyloidosis is caused by the deposition of hepatocyte-derived transthyretin amyloid in peripheral nerves and the heart. A therapeutic approach mediated by RNA interference (RNAi) could reduce the production of transthyretin.

Methods We identified a potent antitransthyretin small interfering RNA, which was encapsulated in two distinct first- and second-generation formulations of lipid nanoparticles, generating ALN-TTR01 and ALN-TTR02, respectively. Each formulation was studied in a single-dose, placebo-controlled phase 1 trial to assess safety and effect on transthyretin levels. We first evaluated ALN-TTR01 (at doses of 0.01 to 1.0 mg per kilogram of body weight) in 32 patients with transthyretin amyloidosis and then evaluated ALN-TTR02 (at doses of 0.01 to 0.5 mg per kilogram) in 17 healthy volunteers.

Results Rapid, dose-dependent, and durable lowering of transthyretin levels was observed in the two trials. At a dose of 1.0 mg per kilogram, ALN-TTR01 suppressed transthyretin, with a mean reduction at day 7 of 38%, as compared with placebo (P=0.01); levels of mutant and nonmutant forms of transthyretin were lowered to a similar extent. For ALN-TTR02, the mean reductions in transthyretin levels at doses of 0.15 to 0.3 mg per kilogram ranged from 82.3 to 86.8%, with reductions of 56.6 to 67.1% at 28 days (P<0.001 for all comparisons). These reductions were shown to be RNAi mediated. Mild-to-moderate infusion-related reactions occurred in 20.8% and 7.7% of participants receiving ALN-TTR01 and ALN-TTR02, respectively.

ALN-TTR01 and ALN-TTR02 suppressed the production of both mutant and nonmutant forms of transthyretin, establishing proof of concept for RNAi therapy targeting messenger RNA transcribed from a disease-causing gene.

 

Alnylam May Seek Approval for TTR Amyloidosis Rx in 2017 as Other Programs Advance


https://www.genomeweb.com/rnai/alnylam-may-seek-approval-ttr-amyloidosis-rx-2017-other-programs-advance

Officials from Alnylam Pharmaceuticals last week provided updates on the two drug candidates from the company’s flagship transthyretin-mediated amyloidosis program, stating that the intravenously delivered agent patisiran is proceeding toward a possible market approval in three years, while a subcutaneously administered version called ALN-TTRsc is poised to enter Phase III testing before the end of the year.

Meanwhile, Alnylam is set to advance a handful of preclinical therapies into human studies in short order, including ones for complement-mediated diseases, hypercholesterolemia, and porphyria.

The officials made their comments during a conference call held to discuss Alnylam’s second-quarter financial results.

ATTR is caused by a mutation in the TTR gene, which normally produces a protein that acts as a carrier for retinol binding protein and is characterized by the accumulation of amyloid deposits in various tissues. Alnylam’s drugs are designed to silence both the mutant and wild-type forms of TTR.

Patisiran, which is delivered using lipid nanoparticles developed by Tekmira Pharmaceuticals, is currently in a Phase III study in patients with a form of ATTR called familial amyloid polyneuropathy (FAP) affecting the peripheral nervous system. Running at over 20 sites in nine countries, that study is set to enroll up to 200 patients and compare treatment to placebo based on improvements in neuropathy symptoms.

According to Alnylam Chief Medical Officer Akshay Vaishnaw, Alnylam expects to have final data from the study in two to three years, which would put patisiran on track for a new drug application filing in 2017.

Meanwhile, ALN-TTRsc, which is under development for a version of ATTR that affects cardiac tissue called familial amyloidotic cardiomyopathy (FAC) and uses Alnylam’s proprietary GalNAc conjugate delivery technology, is set to enter Phase III by year-end as Alnylam holds “active discussions” with US and European regulators on the design of that study, CEO John Maraganore noted during the call.

In the interim, Alnylam continues to enroll patients in a pilot Phase II study of ALN-TTRsc, which is designed to test the drug’s efficacy for FAC or senile systemic amyloidosis (SSA), a condition caused by the idiopathic accumulation of wild-type TTR protein in the heart.

Based on “encouraging” data thus far, Vaishnaw said that Alnylam has upped the expected enrollment in this study to 25 patients from 15. Available data from the trial is slated for release in November, he noted, stressing that “any clinical endpoint result needs to be considered exploratory given the small sample size and the very limited duration of treatment of only six weeks” in the trial.

Vaishnaw added that an open-label extension (OLE) study for patients in the ALN-TTRsc study will kick off in the coming weeks, allowing the company to gather long-term dosing tolerability and clinical activity data on the drug.

Enrollment in an OLE study of patisiran has been completed with 27 patients, he said, and, “as of today, with up to nine months of therapy … there have been no study drug discontinuations.” Clinical endpoint data from approximately 20 patients in this study will be presented at the American Neurological Association meeting in October.

As part of its ATTR efforts, Alnylam has also been conducting natural history of disease studies in both FAP and FAC patients. Data from the 283-patient FAP study was presented earlier this year and showed a rapid progression in neuropathy impairment scores and a high correlation of this measurement with disease severity.

During last week’s conference call, Vaishnaw said that clinical endpoint and biomarker data on about 400 patients with either FAC or SSA have already been collected in a nature history study on cardiac ATTR. Maraganore said that these findings would likely be released sometime next year.

Alnylam Presents New Phase II, Preclinical Data from TTR Amyloidosis Programs
https://www.genomeweb.com/rnai/alnylam-presents-new-phase-ii-preclinical-data-ttr-amyloidosis-programs

 

Amyloid disease drug approved

Nature Biotechnology 2012; (3http://dx.doi.org:/10.1038/nbt0212-121b

The first medication for a rare and often fatal protein misfolding disorder has been approved in Europe. On November 16, the E gave a green light to Pfizer’s Vyndaqel (tafamidis) for treating transthyretin amyloidosis in adult patients with stage 1 polyneuropathy symptoms. [Jeffery Kelly, La Jolla]

 

Safety and Efficacy of RNAi Therapy for Transthyretin …

http://www.nejm.org/…/NEJMoa1208760?&#8230;

The New England Journal of Medicine

Aug 29, 2013 – Transthyretin amyloidosis is caused by the deposition of hepatocyte-derived transthyretin amyloid in peripheral nerves and the heart.

 

Alnylam’s RNAi therapy targets amyloid disease

Ken Garber
Nature Biotechnology 2015; 33(577)    http://dx.doi.org:/10.1038/nbt0615-577a

RNA interference’s silencing of target genes could result in potent therapeutics.

http://www.nature.com/nbt/journal/v33/n6/images/nbt0615-577a-I1.jpg

The most clinically advanced RNA interference (RNAi) therapeutic achieved a milestone in April when Alnylam Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge, Massachusetts, reported positive results for patisiran, a small interfering RNA (siRNA) oligonucleotide targeting transthyretin for treating familial amyloidotic polyneuropathy (FAP).  …

  1. Analysis of 589,306 genomes identifies individuals resilient to severe Mendelian childhood diseases

Nature Biotechnology 11 April 2016

  1. CRISPR-Cas systems for editing, regulating and targeting genomes

Nature Biotechnology 02 March 2014

  1. Near-optimal probabilistic RNA-seq quantification

Nature Biotechnology 04 April 2016

 

Translational Neuroscience: Toward New Therapies

https://books.google.com/books?isbn=0262029863

Karoly Nikolich, ‎Steven E. Hyman – 2015 – ‎Medical

Tafamidis for Transthyretin Familial Amyloid Polyneuropathy: A Randomized, Controlled Trial. … Multiplex Genome Engineering Using CRISPR/Cas Systems.

 

Is CRISPR a Solution to Familial Amyloid Polyneuropathy?

Author and Curator: Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP

Originally published as

https://pharmaceuticalintelligence.com/2016/04/13/is-crispr-a-solution-to-familial-amyloid-polyneuropathy/

 

http://scholar.aci.info/view/1492518a054469f0388/15411079e5a00014c3d

FAP is characterized by the systemic deposition of amyloidogenic variants of the transthyretin protein, especially in the peripheral nervous system, causing a progressive sensory and motor polyneuropathy.

FAP is caused by a mutation of the TTR gene, located on human chromosome 18q12.1-11.2.[5] A replacement of valine by methionine at position 30 (TTR V30M) is the mutation most commonly found in FAP.[1] The variant TTR is mostly produced by the liver.[citation needed] The transthyretin protein is a tetramer.    ….

 

 

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Genomics and epigenetics link to DNA structure

Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP, Curator

LPBI

 

Sequence and Epigenetic Factors Determine Overall DNA Structure

http://www.genengnews.com/gen-news-highlights/sequence-and-epigenetic-factors-determine-overall-dna-structure/81252592/

http://www.genengnews.com/Media/images/GENHighlight/Atomiclevelsimulationsshowingelectrostaticforcesbetweeneachatom1259202113.jpg

Atomic-level simulations show electrostatic forces between each atom. [Alek Aksimentiev, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign]

 

The traditionally held hypothesis about the highly ordered organization of DNA describes the interaction of various proteins with DNA sequences to mediate the dynamic structure of the molecule. However, recent evidence has emerged that stretches of homologous DNA sequences can associate preferentially with one another, even in the absence of proteins.

Researchers at the University of Illinois Center for the Physics of Living Cells, Johns Hopkins University, and Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST) in South Korea found that DNA molecules interact directly with one another in ways that are dependent on the sequence of the DNA and epigenetic factors, such as methylation.

The researchers described evidence they found for sequence-dependent attractive interactions between double-stranded DNA molecules that neither involve intermolecular strand exchange nor are mediated by DNA-binding proteins.

“DNA molecules tend to repel each other in water, but in the presence of special types of cations, they can attract each other just like nuclei pulling each other by sharing electrons in between,” explained lead study author Hajin Kim, Ph.D., assistant professor of biophysics at UNIST. “Our study suggests that the attractive force strongly depends on the nucleic acid sequence and also the epigenetic modifications.”

The investigators used atomic-level supercomputer simulations to measure the forces between a pair of double-stranded DNA helices and proposed that the distribution of methyl groups on the DNA was the key to regulating this sequence-dependent attraction. To verify their findings experimentally, the scientists were able to observe a single pair of DNA molecules within nanoscale bubbles.

“Here we combine molecular dynamics simulations with single-molecule fluorescence resonance energy transfer experiments to examine the interactions between duplex DNA in the presence of spermine, a biological polycation,” the authors wrote. “We find that AT-rich DNA duplexes associate more strongly than GC-rich duplexes, regardless of the sequence homology. Methyl groups of thymine act as a steric block, relocating spermine from major grooves to interhelical regions, thereby increasing DNA–DNA attraction.”

The findings from this study were published recently in Nature Communications in an article entitled “Direct Evidence for Sequence-Dependent Attraction Between Double-Stranded DNA Controlled by Methylation.”

After conducting numerous further simulations, the research team concluded that direct DNA–DNA interactions could play a central role in how chromosomes are organized in the cell and which ones are expanded or folded up compactly, ultimately determining functions of different cell types or regulating the cell cycle.

“Biophysics is a fascinating subject that explores the fundamental principles behind a variety of biological processes and life phenomena,” Dr. Kim noted. “Our study requires cross-disciplinary efforts from physicists, biologists, chemists, and engineering scientists and we pursue the diversity of scientific disciplines within the group.”

Dr. Kim concluded by stating that “in our lab, we try to unravel the mysteries within human cells based on the principles of physics and the mechanisms of biology. In the long run, we are seeking for ways to prevent chronic illnesses and diseases associated with aging.”

 

Direct evidence for sequence-dependent attraction between double-stranded DNA controlled by methylation

Jejoong Yoo, Hajin Kim, Aleksei Aksimentiev, and Taekjip Ha
Nature Communications 7 11045 (2016)    DOI:10.1038/ncomms11045BibTex

http://bionano.physics.illinois.edu/sites/default/files/styles/large/public/telepathy_figures_0.png?itok=VUJIHX2_

Although proteins mediate highly ordered DNA organization in vivo, theoretical studies suggest that homologous DNA duplexes can preferentially associate with one another even in the absence of proteins. Here we combine molecular dynamics simulations with single-molecule fluorescence resonance energy transfer experiments to examine the interactions between duplex DNA in the presence of spermine, a biological polycation. We find that AT-rich DNA duplexes associate more strongly than GC-rich duplexes, regardless of the sequence homology. Methyl groups of thymine acts as a steric block, relocating spermine from major grooves to interhelical regions, thereby increasing DNA–DNA attraction. Indeed, methylation of cytosines makes attraction between GC-rich DNA as strong as that between AT-rich DNA. Recent genome-wide chromosome organization studies showed that remote contact frequencies are higher for AT-rich and methylated DNA, suggesting that direct DNA–DNA interactions that we report here may play a role in the chromosome organization and gene regulation.

Formation of a DNA double helix occurs through Watson–Crick pairing mediated by the complementary hydrogen bond patterns of the two DNA strands and base stacking. Interactions between double-stranded (ds)DNA molecules in typical experimental conditions containing mono- and divalent cations are repulsive1, but can turn attractive in the presence of high-valence cations2. Theoretical studies have identified the ion–ion correlation effect as a possible microscopic mechanism of the DNA condensation phenomena3, 4, 5. Theoretical investigations have also suggested that sequence-specific attractive forces might exist between two homologous fragments of dsDNA6, and this ‘homology recognition’ hypothesis was supported by in vitro atomic force microscopy7 and in vivo point mutation assays8. However, the systems used in these measurements were too complex to rule out other possible causes such as Watson–Crick strand exchange between partially melted DNA or protein-mediated association of DNA.

Here we present direct evidence for sequence-dependent attractive interactions between dsDNA molecules that neither involve intermolecular strand exchange nor are mediated by proteins. Further, we find that the sequence-dependent attraction is controlled not by homology—contradictory to the ‘homology recognition’ hypothesis6—but by a methylation pattern. Unlike the previous in vitro study that used monovalent (Na+) or divalent (Mg2+) cations7, we presumed that for the sequence-dependent attractive interactions to operate polyamines would have to be present. Polyamine is a biological polycation present at a millimolar concentration in most eukaryotic cells and essential for cell growth and proliferation9, 10. Polyamines are also known to condense DNA in a concentration-dependent manner2, 11. In this study, we use spermine4+(Sm4+) that contains four positively charged amine groups per molecule.

Sequence dependence of DNA–DNA forces

To characterize the molecular mechanisms of DNA–DNA attraction mediated by polyamines, we performed molecular dynamics (MD) simulations where two effectively infinite parallel dsDNA molecules, 20 base pairs (bp) each in a periodic unit cell, were restrained to maintain a prescribed inter-DNA distance; the DNA molecules were free to rotate about their axes. The two DNA molecules were submerged in 100mM aqueous solution of NaCl that also contained 20 Sm4+molecules; thus, the total charge of Sm4+, 80 e, was equal in magnitude to the total charge of DNA (2 × 2 × 20 e, two unit charges per base pair; Fig. 1a). Repeating such simulations at various inter-DNA distances and applying weighted histogram analysis12 yielded the change in the interaction free energy (ΔG) as a function of the DNA–DNA distance (Fig. 1b,c). In a broad agreement with previous experimental findings13, ΔG had a minimum, ΔGmin, at the inter-DNA distance of 25−30Å for all sequences examined, indeed showing that two duplex DNA molecules can attract each other. The free energy of inter-duplex attraction was at least an order of magnitude smaller than the Watson–Crick interaction free energy of the same length DNA duplex. A minimum of ΔG was not observed in the absence of polyamines, for example, when divalent or monovalent ions were used instead14, 15.

Figure 1: Polyamine-mediated DNA sequence recognition observed in MD simulations and smFRET experiments.
Polyamine-mediated DNA sequence recognition observed in MD simulations and smFRET experiments.

(a) Set-up of MD simulations. A pair of parallel 20-bp dsDNA duplexes is surrounded by aqueous solution (semi-transparent surface) containing 20 Sm4+ molecules (which compensates exactly the charge of DNA) and 100mM NaCl. Under periodic boundary conditions, the DNA molecules are effectively infinite. A harmonic potential (not shown) is applied to maintain the prescribed distance between the dsDNA molecules. (b,c) Interaction free energy of the two DNA helices as a function of the DNA–DNA distance for repeat-sequence DNA fragments (b) and DNA homopolymers (c). (d) Schematic of experimental design. A pair of 120-bp dsDNA labelled with a Cy3/Cy5 FRET pair was encapsulated in a ~200-nm diameter lipid vesicle; the vesicles were immobilized on a quartz slide through biotin–neutravidin binding. Sm4+ molecules added after immobilization penetrated into the porous vesicles. The fluorescence signals were measured using a total internal reflection microscope. (e) Typical fluorescence signals indicative of DNA–DNA binding. Brief jumps in the FRET signal indicate binding events. (f) The fraction of traces exhibiting binding events at different Sm4+ concentrations for AT-rich, GC-rich, AT nonhomologous and CpG-methylated DNA pairs. The sequence of the CpG-methylated DNA specifies the methylation sites (CG sequence, orange), restriction sites (BstUI, triangle) and primer region (underlined). The degree of attractive interaction for the AT nonhomologous and CpG-methylated DNA pairs was similar to that of the AT-rich pair. All measurements were done at [NaCl]=50mM and T=25°C. (g) Design of the hybrid DNA constructs: 40-bp AT-rich and 40-bp GC-rich regions were flanked by 20-bp common primers. The two labelling configurations permit distinguishing parallel from anti-parallel orientation of the DNA. (h) The fraction of traces exhibiting binding events as a function of NaCl concentration at fixed concentration of Sm4+ (1mM). The fraction is significantly higher for parallel orientation of the DNA fragments.

Unexpectedly, we found that DNA sequence has a profound impact on the strength of attractive interaction. The absolute value of ΔG at minimum relative to the value at maximum separation, |ΔGmin|, showed a clearly rank-ordered dependence on the DNA sequence: |ΔGmin| of (A)20>|ΔGmin| of (AT)10>|ΔGmin| of (GC)10>|ΔGmin| of (G)20. Two trends can be noted. First, AT-rich sequences attract each other more strongly than GC-rich sequences16. For example, |ΔGmin| of (AT)10 (1.5kcalmol−1 per turn) is about twice |ΔGmin| of (GC)10 (0.8kcalmol−1 per turn) (Fig. 1b). Second, duplexes having identical AT content but different partitioning of the nucleotides between the strands (that is, (A)20 versus (AT)10 or (G)20 versus (GC)10) exhibit statistically significant differences (~0.3kcalmol−1 per turn) in the value of |ΔGmin|.

To validate the findings of MD simulations, we performed single-molecule fluorescence resonance energy transfer (smFRET)17 experiments of vesicle-encapsulated DNA molecules. Equimolar mixture of donor- and acceptor-labelled 120-bp dsDNA molecules was encapsulated in sub-micron size, porous lipid vesicles18 so that we could observe and quantitate rare binding events between a pair of dsDNA molecules without triggering large-scale DNA condensation2. Our DNA constructs were long enough to ensure dsDNA–dsDNA binding that is stable on the timescale of an smFRET measurement, but shorter than the DNA’s persistence length (~150bp (ref. 19)) to avoid intramolecular condensation20. The vesicles were immobilized on a polymer-passivated surface, and fluorescence signals from individual vesicles containing one donor and one acceptor were selectively analysed (Fig. 1d). Binding of two dsDNA molecules brings their fluorescent labels in close proximity, increasing the FRET efficiency (Fig. 1e).

FRET signals from individual vesicles were diverse. Sporadic binding events were observed in some vesicles, while others exhibited stable binding; traces indicative of frequent conformational transitions were also observed (Supplementary Fig. 1A). Such diverse behaviours could be expected from non-specific interactions of two large biomolecules having structural degrees of freedom. No binding events were observed in the absence of Sm4+ (Supplementary Fig. 1B) or when no DNA molecules were present. To quantitatively assess the propensity of forming a bound state, we chose to use the fraction of single-molecule traces that showed any binding events within the observation time of 2min (Methods). This binding fraction for the pair of AT-rich dsDNAs (AT1, 100% AT in the middle 80-bp section of the 120-bp construct) reached a maximum at ~2mM Sm4+(Fig. 1f), which is consistent with the results of previous experimental studies2, 3. In accordance with the prediction of our MD simulations, GC-rich dsDNAs (GC1, 75% GC in the middle 80bp) showed much lower binding fraction at all Sm4+ concentrations (Fig. 1b,c). Regardless of the DNA sequence, the binding fraction reduced back to zero at high Sm4+ concentrations, likely due to the resolubilization of now positively charged DNA–Sm4+ complexes2, 3, 13.

Because the donor and acceptor fluorophores were attached to the same sequence of DNA, it remained possible that the sequence homology between the donor-labelled DNA and the acceptor-labelled DNA was necessary for their interaction6. To test this possibility, we designed another AT-rich DNA construct AT2 by scrambling the central 80-bp section of AT1 to remove the sequence homology (Supplementary Table 1). The fraction of binding traces for this nonhomologous pair of donor-labelled AT1 and acceptor-labelled AT2 was comparable to that for the homologous AT-rich pair (donor-labelled AT1 and acceptor-labelled AT1) at all Sm4+ concentrations tested (Fig. 1f). Furthermore, this data set rules out the possibility that the higher binding fraction observed experimentally for the AT-rich constructs was caused by inter-duplex Watson–Crick base pairing of the partially melted constructs.

Next, we designed a DNA construct named ATGC, containing, in its middle section, a 40-bp AT-rich segment followed by a 40-bp GC-rich segment (Fig. 1g). By attaching the acceptor to the end of either the AT-rich or GC-rich segments, we could compare the likelihood of observing the parallel binding mode that brings the two AT-rich segments together and the anti-parallel binding mode. Measurements at 1mM Sm4+ and 25 or 50mM NaCl indicated a preference for the parallel binding mode by ~30% (Fig. 1h). Therefore, AT content can modulate DNA–DNA interactions even in a complex sequence context. Note that increasing the concentration of NaCl while keeping the concentration of Sm4+ constant enhances competition between Na+ and Sm4+ counterions, which reduces the concentration of Sm4+ near DNA and hence the frequency of dsDNA–dsDNA binding events (Supplementary Fig. 2).

