Archive for the ‘Cognition’ Category

Despite heated discussion over whether it works, the FDA has approved Aduhelm, bringing a new ray of hope to the Alzheimer’s patients.

Curator and Reporter: Dr. Premalata Pati, Ph.D., Postdoc

On Monday, 7th June 2021, a controversial new Alzheimer’s Disease treatment was licensed in the United States for the first time in nearly 20 years, sparking calls for it to be made available worldwide despite conflicting evidence about its usefulness. The drug was designed for people with mild cognitive impairment, not severe dementia, and it was designed to delay the progression of Alzheimer’s disease rather than only alleviate symptoms.


The Controversies

The route to FDA clearance for Aducanumab has been bumpy – and contentious.

Though doctors, patients, and the organizations that assist them are in desperate need of therapies that can delay mental decline, scientists question the efficacy of the new medicine, Aducanumab or Aduhelm. In March 2019, two trials were halted because the medications looked to be ineffective. “The futility analysis revealed that the studies were most likely to fail,” said Isaacson of Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian. Biogen, the drug’s manufacturer revealed several months later that a fresh analysis with more participants found that individuals who got high doses of Aducanumab exhibited a reduction in clinical decline in one experiment. Patients treated with high-dose Aducanumab had 22% reduced clinical impairment in their cognitive health at 18 months, indicating that the advancement of their early Alzheimer’s disease was halted, according to FDA briefing documents from last year.

When the FDA’s members were split on the merits of the application in November, it was rejected. Three of its advisers went public, claiming that there was insufficient evidence that it worked in a scientific journal. They were concerned that if the medicine was approved, it might reduce the threshold for future approvals, owing to the scarcity of Alzheimer’s treatments.

Dr. Caleb Alexander, a drug safety and effectiveness expert at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, was one of the FDA advisers who was concerned that the data presented to the agency was a reanalysis after the experiment was stopped. It was “like the Texas sharpshooter fallacy,” he told the New York Times, “where the sharpshooter blows up a barn and then goes and paints a bullseye around the cluster of holes he loves.”

Some organizations, such as the non-profit Public Citizen’s Health Research Group, claimed that the FDA should not approve Aducanumab for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease because there is insufficient proof of its efficacy.

The drug is a monoclonal antibody that inhibits the formation of amyloid protein plaques in the brain, which are thought to be the cause of Alzheimer’s disease. The majority of Alzheimer’s medications have attempted to erase these plaques.

Aducanumab appears to do this in some patients, but only when the disease is in its early stages. This means that people must be checked to see if they have the disease. Many persons with memory loss are hesitant to undergo testing because there is now no treatment available.

The few Alzheimer’s medications available appear to have limited effectiveness. When Aricept, also known as Donepezil, was approved more than 20 years ago, there was a major battle to get it. It was heralded as a breakthrough at the time – partly due to the lack of anything else. It has become obvious that it slows mental decline for a few months but makes little effect in the long run.

The findings of another trial for some patients backed up those conclusions.

Biogen submitted a Biologics License Application to the FDA in July 2020, requesting approval of the medicine.

The FDA’s decision has been awaited by Alzheimer’s disease researchers, clinicians, and patients since then.

Support for approval of the drug

Other groups, such as the Alzheimer’s Association, have supported the drug’s approval.

The Alzheimer’s Association‘s website stated on Friday, “This is a critical time, regardless of the FDA’s final judgment. We’ve never been this close to approving an Alzheimer’s drug that could affect the disease’s development rather than just the symptoms. We can keep working together to achieve our goal of a world free of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.”

The drug has gotten so much attention that the Knight Alzheimer Disease Research Center at Washington University in St. Louis issued a statement on Friday stating that even if it is approved, “it will still likely take several months for the medication to pass other regulatory steps and become available to patients.”

Biogen officials told KGO-TV on Monday that the medicine will be ready to ship in about two weeks and that they have identified more than 900 facilities across the United States that they feel will be medically and commercially suitable.

Officials stated the corporation will also provide financial support to qualifying patients so that their out-of-pocket payments are as low as possible. Biogen has also pledged not to raise the price for at least the next four years.

Most Medicare customers with supplemental plans, according to the firm, will have a limited or capped co-pay.

Case studies connected to the Drug Approval

Case 1

Ann Lange, one of several Chicago-area clinical trial volunteers who received the breakthrough Alzheimer’s treatment, said,

It really offers us so much hope for a long, healthy life.

Lange, 60, has Alzheimer’s disease, which she was diagnosed with five years ago. Her memory has improved as a result of the monthly infusions, she claims.