Methylation determines the strength of DNA–DNA attraction

Analysis of the MD simulations revealed the molecular mechanism of the polyamine-mediated sequence-dependent attraction (Fig. 2). In the case of the AT-rich fragments, the bulky methyl group of thymine base blocks Sm4+ binding to the N7 nitrogen atom of adenine, which is the cation-binding hotspot21, 22. As a result, Sm4+ is not found in the major grooves of the AT-rich duplexes and resides mostly near the DNA backbone (Fig. 2a,d). Such relocated Sm4+ molecules bridge the two DNA duplexes better, accounting for the stronger attraction16, 23, 24, 25. In contrast, significant amount of Sm4+ is adsorbed to the major groove of the GC-rich helices that lacks cation-blocking methyl group (Fig. 2b,e).

Figure 2: Molecular mechanism of polyamine-mediated DNA sequence recognition.
Molecular mechanism of polyamine-mediated DNA sequence recognition.

(ac) Representative configurations of Sm4+ molecules at the DNA–DNA distance of 28Å for the (AT)10–(AT)10 (a), (GC)10–(GC)10 (b) and (GmC)10–(GmC)10 (c) DNA pairs. The backbone and bases of DNA are shown as ribbon and molecular bond, respectively; Sm4+ molecules are shown as molecular bonds. Spheres indicate the location of the N7 atoms and the methyl groups. (df) The average distributions of cations for the three sequence pairs featured in ac. Top: density of Sm4+ nitrogen atoms (d=28Å) averaged over the corresponding MD trajectory and the z axis. White circles (20Å in diameter) indicate the location of the DNA helices. Bottom: the average density of Sm4+ nitrogen (blue), DNA phosphate (black) and sodium (red) atoms projected onto the DNA–DNA distance axis (x axis). The plot was obtained by averaging the corresponding heat map data over y=[−10, 10] Å. See Supplementary Figs 4 and 5 for the cation distributions at d=30, 32, 34 and 36Å.

If indeed the extra methyl group in thymine, which is not found in cytosine, is responsible for stronger DNA–DNA interactions, we can predict that cytosine methylation, which occurs naturally in many eukaryotic organisms and is an essential epigenetic regulation mechanism26, would also increase the strength of DNA–DNA attraction. MD simulations showed that the GC-rich helices containing methylated cytosines (mC) lose the adsorbed Sm4+ (Fig. 2c,f) and that |ΔGmin| of (GC)10 increases on methylation of cytosines to become similar to |ΔGmin| of (AT)10 (Fig. 1b).

To experimentally assess the effect of cytosine methylation, we designed another GC-rich construct GC2 that had the same GC content as GC1 but a higher density of CpG sites (Supplementary Table 1). The CpG sites were then fully methylated using M. SssI methyltransferase (Supplementary Fig. 3; Methods). As predicted from the MD simulations, methylation of the GC-rich constructs increased the binding fraction to the level of the AT-rich constructs (Fig. 1f).

The sequence dependence of |ΔGmin| and its relation to the Sm4+ adsorption patterns can be rationalized by examining the number of Sm4+ molecules shared by the dsDNA molecules (Fig. 3a). An Sm4+ cation adsorbed to the major groove of one dsDNA is separated from the other dsDNA by at least 10Å, contributing much less to the effective DNA–DNA attractive force than a cation positioned between the helices, that is, the ‘bridging’ Sm4+ (ref. 23). An adsorbed Sm4+ also repels other Sm4+ molecules due to like-charge repulsion, lowering the concentration of bridging Sm4+. To demonstrate that the concentration of bridging Sm4+ controls the strength of DNA–DNA attraction, we computed the number of bridging Sm4+ molecules, Nspm (Fig. 3b). Indeed, the number of bridging Sm4+ molecules ranks in the same order as |ΔGmin|: Nspm of (A)20>Nspm of (AT)10Nspm of (GmC)10>Nspm of (GC)10>Nspm of (G)20. Thus, the number density of nucleotides carrying a methyl group (T and mC) is the primary determinant of the strength of attractive interaction between two dsDNA molecules. At the same time, the spatial arrangement of the methyl group carrying nucleotides can affect the interaction strength as well (Fig. 3c). The number of methyl groups and their distribution in the (AT)10 and (GmC)10 duplex DNA are identical, and so are their interaction free energies, |ΔGmin| of (AT)10Gmin| of (GmC)10. For AT-rich DNA sequences, clustering of the methyl groups repels Sm4+ from the major groove more efficiently than when the same number of methyl groups is distributed along the DNA (Fig. 3b). Hence, |ΔGmin| of (A)20>|ΔGmin| of (AT)10. For GC-rich DNA sequences, clustering of the cation-binding sites (N7 nitrogen) attracts more Sm4+ than when such sites are distributed along the DNA (Fig. 3b), hence |ΔGmin| is larger for (GC)10 than for (G)20.

Figure 3: Methylation modulates the interaction free energy of two dsDNA molecules by altering the number of bridging Sm4+.
Methylation modulates the interaction free energy of two dsDNA molecules by altering the number of bridging Sm4+.

(a) Typical spatial arrangement of Sm4+ molecules around a pair of DNA helices. The phosphates groups of DNA and the amine groups of Sm4+ are shown as red and blue spheres, respectively. ‘Bridging’ Sm4+molecules reside between the DNA helices. Orange rectangles illustrate the volume used for counting the number of bridging Sm4+ molecules. (b) The number of bridging amine groups as a function of the inter-DNA distance. The total number of Sm4+ nitrogen atoms was computed by averaging over the corresponding MD trajectory and the 10Å (x axis) by 20Å (y axis) rectangle prism volume (a) centred between the DNA molecules. (c) Schematic representation of the dependence of the interaction free energy of two DNA molecules on their nucleotide sequence. The number and spatial arrangement of nucleotides carrying a methyl group (T or mC) determine the interaction free energy of two dsDNA molecules.

Genome-wide investigations of chromosome conformations using the Hi–C technique revealed that AT-rich loci form tight clusters in human nucleus27, 28. Gene or chromosome inactivation is often accompanied by increased methylation of DNA29 and compaction of facultative heterochromatin regions30. The consistency between those phenomena and our findings suggest the possibility that the polyamine-mediated sequence-dependent DNA–DNA interaction might play a role in chromosome folding and epigenetic regulation of gene expression.

  1. Rau, D. C., Lee, B. & Parsegian, V. A. Measurement of the repulsive force between polyelectrolyte molecules in ionic solution: hydration forces between parallel DNA double helices. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 81, 26212625 (1984).
  2. Raspaud, E., Olvera de la Cruz, M., Sikorav, J. L. & Livolant, F. Precipitation of DNA by polyamines: a polyelectrolyte behavior. Biophys. J. 74, 381393 (1998).
  3. Besteman, K., Van Eijk, K. & Lemay, S. G. Charge inversion accompanies DNA condensation by multivalent ions. Nat. Phys. 3, 641644 (2007).
  4. Lipfert, J., Doniach, S., Das, R. & Herschlag, D. Understanding nucleic acid-ion interactions.Annu. Rev. Biochem. 83, 813841 (2014).
  5. Grosberg, A. Y., Nguyen, T. T. & Shklovskii, B. I. The physics of charge inversion in chemical and biological systems. Rev. Mod. Phys. 74, 329345 (2002).
  6. Kornyshev, A. A. & Leikin, S. Sequence recognition in the pairing of DNA duplexes. Phys. Rev. Lett. 86, 36663669 (2001).
  7. Danilowicz, C. et al. Single molecule detection of direct, homologous, DNA/DNA pairing.Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 106, 1982419829 (2009).
  8. Gladyshev, E. & Kleckner, N. Direct recognition of homology between double helices of DNA in Neurospora crassa. Nat. Commun. 5, 3509 (2014).
  9. Tabor, C. W. & Tabor, H. Polyamines. Annu. Rev. Biochem. 53, 749790 (1984).
  10. Thomas, T. & Thomas, T. J. Polyamines in cell growth and cell death: molecular mechanisms and therapeutic applications. Cell. Mol. Life Sci. 58, 244258 (2001).

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Schizophrenia, broken-links

Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP, Curator

LPBI

 

Runs in the Family

 New findings about schizophrenia rekindle old questions about genes and identity.
BY Annals of Science MARCH 28, 2016 ISSUE      http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/03/28/the-genetics-of-schizophrenia

http://www.newyorker.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/160328_r27877-690.jpg

The author and his father have seen several relatives succumb to mental illness.CREDIT PHOTOGRAPH BY DAYANITA SINGH FOR THE NEW YORKER

In the winter of 2012, I travelled from New Delhi, where I grew up, to Calcutta to visit my cousin Moni. My father accompanied me as a guide and companion, but he was a sullen and brooding presence, lost in a private anguish. He is the youngest of five brothers, and Moni is his firstborn nephew—the eldest brother’s son. Since 2004, Moni, now fifty-two, has been confined to an institution for the mentally ill (a “lunatic home,” as my father calls it), with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. He is kept awash in antipsychotics and sedatives, and an attendant watches, bathes, and feeds him through the day.

My father has never accepted Moni’s diagnosis. Over the years, he has waged a lonely campaign against the psychiatrists charged with his nephew’s care, hoping to convince them that their diagnosis was a colossal error, or that Moni’s broken psyche would somehow mend itself. He has visited the institution in Calcutta twice—once without warning, hoping to see a transformed Moni, living a secretly normal life behind the barred gates. But there was more than just avuncular love at stake for him in these visits. Moni is not the only member of the family with mental illness. Two of my father’s four brothers suffered from various unravellings of the mind. Madness has been among the Mukherjees for generations, and at least part of my father’s reluctance to accept Moni’s diagnosis lies in a grim suspicion that something of the illness may be buried, like toxic waste, in himself.

Rajesh, my father’s third-born brother, had once been the most promising of the Mukherjee boys—the nimblest, the most charismatic, the most admired. But in the summer of 1946, at the age of twenty-two, he began to behave oddly, as if a wire had been tripped in his brain. The most obvious change in his personality was a volatility: good news triggered uncontained outbursts of joy; bad news plunged him into inconsolable desolation. By that winter, the sine curve of Rajesh’s psyche had tightened in its frequency and gained in its amplitude. My father recalls an altered brother: fearful at times, reckless at others, descending and ascending steep slopes of mood, irritable one morning and overjoyed the next. When Rajesh received news of a successful performance on his college exams, he vanished, elated, on a two-night excursion, supposedly “exercising” at a wrestling camp. He was feverish and hallucinating when he returned, and died of pneumonia soon afterward. Only years later, in medical school, did I realize that Rajesh was likely in the throes of an acute manic phase. His mental breakdown was the result of a near-textbook case of bipolar disorder.

Jagu, the fourth-born of my father’s siblings, came to live with us in Delhi in 1975, when I was five years old and he was forty-five. His mind, too, was failing. Tall and rail thin, with a slightly feral look in his eyes and a shock of matted, overgrown hair, he resembled a Bengali Jim Morrison. Unlike Rajesh, whose illness had surfaced in his twenties, Jagu had been troubled from his adolescence. Socially awkward, withdrawn from everyone except my grandmother, he was unable to hold a job or live by himself. By 1975, he had visions, phantasms, and voices in his head that told him what to do. He was still capable of extraordinary bursts of tenderness—when I accidentally smashed a beloved Venetian vase at home, he hid me in his bedclothes and informed my mother that he had “mounds of cash” stashed away, enough to buy “a thousand” replacement vases. But this episode was symptomatic: even his love for me extended the fabric of his psychosis and confabulation.

Unlike Rajesh, Jagu was formally diagnosed. In the late nineteen-seventies, a physician in Delhi examined him and determined that he had schizophrenia. But no medicines were prescribed. Instead, Jagu continued to live at home, half hidden away in my grandmother’s room. (As in many families in India, my grandmother lived with us.) For nearly a decade, she and my father maintained a fragile truce, with Jagu living under her care, eating meals in her room and wearing clothes that she stitched for him. At night, when Jagu was consumed by his fears and fantasies, she put him to bed like a child, with her hand on his forehead. She was his nurse, his housekeeper, his only friend, and, more important, his public defender. When my grandmother died, in 1985, Jagu joined a religious sect in Delhi and disappeared, until his death, a dozen years later.

……

at schizophrenia runs in families was evident even to the person who first defined the illness. In 1911, Eugen Bleuler, a Swiss-German psychiatrist, published a book describing a series of cases of men and women, typically in their teens and early twenties, whose thoughts had begun to tangle and degenerate. “In this malady, the associations lose their continuity,” Bleuler wrote. “The threads between thoughts are torn.” Psychotic visions and paranoid thoughts flashed out of nowhere. Some patients “feel themselves weak, their spirit escapes, they will never survive the day. There is a growth in their heads. Their bones have turned liquid; their hearts have turned into stone. . . . The patient’s wife must not use eggs in cooking, otherwise he will grow feathers.” His patients were often trapped between flickering emotional states, unable to choose between two radically opposed visions, Bleuler noted. “You devil, you angel, you devil, you angel,” one woman said to her lover.

Bleuler tried to find an explanation for the mysterious symptoms, but there was only one seemingly common element: schizophrenic patients tended to have first-degree relatives who were also schizophrenic. He had no tools to understand the mechanism behind the heredity. The word “gene” had been coined just two years before Bleuler published his book. The notion that a mental illness could be carried across generations by unitary, indivisible factors—corpuscles of information threading through families—would have struck most of Bleuler’s contemporaries as mad in its own right. Still, Bleuler was astonishingly prescient about the complex nature of inheritance. “If one is looking for ‘theheredity,’ one can nearly always find it,” he wrote. “We will not be able to do anything about it even later on, unless the single factor of heredity can be broken down into many hereditary factors along specific lines.”

In the nineteen-sixties, Bleuler’s hunch was confirmed by twin studies. Psychiatrists determined that if an identical twin was schizophrenic the other twin had a forty-to-fifty-per-cent chance of developing the disease—fiftyfold higher than the risk in the general population. By the early two-thousands, large population studies had revealed a strong genetic link between schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Some of the families described in these studies had a crisscrossing history that was achingly similar to my own: one sibling affected with schizophrenia, another with bipolar disorder, and a nephew or niece also schizophrenic.

“The twin studies clarified two important features of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder,” Jeffrey Lieberman, a Columbia University psychiatrist who has studied schizophrenia for thirty years, told me. “First, it was clear that there wasn’t a single gene, but dozens of genes involved in causing schizophrenia—each perhaps exerting a small effect. And, second, even if you inherited the entire set of risk genes, as identical twins do, you still might not develop the disease. Obviously, there were other triggers or instigators involved in releasing the illness.” But while these studies established that schizophrenia had a genetic basis, they revealed nothing about the nature of the genes involved. “For doctors, patients, and families in the schizophrenia community, genetics became the ultimate mystery,” Lieberman said. “If we knew the identity of the genes, we would find the causes, and if we found the causes we could find medicines.”

In 2006, an international consortium of psychiatric geneticists launched a genomic survey of schizophrenia, hoping to advance the search for the implicated genes. With 3,322 patients and 3,587 controls, this was one of the largest and most rigorous such studies in the history of the disease. Researchers scanned through the nearly seven thousand genomes to find variations in gene segments that were correlated with schizophrenia. This strategy, termed an “association study,” does not pinpoint a gene, but it provides a general location where a disease-linked gene may be found, like a treasure map with a large “X” scratched in a corner of the genome.

The results, reported in 2009 (and updated in 2014) in the journal Nature, were a dispiriting validation of Bleuler’s hunch about multiple hereditary factors: more than a hundred independent segments of the genome were associated with schizophrenia. “There are lots of small, common genetic effects, scattered across the genome,” one researcher said. “There are many different biological processes involved.” Some of the putative culprits made biological sense—if dimly. There were genes linked to transmitters that relay messages between neurons, and genes for molecular channels that move electrical signals up and down nerve cells. But by far the most surprising association involved a gene segment on chromosome 6. This region of the genome—termed the MHC region—carries hundreds of genes typically associated with the immune system.

“The MHC-segment finding was so strange and striking that you had to sit up and take notice,” Lieberman told me. “Here was the most definitive evidence that something in the immune system might have something to do with schizophrenia. There had been hints about an immunological association before, but this was impossible to argue with. It raised an endlessly fascinating question: what was the link between immune-response genes and schizophrenia?”

The Rogue Immune Cells That Wreck the Brain

Beth Stevens thinks she has solved a mystery behind brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia.

by Adam Piore   April 4, 2016            https://www.technologyreview.com/s/601137/the-rogue-immune-cells-that-wreck-the-brain/

In the first years of her career in brain research, Beth Stevens thought of microglia with annoyance if she thought of them at all. When she gazed into a microscope and saw these ubiquitous cells with their spidery tentacles, she did what most neuroscientists had been doing for generations: she looked right past them and focused on the rest of the brain tissue, just as you might look through specks of dirt on a windshield.

“What are they doing there?” she thought. “They’re in the way.’”

Stevens never would have guessed that just a few years later, she would be running a laboratory at Harvard and Boston’s Children’s Hospital devoted to the study of these obscure little clumps. Or that she would be arguing in the world’s top scientific journals that microglia might hold the key to understanding not just normal brain development but also what causes Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, autism, schizophrenia, and other intractable brain disorders.

Microglia are part of a larger class of cells—known collectively as glia—that carry out an array of functions in the brain, guiding its development and serving as its immune system by gobbling up diseased or damaged cells and carting away debris. Along with her frequent collaborator and mentor, Stanford biologist Ben Barres, and a growing cadre of other scientists, Stevens, 45, is showing that these long-overlooked cells are more than mere support workers for the neurons they surround. Her work has raised a provocative suggestion: that brain disorders could somehow be triggered by our own bodily defenses gone bad.

A type of glial cell known as an oligodendrocyte

In one groundbreaking paper, in January, Stevens and researchers at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard showed that aberrant microglia might play a role in schizophrenia—causing or at least contributing to the massive cell loss that can leave people with devastating cognitive defects. Crucially, the researchers pointed to a chemical pathway that might be targeted to slow or stop the disease. Last week, Stevens and other researchers published a similar finding for Alzheimer’s.

This might be just the beginning. Stevens is also exploring the connection between these tiny structures and other neurological diseases—work that earned her a $625,000 MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant last September.

All of this raises intriguing questions. Is it possible that many common brain disorders, despite their wide-ranging symptoms, are caused or at least worsened by the same culprit, a component of the immune system? If so, could many of these disorders be treated in a similar way—by stopping these rogue cells?

Nature. 2016 Feb 11;530(7589):177-83. http://dx.doi.org:/10.1038/nature16549. Epub 2016 Jan 27.   Schizophrenia risk from complex variation of complement component 4.

Schizophrenia is a heritable brain illness with unknown pathogenic mechanisms. Schizophrenia’s strongest genetic association at a population level involves variation in the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) locus, but the genes and molecular mechanisms accounting for this have been challenging to identify. Here we show that this association arises in part from many structurally diverse alleles of the complement component 4 (C4) genes. We found that these alleles generated widely varying levels of C4A and C4B expression in the brain, with each common C4 allele associating with schizophrenia in proportion to its tendency to generate greater expression of C4A. Human C4 protein localized to neuronal synapses, dendrites, axons, and cell bodies. In mice, C4 mediated synapse elimination during postnatal development. These results implicate excessive complement activity in the development of schizophrenia and may help explain the reduced numbers of synapses in the brains of individuals with schizophrenia.

 

Science  31 Mar 2016;        http://dx.doi.org:/10.1126/science.aad8373      Complement and microglia mediate early synapse loss in Alzheimer mouse models.
Soyon Hong1Victoria F. Beja-Glasser1,*Bianca M. Nfonoyim1,*,…., Ben A. Barres6Cynthia A. Lemere,2Dennis J. Selkoe2,7Beth Stevens1,8,

 Synapse loss in Alzheimer’s disease (AD) correlates with cognitive decline. Involvement of microglia and complement in AD has been attributed to neuroinflammation, prominent late in disease. Here we show in mouse models that complement and microglia mediate synaptic loss early in AD. C1q, the initiating protein of the classical complement cascade, is increased and associated with synapses before overt plaque deposition. Inhibition of C1q, C3 or the microglial complement receptor CR3, reduces the number of phagocytic microglia as well as the extent of early synapse loss. C1q is necessary for the toxic effects of soluble β-amyloid (Aβ) oligomers on synapses and hippocampal long-term potentiation (LTP). Finally, microglia in adult brains engulf synaptic material in a CR3-dependent process when exposed to soluble Aβ oligomers. Together, these findings suggest that the complement-dependent pathway and microglia that prune excess synapses in development are inappropriately activated and mediate synapse loss in AD.
Genome-wide association studies (GWAS) implicate microglia and complement-related pathways in AD (1). Previous research has demonstrated both beneficial and detrimental roles of complement and microglia in plaque-related neuropathology (2, 3); however, their roles in synapse loss, a major pathological correlate of cognitive decline in AD (4), remain to be identified. Emerging research implicates microglia and immune-related mechanisms in brain wiring in the healthy brain (1). During development, C1q and C3 localize to synapses and mediate synapse elimination by phagocytic microglia (57). We hypothesized that this normal developmental synaptic pruning pathway is activated early in the AD brain and mediates synapse loss.

 

Complex machinery

It’s not surprising that scientists for years have ignored microglia and other glial cells in favor of neurons. Neurons that fire together allow us to think, breathe, and move. We see, hear, and feel using neurons, and we form memories and associations when the connections between different neurons strengthen at the junctions between them, known as synapses. Many neuroscientists argue that neurons create our very consciousness.

Glia, on the other hand, have always been considered less important and interesting. They have pedestrian duties such as supplying nutrients and oxygen to neurons, as well as mopping up stray chemicals and carting away the garbage.