She said,

I’d forget what I’d done in the shower, so I’d scribble ‘shampoo, conditioner, face, body’ on the door. Otherwise, I’d lose track of what I’m doing “Lange remarked. “I’m not required to do that any longer.

Case 2

Jenny Knap, 69, has been receiving infusions of the Aducanumab medication for about a year as part of two six-month research trials. She told CNN that she had been receiving treatment for roughly six months before the trial was halted in 2019, and that she had recently resumed treatment.

Knap said,

I can’t say I noticed it on a daily basis, but I do think I’m doing a lot better in terms of checking for where my glasses are and stuff like that.

When Knap was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, a clinical precursor to Alzheimer’s disease, in 2015, the symptoms were slight but there.

Her glasses were frequently misplaced, and she would repeat herself, forgetting previous talks, according to her husband, Joe Knap.

Joe added,

We were aware that things were starting to fall between the cracks as these instances got more often

Jenny went to the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio for testing and obtained her diagnosis. Jenny found she was qualified to join in clinical trials for the Biogen medicine Aducanumab at the Cleveland Clinic a few years later, in early 2017. She volunteered and has been a part of the trial ever since.

It turns out that Jenny was in the placebo category for the first year and a half, Joe explained, meaning she didn’t get the treatment.

They didn’t realize she was in the placebo group until lately because the trial was blind. Joe stated she was given the medicine around August 2018 and continued until February 2019 as the trial progressed. The trial was halted by Biogen in March 2019, but it was restarted last October, when Jenny resumed getting infusions.

Jenny now receives Aducanumab infusions every four weeks at the Cleveland Clinic, which is roughly a half-hour drive from their house, with Joe by her side. Jenny added that, despite the fact that she has only recently begun therapy, she believes it is benefiting her, combined with a balanced diet and regular exercise (she runs four miles).

The hope of Aducanumab is to halt the progression of the disease rather than to improve cognition. We didn’t appreciate any significant reduction in her condition, Jenny’s doctor, Dr. Babak Tousi, who headed Aducanumab clinical studies at the Cleveland Clinic, wrote to CNN in an email.

This treatment is unlike anything we’ve ever received before. There has never been a drug that has slowed the growth of Alzheimer’s disease, he stated, Right now, existing medications like donepezil and memantine aid with symptoms but do not slow the disease’s progression.

Jenny claims that the medicine has had no significant negative effects on her.

There was signs of some very minor bleeding in the brain at one point, which was quite some time ago. It was at very low levels, in fact, Joe expressed concern about Jenny, but added that the physicians were unconcerned.

According to Tousi, with repeated therapy, “blood vessels may become leaky, allowing fluid and red blood cells to flow out to the surrounding area,” and “micro hemorrhages have been documented in 19.1% of trial participants who got” the maximal dose of therapy”.

Jenny and Joe’s attitude on the future has improved as a result of the infusions and keeping a healthy lifestyle, according to Joe. They were also delighted to take part in the trial, which they saw as an opportunity to make a positive influence in other people’s lives.

There was this apprehension of what was ahead before we went into the clinical trial, Joe recalled. “The medical aspect of the infusion gives us reason to be optimistic. However, doing the activity on a daily basis provides us with immediate benefits.”

The drug’s final commercialization announcement

Aducanumab, which will be marketed as Aduhelm, is a monthly intravenous infusion that is designed to halt cognitive decline in patients with mild memory and thinking issues. It is the first FDA-approved medication for Alzheimer’s disease that targets the disease process rather than just the symptoms.

The manufacturer, Biogen, stated Monday afternoon that the annual list price will be $56,000. In addition, diagnostic tests and brain imaging will very certainly cost tens of thousands of dollars.

The FDA approved approval for the medicine to be used but ordered Biogen to conduct a new clinical trial, recognizing that prior trials of the medicine had offered insufficient evidence to indicate effectiveness.

Biogen Inc said on Tuesday that it expects to start shipping Aduhelm, a newly licensed Alzheimer’s medicine, in approximately two weeks and that it has prepared over 900 healthcare facilities for the intravenous infusion treatment.