Scientists have known about glia for some time. In the 1800s, the pathologist Rudolf Virchow noted the presence of small round cells packing the spaces between neurons and named them “nervenkitt” or “neuroglia,” which can be translated as nerve putty or glue. One variety of these cells, known as astrocytes, was defined in 1893. And then in the 1920s, the Spanish scientist Pio del Río Hortega developed novel ways of staining cells taken from the brain. This led him to identify and name two more types of glial cells, including microglia, which are far smaller than the others and are characterized by their spidery shape and multiple branches. It is only when the brain is damaged in adulthood, he suggested, that microglia spring to life—rushing to the injury, where it was thought they helped clean up the area by eating damaged and dead cells. Astrocytes often appeared on the scene as well; it was thought that they created scar tissue.

This emergency convergence of microglia and astrocytes was dubbed “gliosis,” and by the time Ben Barres entered medical school in the late 1970s, it was well established as a hallmark of neurodegenerative diseases, infection, and a wide array of other medical conditions. But no one seemed to understand why it occurred. That intrigued Barres, then a neurologist in training, who saw it every time he looked under a microscope at neural tissue in distress. “It was just really fascinating,” he says. “The great mystery was: what is the point of this gliosis? Is it good? Is it bad? Is it driving the disease process, or is it trying to repair the injured brain?”

 https://youtu.be/6DOYTpXkLOY

Barres began looking for the answer. He learned how to grow glial cells in a dish and apply a new recording technique to them. He could measure their electrical qualities, which determine the biochemical signaling that all brain cells use to communicate and coördinate activity.

“From the second I started recording the glial cells, I thought ‘Oh, my God!’” Barres recalls. The electrical activity was more dynamic and complex than anyone had thought. These strange electrical properties could be explained only if the glial cells were attuned to the conditions around them, and to the signals released from nearby neurons. Barres’s glial cells, in other words, had all the machinery necessary to engage in a complex dialogue with neurons, and presumably to respond to different kinds of conditions in the brain.

Why would they need this machinery, though, if they were simply involved in cleaning up dead cells? What could they possibly be doing? It turns out that in the absence of chemicals released by glia, the neurons committed the biochemical version of suicide. Barres also showed that the astrocytes appeared to play a crucial role in forming synapses, the microscopic connections between neurons that encode memory. In isolation, neurons were capable of forming the spiny appendages necessary to reach the synapses. But without astrocytes, they were incapable of connecting to one another.

Hardly anyone believed him. When he was a young faculty member at Stanford in the 1990s, one of his grant applications to the National Institutes of Health was rejected seven times. “Reviewers kept saying, ‘Nah, there’s no way glia could be doing this,’” Barres recalls. “And even after we published two papers in Science showing that [astrocytes] had profound, almost all-or-nothing effects in controlling synapses’ formation or synapse activity, I still couldn’t get funded! I think it’s still hard to get people to think about glia as doing anything active in the nervous system.”

Marked for elimination

Beth Stevens came to study glia by accident. After graduating from Northeastern University in 1993, she followed her future husband to Washington, D.C., where he had gotten work in the U.S. Senate. Stevens had been pre-med in college and hoped to work in a lab at the National Institutes of Health. But with no previous research experience, she was soundly rebuffed. So she took a job waiting tables at a Chili’s restaurant in nearby Rockville, Maryland, and showed up at NIH with her résumé every week.

After a few months, Stevens received a call from a researcher named Doug Fields, who needed help in his lab. Fields was studying the intricacies of the process in which neurons become insulated in a coating called myelin. That insulation is essential for the transmission of electrical impulses.

As Stevens spent the following years pursuing a PhD at the University of Maryland, she was intrigued by the role that glial cells played in insulating neurons. Along the way, she became familiar with other insights into glial cells that were beginning to emerge, especially from the lab of Ben Barres. Which is why, soon after completing her PhD in 2003, Stevens found herself a postdoc in Barres’s lab at Stanford, about to make a crucial discovery.

Barres’s group had begun to identify the specific compounds astrocytes secreted that seemed to cause neurons to grow synapses. And eventually, they noticed that these compounds also stimulated production of a protein called C1q.

Conventional wisdom held that C1q was activated only in sick cells—the protein marked them to be eaten up by immune cells—and only outside the brain. But Barres had found it in the brain. And it was in healthy neurons that were arguably at their most robust stage: in early development. What was the C1q protein doing there?

https://d267cvn3rvuq91.cloudfront.net/i/images/glia33.jpg?sw=590&cx=0&cy=0&cw=2106&ch=2106

A stained astrocyte.

The answer lies in the fact that marking cells for elimination is not something that happens only in diseased brains; it is also essential for development. As brains develop, their neurons form far more synaptic connections than they will eventually need. Only the ones that are used are allowed to remain. This pruning allows for the most efficient flow of neural transmissions in the brain, removing noise that might muddy the signal.

But it was unknown how exactly the process worked. Was it possible that C1q helped signal the brain to prune unused synapses? Stevens focused her postdoctoral research on finding out. “We could have been completely wrong,” she recalls. “But we went for it.”

It paid off. In a 2007 paper, Barres and Stevens showed that C1q indeed plays a role in eliminating unneeded neurons in the developing brain. And they found that the protein is virtually absent in healthy adult neurons.

Now the scientists faced a new puzzle. Does C1q show up in brain diseases because the same mechanism involved in pruning a developing brain later goes awry? Indeed, evidence was already growing that one of the earliest events in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s was significant loss of synapses.

When Stevens and Barres examined mice bred to develop glaucoma, a neurodegenerative disease that kills neurons in the optic system, they found that C1q appeared long before any other detectable sign that the disease was taking hold. It cropped up even before the cells started dying.

This suggested the immune cells might in fact cause the disease, or at the very least accelerate it. And that offered an intriguing possibility: that something could be made to halt the process. Barres founded a company, Annexon Biosciences, to develop drugs that could block C1q. Last week’s paper published by Barres, Stevens, and other researchers shows that a compound being tested by Annexon appears to be able to prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s in mice bred to develop the disease. Now the company hopes to test it in humans in the next two years.

Paths to treatments

To better understand the process that C1q helps trigger, Stevens and Barres wanted to figure out what actually plays the role of Pac-Man, eating up the synapses marked for death. It was well known that white blood cells known as macrophages gobbled up diseased cells and foreign invaders in the rest of the body. But macrophages are not usually present in the brain. For their theory to work, there had to be some other mechanism. And further research has shown that the cells doing the eating even in healthy brains are those mysterious clusters of material that Beth Stevens, for years, had been gazing right past in the microscope—the microglia that Río Hortega identified almost 100 years ago.

Now Stevens’s lab at Harvard, which she opened in 2008, devotes half its efforts to figuring out what microglia are doing and what causes them to do it. These cells, it turns out, appear in the mouse embryo at day eight, before any other brain cell, which suggests they might help guide the rest of brain development—and could contribute to any number of neurodevelopmental diseases when they go wrong.

Meanwhile, she is also expanding her study of the way different substances determine what happens in the brain. C1q is actually just the first in a series of proteins that accumulate on synapses marked for elimination. Stevens has begun to uncover evidence that there is a wide array of protective “don’t eat me” molecules too. It’s the balance between all these cues that regulates whether microglia are summoned to destroy synapses. Problems in any one could, conceivably, mess up the system.

Evidence is now growing that microglia are involved in several neurodevelopmental and psychiatric problems. The potential link to schizophrenia that was revealed in January emerged after researchers at the Broad Institute, led by Steven McCarroll and a graduate student named Aswin Sekar, followed a trail of genetic clues that led them directly to Stevens’s work. In 2009, three consortia from around the globe had published papers comparing DNA in people with and without schizophrenia. It was Sekar who identified a possible pattern: the more a specific type of protein was present in synapses, the higher the risk of developing the disease. The protein, C4, was closely related to C1q, the one first identified in the brain by Stevens and Barres.

McCarroll knew that schizophrenia strikes in late adolescence and early adulthood, a time when brain circuits in the prefrontal cortex undergo extensive pruning. Others had found that areas of the prefrontal cortex are among those most ravaged by the disease, which leads to massive synapse loss. Could it be that over-pruning by rogue microglia is part of what causes schizophrenia?

To find out, Sekar and McCarroll got in touch with Stevens, and the two labs began to hold joint weekly meetings. They soon demonstrated that C4 also had a role in pruning synapses in the brains of young mice, suggesting that excessive levels of the protein could indeed lead to over-pruning—and to the thinning out of brain tissue that appears to occur as symptoms such as psychotic episodes grow worse.

If the brain damage seen in Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s stems from over-pruning that might begin early in life, why don’t symptoms of those diseases show up until later? Barres thinks he knows. He notes that the brain can normally compensate for injury by rewiring itself and generating new synapses. It also contains a lot of redundancy. That would explain why patients with Parkinson’s disease don’t show discernible symptoms until they have lost 90 percent of the neurons that produce dopamine.

It also might mean that subtle symptoms could in fact be detected much earlier. Barres points to a study of nuns published in 2000. When researchers analyzed essays the nuns had written upon entering their convents decades before, they found that women who went on to develop Alzheimer’s had shown less “idea density” even in their 20s. “I think the implication of that is they could be lifelong diseases,” Barres says. “The disease process could be going on for decades and the brain is just compensating, rewiring, making new synapses.” At some point, the microglia are triggered to remove too many cells, Barres argues, and the symptoms of the disease begin to manifest fully.

Turning this insight into a treatment is far from straightforward, because much remains unclear. Perhaps an overly aggressive response from microglia is determined by some combination of genetic variants not shared by everyone. Stevens also notes that diseases like schizophrenia are not caused by one mutation; rather, a wide array of mutations with small effects cause problems when they act in concert. The genes that control the production of C4 and other immune-system proteins may be only part of the story. That may explain why not everyone who has a C4 mutation will go on to develop schizophrenia.

Nonetheless, if Barres and Stevens are right that the immune system is a common mechanism behind devastating brain disorders, that in itself is a fundamental breakthrough. Because we have not known the mechanisms that trigger such diseases, medical researchers have been able only to alleviate the symptoms rather than attack the causes. There are no drugs available to halt or even slow neurodegeneration in diseases like Alzheimer’s. Some drugs elevate neurotransmitters in ways that briefly make it easier for individuals with dementia to form new synaptic connections, but they don’t reduce the rate at which existing synapses are destroyed. Similarly, there are no treatments that tackle the causes of autism or schizophrenia. Even slowing the progress of these disorders would be a major advance. We might finally go after diseases that have run unchecked for generations.

“We’re a ways away from a cure,” Stevens says. “But we definitely have a path forward.”

Adam Piore is a freelance writer who wrote “A Shocking Way to Fix the Brain”  in November/December 2015.

 

Int Immunopharmacol. 2001 Mar;1(3):365-92.

Genetic, structural and functional diversities of human complement components C4A and C4B and their mouse homologues, Slp and C4.

Blanchong CA1Chung EKRupert KLYang YYang ZZhou BMoulds JMYu CY.

Author information

Abstract

The complement protein C4 is a non-enzymatic component of the C3 and C5 convertases and thus essential for the propagation of the classical complement pathway. The covalent binding of C4 to immunoglobulins and immune complexes (IC) also enhances the solubilization of immune aggregates, and the clearance of IC through complement receptor one (CR1) on erythrocytes. Human C4 is the most polymorphic protein of the complement system. In this review, we summarize the current concepts on the 1-2-3 loci model of C4A and C4B genes in the population, factors affecting the expression levels of C4 transcripts and proteins, and the structural, functional and serological diversities of the C4A and C4B proteins. The diversities and polymorphisms of the mouse homologues Slp and C4 proteins are described and contrasted with their human homologues. The human C4 genes are located in the MHC class III region on chromosome 6. Each human C4 gene consists of 41 exons coding for a 5.4-kb transcript. The long gene is 20.6 kb and the short gene is 14.2 kb. In the Caucasian population 55% of the MHC haplotypes have the 2-locus, C4A-C4B configurations and 45% have an unequal number of C4A and C4B genes. Moreover, three-quarters of C4 genes harbor the 6.4 kb endogenous retrovirus HERV-K(C4) in the intron 9 of the long genes. Duplication of a C4 gene always concurs with its adjacent genes RP, CYP21 and TNX, which together form a genetic unit termed an RCCX module. Monomodular, bimodular and trimodular RCCX structures with 1, 2 and 3 complement C4 genes have frequencies of 17%, 69% and 14%, respectively. Partial deficiencies of C4A and C4B, primarily due to the presence of monomodular haplotypes and homo-expression of C4A proteins from bimodular structures, have a combined frequency of 31.6%. Multiple structural isoforms of each C4A and C4B allotype exist in the circulation because of the imperfect and incomplete proteolytic processing of the precursor protein to form the beta-alpha-gamma structures. Immunofixation experiments of C4A and C4B demonstrate > 41 allotypes in the two classes of proteins. A compilation of polymorphic sites from limited C4 sequences revealed the presence of 24 polymophic residues, mostly clustered C-terminal to the thioester bond within the C4d region of the alpha-chain. The covalent binding affinities of the thioester carbonyl group of C4A and C4B appear to be modulated by four isotypic residues at positions 1101, 1102, 1105 and 1106. Site directed mutagenesis experiments revealed that D1106 is responsible for the effective binding of C4A to form amide bonds with immune aggregates or protein antigens, and H1106 of C4B catalyzes the transacylation of the thioester carbonyl group to form ester bonds with carbohydrate antigens. The expression of C4 is inducible or enhanced by gamma-interferon. The liver is the main organ that synthesizes and secretes C4A and C4B to the circulation but there are many extra-hepatic sites producing moderate quantities of C4 for local defense. The plasma protein levels of C4A and C4B are mainly determined by the corresponding gene dosage. However, C4B proteins encoded by monomodular short genes may have relatively higher concentrations than those from long C4A genes. The 5′ regulatory sequence of a C4 gene contains a Spl site, three E-boxes but no TATA box. The sequences beyond–1524 nt may be completely different as the C4 genes at RCCX module I have RPI-specific sequences, while those at Modules II, III and IV have TNXA-specific sequences. The remarkable genetic diversity of human C4A and C4B probably promotes the exchange of genetic information to create and maintain the quantitative and qualitative variations of C4A and C4B proteins in the population, as driven by the selection pressure against a great variety of microbes. An undesirable accompanying byproduct of this phenomenon is the inherent deleterious recombinations among the RCCX constituents leading to autoimmune and genetic disorders.

 

C4A isotype is responsible for effective binding to form amide bonds with immune aggregates or protein antigens, while C4B isotype catalyzes the transacylation of the thioester carbonyl group to form ester bonds with carbohydrate antigens.

Derived from proteolytic degradation of complement C4, C4a anaphylatoxin is a mediator of local inflammatory process.

 

Schizophrenia and the Synapse

Genetic evidence suggests that overactive synaptic pruning drives development of schizophrenia.

By Ruth Williams | January 27, 2016

http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/45189/title/Schizophrenia-and-the-Synapse/

Compared to the brains of healthy individuals, those of people with schizophrenia have higher expression of a gene called C4, according to a paper published inNature today (January 27). The gene encodes an immune protein that moonlights in the brain as an eradicator of unwanted neural connections (synapses). The findings, which suggest increased synaptic pruning is a feature of the disease, are a direct extension of genome-wide association studies (GWASs) that pointed to the major histocompatibility (MHC) locus as a key region associated with schizophrenia risk.

“The MHC [locus] is the first and the strongest genetic association for schizophrenia, but many people have said this finding is not useful,” said psychiatric geneticist Patrick Sullivan of the University of North Carolina School of Medicine who was not involved in the study. “The value of [the present study is] to show that not only is it useful, but it opens up new and extremely interesting ideas about the biology and therapeutics of schizophrenia.”

Schizophrenia has a strong genetic component—it runs in families—yet, because of the complex nature of the condition, no specific genes or mutations have been identified. The pathological processes driving the disease remain a mystery.

Researchers have turned to GWASs in the hope of finding specific genetic variations associated with schizophrenia, but even these have not provided clear candidates.

“There are some instances where genome-wide association will literally hit one base [in the DNA],” explained Sullivan. While a 2014 schizophrenia GWAS highlighted the MHC locus on chromosome 6 as a strong risk area, the association spanned hundreds of possible genes and did not reveal specific nucleotide changes. In short, any hope of pinpointing the MHC association was going to be “really challenging,” said geneticist Steve McCarroll of Harvard who led the new study.

Nevertheless, McCarroll and colleagues zeroed in on the particular region of the MHC with the highest GWAS score—the C4 gene—and set about examining how the area’s structural architecture varied in patients and healthy people.

The C4 gene can exist in multiple copies (from one to four) on each copy of chromosome 6, and has four different forms: C4A-short, C4B-short, C4A-long, and C4B-long. The researchers first examined the “structural alleles” of the C4 locus—that is, the combinations and copy numbers of the different C4 forms—in healthy individuals. They then examined how these structural alleles related to expression of both C4Aand C4B messenger RNAs (mRNAs) in postmortem brain tissues.

…………..

Schizophrenia risk from complex variation of complement component 4

Aswin Sekar, Allison R. Bialas, Heather de Rivera, …, Schizophrenia Working Group of the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium, Mark J. Daly, Michael C. Carroll, Beth Stevens & Steven A. McCarroll

Nature (11 Feb 2016); 530: 177–183 http://dx.doi.org:/10.1038/nature16549

Schizophrenia is a heritable brain illness with unknown pathogenic mechanisms. Schizophrenia’s strongest genetic association at a population level involves variation in the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) locus, but the genes and molecular mechanisms accounting for this have been challenging to identify. Here we show that this association arises in part from many structurally diverse alleles of the complement component 4 (C4) genes. We found that these alleles generated widely varying levels of C4A and C4B expression in the brain, with each common C4 allele associating with schizophrenia in proportion to its tendency to generate greater expression of C4A. Human C4 protein localized to neuronal synapses, dendrites, axons, and cell bodies. In mice, C4 mediated synapse elimination during postnatal development. These results implicate excessive complement activity in the development of schizophrenia and may help explain the reduced numbers of synapses in the brains of individuals with schizophrenia.

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The strongest genetic association found in schizophrenia is its association to genetic markers across the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) locus, first described in three Nature papers in 2009. …

 

Schizophrenia: From genetics to physiology at last

Ryan S. DhindsaDavid B. Goldstein
Nature  (11 Feb 2016); 530:162–163   http://dx.doi.org:/10.1038/nature16874

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 Jianxin Shi1, et al.   Common variants on chromosome 6p22.1 are associated with schizophrenia.  Nature 460, 753-757 (6 August 2009) | doi:10.1038/nature08192; Received 29 May 2009; Accepted 10 June 2009; Published online 1 July 2009; Corrected 6 August 2009

Schizophrenia, a devastating psychiatric disorder, has a prevalence of 0.5–1%, with high heritability (80–85%) and complex transmission1. Recent studies implicate rare, large, high-penetrance copy number variants in some cases2, but the genes or biological mechanisms that underlie susceptibility are not known. Here we show that schizophrenia is significantly associated with single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) in the extended major histocompatibility complex region on chromosome 6. We carried out a genome-wide association study of common SNPs in the Molecular Genetics of Schizophrenia (MGS) case-control sample, and then a meta-analysis of data from the MGS, International Schizophrenia Consortium and SGENE data sets. No MGS finding achieved genome-wide statistical significance. In the meta-analysis of European-ancestry subjects (8,008 cases, 19,077 controls), significant association with schizophrenia was observed in a region of linkage disequilibrium on chromosome 6p22.1 (P = 9.54 × 10-9). This region includes a histone gene cluster and several immunity-related genes—possibly implicating aetiological mechanisms involving chromatin modification, transcriptional regulation, autoimmunity and/or infection. These results demonstrate that common schizophrenia susceptibility alleles can be detected. The characterization of these signals will suggest important directions for research on susceptibility mechanisms.

Editor’s Summary   6 August 2009
Schizophrenia risk: link to chromosome 6p22.1

A genome-wide association study using the Molecular Genetics of Schizophrenia case-control data set, followed by a meta-analysis that included over 8,000 cases and 19,000 controls, revealed that while common genetic variation that underlies risk to schizophrenia can be identified, there probably are few or no single common loci with large effects. The common variants identified here lie on chromosome 6p22.1 in a region that includes a histone gene cluster and several genes implicated in immunity.

Letter

Hreinn Stefansson1,48, et al. Common variants conferring risk of schizophrenia.
Nature 460, 744-747 (6 August 2009) | doi:10.1038/nature08186; Received 16 March 2009; Accepted 5 June 2009; Published online 1 July 2009

Schizophrenia is a complex disorder, caused by both genetic and environmental factors and their interactions. Research on pathogenesis has traditionally focused on neurotransmitter systems in the brain, particularly those involving dopamine. Schizophrenia has been considered a separate disease for over a century, but in the absence of clear biological markers, diagnosis has historically been based on signs and symptoms. A fundamental message emerging from genome-wide association studies of copy number variations (CNVs) associated with the disease is that its genetic basis does not necessarily conform to classical nosological disease boundaries. Certain CNVs confer not only high relative risk of schizophrenia but also of other psychiatric disorders1, 2, 3. The structural variations associated with schizophrenia can involve several genes and the phenotypic syndromes, or the ‘genomic disorders’, have not yet been characterized4. Single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP)-based genome-wide association studies with the potential to implicate individual genes in complex diseases may reveal underlying biological pathways. Here we combined SNP data from several large genome-wide scans and followed up the most significant association signals. We found significant association with several markers spanning the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) region on chromosome 6p21.3-22.1, a marker located upstream of the neurogranin gene (NRGN) on 11q24.2 and a marker in intron four of transcription factor 4 (TCF4) on 18q21.2. Our findings implicating the MHC region are consistent with an immune component to schizophrenia risk, whereas the association with NRGN and TCF4 points to perturbation of pathways involved in brain development, memory and cognition.

 

Letter

The International Schizophrenia Consortium. Common polygenic variation contributes to risk of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.  Nature 460, 748-752 (6 August 2009) | doi:10.1038/nature08185; Received 11 February 2009; Accepted 8 June 2009; Published online 1 July 2009; Corrected 6 August 2009

Schizophrenia is a severe mental disorder with a lifetime risk of about 1%, characterized by hallucinations, delusions and cognitive deficits, with heritability estimated at up to 80%1, 2. We performed a genome-wide association study of 3,322 European individuals with schizophrenia and 3,587 controls. Here we show, using two analytic approaches, the extent to which common genetic variation underlies the risk of schizophrenia. First, we implicate the major histocompatibility complex. Second, we provide molecular genetic evidence for a substantial polygenic component to the risk of schizophrenia involving thousands of common alleles of very small effect. We show that this component also contributes to the risk of bipolar disorder, but not to several non-psychiatric diseases.

 

The Psychiatric GWAS Consortium Steering Committee. A framework for interpreting genome-wide association studies of psychiatric disorders.  Molecular Psychiatry (2009) 14, 10–17; doi:10.1038/mp.2008.126; published online 11 November 2008

Genome-wide association studies (GWAS) have yielded a plethora of new findings in the past 3 years. By early 2009, GWAS on 47 samples of subjects with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder and schizophrenia will be completed. Taken together, these GWAS constitute the largest biological experiment ever conducted in psychiatry (59 000 independent cases and controls, 7700 family trios and >40 billion genotypes). We know that GWAS can work, and the question now is whether it will work for psychiatric disorders. In this review, we describe these studies, the Psychiatric GWAS Consortium for meta-analyses of these data, and provide a logical framework for interpretation of some of the conceivable outcomes.

Keywords: genome-wide association, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, schizophrenia

The purpose of this article is to consider the ‘big picture’ and to provide a logical framework for the possible outcomes of these studies. This is not a review of GWAS per se as many excellent reviews of this technically and statistically intricate methodological approach are available.789101112 This is also not a review of the advantages and disadvantages of different study designs and sampling strategies for the dissection of complex psychiatric traits. We would like to consider how the dozens of GWAS papers that will soon be in the literature can be synthesized: what can integrated mega-analyses (meta-analysis is based on summary data (for example, odds ratios) from all available studies whereas ‘mega-analysis’ uses individual-level genotype and phenotype data) of all available GWAS data tell us about the etiology of these psychiatric disorders? This is an exceptional opportunity as positive or negative results will enable us to learn hard facts about these critically important psychiatric disorders. We suggest that it is not a matter of ‘success versus failure’ or ‘optimism versus pessimism’ but rather an opportunity for systematic and logical approaches to empirical data whereby both positive and appropriately qualified negative findings are informative.

The studies that comprise the Psychiatric GWAS Consortium (PGC; http://pgc.unc.edu) are shown in Table 1. GWAS data for ADHD, autism, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder and schizophrenia from 42 samples of European subjects should be available for mega-analyses by early 2009 (>59 000 independent cases and controls and >7700 family trios). To our knowledge, the PGC will have access to the largest set of GWAS data available.

A major change in human genetics in the past 5 years has been in the growth of controlled-access data repositories, and individual phenotype and genotype data are now available for many of the studies in Table 1. When the PGC mega-analyses are completed, most data will be available to researchers via the NIMH Human Genetics Initiative (http://nimhgenetics.org). Although the ready availability of GWAS data is a benefit to the field by allowing rapid application of a wide range of analytic strategies to GWAS data, there are potential disadvantages. GWAS mega-analysis is complex and requires considerable care and expertise to be done validly. For psychiatric phenotypes, there is the additional challenge of working with disease entities based largely on clinical description, with unknown biological validity and having both substantial clinical variation within diagnostic categories as well as overlaps across categories.13 Given the urgent need to know if there are replicable genotype–phenotype associations, a new type of collaboration was required.

The purpose of the PGC is to conduct rigorous and comprehensive within- and cross-disorder GWAS mega-analyses. The PGC began in early 2007 with the principal investigators of the four GAIN GWAS,14 and within six months had grown to 110 participating scientists from 54 institutions in 11 countries. The PGC has a coordinating committee, five disease-working groups, a cross-disorder group, a statistical analysis and computational group, and a cluster computer for statistical analysis. It is remarkable that almost all investigators approached agreed to participate and that no one has left the PGC. Most effort is donated but we have obtained funding from the NIMH, the Netherlands Scientific Organization, Hersenstichting Nederland and NARSAD.

The PGC has two major specific aims. (1) Within-disorder mega-analyses: conduct separate mega-analyses of all available GWAS data for ADHD, autism, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, and schizophrenia to attempt to identify genetic variation convincingly associated with any one of these five disorders. (2) Cross-disorder mega-analyses: the clinically-derived DSM-IV and ICD-10 definitions may not directly reflect the fundamental genetic architecture.15 There are two subaims. (2a) Conduct mega-analysis to identify genetic variation convincingly associated with conventional definitions of two or more disorders. This nosological aim could assist in delineating the boundaries of this set of disorders. (2b) An expert working group will convert epidemiological and genetic epidemiological evidence into explicit hypotheses about overlap among these disorders, and then conduct mega-analyses based on these definitions (for example, to examine the lifetime presence of idiopathic psychotic features without regard to diagnostic context).

The goal of the PGC is to identify convincing genetic variation-disease associations. A convincing association would be extremely unlikely to result from chance, show consistent effect sizes across all or almost all samples and be impervious to vigorous attempts to disprove the finding (for example, by investigating sources of bias, confirmatory genotyping, and so on). Careful attention will be paid to the impact of potential sources of heterogeneity17 with the goal of assessing its impact without minimizing its presence.

Biological plausibility is not an initial requirement for a convincing statistical association, as there are many examples in human genetics of previously unsuspected candidate genes nonetheless showing highly compelling associations. For example, multiple SNPs in intron 1 of the FTO gene were associated with body mass index in 13 cohorts with 38 759 participants18 and yet ‘FTO’ does not appear in an exhaustive 116 page compilation of genetic studies of obesity.19 Some strong associations are in gene deserts: multiple studies have found convincing association between prostate cancer and a region on 8q24 that is ~250 kb from the nearest annotated gene.20 Both of these examples are being intensively investigated and we suspect that a compelling mechanistic ‘story’ will emerge in the near future. The presence of a compelling association without an obvious biological mechanism establishes a priority research area for molecular biology and neuroscience of a psychiatric disorder.

The PGC will use mega-analysis as the main analytic tool as individual-level data will be available from almost all samples. To wield this tool appropriately, a number of preconditions must be met. First, genotype data from different GWAS platforms must be made comparable as the direct overlap between platforms is often modest. This requires meticulous quality control for the inclusion of both SNPs and subjects and attention to the factors that can cause bias (for example, population stratification, cryptic relatedness or genotyping batch effects). Genotype harmonization can be accomplished using imputation (2122, for example) so that the same set of ~2 million2324 directly or imputed SNP genotypes are available for all subjects. Second, phenotypes need to be harmonized across studies. This is one of the most crucial components of the PGC and we are fortunate to have world experts directing the work. Third, the mega-analyses will assess potential heterogeneity of associations across samples.

A decision-tree schematic of the potential outcomes of the PGC mega-analyses is shown in Figure 1. Note that many of the possibilities in Figure 1 are not mutually exclusive and different disorders may take different paths through this framework. It is possible that there eventually will be dozens or hundreds of sequence variants strictly associated with these disorders with frequencies ranging from very rare to common.

………

 

GWAS has the potential to yield considerable insights but it is no panacea and may well perform differently for psychiatric disorders. Even if these psychiatric GWAS efforts are successful, the outcomes will be complex. GWAS may help us learn that clinical syndromes are actually many different things—for example, proportions of individuals with schizophrenia might evidence associations with rare CNVs of major effect,56 with more common genetic variation in dozens (perhaps hundreds) of genomic regions, between genetic variation strongly modified by environmental risk factors, and some proportion may be genetically indistinguishable from the general population. Moreover, as fuel to long-standing ‘lumper versus splitter’ debates in psychiatric nosology, empirical data might show that some clinical disorders or identifiable subsets of subjects might overlap considerably.

The critical advantage of GWAS is the search of a ‘closed’ hypothesis space. If the large amount of GWAS data being generated are analyzed within a strict and coherent framework, it should be possible to establish hard facts about the fundamental genetic architecture of a set of important psychiatric disorders—which might include positive evidence of what these disorders are or exclusionary evidence of what they are not. Whatever the results, these historically large efforts should yield hard facts about ADHD, autism, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder and schizophrenia that may help guide the next era of psychiatric research.

  1. Pe’er I, Yelensky R, Altshuler D, Daly MJ. Estimation of the multiple testing burden for genomewide association studies of nearly all common variants. Genet Epidemiol 2008; 32: 381–385. | Article | PubMed |
  2. Weiss LA, Shen Y, Korn JM, Arking DE, Miller DT, Fossdal R et al. Association between microdeletion and microduplication at 16p11.2 and autism. N Engl J Med 2008; 358: 667–675. | Article | PubMed | ChemPort |

 

Letter

Hreinn Stefansson1,36, et al. Large recurrent microdeletions associated with schizophrenia. Nature 455, 232-236 (11 September 2008) | doi:10.1038/nature07229; Received 17 April 2008; Accepted 8 July 2008; Corrected 11 September 2008

Reduced fecundity, associated with severe mental disorders1, places negative selection pressure on risk alleles and may explain, in part, why common variants have not been found that confer risk of disorders such as autism2, schizophrenia3 and mental retardation4. Thus, rare variants may account for a larger fraction of the overall genetic risk than previously assumed. In contrast to rare single nucleotide mutations, rare copy number variations (CNVs) can be detected using genome-wide single nucleotide polymorphism arrays. This has led to the identification of CNVs associated with mental retardation4, 5 and autism2. In a genome-wide search for CNVs associating with schizophrenia, we used a population-based sample to identify de novoCNVs by analysing 9,878 transmissions from parents to offspring. The 66 de novo CNVs identified were tested for association in a sample of 1,433 schizophrenia cases and 33,250 controls. Three deletions at 1q21.1, 15q11.2 and 15q13.3 showing nominal association with schizophrenia in the first sample (phase I) were followed up in a second sample of 3,285 cases and 7,951 controls (phase II). All three deletions significantly associate with schizophrenia and related psychoses in the combined sample. The identification of these rare, recurrent risk variants, having occurred independently in multiple founders and being subject to negative selection, is important in itself. CNV analysis may also point the way to the identification of additional and more prevalent risk variants in genes and pathways involved in schizophrenia.

 

The C4 gene can exist in multiple copies (from one to four) on each copy of chromosome 6, and has four different forms: C4A-short, C4B-short, C4A-long, and C4B-long. The researchers first examined the “structural alleles” of the C4 locus—that is, the combinations and copy numbers of the different C4 forms—in healthy individuals. They then examined how these structural alleles related to expression of both C4Aand C4B messenger RNAs (mRNAs) in postmortem brain tissues.

From this the researchers had a clear picture of how the architecture of the C4 locus affected expression ofC4A and C4B. Next, they compared DNA from roughly 30,000 schizophrenia patients with that from 35,000 healthy controls, and a correlation emerged: the alleles most strongly associated with schizophrenia were also those that were associated with the highest C4A expression. Measuring C4A mRNA levels in the brains of 35 schizophrenia patients and 70 controls then revealed that, on average, C4A levels in the patients’ brains were 1.4-fold higher.

C4 is an immune system “complement” factor—a small secreted protein that assists immune cells in the targeting and removal of pathogens. The discovery of C4’s association to schizophrenia, said McCarroll, “would have seemed random and puzzling if it wasn’t for work . . . showing that other complement components regulate brain wiring.” Indeed, complement protein C3 locates at synapses that are going to be eliminated in the brain, explained McCarroll, “and C4 was known to interact with C3 . . . so we thought well, actually, this might make sense.”

McCarroll’s team went on to perform studies in mice that revealed C4 is necessary for C3 to be deposited at synapses. They also showed that the more copies of the C4 gene present in a mouse, the more the animal’s neurons were pruned.

Synaptic pruning is a normal part of development and is thought to reflect the process of learning, where the brain strengthens some connections and eradicates others. Interestingly, the brains of deceased schizophrenia patients exhibit reduced neuron density. The new results, therefore, “make a lot of sense,” said Cardiff University’s Andrew Pocklington who did not participate in the work. They also make sense “in terms of the time period when synaptic pruning is occurring, which sort of overlaps with the period of onset for schizophrenia: around adolescence and early adulthood,” he added.

“[C4] has not been on anybody’s radar for having anything to do with schizophrenia, and now it is and there’s a whole bunch of really neat stuff that could happen,” said Sullivan. For one, he suggested, “this molecule could be something that is amenable to therapeutics.”

 

 

UniProtKB

Derived from proteolytic degradation of complement C4, C4a anaphylatoxin is a mediator of local inflammatory process. It induces the contraction of smooth muscle, increases vascular permeability and causes histamine release from mast cells and basophilic leukocytes.

Non-enzymatic component of C3 and C5 convertases and thus essential for the propagation of the classical complement pathway. Covalently binds to immunoglobulins and immune complexes and enhances the solubilization of immune aggregates and the clearance of IC through CR1 on erythrocytes. C4A isotype is responsible for effective binding to form amide bonds with immune aggregates or protein antigens, while C4B isotype catalyzes the transacylation of the thioester carbonyl group to form ester bonds with carbohydrate antigens.

 

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High blood pressure can damage the retina’s blood vessels and limit the retina’s function. It can also put pressure on the optic nerve.

Sourced through Scoop.it from: www.healthline.com

See on Scoop.itCardiovascular Disease: PHARMACO-THERAPY

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Graphene Interaction with Neurons

Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP, Curator

LPBI

 

Graphene Shown to Safely Interact with Neurons in the Brain

University of Cambridge

(Source: University of Cambridge)

http://www.biosciencetechnology.com/sites/biosciencetechnology.com/files/bt1601_cambridge_graphene.png

 

Researchers have successfully demonstrated how it is possible to interface graphene – a two-dimensional form of carbon – with neurons, or nerve cells, while maintaining the integrity of these vital cells. The work may be used to build graphene-based electrodes that can safely be implanted in the brain, offering promise for the restoration of sensory functions for amputee or paralyzed patients, or for individuals with motor disorders such as epilepsy or Parkinson’s disease.

The research, published in the journal ACS Nano, was an interdisciplinary collaboration coordinated by the University of Trieste in Italy and the Cambridge Graphene Centre.

Previously, other groups had shown that it is possible to use treated graphene to interact with neurons. However the signal to noise ratio from this interface was very low. By developing methods of working with untreated graphene, the researchers retained the material’s electrical conductivity, making it a significantly better electrode.

“For the first time we interfaced graphene to neurons directly,” said Professor Laura Ballerini of the University of Trieste in Italy. “We then tested the ability of neurons to generate electrical signals known to represent brain activities, and found that the neurons retained their neuronal signaling properties unaltered. This is the first functional study of neuronal synaptic activity using uncoated graphene based materials.”

Our understanding of the brain has increased to such a degree that by interfacing directly between the brain and the outside world we can now harness and control some of its functions. For instance, by measuring the brain’s electrical impulses, sensory functions can be recovered. This can be used to control robotic arms for amputee patients or any number of basic processes for paralyzed patients – from speech to movement of objects in the world around them. Alternatively, by interfering with these electrical impulses, motor disorders (such as epilepsy or Parkinson’s) can start to be controlled.

Scientists have made this possible by developing electrodes that can be placed deep within the brain. These electrodes connect directly to neurons and transmit their electrical signals away from the body, allowing their meaning to be decoded.

However, the interface between neurons and electrodes has often been problematic: not only do the electrodes need to be highly sensitive to electrical impulses, but they need to be stable in the body without altering the tissue they measure.

Too often the modern electrodes used for this interface (based on tungsten or silicon) suffer from partial or complete loss of signal over time. This is often caused by the formation of scar tissue from the electrode insertion, which prevents the electrode from moving with the natural movements of the brain due to its rigid nature.

Graphene has been shown to be a promising material to solve these problems, because of its excellent conductivity, flexibility, biocompatibility and stability within the body.

Based on experiments conducted in rat brain cell cultures, the researchers found that untreated graphene electrodes interfaced well with neurons. By studying the neurons with electron microscopy and immunofluorescence the researchers found that they remained healthy, transmitting normal electric impulses and, importantly, none of the adverse reactions which lead to the damaging scar tissue were seen.

According to the researchers, this is the first step towards using pristine graphene-based materials as an electrode for a neuro-interface. In future, the researchers will investigate how different forms of graphene, from multiple layers to monolayers, are able to affect neurons, and whether tuning the material properties of graphene might alter the synapses and neuronal excitability in new and unique ways. “Hopefully this will pave the way for better deep brain implants to both harness and control the brain, with higher sensitivity and fewer unwanted side effects,” said Ballerini.

“We are currently involved in frontline research in graphene technology towards biomedical applications,” said Professor Maurizio Prato from the University of Trieste. “In this scenario, the development and translation in neurology of graphene-based high-performance biodevices requires the exploration of the interactions between graphene nano- and micro-sheets with the sophisticated signalling machinery of nerve cells. Our work is only a first step in that direction.”

“These initial results show how we are just at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the potential of graphene and related materials in bio-applications and medicine,” said Professor Andrea Ferrari, Director of the Cambridge Graphene Centre. “The expertise developed at the Cambridge Graphene Centre allows us to produce large quantities of pristine material in solution, and this study proves the compatibility of our process with neuro-interfaces.”

The research was funded by the Graphene Flagship, a European initiative which promotes a collaborative approach to research with an aim of helping to translate graphene out of the academic laboratory, through local industry and into society.

Source: University of Cambridge

 

Remembering to Remember Supported by Two Distinct Brain Processes

http://www.biosciencetechnology.com/news/2013/08/remembering-remember-supported-two-distinct-brain-processes

To investigate how prospective memory is processed in the brain, psychological scientist Mark McDaniel of Washington University in St. Louis and colleagues had participants lie in an fMRI scanner and asked them to press one of two buttons to indicate whether a word that popped up on a screen was a member of a designated category.  In addition to this ongoing activity, participants were asked to try to remember to press a third button whenever a special target popped up. The task was designed to tap into participants’ prospective memory, or their ability to remember to take certain actions in response to specific future events.

When McDaniel and colleagues analyzed the fMRI data, they observed that two distinct brain activation patterns emerged when participants made the correct button press for a special target.

When the special target was not relevant to the ongoing activity—such as a syllable like “tor”—participants seemed to rely on top-down brain processes supported by the prefrontal cortex. In order to answer correctly when the special syllable flashed up on the screen, the participants had to sustain their attention and monitor for the special syllable throughout the entire task. In the grocery bag scenario, this would be like remembering to bring the grocery bags by constantly reminding yourself that you can’t forget them.

When the special target was integral to the ongoing activity—such as a whole word, like “table”—participants recruited a different set of brain regions, and they didn’t show sustained activation in these regions. The findings suggest that remembering what to do when the special target was a whole word didn’t require the same type of top-down monitoring. Instead, the target word seemed to act as an environmental cue that prompted participants to make the appropriate response—like reminding yourself to bring the grocery bags by leaving them near the front door.

“These findings suggest that people could make use of several different strategies to accomplish prospective memory tasks,” says McDaniel.

McDaniel and colleagues are continuing their research on prospective memory, examining how this phenomenon might change with age.

Co-authors on this research include Pamela LaMontagne, Michael Scullin, Todd Braver of Washington University in St. Louis; and Stefanie Beck of Technische Universität Dresden.

This research was funded by the National Institute on Aging, the Washington University Institute of Clinical and Translation Sciences, the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, and the German Science Foundation.

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Mindful Discoveries

Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP, Curator

LPBI

 

Schizophrenia and the Synapse

Genetic evidence suggests that overactive synaptic pruning drives development of schizophrenia.

By Ruth Williams | January 27, 2016 … more follows)

http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/45189/title/Schizophrenia-and-the-Synapse/

http://www.the-scientist.com/images/News/January2016/Schizophrenia.jpg

C4 (green) at synapses of human neurons

Compared to the brains of healthy individuals, those of people with schizophrenia have higher expression of a gene called C4, according to a paper published inNature today (January 27). The gene encodes an immune protein that moonlights in the brain as an eradicator of unwanted neural connections (synapses). The findings, which suggest increased synaptic pruning is a feature of the disease, are a direct extension of genome-wide association studies (GWASs) that pointed to the major histocompatibility (MHC) locus as a key region associated with schizophrenia risk.

“The MHC [locus] is the first and the strongest genetic association for schizophrenia, but many people have said this finding is not useful,” said psychiatric geneticist Patrick Sullivan of the University of North Carolina School of Medicine who was not involved in the study. “The value of [the present study is] to show that not only is it useful, but it opens up new and extremely interesting ideas about the biology and therapeutics of schizophrenia.”

Schizophrenia has a strong genetic component—it runs in families—yet, because of the complex nature of the condition, no specific genes or mutations have been identified. The pathological processes driving the disease remain a mystery.

Researchers have turned to GWASs in the hope of finding specific genetic variations associated with schizophrenia, but even these have not provided clear candidates.

“There are some instances where genome-wide association will literally hit one base [in the DNA],” explained Sullivan. While a 2014 schizophrenia GWAS highlighted the MHC locus on chromosome 6 as a strong risk area, the association spanned hundreds of possible genes and did not reveal specific nucleotide changes. In short, any hope of pinpointing the MHC association was going to be “really challenging,” said geneticist Steve McCarroll of Harvard who led the new study.

Nevertheless, McCarroll and colleagues zeroed in on the particular region of the MHC with the highest GWAS score—the C4 gene—and set about examining how the area’s structural architecture varied in patients and healthy people.