Other Relevant Articles

Gene Therapy could be a Boon to Alzheimer’s disease (AD): A first-in-human clinical trial proposed

Reporter: Dr. Premalata Pati, Ph.D., Postdoc


Alzheimer’s Disease – tau art thou, or amyloid

Curator: Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP


Connecting the Immune Response to Amyloid-β Aggregation in Alzheimer’s Disease via IFITM3

Reporter : Irina Robu, PhD


Ustekinumab New Drug Therapy for Cognitive Decline resulting from Neuroinflammatory Cytokine Signaling and Alzheimer’s Disease

Curator: Aviva Lev-Ari, PhD, RN


Alnylam Announces First-Ever FDA Approval of an RNAi Therapeutic, ONPATTRO™ (patisiran) for the Treatment of the Polyneuropathy of Hereditary Transthyretin-Mediated Amyloidosis in Adults

Reporter: Aviva Lev-Ari, PhD, RN


Recent progress in neurodegenerative diseases and gliomas

Curator: Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP


Read Full Post »

Disease related changes in proteomics, protein folding, protein-protein interaction, Volume 2 (Volume Two: Latest in Genomics Methodologies for Therapeutics: Gene Editing, NGS and BioInformatics, Simulations and the Genome Ontology), Part 1: Next Generation Sequencing (NGS)

Disease related changes in proteomics, protein folding, protein-protein interaction

Curator: Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP



Frankenstein Proteins Stitched Together by Scientists



The Frankenstein monster, stitched together from disparate body parts, proved to be an abomination, but stitched together proteins may fare better. They may, for example, serve specific purposes in medicine, research, and industry. At least, that’s the ambition of scientists based at the University of North Carolina. They have developed a computational protocol called SEWING that builds new proteins from connected or disconnected pieces of existing structures. [Wikipedia]

Unlike Victor Frankenstein, who betrayed Promethean ambition when he sewed together his infamous creature, today’s biochemists are relatively modest. Rather than defy nature, they emulate it. For example, at the University of North Carolina (UNC), researchers have taken inspiration from natural evolutionary mechanisms to develop a technique called SEWING—Structure Extension With Native-substructure Graphs. SEWING is a computational protocol that describes how to stitch together new proteins from connected or disconnected pieces of existing structures.

“We can now begin to think about engineering proteins to do things that nothing else is capable of doing,” said UNC’s Brian Kuhlman, Ph.D. “The structure of a protein determines its function, so if we are going to learn how to design new functions, we have to learn how to design new structures. Our study is a critical step in that direction and provides tools for creating proteins that haven’t been seen before in nature.”

Traditionally, researchers have used computational protein design to recreate in the laboratory what already exists in the natural world. In recent years, their focus has shifted toward inventing novel proteins with new functionality. These design projects all start with a specific structural “blueprint” in mind, and as a result are limited. Dr. Kuhlman and his colleagues, however, believe that by removing the limitations of a predetermined blueprint and taking cues from evolution they can more easily create functional proteins.

Dr. Kuhlman’s UNC team developed a protein design approach that emulates natural mechanisms for shuffling tertiary structures such as pleats, coils, and furrows. Putting the approach into action, the UNC team mapped 50,000 stitched together proteins on the computer, and then it produced 21 promising structures in the laboratory. Details of this work appeared May 6 in the journal Science, in an article entitled, “Design of Structurally Distinct Proteins Using Strategies Inspired by Evolution.”

“Helical proteins designed with SEWING contain structural features absent from other de novo designed proteins and, in some cases, remain folded at more than 100°C,” wrote the authors. “High-resolution structures of the designed proteins CA01 and DA05R1 were solved by x-ray crystallography (2.2 angstrom resolution) and nuclear magnetic resonance, respectively, and there was excellent agreement with the design models.”

Essentially, the UNC scientists confirmed that the proteins they had synthesized contained the unique structural varieties that had been designed on the computer. The UNC scientists also determined that the structures they had created had new surface and pocket features. Such features, they noted, provide potential binding sites for ligands or macromolecules.

“We were excited that some had clefts or grooves on the surface, regions that naturally occurring proteins use for binding other proteins,” said the Science article’s first author, Tim M. Jacobs, Ph.D., a former graduate student in Dr. Kuhlman’s laboratory. “That’s important because if we wanted to create a protein that can act as a biosensor to detect a certain metabolite in the body, either for diagnostic or research purposes, it would need to have these grooves. Likewise, if we wanted to develop novel therapeutics, they would also need to attach to specific proteins.”

Currently, the UNC researchers are using SEWING to create proteins that can bind to several other proteins at a time. Many of the most important proteins are such multitaskers, including the blood protein hemoglobin.


Histone Mutation Deranges DNA Methylation to Cause Cancer



In some cancers, including chondroblastoma and a rare form of childhood sarcoma, a mutation in histone H3 reduces global levels of methylation (dark areas) in tumor cells but not in normal cells (arrowhead). The mutation locks the cells in a proliferative state to promote tumor development. [Laboratory of Chromatin Biology and Epigenetics at The Rockefeller University]

They have been called oncohistones, the mutated histones that are known to accompany certain pediatric cancers. Despite their suggestive moniker, oncohistones have kept their oncogenic secrets. For example, it has been unclear whether oncohistones are able to cause cancer on their own, or whether they need to act in concert with additional DNA mutations, that is, mutations other than those affecting histone structures.