The C4gene can exist in multiple copies (from one to four) on each copy of chromosome 6, and has four different forms: C4A-short, C4B-short, C4A-long, and C4B-long. The researchers first examined the “structural alleles” of the C4 locus—that is, the combinations and copy numbers of the different C4 forms—in healthy individuals. They then examined how these structural alleles related to expression of both C4Aand C4B messenger RNAs (mRNAs) in postmortem brain tissues.From this the researchers had a clear picture of how the architecture of the C4 locus affected expression ofC4A and C4B. Next, they compared DNA from roughly 30,000 schizophrenia patients with that from 35,000 healthy controls, and a correlation emerged: the alleles most strongly associated with schizophrenia were also those that were associated with the highest C4A expression. Measuring C4A mRNA levels in the brains of 35 schizophrenia patients and 70 controls then revealed that, on average, C4A levels in the patients’ brains were 1.4-fold higher.C4 is an immune system “complement” factor—a small secreted protein that assists immune cells in the targeting and removal of pathogens. The discovery of C4’s association to schizophrenia, said McCarroll, “would have seemed random and puzzling if it wasn’t for work . . . showing that other complement components regulate brain wiring.” Indeed, complement protein C3 locates at synapses that are going to be eliminated in the brain, explained McCarroll, “and C4 was known to interact with C3 . . . so we thought well, actually, this might make sense.”McCarroll’s team went on to perform studies in mice that revealed C4 is necessary for C3 to be deposited at synapses. They also showed that the more copies of the C4 gene present in a mouse, the more the animal’s neurons were pruned.Synaptic pruning is a normal part of development and is thought to reflect the process of learning, where the brain strengthens some connections and eradicates others. Interestingly, the brains of deceased schizophrenia patients exhibit reduced neuron density. The new results, therefore, “make a lot of sense,” said Cardiff University’s Andrew Pocklington who did not participate in the work. They also make sense “in terms of the time period when synaptic pruning is occurring, which sort of overlaps with the period of onset for schizophrenia: around adolescence and early adulthood,” he added.

“[C4] has not been on anybody’s radar for having anything to do with schizophrenia, and now it is and there’s a whole bunch of really neat stuff that could happen,” said Sullivan. For one, he suggested, “this molecule could be something that is amenable to therapeutics.”

A. Sekar et al., “Schizophrenia risk from complexvariation of complement component 4,”Nature,   http://dx.doi.com:/10.1038/nature16549, 2016.     

Tags schizophrenia, neuroscience, gwas, genetics & genomics, disease/medicine and cell & molecular biology

 

Schizophrenia: From genetics to physiology at last

Ryan S. Dhindsa& David B. Goldstein

Nature (2016)  http://dx.doi.org://10.1038/nature16874

The identification of a set of genetic variations that are strongly associated with the risk of developing schizophrenia provides insights into the neurobiology of this destructive disease.

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/28/health/schizophrenia-cause-synaptic-pruning-brain-psychiatry.html

 

Genetic study provides first-ever insight into biological origin of schizophrenia

Suspect gene may trigger runaway synaptic pruning during adolescence — NIH-funded study

NIH/NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF MENTAL HEALTH

IMAGE

http://media.eurekalert.org/multimedia_prod/pub/web/107629_web.jpg

The site in Chromosome 6 harboring the gene C4 towers far above other risk-associated areas on schizophrenia’s genomic “skyline,” marking its strongest known genetic influence. The new study is the first to explain how specific gene versions work biologically to confer schizophrenia risk.  CREDIT  Psychiatric Genomics Consortium

Versions of a gene linked to schizophrenia may trigger runaway pruning of the teenage brain’s still-maturing communications infrastructure, NIH-funded researchers have discovered. People with the illness show fewer such connections between neurons, or synapses. The gene switched on more in people with the suspect versions, who faced a higher risk of developing the disorder, characterized by hallucinations, delusions and impaired thinking and emotions.

“Normally, pruning gets rid of excess connections we no longer need, streamlining our brain for optimal performance, but too much pruning can impair mental function,” explained Thomas Lehner, Ph.D., director of the Office of Genomics Research Coordination of the NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), which co-funded the study along with the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute and other NIH components. “It could help explain schizophrenia’s delayed age-of-onset of symptoms in late adolescence/early adulthood and shrinkage of the brain’s working tissue. Interventions that put the brakes on this pruning process-gone-awry could prove transformative.”

The gene, called C4 (complement component 4), sits in by far the tallest tower on schizophrenia’s genomic “skyline” (see graph below) of more than 100 chromosomal sites harboring known genetic risk for the disorder. Affecting about 1 percent of the population, schizophrenia is known to be as much as 90 percent heritable, yet discovering how specific genes work to confer risk has proven elusive, until now.

A team of scientists led by Steve McCarroll, Ph.D., of the Broad Institute and Harvard Medical School, Boston, leveraged the statistical power conferred by analyzing the genomes of 65,000 people, 700 postmortem brains, and the precision of mouse genetic engineering to discover the secrets of schizophrenia’s strongest known genetic risk. C4’s role represents the most compelling evidence, to date, linking specific gene versions to a biological process that could cause at least some cases of the illness.

“Since schizophrenia was first described over a century ago, its underlying biology has been a black box, in part because it has been virtually impossible to model the disorder in cells or animals,” said McCarroll. “The human genome is providing a powerful new way in to this disease. Understanding these genetic effects on risk is a way of prying open that block box, peering inside and starting to see actual biological mechanisms.”

McCarroll’s team, including Harvard colleagues Beth Stevens, Ph.D., Michael Carroll, Ph.D., and Aswin Sekar, report on their findings online Jan. 27, 2016 in the journal Nature.

A swath of chromosome 6 encompassing several genes known to be involved in immune function emerged as the strongest signal associated with schizophrenia risk in genome-wide analyses by the NIMH-funded Psychiatric Genomics Consortium over the past several years. Yet conventional genetics failed to turn up any specific gene versions there linked to schizophrenia.

To discover how the immune-related site confers risk for the mental disorder, McCarroll’s team mounted a search for “cryptic genetic influences” that might generate “unconventional signals.” C4, a gene with known roles in immunity, emerged as a prime suspect because it is unusually variable across individuals. It is not unusual for people to have different numbers of copies of the gene and distinct DNA sequences that result in the gene working differently.

The researchers dug deeply into the complexities of how such structural variation relates to the gene’s level of expression and how that, in turn, might relate to schizophrenia. They discovered structurally distinct versions that affect expression of two main forms of the gene in the brain. The more a version resulted in expression of one of the forms, called C4A, the more it was associated with schizophrenia. The more a person had the suspect versions, the more C4 switched on and the higher their risk of developing schizophrenia. Moreover, in the human brain, the C4 protein turned out to be most prevalent in the cellular machinery that supports connections between neurons.

Adapting mouse molecular genetics techniques for studying synaptic pruning and C4’s role in immune function, the researchers also discovered a previously unknown role for C4 in brain development. During critical periods of postnatal brain maturation, C4 tags a synapse for pruning by depositing a sister protein in it called C3. Again, the more C4 got switched on, the more synapses got eliminated.

In humans, such streamlining/pruning occurs as the brain develops to full maturity in the late teens/early adulthood – conspicuously corresponding to the age-of-onset of schizophrenia symptoms.

Future treatments designed to suppress excessive levels of pruning by counteracting runaway C4 in at risk individuals might nip in the bud a process that could otherwise develop into psychotic illness, suggest the researchers. And thanks to the head start gained in understanding the role of such complement proteins in immune function, such agents are already in development, they note.

“This study marks a crucial turning point in the fight against mental illness. It changes the game,” added acting NIMH director Bruce Cuthbert, Ph.D. “Thanks to this genetic breakthrough, we can finally see the potential for clinical tests, early detection, new treatments and even prevention.”

###

VIDEO: Opening Schizophrenia’s Black Box https://youtu.be/s0y4equOTLg

Reference: Sekar A, Biala AR, de Rivera H, Davis A, Hammond TR, Kamitaki N, Tooley K Presumey J Baum M, Van Doren V, Genovese G, Rose SA, Handsaker RE, Schizophrenia Working Group of the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium, Daly MJ, Carroll MC, Stevens B, McCarroll SA. Schizophrenia risk from complex variation of complement component 4.Nature. Jan 27, 2016. DOI: 10.1038/nature16549.

 

Schizophrenia risk from complex variation of complement component 4

Aswin SekarAllison R. BialasHeather de RiveraAvery DavisTimothy R. Hammond, …., Michael C. CarrollBeth Stevens Steven A. McCarroll

Nature(2016)   http://dx.doi.org:/10.1038/nature16549

Schizophrenia is a heritable brain illness with unknown pathogenic mechanisms. Schizophrenia’s strongest genetic association at a population level involves variation in the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) locus, but the genes and molecular mechanisms accounting for this have been challenging to identify. Here we show that this association arises in part from many structurally diverse alleles of the complement component 4 (C4) genes. We found that these alleles generated widely varying levels of C4A and C4B expression in the brain, with each common C4 allele associating with schizophrenia in proportion to its tendency to generate greater expression of C4A. Human C4 protein localized to neuronal synapses, dendrites, axons, and cell bodies. In mice, C4 mediated synapse elimination during postnatal development. These results implicate excessive complement activity in the development of schizophrenia and may help explain the reduced numbers of synapses in the brains of individuals with schizophrenia.

Figure 1: Structural variation of the complement component 4 (C4) gene.

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/carousel/nature16549-f1.jpg

a, Location of the C4 genes within the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) locus on human chromosome 6. b, Human C4 exists as two paralogous genes (isotypes), C4A and C4B; the encoded proteins are distinguished at a key site

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/carousel/nature16549-f3.jpg

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/carousel/nature16549-sf8.jpg

Gene Study Points Toward Therapies for Common Brain Disorders

University of Edinburgh    http://www.dddmag.com/news/2016/01/gene-study-points-toward-therapies-common-brain-disorders

Scientists have pinpointed the cells that are likely to trigger common brain disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease, Multiple Sclerosis and intellectual disabilities.

It is the first time researchers have been able to identify the particular cell types that malfunction in a wide range of brain diseases.

Scientists say the findings offer a roadmap for the development of new therapies to target the conditions.

The researchers from the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences used advanced gene analysis techniques to investigate which genes were switched on in specific types of brain cells.

They then compared this information with genes that are known to be linked to each of the most common brain conditions — Alzheimer’s disease, anxiety disorders, autism, intellectual disability, multiple sclerosis, schizophrenia and epilepsy.

Their findings reveal that for some conditions, the support cells rather than the neurons that transmit messages in the brain are most likely to be the first affected.

Alzheimer’s disease, for example, is characterised by damage to the neurons. Previous efforts to treat the condition have focused on trying to repair this damage.

The study found that a different cell type — called microglial cells — are responsible for triggering Alzheimer’s and that damage to the neurons is a secondary symptom of disease progression.

Researchers say that developing medicines that target microglial cells could offer hope for treating the illness.

The approach could also be used to find new treatment targets for other diseases that have a genetic basis, the researchers say.

Dr Nathan Skene, who carried out the study with Professor Seth Grant, said: “The brain is the most complex organ made up from a tangle of many cell types and sorting out which of these cells go wrong in disease is of critical importance to developing new medicines.”

Professor Seth Grant said: “We are in the midst of scientific revolution where advanced molecular methods are disentangling the Gordian Knot of the brain and completely unexpected new pathways to solving diseases are emerging. There is a pressing need to exploit the remarkable insights from the study.”

 

Quantitative multimodal multiparametric imaging in Alzheimer’s disease

Qian Zhao, Xueqi Chen, Yun Zhou      Brain Informatics  http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40708-015-0028-9

Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder, causing changes in memory, thinking, and other dysfunction of brain functions. More and more people are suffering from the disease. Early neuroimaging techniques of AD are needed to develop. This review provides a preliminary summary of the various neuroimaging techniques that have been explored for in vivo imaging of AD. Recent advances in magnetic resonance (MR) techniques, such as functional MR imaging (fMRI) and diffusion MRI, give opportunities to display not only anatomy and atrophy of the medial temporal lobe, but also at microstructural alterations or perfusion disturbance within the AD lesions. Positron emission tomography (PET) imaging has become the subject of intense research for the diagnosis and facilitation of drug development of AD in both animal models and human trials due to its non-invasive and translational characteristic. Fluorodeoxyglucose (FDG) PET and amyloid PET are applied in clinics and research departments. Amyloid beta (Aβ) imaging using PET has been recognized as one of the most important methods for the early diagnosis of AD, and numerous candidate compounds have been tested for Aβ imaging. Besides in vivo imaging method, a lot of ex vivo modalities are being used in the AD researches. Multiphoton laser scanning microscopy, neuroimaging of metals, and several metal bioimaging methods are also mentioned here. More and more multimodality and multiparametric neuroimaging techniques should improve our understanding of brain function and open new insights into the pathophysiology of AD. We expect exciting results will emerge from new neuroimaging applications that will provide scientific and medical benefits.

Keywords –   Alzheimer’s disease Neuroimaging PET MRI Amyloid beta Multimodal

Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder that gradually destroys brain cells, causing changes in memory, thinking, and other dysfunction of brain functions [1]. AD is considered to a prolonged preclinical stage where neuropathological changes precede the clinical symptoms [2]. An estimation of 35 million people worldwide is living with this disease. If effective treatments are not discovered in a timely fashion, the number of AD cases is anticipated to rise to 113 million by 2050 [3].

Amyloid beta (Aβ) and tau are two of the major biomarkers of AD, and have important and different roles in association with the progression of AD pathophysiology. Jack et al. established hypothetical models of the major biomarkers of AD. By renewing and modifying the models, they found that the two major proteinopathies underlying AD biomarker changes, Aβ and tau, may be initiated independently in late onset AD where they hypothesize that an incident Aβ pathophysiology can accelerate an antecedent limbic and brainstem tauopathy [4]. MRI technique was used in the article, which revealed that the level of Aβ load was associated with a shorter time-to-progression of AD [5]. This warrants an urgent need to develop early neuroimaging techniques of AD neuropathology that can detect and predict the disease before the onset of dementia, monitor therapeutic efficacy in halting and slowing down progression in the earlier stage of the disease.

There have been various reports on the imaging assessments of AD. Some measurements reflect the pathology of AD directly, including positron emission tomography (PET) amyloid imaging and cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) beta-amyloid 42 (Aβ42), while others reflect neuronal injury associated with AD indirectly, including CSF tau (total and phosphorylated tau), fluorodeoxy-d-glucose (FDG)-PET, and MRI. AD Neuroimaging Initiative (ADNI) has been to establish the optimal panel of clinical assessments, MRI and PET imaging measures, as well as other biomarkers from blood and CSF, to inform clinical trial design for AD therapeutic development. At the same time, it has been highly productive in generating a wealth of data for elucidating disease mechanisms occurring during early stages of preclinical and prodromal AD [6].

Single neuroimaging often reflects limit information of AD. As a result, multimodal neuroimaging is widely used in neuroscience researches, as it overcomes the limitations of individual modalities. Multimodal multiparametric imaging mean the combination of different imaging techniques, such as PET, MRI, simultaneously or separately. The multimodal multiparametric imaging enables the visualization and quantitative analysis of the alterations in brain structure and function, such as PET/CT, and PET/MRI. [7]. In this review article, we summarize and discuss the main applications, findings, perspectives as well as advantages and challenges of different neuroimaging in AD, especially MRI and PET imaging.

2 Magnetic resonance imaging

MRI demonstrates specific volume loss or cortical atrophy patterns with disease progression in AD patients [810]. There are several MRI techniques and analysis methods used in clinical and scientific research of AD. Recent advances in MR techniques, such as functional MRI (fMRI) and diffusion MRI, depict not only anatomy and atrophy of the medial temporal lobe (MTL), but also microstructural alterations or perfusion disturbance within this region.

2.1 Functional MRI

Because of the cognitive reserve (CR), the relationship between severity of AD patients’ brain damage and corresponding clinical symptoms is not always paralleled [11, 12]. Recently, resting-state fMRI (RS-fMRI) is popular for its ability to map brain functional connectivity non-invasively [13]. By using RS-fMRI, Bozzali et al. reported that the CR played a role in modulating the effect of AD pathology on default mode network functional connectivity, which account for the variable clinical symptoms of AD [14]. Moreover, AD patients with higher educated experience were able to recruit compensatory neural mechanisms, which can be measured using RS-fMRI. Arterial spin-labeled (ASL) MRI is another functional brain imaging modality, which measures cerebral blood flow (CBF) by magnetically labeled arterial blood water following through the carotid and vertebral arteries as an endogenous contrast medium. Several studies have concluded the characteristics of CBF changes in AD patients using ASL-MRI [1517].

At some point in time, sufficient brain damage accumulates to result in cognitive symptoms and impairment. Mild cognitive impairment (MCI) is a condition in which subjects are usually only mildly impaired in memory with relative preservation of other cognitive domains and functional activities and do not meet the criteria for dementia [18], or as the prodromal state AD [19]. MCI patients are at a higher risk of developing AD and up to 15 % convert to AD per year [18]. Binnewijzend et al. have reported the pseudocontinuous ASL could distinguish both MCI and AD from healthy controls, and be used in the early diagnosis of AD [20]. In their continuous study, they used quantitative whole brain pseudocontinuous ASL to compare regional CBF (rCBF) distribution patterns in different types of dementia, and concluded that ASL-MRI could be a non-invasive and easily accessible alternative to FDG-PET imaging in the assessment of CBF of AD patients [21].

2.2 Structure MRI

Structural MRI (sMRI) has already been a reliable imaging method in the clinical diagnosis of AD, characterized as gray matter reduction and ventricular enlargement in standard T1-weighted sequences [9]. Locus coeruleus (LC) and substantia nigra (SN) degeneration was seen in AD. By using new quantitative calculating method, Chen et al. presented a new quantitative neuromelanin MRI approach for simultaneous measurement of locus LC and SN of brainstem in living human subjects [22]. The approach they used demonstrated advantages in image acquisition, pre-processing, and quantitative analysis. Numerous transgenic animal models of amyloidosis are available, which can manipulate a lot of neuropathological features of AD progression from the deposition of β-amyloid [23]. Braakman et al. demonstrated the dynamics of amyloid plaque formation and development in a serial MRI study in a transgenic mouse model [24]. Increased iron accumulation in gray matter is frequently observed in AD. Because of the paramagnetic nature of iron, MRI shows nice potential in the investigating iron levels in AD [25]. Quantitative MRI was shown high sensitivity and specificity in mapping cerebral iron deposition, and helped in the research on AD diagnosis [26].

The imaging patterns are always associated with the pathologic changes, such as specific protein markers. Spencer et al. manifested the relationship between quantitative T1 and T2 relaxation time changes and three immunohistochemical markers: β-amyloid, neuron-specific nuclear protein (a marker of neuronal cell load), and myelin basic protein (a marker of myelin load) in AD transgenic mice [27].

High-field MRI has been successfully applied to imaging plaques in transgenic mice for over a decade without contrast agents [24, 2830]. Sillerud et al. devised a method using blood–brain barrier penetrating, amyloid-targeted, superparamagnetic iron oxide nanoparticles (SPIONs) for better imaging of amyloid plaque [31]. Then, they successfully used this SPION-MRI to assess the drug efficacy on the 3D distribution of Aβ plaques in transgenic AD mouse [32].

2.3 Diffusion MRI

Diffusion-weighted imaging (DWI) is a sensitive tool that allows quantifying of physiologic alterations in water diffusion, which result from microscopic structural changes.

Diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) is a well-established and commonly employed diffusion MRI technique in clinical and research on neuroimaging studies, which is based on a Gaussian model of diffusion processes [33]. In general, AD is associated with widespread reduced fractional anisotropy (FA) and increased mean diffusivity (MD) in several regions, most prominently in the frontal and temporal lobes, and along the cingulum, corpus callosum, uncinate fasciculus, superior longitudinal fasciculus, and MTL-associated tracts than healthy controls [3437]. Acosta-Cabronero et al. reported increased axial diffusivity and MD in the splenium, which were the earliest abnormalities in AD [38]. FA and radial diffusivity (DR) differences in the corpus callosum, cingulum, and fornix were found to separate individuals with MCI who converted to AD from non-converters [39]. DTI was also found to be a better predictor of AD-specific MTL atrophy when compared to CSF biomarkers [40]. These findings suggested the potential clinical utility of DTI as early biomarkers of AD and its progression. However, an increase in MD and DR and a decrease in FA with advancing age in selective brain regions have been previously reported [41, 42]. Diffusion MRI can be also used in the classifying of various stages of AD. Multimodal classification method, which combined fMRI and DTI, separated more MCI from healthy controls than single approaches [43].

In recent years, tau has emerged as a potential target for therapeutic intervention. Tau plays a critical role in the neurodegenerative process forming neurofibrillary tangles, which is a major hallmark of AD and correlates with clinical disease progression. Wells et al. applied multiparametric MRI, containing high-resolution structure MRI (sMRI), a novel chemical exchange saturation transfer (CEST) MRI, DTI, and ASL, and glucose CEST to measure changes of tau pathology in AD transgenic mouse [44].

Besides DWI MRI, perfusion-weighted imaging (PWI) is another advanced MR technique, which could measure the cerebral hemodynamics at the capillary level. Zimny et al. evaluated the correlation of MTL with both DWI and PWI in AD and MCI patients [45].

3 Positron emission tomography

PET is a specific imaging technique applying in researches of brain function and neurochemistry of small animals, medium-sized animals, and human subjects [4648]. As a particular brain imaging technique, PET imaging has become the subject of intense research for the diagnosis and facilitation of drug development of AD in both animal models and human trials due to its non-invasive and translational characteristic. PET with various radiotracers is considered as a standard non-invasive quantitative imaging technique to measure CBF, glucose metabolism, and β-amyloid and tau deposition.

3.1 FDG-PET

To date, 18F-FDG is one of the best and widely used neuroimaging tracers of PET, which employed for research and clinical assessment of AD [49]. Typical lower FDG metabolism was shown in the precuneus, posterior cingulate, and temporal and parietal cortex with progression to whole brain reductions with increasing disease progress in AD brains [50, 51]. FDG-PET imaging reflects the cerebral glucose metabolism, neuronal injury, which provides indirect evidence on cognitive function and progression that cannot be provided by amyloid PET imaging.

Schraml et al. [52] identified a significant association between hypometabolic convergence index and phenotypes using ADNI data. Some researchers also used 18F-FDG-PET to analyze genetic information with multiple biomarkers to classify AD status, predicting cognitive decline or MCI to AD conversion [5355]. Trzepacz et al. [56] reported multimodal AD neuroimaging study, using MRI, 11C-PiB PET, and 18F-FDG-PET imaging to predict MCI conversion to AD along with APOE genotype. Zhang et al. [57] compared the genetic modality single-nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) with sMRI, 18F-FDG-PET, and CSF biomarkers, which were used to differentiate healthy control, MCI, and AD. They found FDG-PET is the best modality in terms of accuracy.

3.2 Amyloid beta PET

Aβ, the primary constituent of senile plaques, and tau tangles are hypothesized to play a primary role in the pathogenesis of AD, but it is still hard to identify the fundamental mechanisms [5860]. Aβ plaque in brain is one of the pathological hallmarks of AD [61,62]. Accumulation of Aβ peptide in the cerebral cortex is considered one cause of dementia in AD [63]. Numerous studies have involved in vivo PET imaging assessing cortical β-amyloid burden [6466].

Aβ imaging using PET has been recognized as one of the most important methods for the early diagnosis of AD [67]. Numerous candidate compounds have been tested for Aβ imaging, such as 11C-PiB [68], 18F-FDDNP [69], 11C-SB-13 [70], 18F-BAY94-9172 [71], 18F-AV-45 [72], 18F-flutemetamol [73, 74], 11C-AZD2184 [75], and 18F-ADZ4694 [76], 11C-BF227 and 18F-FACT [77].

Several amyloid PET studies examined genotypes, phenotypes, or gene–gene interactions. Ramanan et al. [78] reported the GWAS results with 18F-AV-45 reflecting the cerebral amyloid metabolism in AD for the first time. Swaminathan et al. [79] revealed the association between plasma Aβ from peripheral blood and cortical amyloid deposition on 11C-PiB. Hohman et al. [80] reported the relationship between SNPs involved in amyloid and tau pathophysiology with 18F-AV-45 PET.

Among the PET tracers, 11C-PiB, which has a high affinity for fibrillar Aβ, is a reliable biomarker of underlying AD pathology [68, 81]. It shows cortical uptake well paralleled with AD pathology [82, 83], has recently been approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA, April 2012) and the European Medicines Agency (January 2013). 18F-GE-067 (flutemetamol) and 18F-BAY94-9172 (florbetaben) have also been approved by the US FDA in the last 2 years [84, 85].

18F-Florbetapir (also known as 18F-AV-45) exhibits high affinity specific binding to amyloid plaques. 18F-AV-45 labels Aβ plaques in sections from patients with pathologically confirmed AD [72].

It was reported in several research groups that 18F-AV-45 PET imaging showed a reliability of both qualitative and quantitative assessments in AD patients, and Aβ+ increased with diagnostic category (healthy control < MCI < AD) [82, 86, 87]. Johnson et al. used 18F-AV-45 PET imaging to evaluate the amyloid deposition in both MCI and AD patients qualitatively and quantitatively, and found that amyloid burden increased with diagnostic category (MCI < AD), age, and APOEε4 carrier status [88]. Payoux et al. reported the equivocal amyloid PET scans using 18F-AV-45 associated with a specific pattern of clinical signs in a large population of non-demented older adults more than 70 years old [89].

More and more researchers consider combination and comparison of multiple PET tracers targeting amyloid plaque imaging together. Bruck et al. compared the prognostic ability of 11C-PiB PET, 18F-FDG-PET, and quantitative hippocampal volumes measured with MR imaging in predicting MCI to AD conversion. They found that the FDG-PET and 11C-PiB PET imaging are better in predicting MCI to AD conversion [90]. Hatashita et al. used 11C-PiB and FDG-PET imaging to identify MCI due to AD, 11C-PiB showed a higher sensitivity of 96.6 %, and FDG-PET added diagnostic value in predicting AD over a short period [91].

Besides, new Aβ imaging agents were radiosynthesized. Yousefi et al. radiosynthesized a new Aβ imaging agent 18F-FIBT, and compared the three different Aβ-targeted radiopharmaceuticals for PET imaging, including 18F-FIBT, 18F-florbetaben, and 11C-PiB [92]. 11C-AZD2184 is another new PET tracer developed for amyloid senile plaque imaging, and the kinetic behavior of 11C-AZD2184 is suitable for quantitative analysis and can be used in clinical examination without input function [75,93, 94].

4 Multimodality imaging: PET/MRI

Several diagnostic techniques, including MRI and PET, are employed for the diagnosis and monitoring of AD [95]. Multimodal imaging could provide more information in the formation and key molecular event of AD than single method. It drives the progression of neuroimaging research due to the recognition of the clinical benefits of multimodal data [96], and the better access to hybrid devices, such as PET/MRI [97].

Maier et al. evaluated the dynamics of 11C-PiB PET, 15O-H2O-PET, and ASL-MRI in transgenic AD mice and concluded that the AD-related decline of rCBF was caused by the cerebral Aβ angiopathy [98]. Edison et al. systematically compared 11C-PiB PET and MRI in AD, MCI patients, and controls. They thought that 11C-PiB PET was adequate for clinical diagnostic purpose, while MRI remained more appropriate for clinical research [99]. Zhou et al. investigated the interactions between multimodal PET/MRI in elder patients with MCI, AD, and healthy controls, and confirmed the invaluable application of amyloid PET and MRI in early diagnosis of AD [100]. Kim et al. reported that Aβ-weighted cortical thickness, which incorporates data from both MRI and amyloid PET imaging, is a consistent and objective imaging biomarker in AD [101].

5 Other imaging modalities

Multiphoton non-linear optical microscope imaging systems using ultrafast lasers have powerful advantages such as label-free detection, deep penetration of thick samples, high sensitivity, subcellular spatial resolution, 3D optical sectioning, chemical specificity, and minimum sample destruction [102, 103]. Coherent anti-Stokes–Raman scattering (CARS), two-photon excited fluorescence (TPEF), and second-harmonic generation (SHG) microscopy are the most widely used biomedical imaging techniques [104106].

 

Quantitative electroencephalographic and neuropsychological investigation of an alternative measure of frontal lobe executive functions: the Figure Trail Making Test

 Paul S. Foster, Valeria Drago, Brad J. Ferguson, Patti Kelly Harrison,David W. Harrison 

Brain Informatis    http://dx.doi.org:/10.1007/s40708-015-0025-z    http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40708-015-0025-z/fulltext.html

The most frequently used measures of executive functioning are either sensitive to left frontal lobe functioning or bilateral frontal functioning. Relatively little is known about right frontal lobe contributions to executive functioning given the paucity of measures sensitive to right frontal functioning. The present investigation reports the development and initial validation of a new measure designed to be sensitive to right frontal lobe functioning, the Figure Trail Making Test (FTMT). The FTMT, the classic Trial Making Test, and the Ruff Figural Fluency Test (RFFT) were administered to 42 right-handed men. The results indicated a significant relationship between the FTMT and both the TMT and the RFFT. Performance on the FTMT was also related to high beta EEG over the right frontal lobe. Thus, the FTMT appears to be an equivalent measure of executive functioning that may be sensitive to right frontal lobe functioning. Applications for use in frontotemporal dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and other patient populations are discussed.

Keywords – Frontal lobes, Executive functioning, Trail making test, Sequencing, Behavioral speed, Designs, Nonverbal, Neuropsychological assessment, Regulatory control, Effortful control

A recent survey indicated that the vast majority of neuropsychologists frequently assess executive functioning as part of their neuropsychological evaluations [1]. Surveys of neuropsychologists have indicated that the Trail Making Test (TMT), Controlled Oral Word Association Test (COWAT), Wisconsin Card Sorting Test (WCST), and the Stroop Color-Word Test (SCWT) are among the most commonly used instruments [1,2]. Further, the Rabin et al. [1] survey indicated that these same tests are among the most frequently used by neuropsychologists when specifically assessing executive or frontal lobe functioning. The frequent use of the TMT, WCST, and the SCWT, as well as the assumption that they are measures of executive functioning, led Demakis (2003–2004) to conduct a series of meta-analyses to determine the sensitivity of these test to detect frontal lobe dysfunction, particularly lateralized frontal lobe dysfunction. The findings indicated that the SCWT and Part A of the TMT [3], as well as the WCST [4], were all sensitive to frontal lobe dysfunction. However, only the SCWT differentiated between left and right frontal lobe dysfunction, with the worst performance among those with left frontal lobe dysfunction [3].

The finding of the Demakis [4] meta-analysis, that the WCST was not sensitive to lateralized frontal lobe dysfunction, is not surprising given the equivocal findings that have been reported. Whereas performance on the WCST is sensitive to frontal lobe dysfunction [5, 6], demonstration of lateralized frontal dysfunction has been quite problematic. Unilateral left or right dorsolateral frontal dysfunction has been associated with impaired performance on the WCST [6]. Fallgatter and Strik [7] found bilateral frontal lobe activation during performance of the WCST. However, other imaging studies have found right lateralized frontal lobe activation [8] and left lateralized frontal activation [9] in response to performance on the WCST. Further, left frontal lobe alpha power is negatively correlated with performance on the WCST [10]. Finally, patients with left frontal lobe tumors exhibit more impaired performance on the WCST than those with right frontal tumors [11].

Unlike the data for the WCST, more consistent findings have been reported regarding lateralized frontal lobe functioning for the other commonly used measures of executive functioning. For instance, as with the Demakis [3] study, many investigations have found the SCWT to be sensitive to left frontal lobe functioning, although the precise localization within the left frontal lobe has varied. Impaired performance on the SCWT results from left frontal lesions [12] and specifically from lesions localized to the left dorsolateral frontal lobe [13, 14], though bilateral frontal lesions have also yielded impaired performance [13, 14]. Further, studies using neuroimaging to investigate the neural basis of performance on the SCWT have indicated involvement of the left anterior cingulated cortex [15], left lateral prefrontal cortex [16], left inferior precentral sulcus [17], and the left dorsolateral frontal lobe [18].

Wide agreement exists among investigations of the frontal lateralization of verbal or lexical fluency to confrontation. Specifically, patients with left frontal lobe lesions are known to exhibit impaired performance on lexical fluency to confrontation tasks, relative to either patients with right frontal lesions [12, 19, 20] or controls [21]. A recent meta-analysis also indicated that the largest deficits in performance on measures of lexical fluency are associated with left frontal lobe lesions [22]. Troster et al. [23] found that, relative to patients with right pallidotomy, patients with left pallidotomy exhibited more impaired lexical fluency. Several neuroimaging investigations have further supported the role of the left frontal lobe in lexical fluency tasks [15, 2427]. Performance on lexical fluency tasks also varies as a function of lateral frontal lobe asymmetry, as assessed by electroencephalography [28].

The Trail Making Test is certainly among the most widely used tests [1] and perhaps the most widely researched. Various norms exist for the TMT (see [29]), with Tombaugh [30] providing the most recent comprehensive set of normative data. Different methods of analyzing and interpreting the data have also been proposed and used, including error analysis [13, 14, 3133], subtraction scores [13, 14, 34], and ratio scores [13, 14, 35].

Several different language versions of the test have been developed and reported, including Arabic [36], Chinese [37, 38], Greek [39], and Hebrew [40]. Numerous alternative versions of the TMT have been developed to address perceived shortcomings of the original TMT. For instance, the Symbol Trail Making Test [41] was developed to reduce the cultural confounds associated with the use of the Arabic numeral system and English alphabet in the original TMT. The Color Trails Test (CTT; [42]) was also developed to control for cultural confounds, although mixed results have been reported regarding whether the CTT is indeed analogous to the TMT [4345]. A version of the TMT for preschool children, the TRAILS-P, has also been reported [46].

Additionally, the Comprehensive Trail Making Test [47] was developed to control for perceived psychometric shortcomings of the original TMT (for a review see [48] and the Oral Trail Making Test (OTMT; [49]) was developed to reduce confounds associated with motor speed and visual search abilities, with research supporting the OTMT as an equivalent measure [50, 51]. Alternate forms of the TMT have also been developed to permit successive administrations [32, 52] and to assess the relative contributions of the requisite cognitive skills [53].

Delis et al. [54] stated that the continued development of new instrumentation for improving diagnosis and treatment is a critical undertaking in all health-related fields. Further, in their view, the field of neuropsychology has recognized the importance of continually striving to develop new clinical measures. Delis and colleagues developed the extensive Delis-Kaplan Executive Functioning System (D-KEFS; [55]) in the spirit of advancing the instrumentation of neuropsychology. The D-KEFS includes a Trail Making Test consisting of five separate conditions. The Number-Letter Switching condition involves a sequencing procedure similar to that of the classic TMT. The other four conditions are designed to assess the component processes involved in completing the Number-Letter Switching condition so that a precise analysis of the nature of any underlying dysfunction may be accomplished. Specifically, these additional components include Visual Scanning, Number Sequencing, Letter Sequencing, and Motor Speed.

Given that the TMT comprises numbers and letters and is a measure of executive functioning, it may preferentially involve the left frontal lobe. Although the literature is somewhat controversial, neuropsychological and neuroimaging studies seem to provide support for the sensitivity of the TMT to detect left frontal dysfunction [56]. Recent clinically oriented studies investigating frontal lobe involvement of the TMT using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) also support this localization [57]. Performance on Part B of the TMT improved following repetitive TMS applied to the left dorsolateral frontal lobe [57].

With 9–13-year-old boys performing TMT Part B, Weber et al. [58] found a left lateralized increase in the prefrontal cortex in deoxygenated hemoglobin, an indicator of increased oxygen consumption. Moll et al. [59] demonstrated increased activation specific to the prefrontal cortex, especially the left prefrontal region, in healthy controls performing Part B of the TMT. Foster et al. [60] found a significant positive correlation between performance on Part A of the TMT and low beta (13–21 Hz) magnitude (μV) at the left lateral frontal lobe, but not at the right lateral frontal lobe. Finally, Stuss et al. [13, 14] found that patients with left dorsolateral frontal dysfunction evidenced more errors than patients with lesions in other areas of the frontal lobes and those patients with left frontal lesions were the slowest to complete the test.

Taken together, the possibility exists that the aforementioned tests are largely associated with left frontal lobe activity and the TMT, in particular, provides information concerning mental processing speed as well as cognitive flexibility and set-shifting. While some studies have found that deficits in visuomotor set-shifting are specific to the frontal lobe damage [61], others investigators have reported such impairment in patients with posterior brain lesions and widespread cerebral dysfunctions, including cerebellar damage [62] and Alzheimer disease [63]. Thus, it remains unclear whether impairments in visuomotor set-shifting are specific to frontal lobe dysfunction or whether they are non-specific and can result from more posterior or widespread brain dysfunction.

Compared to the collective knowledge we have regarding the cognitive roles of the left frontal lobe, relatively little is known about right frontal lobe contributions to executive functioning. This is likely a result of the dearth of tests that are associated with right frontal activity. The Ruff Figural Fluency Test (RFFT; [64]) is among the few standardized tests of right frontal lobe functioning and was listed as the 14th most commonly used instrument to assess executive functioning in the Rabin et al. [1] survey. The RFFT is known to be sensitive to right frontal lobe functioning [65, 66]; see also [67] pp. 297–298), as is a measure based on the RFFT [19].

The present investigation, with the same intent and spirit as that reported by Delis et al. [54], sought to develop and initially validate a measure of right frontal lobe functioning in an effort to attain a greater understanding of right frontal contributions to executive functioning and to advance the instrumentation of neuropsychology. To meet this objective, a version of the Trail Making Test comprising figures, as opposed to numbers and letters, was developed. The TMT was used as a model for the new test, referred to as the Figure Trail Making Test (FTMT), due to the high frequency of use, the volume of research conducted, and the ease of administration of the TMT. Given that the TMT and the FTMT are both measuring executive functioning, we felt that a moderate correlation would exist between these two measures. Specifically, we hypothesized that performance on the FTMT would be positively correlated with performance on the TMT, in terms of the total time required to complete each part of the tests, an additive and subtractive score, and a ratio score. The total time required to complete each part of the FTMT was also hypothesized to be negatively correlated with the total number of unique designs produced on the RFFT and positively correlated with the number of perseverative errors committed on the RFFT and the perseverative error ratio. We also sought to determine whether the TMT and the FTMT were measuring different constructs by conducting a factor analysis, anticipating that the two tests would load on separate factors.

Additionally, we sought to obtain neurophysiological evidence that the FTMT is sensitive to right frontal lobe functioning. Specifically, we used quantitative electroencephalography (QEEG) to measure electrical activity over the left and right frontal lobes. A previous investigation we conducted found that performance on Part A of the TMT was related to left frontal lobe (F7) low beta magnitude [60]. For the present investigation, we predicted that significant negative correlations would exist between performance on Parts A and B of the TMT and both low and high beta magnitude at the F7 electrode site. We further predicted that significant negative correlations would exist between performance on Parts C and D of the FTMT and both low and high beta magnitude at the F8 electrode site.

3 Discussion

The need for additional measures of executive functions and especially instruments which may provide implications relevant to cerebral laterality is clear. There remains especially a void for neuropsychological instruments using a TMT format, which may provide information pertaining to the functional integrity of the right frontal region. Consistent with the hypotheses forwarded, significant correlations were found between performance on the TMT and the FTMT, in terms of the raw time required to complete each respective part of the tests as well as the additive and subtraction scores. The fact that the ratio scores were not significantly correlated is not surprising given that research has generally indicated a lack of clinical utility for this score [13, 14, 35]. Given the present findings, the TMT and the FTMT appear to be equivalent measures of executive functioning. Further, the present findings not only suggest that the FTMT may be a measure of executive functioning but also extend the realm of executive functioning to the sequencing and set-shifting of nonverbal stimuli.

However, the finding of significant correlations between the TMT and the FTMT represents somewhat of a caveat in that the TMT has been found to be sensitive to left frontal lobe functioning [13, 14, 57, 59]. This would seem to suggest the possibility that the FTMT is also sensitive to left frontal lobe functioning. The possibility that FTMT is related to left frontal lobe functioning is tempered, though, by the fact that the many of the hypothesized correlations between performance on the RFFT and the FTMT were also significant. Performance on the RFFT is related to right frontal lobe functioning [65,66]. Thus, the significant correlations between the RFFT and the FTMT suggest that the FTMT may also be sensitive to right frontal lobe functioning. Additionally, it should also be noted that the TMT was not significantly correlated with performance on the RFFT, with the exception of the significant correlation between performance on the TMT Part A and the total number of unique designs produced on the RFFT. Taken together, the results suggest that the FTMT may be a measure of right frontal executive functioning.

Additional support for the sensitivity of the FTMT to right frontal lobe functioning is provided by the finding of a significant negative correlation between performance on Part D of the FTMT and high beta magnitude. We have previously used QEEG to provide neurophysiological validation of the RFFT [65] and the Rey Auditory Verbal Learning Test [70] and the present findings provide further support for the use of QEEG in validating neuropsychological tests. The lack of significant correlations between the TMT and either low or high beta magnitude may be related to a restricted range of scores on the TMT. As a whole, performance on the FTMT was more variable than performance on the TMT and this relatively restricted range for the TMT may have impacted the obtained correlations. Given the present findings, together with those of the Foster et al. [65, 70] investigations, further support is also provided for the use of EEG in establishing neurophysiological validation for neuropsychological tests.

The results from the factor analysis provide support for the contention that the FMT may be a measure of right frontal lobe activity and also provide initial discriminant validity for the FTMT. Specifically, Parts C and D of the FTMT were found to load on the same factor as the number of designs generated on the RFFT, although the time required to complete Part A of the TMT is also included. Additionally, the number of errors committed on Parts C and D of the FTMT comprises a single factor, separate from either the TMT or the RFFT. Although these results support the FTMT as a measure of nonverbal executive functioning, it would be helpful to conduct an additional factor analysis including additional measures of right frontal functioning, and perhaps other measures of right hemisphere functioning as marker variables.

We sought to develop a measure sensitive to right frontal lobe functioning due to the paucity of such tests and the potentially important uses that right frontal lobe tests may have clinically. Tests of right frontal lobe functioning may, for instance, be useful in identifying and distinguishing left versus right frontotemporal dementia (FTD). Research has indicated that FTD is associated with cerebral atrophy at the right dorsolateral frontal and left premotor cortices [71]. Fukui and Kertesz [72] found right frontal lobe volume reduction in FTD relative to Alzheimer’s disease and progressive nonfluent aphasia. Some have suggested that FTD should not be considered as a unitary disorder and that neuropsychological testing may aid in differentially diagnosing left versus right FTD [73].

Whereas right FTD has been associated with more errors and perseverative responses on the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test (WCST), left FTD has been associated with significantly worse performance on the Boston Naming Test (BNT) and the Stroop Color-Word test [73]. Razani et al. [74] also distinguished between left and right FTD in finding that left FTD performed worse on the BNT and the right FTD patients performed worse on the WCST. However, as noted earlier, the WCST has been associated with left frontal activity [9], right frontal activation [8], and bilateral frontal activation [7]. Further, patients with left frontal tumors perform worse than those with right frontal tumors [11].

Patients with FTD that predominantly involves the right frontotemporal region have behavioral and emotional abnormalities and those with predominantly left frontotemporal region damage have a loss of lexical semantic knowledge. Patients, in whom neural degeneration begins on the left side, often present to the clinicians at an early stage of the disease due to the presence of language abnormalities, but maintain their emotion processing abilities, being preserved the right anterior temporal lobe. However, as this disease advances, the disease may progress to the right frontotemporal regions. Tests sensitive to right frontal lobe functioning may be useful tools to identify in advance the course of the disease, providing immediate and specific treatments and informing the caregivers on the possible prospective frame of the disease.