While oncohistone mechanisms remain poorly understood, this particular question—the oncogenicity of lone oncohistones—has been resolved, at least in part. According to researchers based at The Rockefeller University, a change to the structure of a histone can trigger a tumor on its own.

This finding appeared May 13 in the journal Science, in an article entitled, “Histone H3K36 Mutations Promote Sarcomagenesis Through Altered Histone Methylation Landscape.” The article describes the Rockefeller team’s study of a histone protein called H3, which has been found in about 95% of samples of chondoblastoma, a benign tumor that arises in cartilage, typically during adolescence.

The Rockefeller scientists found that the H3 lysine 36–to–methionine (H3K36M) mutation impairs the differentiation of mesenchymal progenitor cells and generates undifferentiated sarcoma in vivo.

After the scientists inserted the H3 histone mutation into mouse mesenchymal progenitor cells (MPCs)—which generate cartilage, bone, and fat—they watched these cells lose the ability to differentiate in the lab. Next, the scientists injected the mutant cells into living mice, and the animals developed the tumors rich in MPCs, known as an undifferentiated sarcoma. Finally, the researchers tried to understand how the mutation causes the tumors to develop.

The scientists determined that H3K36M mutant nucleosomes inhibit the enzymatic activities of several H3K36 methyltransferases.

“Depleting H3K36 methyltransferases, or expressing an H3K36I mutant that similarly inhibits H3K36 methylation, is sufficient to phenocopy the H3K36M mutation,” the authors of the Science study wrote. “After the loss of H3K36 methylation, a genome-wide gain in H3K27 methylation leads to a redistribution of polycomb repressive complex 1 and de-repression of its target genes known to block mesenchymal differentiation.”

Essentially, when the H3K36M mutation occurs, the cell becomes locked in a proliferative state—meaning it divides constantly, leading to tumors. Specifically, the mutation inhibits enzymes that normally tag the histone with chemical groups known as methyls, allowing genes to be expressed normally.

In response to this lack of modification, another part of the histone becomes overmodified, or tagged with too many methyl groups. “This leads to an overall resetting of the landscape of chromatin, the complex of DNA and its associated factors, including histones,” explained co-author Peter Lewis, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a former postdoctoral fellow in laboratory of C. David Allis, Ph.D., a professor at Rockefeller.

The finding—that a “resetting” of the chromatin landscape can lock the cell into a proliferative state—suggests that researchers should be on the hunt for more mutations in histones that might be driving tumors. For their part, the Rockefeller researchers are trying to learn more about how this specific mutation in histone H3 causes tumors to develop.

“We want to know which pathways cause the mesenchymal progenitor cells that carry the mutation to continue to divide, and not differentiate into the bone, fat, and cartilage cells they are destined to become,” said co-author Chao Lu, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in the Allis lab.

Once researchers understand more about these pathways, added Dr. Lewis, they can consider ways of blocking them with drugs, particularly in tumors such as MPC-rich sarcomas—which, unlike chondroblastoma, can be deadly. In fact, drugs that block these pathways may already exist and may even be in use for other types of cancers.

“One long-term goal of our collaborative team is to better understand fundamental mechanisms that drive these processes, with the hope of providing new therapeutic approaches,” concluded Dr. Allis.


Histone H3K36 mutations promote sarcomagenesis through altered histone methylation landscape

Chao Lu, Siddhant U. Jain, Dominik Hoelper, …, C. David Allis1,, Nada Jabado,, Peter W. Lewis,
Science  13 May 2016; 352(6287):844-849 http://dx.doi.org:/10.1126/science.aac7272  http://science.sciencemag.org/content/352/6287/844

An oncohistone deranges inhibitory chromatin

Missense mutations (that change one amino acid for another) in histone H3 can produce a so-called oncohistone and are found in a number of pediatric cancers. For example, the lysine-36–to-methionine (K36M) mutation is seen in almost all chondroblastomas. Lu et al. show that K36M mutant histones are oncogenic, and they inhibit the normal methylation of this same residue in wild-type H3 histones. The mutant histones also interfere with the normal development of bone-related cells and the deposition of inhibitory chromatin marks.