A potentially more important use of tests sensitive to right frontal lobe functioning, though, may be in predicting dementia patients that will develop significant and disruptive behavioral deficits. Research has found that approximately 92 % of right-sided FTD patients exhibit socially undesirable behaviors as their initial symptom, as compared to only 11 % of left-sided FTD patients [75]. Behavioral deficits in FTD are associated with gray matter loss at the dorsomedial frontal region, particularly on the right [76].

Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is also often associated with significant behavioral disturbances. Even AD patients with mild dementia are noted to exhibit behavioral deficits such as delusions, hallucinations, agitation, dysphoria, anxiety, apathy, and irritability [77]. Indeed, Shimabukuro et al. [77] found that regardless of dementia severity, over half of all AD patients exhibited apathy, delusions, irritability, dysphoria, and anxiety. Delusions in AD patients are associated with relative right frontal hypoperfusion as indicated by SPECT imaging [78, 79]. Further, positron emission tomography (PET) has indicated that AD patients exhibiting delusions exhibit hypometabolism at the right superior dorsolateral frontal and right inferior frontal pole [80].

Although research clearly implicates right frontal lobe dysfunction in the expression of behavioral deficits, data from neuropsychological testing are not as clear. Negative symptoms in patients with AD and FTD have been related to measures of nonverbal and verbal executive functioning as well as verbal memory [81]. Positive symptoms, in contrast, were related to constructional skills and attention. However, Staff et al. [78] failed to dissociate patients with delusions from those without delusions based on neuropsychological test performance, despite significant differences existing in right frontal and limbic functioning as revealed by functional imaging. The inclusion of other measures of right frontal lobe functioning may result in improved neuropsychological differentiation of dementia patients with and without significant behavioral disturbances. Further, it may be possible to predict early in the disease process those patients that will ultimately develop behavioral disturbances with improved measures of right frontal functioning. Predicting those that may develop behavioral problems will permit earlier treatment and will provide the family with more time to prepare for the potential emergence of such difficulties. Certainly, future research needs to be conducted that incorporates measures of right and left frontal lobe functioning in regression analyses to determine the plausibility of such prediction.

Tests sensitive to right frontal lobe functioning may also be useful in identifying more subtle right frontal lobe dysfunction and the cognitive and behavioral changes that follow. The right frontal lobe mediates language melody or prosody and forms a cohesive discourse, interprets abstract communication in spoken and written languages, and interprets the inferred relationships involved in communications. Subtle difficulties in interpreting abstract meaning in communication, comprehending metaphors, and even understanding jokes that are often seen in right frontal lobe stroke patients may not be detected by the family and may also be under diagnosed by clinicians [82]. Further, patients with right frontal lobe lesions are generally more euphoric and unconcerned, often minimizing their symptoms [82] or denying the illness, which may delay referral to a clinician and diagnosis.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurological disease characterized by motor inhibition deficit, problems with cognitive flexibility, social disruption, and emotional disinhibition [83, 84]. Functional MRI studies reveal reduced right prefrontal activation during “frontal tasks,” such as go/no go [85], Stroop [86], and attention task performance [87]. The right frontal lobe deficit hypothesis is further supported by structural studies [88, 89]. Tests of right frontal lobe functioning may be useful in further characterizing the nature of this deficit and in specifying the likely hemispheric locus of dysfunction.

To summarize, we feel that right frontal lobe functioning has been relatively neglected in neuropsychological assessment and that many uses for such tests exist. Our intent was to develop a test purportedly sensitive to right frontal functioning that would be easy and quick to administer in a clinical setting. However, we are certainly not meaning to assert that our FTMT would be applicable in all the aforementioned conditions. Additional research should be conducted to determine the precise clinical utility of the FTMT.

Further validation of the FTMT should also be undertaken. Establishing convergent validation may involve correlating tests measuring the same domain, such as executive functioning. This was initially accomplished in the present investigation through the significant correlations between the TMT and the FTMT. Additionally, convergent validation may also involve correlating tests that purportedly measure the same region of the brain. This was also initially accomplished in the present investigation through the significant correlations between the FTMT and the RFFT. However, additional convergent validation certainly needs to be obtained, as well as validation using patient populations and neurophysiological validation.

We are currently collecting data that hopefully will provide neurophysiological validation of the FTMT. Certainly, though, it is hoped that the present investigation will not only stimulate further research seeking to validate the FTMT and provide more comprehensive normative data, but also stimulate research investigating whether the FTMT or other measures of right frontal lobe functioning may be used to predict patients that will develop behavioral disturbances.

 

World’s Greatest Literature Reveals Multifractals, Cascades of Consciousness

http://www.scientificcomputing.com/news/2016/01/worlds-greatest-literature-reveals-multifractals-cascades-consciousness

http://www.scientificcomputing.com/sites/scientificcomputing.com/files/Worlds_Greatest_Literature_Reveals_Multifractals_Cascades_of_Consciousness_440.jpg

Multifractal analysis of Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce. The ideal shape of the graph is virtually indistinguishable from the results for purely mathematical multifractals. The horizontal axis represents the degree of singularity, and the vertical axis shows the spectrum of singularity. Courtesy of IFJ PAN

Arthur Conan Doyle, Charles Dickens, James Joyce, William Shakespeare and JRR Tolkien. Regardless of the language they were working in, some of the world’s greatest writers appear to be, in some respects, constructing fractals. Statistical analysis, however, revealed something even more intriguing. The composition of works from within a particular genre was characterized by the exceptional dynamics of a cascading (avalanche) narrative structure. This type of narrative turns out to be multifractal. That is, fractals of fractals are created.

As far as many bookworms are concerned, advanced equations and graphs are the last things which would hold their interest, but there’s no escape from the math. Physicists from the Institute of Nuclear Physics of the Polish Academy of Sciences (IFJ) in Cracow, Poland, performed a detailed statistical analysis of more than one hundred famous works of world literature, written in several languages and representing various literary genres. The books, tested for revealing correlations in variations of sentence length, proved to be governed by the dynamics of a cascade. This means that the construction of these books is, in fact, a fractal. In the case of several works, their mathematical complexity proved to be exceptional, comparable to the structure of complex mathematical objects considered to be multifractal. Interestingly, in the analyzed pool of all the works, one genre turned out to be exceptionally multifractal in nature.

Fractals are self-similar mathematical objects: when we begin to expand one fragment or another, what eventually emerges is a structure that resembles the original object. Typical fractals, especially those widely known as the Sierpinski triangle and the Mandelbrot set, are monofractals, meaning that the pace of enlargement in any place of a fractal is the same, linear: if they at some point were rescaled x number of times to reveal a structure similar to the original, the same increase in another place would also reveal a similar structure.

Multifractals are more highly advanced mathematical structures: fractals of fractals. They arise from fractals ‘interwoven’ with each other in an appropriate manner and in appropriate proportions. Multifractals are not simply the sum of fractals and cannot be divided to return back to their original components, because the way they weave is fractal in nature. The result is that, in order to see a structure similar to the original, different portions of a multifractal need to expand at different rates. A multifractal is, therefore, non-linear in nature.

“Analyses on multiple scales, carried out using fractals, allow us to neatly grasp information on correlations among data at various levels of complexity of tested systems. As a result, they point to the hierarchical organization of phenomena and structures found in nature. So, we can expect natural language, which represents a major evolutionary leap of the natural world, to show such correlations as well. Their existence in literary works, however, had not yet been convincingly documented. Meanwhile, it turned out that, when you look at these works from the proper perspective, these correlations appear to be not only common, but in some works they take on a particularly sophisticated mathematical complexity,” says Professor Stanislaw Drozdz, IFJ PAN, Cracow University of Technology.

The study involved 113 literary works written in English, French, German, Italian, Polish, Russian and Spanish by such famous figures as Honore de Balzac, Arthur Conan Doyle, Julio Cortazar, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Alexandre Dumas, Umberto Eco, George Elliot, Victor Hugo, James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust, Wladyslaw Reymont, William Shakespeare, Henryk Sienkiewicz, JRR Tolkien, Leo Tolstoy and Virginia Woolf, among others. The selected works were no less than 5,000 sentences long, in order to ensure statistical reliability.

To convert the texts to numerical sequences, sentence length was measured by the number of words (an alternative method of counting characters in the sentence turned out to have no major impact on the conclusions). The dependences were then searched for in the data — beginning with the simplest, i.e. linear. This is the posited question: if a sentence of a given length is x times longer than the sentences of different lengths, is the same aspect ratio preserved when looking at sentences respectively longer or shorter?

“All of the examined works showed self-similarity in terms of organization of the lengths of sentences. Some were more expressive — here The Ambassadors by Henry James stood out — while others to far less of an extreme, as in the case of the French seventeenth-century romance Artamene ou le Grand Cyrus. However, correlations were evident and, therefore, these texts were the construction of a fractal,” comments Dr. Pawel Oswiecimka (IFJ PAN), who also noted that fractality of a literary text will, in practice, never be as perfect as in the world of mathematics. It is possible to magnify mathematical fractals up to infinity, while the number of sentences in each book is finite and, at a certain stage of scaling, there will always be a cut-off in the form of the end of the dataset.

Things took a particularly interesting turn when physicists from IFJ PAN began tracking non-linear dependence, which in most of the studied works was present to a slight or moderate degree. However, more than a dozen works revealed a very clear multifractal structure, and almost all of these proved to be representative of one genre, that of stream of consciousness. The only exception was the Bible, specifically the Old Testament, which has, so far, never been associated with this literary genre.

“The absolute record in terms of multifractality turned out to be Finnegan’s Wakeby James Joyce. The results of our analysis of this text are virtually indistinguishable from ideal, purely mathematical multifractals,” says Drozdz.

The most multifractal works also included A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers, Rayuela by Julio Cortazar, The US Trilogy by John Dos Passos, The Waves by Virginia Woolf, 2666 by Roberto Bolano, and Joyce’sUlysses. At the same time, a lot of works usually regarded as stream of consciousness turned out to show little correlation to multifractality, as it was hardly noticeable in books such as Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand and A la recherche du temps perdu by Marcel Proust.

“It is not entirely clear whether stream of consciousness writing actually reveals the deeper qualities of our consciousness, or rather the imagination of the writers. It is hardly surprising that ascribing a work to a particular genre is, for whatever reason, sometimes subjective. We see, moreover, the possibility of an interesting application of our methodology: it may someday help in a more objective assignment of books to one genre or another,” notes Drozdz.

Multifractal analyses of literary texts carried out by the IFJ PAN have been published in Information Sciences, the journal of computer science. The publication has undergone rigorous verification: given the interdisciplinary nature of the subject, editors immediately appointed up to six reviewers.

Citation: “Quantifying origin and character of long-range correlations in narrative texts” S. Drożdż, P. Oświęcimka, A. Kulig, J. Kwapień, K. Bazarnik, I. Grabska-Gradzińska, J. Rybicki, M. Stanuszek; Information Sciences, vol. 331, 32–44, 20 February 2016; DOI: 10.1016/j.ins.2015.10.023

 

New Quantum Approach to Big Data could make Impossibly Complex Problems Solvable

David L. Chandler, MIT

http://www.scientificcomputing.com/news/2016/01/new-quantum-approach-big-data-could-make-impossibly-complex-problems-solvable

 

http://www.scientificcomputing.com/sites/scientificcomputing.com/files/New_Quantum_Approach_to_Big_Data_could_make_Impossibly_Complex_Problems_Solvable_440.jpg

This diagram demonstrates the simplified results that can be obtained by using quantum analysis on enormous, complex sets of data. Shown here are the connections between different regions of the brain in a control subject (left) and a subject under the influence of the psychedelic compound psilocybin (right). This demonstrates a dramatic increase in connectivity, which explains some of the drug’s effects (such as “hearing” colors or “seeing” smells). Such an analysis, involving billions of brain cells, would be too complex for conventional techniques, but could be handled easily by the new quantum approach, the researchers say. Courtesy of the researchers

From gene mapping to space exploration, humanity continues to generate ever-larger sets of data — far more information than people can actually process, manage or understand.

Machine learning systems can help researchers deal with this ever-growing flood of information. Some of the most powerful of these analytical tools are based on a strange branch of geometry called topology, which deals with properties that stay the same even when something is bent and stretched every which way.

Such topological systems are especially useful for analyzing the connections in complex networks, such as the internal wiring of the brain, the U.S. power grid, or the global interconnections of the Internet. But even with the most powerful modern supercomputers, such problems remain daunting and impractical to solve. Now, a new approach that would use quantum computers to streamline these problems has been developed by researchers at MIT, the University of Waterloo, and the University of Southern California.

The team describes their theoretical proposal this week in the journal Nature Communications. Seth Lloyd, the paper’s lead author and the Nam P. Suh Professor of Mechanical Engineering, explains that algebraic topology is key to the new method. This approach, he says, helps to reduce the impact of the inevitable distortions that arise every time someone collects data about the real world.

In a topological description, basic features of the data (How many holes does it have? How are the different parts connected?) are considered the same no matter how much they are stretched, compressed, or distorted. Lloyd explains that it is often these fundamental topological attributes “that are important in trying to reconstruct the underlying patterns in the real world that the data are supposed to represent.”

It doesn’t matter what kind of dataset is being analyzed, he says. The topological approach to looking for connections and holes “works whether it’s an actual physical hole, or the data represents a logical argument and there’s a hole in the argument. This will find both kinds of holes.”

Using conventional computers, that approach is too demanding for all but the simplest situations. Topological analysis “represents a crucial way of getting at the significant features of the data, but it’s computationally very expensive,” Lloyd says. “This is where quantum mechanics kicks in.” The new quantum-based approach, he says, could exponentially speed up such calculations.

Lloyd offers an example to illustrate that potential speedup: If you have a dataset with 300 points, a conventional approach to analyzing all the topological features in that system would require “a computer the size of the universe,” he says. That is, it would take 2300 (two to the 300th power) processing units — approximately the number of all the particles in the universe. In other words, the problem is simply not solvable in that way.

“That’s where our algorithm kicks in,” he says. Solving the same problem with the new system, using a quantum computer, would require just 300 quantum bits — and a device this size may be achieved in the next few years, according to Lloyd.

“Our algorithm shows that you don’t need a big quantum computer to kick some serious topological butt,” he says.

There are many important kinds of huge datasets where the quantum-topological approach could be useful, Lloyd says, for example understanding interconnections in the brain. “By applying topological analysis to datasets gleaned by electroencephalography or functional MRI, you can reveal the complex connectivity and topology of the sequences of firing neurons that underlie our thought processes,” he says.

The same approach could be used for analyzing many other kinds of information. “You could apply it to the world’s economy, or to social networks, or almost any system that involves long-range transport of goods or information,” Lloyd says. But the limits of classical computation have prevented such approaches from being applied before.

While this work is theoretical, “experimentalists have already contacted us about trying prototypes,” he says. “You could find the topology of simple structures on a very simple quantum computer. People are trying proof-of-concept experiments.”

Ignacio Cirac, a professor at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Munich, Germany, who was not involved in this research, calls it “a very original idea, and I think that it has a great potential.” He adds “I guess that it has to be further developed and adapted to particular problems. In any case, I think that this is top-quality research.”

The team also included Silvano Garnerone of the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, and Paolo Zanardi of the Center for Quantum Information Science and Technology at the University of Southern California. The work was supported by the Army Research Office, Air Force Office of Scientific Research, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative of the Office of Naval Research, and the National Science Foundation.

 

Beyond Chess: Computer Beats Human in Ancient Chinese Game

http://www.rdmag.com/news/2016/01/beyond-chess-computer-beats-human-ancient-chinese-game

http://www.rdmag.com/sites/rdmag.com/files/rd1601_chess.jpg

A player places a black stone while his opponent waits to place a white one as they play Go, a game of strategy, in the Seattle Go Center, Tuesday, April 30, 2002. The game, which originated in China more than 2,500 years ago, involves two players who take turns putting markers on a grid. The object is to surround more area on the board with the markers than one’s opponent, as well as capturing the opponent’s pieces by surrounding them. A paper released Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016 describes how a computer program has beaten a human master at the complex board game, marking significant advance for development of artificial intelligence. (AP Photo/Cheryl Hatch)

 

A computer program has beaten a human champion at the ancient Chinese board game Go, marking a significant advance for development of artificial intelligence.

The program had taught itself how to win, and its developers say its learning strategy may someday let computers help solve real-world problems like making medical diagnoses and pursuing scientific research.

The program and its victory are described in a paper released Wednesday by the journal Nature.

Computers previously have surpassed humans for other games, including chess, checkers and backgammon. But among classic games, Go has long been viewed as the most challenging for artificial intelligence to master.

Go, which originated in China more than 2,500 years ago, involves two players who take turns putting markers on a checkerboard-like grid. The object is to surround more area on the board with the markers than one’s opponent, as well as capturing the opponent’s pieces by surrounding them.

While the rules are simple, playing it well is not. It’s “probably the most complex game ever devised by humans,” Dennis Hassabis of Google DeepMind in London, one of the study authors, told reporters Tuesday.

The new program, AlphaGo, defeated the European champion in all five games of a match in October, the Nature paper reports.

In March, AlphaGo will face legendary player Lee Sedol in Seoul, South Korea, for a $1 million prize, Hassabis said.

Martin Mueller, a computing science professor at the University of Alberta in Canada who has worked on Go programs for 30 years but didn’t participate in AlphaGo, said the new program “is really a big step up from everything else we’ve seen…. It’s a very, very impressive piece of work.”

 

 

Biological Origin of Schizophrenia

Excessive ‘pruning’ of connections between neurons in brain predisposes to disease

http://hms.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/uploads/news/McCarroll_C4_600x400.jpg

Imaging studies showed C4 (in green) located at the synapses of primary human neurons. Image: Heather de Rivera, McCarroll lab

 PAUL GOLDSMITH    http://hms.harvard.edu/news/biological-origin-schizophrenia

The risk of schizophrenia increases if a person inherits specific variants in a gene related to “synaptic pruning”—the elimination of connections between neurons—according to a study from Harvard Medical School, the Broad Institute and Boston Children’s Hospital. The findings were based on genetic analysis of nearly 65,000 people.

The study represents the first time that the origin of this psychiatric disease has been causally linked to specific gene variants and a biological process.

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It also helps explain two decades-old observations: synaptic pruning is particularly active during adolescence, which is the typical period of onset for symptoms of schizophrenia, and the brains of schizophrenic patients tend to show fewer connections between neurons.

The gene, complement component 4 (C4), plays a well-known role in the immune system. It has now been shown to also play a key role in brain development and schizophrenia risk. The insight may allow future therapeutic strategies to be directed at the disorder’s roots, rather than just its symptoms.

The study, which appears online Jan. 27 in Nature, was led by HMS researchers at the Broad Institute’s Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research and Boston Children’s. They include senior author Steven McCarroll, HMS associate professor of genetics and director of genetics for the Stanley Center; Beth Stevens, HMS assistant professor of neurology at Boston Children’s and institute member at the Broad; Michael Carroll, HMS professor of pediatrics at Boston Children’s; and first author Aswin Sekar, an MD-PhD student at HMS.

The study has the potential to reinvigorate translational research on a debilitating disease. Schizophrenia afflicts approximately 1 percent people worldwide and is characterized by hallucinations, emotional withdrawal and a decline in cognitive function. These symptoms most frequently begin in patients when they are teenagers or young adults.

“These results show that it is possible to go from genetic data to a new way of thinking about how a disease develops—something that has been greatly needed.”

First described more than 130 years ago, schizophrenia lacks highly effective treatments and has seen few biological or medical breakthroughs over the past half-century.

In the summer of 2014, an international consortium led by researchers at the Stanley Center identified more than 100 regions in the human genome that carry risk factors for schizophrenia.

The newly published study now reports the discovery of the specific gene underlying the strongest of these risk factors and links it to a specific biological process in the brain.

“Since schizophrenia was first described over a century ago, its underlying biology has been a black box, in part because it has been virtually impossible to model the disorder in cells or animals,” said McCarroll. “The human genome is providing a powerful new way in to this disease. Understanding these genetic effects on risk is a way of prying open that black box, peering inside and starting to see actual biological mechanisms.”

“This study marks a crucial turning point in the fight against mental illness,” said Bruce Cuthbert, acting director of the National Institute of Mental Health. “Because the molecular origins of psychiatric diseases are little-understood, efforts by pharmaceutical companies to pursue new therapeutics are few and far between. This study changes the game. Thanks to this genetic breakthrough we can finally see the potential for clinical tests, early detection, new treatments and even prevention.”

The path to discovery

The discovery involved the collection of DNA from more than 100,000 people, detailed analysis of complex genetic variation in more than 65,000 human genomes, development of an innovative analytical strategy, examination of postmortem brain samples from hundreds of people and the use of animal models to show that a protein from the immune system also plays a previously unsuspected role in the brain.

Over the past five years, Stanley Center geneticists and collaborators around the world collected more than 100,000 human DNA samples from 30 different countries to locate regions of the human genome harboring genetic variants that increase the risk of schizophrenia. The strongest signal by far was on chromosome 6, in a region of DNA long associated with infectious disease. This caused some observers to suggest that schizophrenia might be triggered by an infectious agent. But researchers had no idea which of the hundreds of genes in the region was actually responsible or how it acted.

Based on analyses of the genetic data, McCarroll and Sekar focused on a region containing the C4 gene. Unlike most genes, C4 has a high degree of structural variability. Different people have different numbers of copies and different types of the gene.

McCarroll and Sekar developed a new molecular technique to characterize the C4 gene structure in human DNA samples. They also measured C4 gene activity in nearly 700 post-mortem brain samples.

They found that the C4 gene structure (DNA) could predict the C4 gene activity (RNA) in each person’s brain. They then used this information to infer C4 gene activity from genome data from 65,000 people with and without schizophrenia.

These data revealed a striking correlation. People who had particular structural forms of the C4 gene showed higher expression of that gene and, in turn, had a higher risk of developing schizophrenia.

Connecting cause and effect through neuroscience

But how exactly does C4—a protein known to mark infectious microbes for destruction by immune cells—affect the risk of schizophrenia?

Answering this question required synthesizing genetics and neurobiology.

Stevens, a recent recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” had found that other complement proteins in the immune system also played a role in brain development. These results came from studying an experimental model of synaptic pruning in the mouse visual system.

“This discovery enriches our understanding of the complement system in brain development and in disease, and we could not have made that leap without the genetics.”

Carroll had long studied C4 for its role in immune disease, and developed mice with different numbers of copies of C4.

The three labs set out to study the role of C4 in the brain.

They found that C4 played a key role in pruning synapses during maturation of the brain. In particular, they found that C4 was necessary for another protein—a complement component called C3—to be deposited onto synapses as a signal that the synapses should be pruned. The data also suggested that the more C4 activity an animal had, the more synapses were eliminated in its brain at a key time in development.

The findings may help explain the longstanding mystery of why the brains of people with schizophrenia tend to have a thinner cerebral cortex (the brain’s outer layer, responsible for many aspects of cognition) with fewer synapses than do brains of unaffected individuals. The work may also help explain why the onset of schizophrenia symptoms tends to occur in late adolescence.

The human brain normally undergoes widespread synapse pruning during adolescence, especially in the cerebral cortex. Excessive synaptic pruning during adolescence and early adulthood, due to increased complement (C4) activity, could lead to the cognitive symptoms seen in schizophrenia.

“Once we had the genetic findings in front of us we started thinking about the possibility that complement molecules are excessively tagging synapses in the developing brain,” Stevens said.

“This discovery enriches our understanding of the complement system in brain development and in disease, and we could not have made that leap without the genetics,” she said. “We’re far from having a treatment based on this, but it’s exciting to think that one day we might be able to turn down the pruning process in some individuals and decrease their risk.”

Opening a path toward early detection and potential therapies

Beyond providing the first insights into the biological origins of schizophrenia, the work raises the possibility that therapies might someday be developed that could turn down the level of synaptic pruning in people who show early symptoms of schizophrenia.

This would be a dramatically different approach from current medical therapies, which address only a specific symptom of schizophrenia—psychosis—rather than the disorder’s root causes, and which do not stop cognitive decline or other symptoms of the illness.

The researchers emphasize that therapies based on these findings are still years down the road. Still, the fact that much is already known about the role of complement proteins in the immune system means that researchers can tap into a wealth of existing knowledge to identify possible therapeutic approaches. For example, anticomplement drugs are already under development for treating other diseases.

“In this area of science, our dream has been to find disease mechanisms that lead to new kinds of treatments,” said McCarroll. “These results show that it is possible to go from genetic data to a new way of thinking about how a disease develops—something that has been greatly needed.”

This work was supported by the Broad Institute’s Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research and by the National Institutes of Health (grants U01MH105641, R01MH077139 and T32GM007753).

Adapted from a Broad Institute news release.

 

Scientists open the ‘black box’ of schizophrenia with dramatic genetic discovery

Amy Ellis Nutt    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2016/01/27/scientists-open-the-black-box-of-schizophrenia-with-dramatic-genetic-finding/

 

Scientists Prune Away Schizophrenia’s Hidden Genetic Mechanisms

http://www.genengnews.com/gen-news-highlights/scientists-prune-away-schizophrenia-s-hidden-genetic-mechanisms/81252297/

https://youtu.be/s0y4equOTLg

A landmark study has revealed that a person’s risk of schizophrenia is increased if they inherit specific variants in a gene related to “synaptic pruning”—the elimination of connections between neurons. The findings represent the first time that the origin of this devastating psychiatric disease has been causally linked to specific gene variants and a biological process.

http://www.genengnews.com/Media/images/GENHighlight/thumb_107629_web2209513618.jpg

The site in Chromosome 6 harboring the gene C4 towers far above other risk-associated areas on schizophrenia’s genomic “skyline,” marking its strongest known genetic influence. The new study is the first to explain how specific gene versions work biologically to confer schizophrenia risk. [Psychiatric Genomics Consortium]

  • A new study by researchers at the Broad Institute’s Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research, Harvard Medical School, and Boston Children’s Hospital genetically analyzed nearly 65,000 people and revealed that an individual’s risk of schizophrenia is increased if they inherited distinct variants in a gene related to “synaptic pruning”—the elimination of connections between neurons. This new data represents the first time that the origin of this psychiatric disease has been causally linked to particular gene variants and a biological process.

The investigators discovered that versions of a gene commonly thought to be involved in immune function might trigger a runaway pruning of an adolescent brain’s still-maturing communications infrastructure. The researchers described a scenario where patients with schizophrenia show fewer such connections between neurons or synapses.

“Normally, pruning gets rid of excess connections we no longer need, streamlining our brain for optimal performance, but too much pruning can impair mental function,” explained Thomas Lehner, Ph.D., director of the Office of Genomics Research Coordination at the NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), which co-funded the study along with the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute and other NIH components. “It could help explain schizophrenia’s delayed age-of-onset of symptoms in late adolescence and early adulthood and shrinkage of the brain’s working tissue. Interventions that put the brakes on this pruning process-gone-awry could prove transformative.”

The gene the research team called into question, dubbed C4 (complement component 4), was associated with the largest risk for the disorder. C4’s role represents some of the most compelling evidence, to date, linking specific gene versions to a biological process that could cause at least some cases of the illness.

The findings from this study were published recently in Nature through an article entitled “Schizophrenia risk from complex variation of complement component 4.”

“Since schizophrenia was first described over a century ago, its underlying biology has been a black box, in part because it has been virtually impossible to model the disorder in cells or animals,” noted senior study author Steven McCarroll, Ph.D., director of genetics for the Stanley Center and an associate professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School. “The human genome is providing a powerful new way into this disease. Understanding these genetic effects on risk is a way of prying open that block box, peering inside and starting to see actual biological mechanisms.”

Dr. McCarroll and his colleagues found that a stretch of chromosome 6 encompassing several genes known to be involved in immune function emerged as the strongest signal associated with schizophrenia risk in genome-wide analyses. Yet conventional genetics failed to turn up any specific gene versions there that were linked to schizophrenia.

In order to uncover how the immune-related site confers risk for the mental disorder, the scientists mounted a search for cryptic genetic influences that might generate unconventional signals. C4, a gene with known roles in immunity, emerged as a prime suspect because it is unusually variable across individuals.

Upon further investigation into the complexities of how such structural variation relates to the gene’s level of expression and how that, in turn, might link to schizophrenia, the team discovered structurally distinct versions that affect expression of two main forms of the gene within the brain. The more a version resulted in expression of one of the forms, called C4A, the more it was associated with schizophrenia. The greater number of copies an individual had of the suspect versions, the more C4 switched on and the higher their risk of developing schizophrenia. Furthermore, the C4 protein turned out to be most prevalent within the cellular machinery that supports connections between neurons.

“Once we had the genetic findings in front of us we started thinking about the possibility that complement molecules are excessively tagging synapses in the developing brain,” remarked co-author Beth Stevens, Ph.D. a neuroscientist and assistant professor of neurology at Boston Children’s Hospital and institute member at the Broad. “This discovery enriches our understanding of the complement system in brain development and disease, and we could not have made that leap without the genetics. We’re far from having a treatment based on this, but it’s exciting to think that one day we might be able to turn down the pruning process in some individuals and decrease their risk.”

“This study marks a crucial turning point in the fight against mental illness. It changes the game,” added acting NIMH director Bruce Cuthbert, Ph.D. “Because the molecular origins of psychiatric diseases are little-understood, efforts by pharmaceutical companies to pursue new therapeutics are few and far between. This study changes the game. Thanks to this genetic breakthrough, we can finally see the potential for clinical tests, early detection, new treatments, and even prevention.”

 

Connecting cause and effect through neuroscience

But how exactly does C4—a protein known to mark infectious microbes for destruction by immune cells—affect the risk of schizophrenia?

Answering this question required synthesizing genetics and neurobiology.

Stevens, a recent recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” had found that other complement proteins in the immune system also played a role in brain development. These results came from studying an experimental model of synaptic pruning in the mouse visual system.

“This discovery enriches our understanding of the complement system in brain development and in disease, and we could not have made that leap without the genetics.”

Carroll had long studied C4 for its role in immune disease, and developed mice with different numbers of copies of C4.

The three labs set out to study the role of C4 in the brain.

They found that C4 played a key role in pruning synapses during maturation of the brain. In particular, they found that C4 was necessary for another protein—a complement component called C3—to be deposited onto synapses as a signal that the synapses should be pruned. The data also suggested that the more C4 activity an animal had, the more synapses were eliminated in its brain at a key time in development.

The findings may help explain the longstanding mystery of why the brains of people with schizophrenia tend to have a thinner cerebral cortex (the brain’s outer layer, responsible for many aspects of cognition) with fewer synapses than do brains of unaffected individuals. The work may also help explain why the onset of schizophrenia symptoms tends to occur in late adolescence.

The human brain normally undergoes widespread synapse pruning during adolescence, especially in the cerebral cortex. Excessive synaptic pruning during adolescence and early adulthood, due to increased complement (C4) activity, could lead to the cognitive symptoms seen in schizophrenia.

“Once we had the genetic findings in front of us we started thinking about the possibility that complement molecules are excessively tagging synapses in the developing brain,” Stevens said.

“This discovery enriches our understanding of the complement system in brain development and in disease, and we could not have made that leap without the genetics,” she said. “We’re far from having a treatment based on this, but it’s exciting to think that one day we might be able to turn down the pruning process in some individuals and decrease their risk.”

Opening a path toward early detection and potential therapies

Beyond providing the first insights into the biological origins of schizophrenia, the work raises the possibility that therapies might someday be developed that could turn down the level of synaptic pruning in people who show early symptoms of schizophrenia.

This would be a dramatically different approach from current medical therapies, which address only a specific symptom of schizophrenia—psychosis—rather than the disorder’s root causes, and which do not stop cognitive decline or other symptoms of the illness.

The researchers emphasize that therapies based on these findings are still years down the road. Still, the fact that much is already known about the role of complement proteins in the immune system means that researchers can tap into a wealth of existing knowledge to identify possible therapeutic approaches. For example, anticomplement drugs are already under development for treating other diseases.

“In this area of science, our dream has been to find disease mechanisms that lead to new kinds of treatments,” said McCarroll. “These results show that it is possible to go from genetic data to a new way of thinking about how a disease develops—something that has been greatly needed.”

This work was supported by the Broad Institute’s Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research and by the National Institutes of Health (grants U01MH105641, R01MH077139 and T32GM007753).

Adapted from a Broad Institute news release.

 

 

https://img.washingtonpost.com/wp-apps/imrs.php?src=https://img.washingtonpost.com/rf/image_908w/2010-2019/WashingtonPost/2011/09/27/Production/Sunday/SunBiz/Images/mental2b.jpg&w=1484

This post has been updated.

For the first time, scientists have pinned down a molecular process in the brain that helps to trigger schizophrenia. The researchers involved in the landmark study, which was published Wednesday in the journal Nature, say the discovery of this new genetic pathway probably reveals what goes wrong neurologically in a young person diagnosed with the devastating disorder.

The study marks a watershed moment, with the potential for early detection and new treatments that were unthinkable just a year ago, according to Steven Hyman, director of the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute at MIT. Hyman, a former director of the National Institute of Mental Health, calls it “the most significant mechanistic study about schizophrenia ever.”

“I’m a crusty, old, curmudgeonly skeptic,” he said. “But I’m almost giddy about these findings.”

The researchers, chiefly from the Broad Institute, Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital, found that a person’s risk of schizophrenia is dramatically increased if they inherit variants of a gene important to “synaptic pruning” — the healthy reduction during adolescence of brain cell connections that are no longer needed.

[Schizophrenic patients have different oral bacteria than non-mentally ill individuals]

In patients with schizophrenia, a variation in a single position in the DNA sequence marks too many synapses for removal and that pruning goes out of control. The result is an abnormal loss of gray matter.

The genes involved coat the neurons with “eat-me signals,” said study co-author Beth Stevens, a neuroscientist at Children’s Hospital and Broad. “They are tagging too many synapses. And they’re gobbled up.

The Institute’s founding director, Eric Lander, believes the research represents an astonishing breakthrough. “It’s taking what has been a black box…and letting us peek inside for the first time. And that is amazingly consequential,” he said.

The timeline for this discovery has been relatively fast. In July 2014, Broad researchers published the results of the largest genomic study on the disorder and found more than 100 genetic locations linked to schizophrenia. Based on that research, Harvard and Broad geneticist Steven McCarroll analyzed data from about 29,000 schizophrenia cases, 36,000 controls and 700 post mortem brains. The information was drawn from dozens of studies performed in 22 countries, all of which contribute to the worldwide database called the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium.

[Influential government-appointed panel recommends depression screening for everyone]

One area in particular, when graphed, showed the strongest association. It was dubbed the “Manhattan plot” for its resemblance to New York City’s towering buildings. The highest peak was on chromosome 6, where McCarroll’s team discovered the gene variant. C4 was “a dark corner of the human genome,” he said, an area difficult to decipher because of its “astonishing level” of diversity.

C4 and numerous other genes reside in a region of chromosome 6 involved in the immune system, which clears out pathogens and similar cellular debris from the brain. The study’s researchers found that one of C4’s variants, C4A, was most associated with a risk for schizophrenia.

More than 25 million people around the globe are affected by schizophrenia, according to the World Health Organization, including 2 million to 3 million Americans. Highly hereditable, it is one of the most severe mental illnesses, with an annual economic burden in this country of tens of billions of dollars.

“This paper is really exciting,” said Jacqueline Feldman, associate medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “We as scientists and physicians have to temper our enthusiasm because we’ve gone down this path before. But this is profoundly interesting.”

There have been hundreds of theories about schizophrenia over the years, but one of the enduring mysteries has been how three prominent findings related to each other: the apparent involvement of immune molecules, the disorder’s typical onset in late adolescence and early adulthood, and the thinning of gray matter seen in autopsies of patients.

[A low-tech way to help treat young schizophrenic patients]

“The thing about this result,” said McCarroll, the lead author, ” it makes a lot of other things understandable. To have a result to connect to these observations and to have a molecule and strong level of genetic evidence from tens of thousands of research participants, I think that combination sets [this study] apart.”

The authors stressed that their findings, which combine basic science with large-scale analysis of genetic studies, depended on an unusual level of cooperation among experts in genetics, molecular biology, developmental neurobiology and immunology.

“This could not have been done five years ago,” said Hyman. “This required the ability to reference a very large dataset . …When I was [NIMH] director, people really resisted collaborating. They were still in the Pharaoh era. They wanted to be buried with their data.”

The study offers a new approach to schizophrenia research, which has been largely stagnant for decades.  Most psychiatric drugs seek to interrupt psychotic thinking, but experts agree that psychosis is just a single symptom — and a late-occurring one at that. One of the chief difficulties for psychiatric researchers, setting them apart from most other medical investigators, is that they can’t cut schizophrenia out of the brain and look at it under a microscope. Nor are there any good animal models.

All that now has changed, according to Stevens. “We now have a strong molecular handle, a pathway and a gene, to develop better models,” he said.

Which isn’t to say a cure is right around the corner.

“This is the first exciting  clue, maybe even the most important we’ll ever have, but it will be decades” before a true cure is found,” Hyman said. “Hope is a wonderful thing. False promise is not.”

Insight Pharma Report

Three neurodegenerative disorders that are heavily focused on in this report include: Alzheimer’s Disease/Mild Cognitive Impairment, Parkinson’s Disease, and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis. Part II of the report will include all three of these disorders, highlighting specifics including background, history, and development of the disease. Deeper into the chapters, the report will unfold biomarkers under investigation, genetic targets, and an analysis of multiple studies investigating these elements.

Experts interviewed in these chapters include:

  • Dr. Jens Wendland, Head of Neuroscience Genetics, Precision Medicine, Clinical Research, Pfizer Worldwide R&D
  • Dr. Howard J. Federoff, Executive Vice President for Health Sciences, Georgetown University
  • Dr. Andrew West, Associate Professor of Neurology and Neurobiology and Co-Director, Center for Neurodegeneration and Experimental Therapeutics
  • Dr. Merit Ester Cudkowicz, Chief of Neurology at Massachusetts General Hospital

Part III of the report makes a shift from neurobiomarkers to neurodiagnostics. This section highlights several diagnostics in play and in the making from a number of companies, identifying company strategies, research underway, hypotheses, and institution goals. Elite researchers and companies highlighted in this part include:

  • Dr. Xuemei Huang, Professor and Vice Chair, Department of Neurology; Professor of Neurosurgery, Radiology,  Pharmacology, and Kinesiology Director; Hershey Brain Analysis Research Laboratory for Neurodegenerative Disorders, Penn State University-Milton, S. Hershey Medical Center Department of Neurology
  • Dr. Andreas Jeromin, CSO and President of Atlantic Biomarkers
  • Julien Bradley, Senior Director, Sales & Marketing, Quanterix
  • Dr. Scott Marshall, Head of Bioanalytics, and Dr. Jared Kohler, Head of Biomarker Statistics, BioStat Solutions, Inc.

Further analysis appears in Part IV. This section includes a survey exclusively conducted for this report. With over 30 figures and graphics and an in depth analysis, this part features insight into targets under investigation, challenges, advantages, and desired features of future diagnostic applications. Furthermore, the survey covers more than just the featured neurodegenerative disorders in this report, expanding to Multiple Sclerosis and Huntington’s Disease.

Finally, Insight Pharma Reports concludes this report with clinical trial and pipeline data featuring targets and products from over 300 companies working in Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis.

 

Epigenome Tapped to Understand Rise of Subtype of Brain Medulloblastoma

http://www.genengnews.com/gen-news-highlights/epigenome-tapped-to-understand-rise-of-subtype-of-brain-medulloblastoma/81252294/

Scientists have identified the cells that likely give rise to the brain tumor subtype Group 4 medulloblastoma. [V. Yakobchuk/ Fotolia]

http://www.genengnews.com/Media/images/GENHighlight/thumb_Jan_28_2016_Fotolia_6761569_ColorfulBrain_4412824411.jpg

An international team of scientists say they have identified the cells that likely give rise to the brain tumor subtype Group 4 medulloblastoma. The believe their study (“Active medulloblastoma enhancers reveal subgroup-specific cellular origins”), published in Nature, removes a barrier to developing more effective targeted therapies against the brain tumor’s most common subtype.

Medulloblastoma occurs in infants, children, and adults, but it is the most common malignant pediatric brain tumor. The disease includes four biologically and clinically distinct subtypes, of which Group 4 is the most common. In children, about half of medulloblastoma patients are of the Group 4 subtype. Efforts to improve patient outcomes, particularly for those with high-risk Group 4 medulloblastoma, have been hampered by the lack of accurate animal models.

Evidence from this study suggests Group 4 tumors begin in neural stem cells that are born in a region of the developing cerebellum called the upper rhomic lip (uRL), according to the researchers.

“Pinpointing the cell(s) of origin for Group 4 medulloblastoma will help us to better understand normal cerebellar development and dramatically improve our chances of developing genetically faithful preclinical mouse models. These models are desperately needed for learning more about Group 4 medulloblastoma biology and evaluating rational, molecularly targeted therapies to improve patient outcomes,” said Paul Northcott, Ph.D., an assistant member of the St. Jude department of developmental neurobiology. Dr. Northcott, Stefan Pfister, M.D., of the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ), and James Bradner, M.D., of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, are the corresponding authors.

The discovery and other findings about the missteps fueling tumor growth came from studying the epigenome. Researchers used the analytic tool ChiP-seq to identify and track medulloblastoma subtype differences based on the activity of epigenetic regulators, which included proteins known as master regulator transcription factors. They bind to DNA enhancers and super-enhancers. The master regulator transcription factors and super-enhancers work together to regulate the expression of critical genes, such as those responsible for cell identity.

Those and other tools helped investigators identify more than 3,000 super-enhancers in 28 medulloblastoma tumors as well as evidence that the activity of super-enhancers varied by subtype. The super-enhancers switched on known cancer genes, including genes like ALK, MYC, SMO, and OTX2 that are associated with medulloblastoma, the researchers reported.

Knowledge of the subtype super-enhancers led to identification of the transcription factors that regulate their activity. Using computational methods, researchers applied that information to reconstruct the transcription factor networks responsible for medulloblastoma subtype diversity and identity, providing previously unknown insights into the regulatory landscape and transcriptional output of the different medulloblastoma subtypes.

The approach helped to discover and nominate Lmx1A as a master regulator transcription factor of Group 4 tumors, which led to the identification of the likely Group 4 tumor cells of origin. Lmx1A was known to play an important role in normal development of cells in the uRL and cerebellum. Additional studies performed in mice with and without Lmx1A in this study supported uRL cells as the likely source of Group 4 tumors.

“By studying the epigenome, we also identified new pathways and molecular dependencies not apparent in previous gene expression and mutational studies,” explained Dr. Northcott. “The findings open new therapeutic avenues, particularly for the Group 3 and 4 subtypes where patient outcomes are inferior for the majority of affected children.”

For example, researchers identified increased enhancer activity targeting the TGFbeta pathway. The finding adds to evidence that the pathway may drive Group 3 medulloblastoma, currently the subtype with the worst prognosis. The pathway regulates cell growth, cell death, and other functions that are often disrupted in cancer, but it’s role in medulloblastoma is poorly understood.

The analysis included samples from 28 medulloblastoma tumors representing the four subtypes. Researchers believe it is the largest epigenetic study yet for any single cancer type and, importantly, the first to use a large cohort of primary patient tumor tissues instead of cell lines grown in the laboratory. Previous studies have suggested that cell lines may be of limited use for studying the tumor epigenome. The three Group 3 medulloblastoma cell lines used in this study reinforced the observation, highlighting significant differences in epigenetic regulators at work in medulloblastoma cell lines versus tumor samples.

 

 

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