Science, this issue p. 844

Several types of pediatric cancers reportedly contain high-frequency missense mutations in histone H3, yet the underlying oncogenic mechanism remains poorly characterized. Here we report that the H3 lysine 36–to–methionine (H3K36M) mutation impairs the differentiation of mesenchymal progenitor cells and generates undifferentiated sarcoma in vivo. H3K36M mutant nucleosomes inhibit the enzymatic activities of several H3K36 methyltransferases. Depleting H3K36 methyltransferases, or expressing an H3K36I mutant that similarly inhibits H3K36 methylation, is sufficient to phenocopy the H3K36M mutation. After the loss of H3K36 methylation, a genome-wide gain in H3K27 methylation leads to a redistribution of polycomb repressive complex 1 and de-repression of its target genes known to block mesenchymal differentiation. Our findings are mirrored in human undifferentiated sarcomas in which novel K36M/I mutations in H3.1 are identified.


Mitochondria? We Don’t Need No Stinking Mitochondria!


Diagram comparing typical eukaryotic cell to the newly discovered mitochondria-free organism. [Karnkowska et al., 2016, Current Biology 26, 1–11]
  • The organelle that produces a significant portion of energy for eukaryotic cells would seemingly be indispensable, yet over the years, a number of organisms have been discovered that challenge that biological pretense. However, these so-called amitochondrial species may lack a defined organelle, but they still retain some residual functions of their mitochondria-containing brethren. Even the intestinal eukaryotic parasite Giardia intestinalis, which was for many years considered to be mitochondria-free, was proven recently to contain a considerably shriveled version of the organelle.
  • Now, an international group of scientists has released results from a new study that challenges the notion that mitochondria are essential for eukaryotes—discovering an organism that resides in the gut of chinchillas that contains absolutely no trace of mitochondria at all.
  • “In low-oxygen environments, eukaryotes often possess a reduced form of the mitochondrion, but it was believed that some of the mitochondrial functions are so essential that these organelles are indispensable for their life,” explained lead study author Anna Karnkowska, Ph.D., visiting scientist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. “We have characterized a eukaryotic microbe which indeed possesses no mitochondrion at all.”


Mysterious Eukaryote Missing Mitochondria

Researchers uncover the first example of a eukaryotic organism that lacks the organelles.

By Anna Azvolinsky | May 12, 2016




Scientists have long thought that mitochondria—organelles responsible for energy generation—are an essential and defining feature of a eukaryotic cell. Now, researchers from Charles University in Prague and their colleagues are challenging this notion with their discovery of a eukaryotic organism,Monocercomonoides species PA203, which lacks mitochondria. The team’s phylogenetic analysis, published today (May 12) in Current Biology,suggests that Monocercomonoides—which belong to the Oxymonadida group of protozoa and live in low-oxygen environmentsdid have mitochondria at one point, but eventually lost the organelles.

“This is quite a groundbreaking discovery,” said Thijs Ettema, who studies microbial genome evolution at Uppsala University in Sweden and was not involved in the work.

“This study shows that mitochondria are not so central for all lineages of living eukaryotes,” Toni Gabaldonof the Center for Genomic Regulation in Barcelona, Spain, who also was not involved in the work, wrote in an email to The Scientist. “Yet, this mitochondrial-devoid, single-cell eukaryote is as complex as other eukaryotic cells in almost any other aspect of cellular complexity.”

Charles University’s Vladimir Hampl studies the evolution of protists. Along with Anna Karnkowska and colleagues, Hampl decided to sequence the genome of Monocercomonoides, a little-studied protist that lives in the digestive tracts of vertebrates. The 75-megabase genome—the first of an oxymonad—did not contain any conserved genes found on mitochondrial genomes of other eukaryotes, the researchers found. It also did not contain any nuclear genes associated with mitochondrial functions.

“It was surprising and for a long time, we didn’t believe that the [mitochondria-associated genes were really not there]. We thought we were missing something,” Hampl told The Scientist. “But when the data kept accumulating, we switched to the hypothesis that this organism really didn’t have mitochondria.”

Because researchers have previously not found examples of eukaryotes without some form of mitochondria, the current theory of the origin of eukaryotes poses that the appearance of mitochondria was crucial to the identity of these organisms.

“We now view these mitochondria-like organelles as a continuum from full mitochondria to very small . Some anaerobic protists, for example, have only pared down versions of mitochondria, such as hydrogenosomes and mitosomes, which lack a mitochondrial genome. But these mitochondrion-like organelles perform essential functions of the iron-sulfur cluster assembly pathway, which is known to be conserved in virtually all eukaryotic organisms studied to date.

Yet, in their analysis, the researchers found no evidence of the presence of any components of this mitochondrial pathway.

Like the scaling down of mitochondria into mitosomes in some organisms, the ancestors of modernMonocercomonoides once had mitochondria. “Because this organism is phylogenetically nested among relatives that had conventional mitochondria, this is most likely a secondary adaptation,” said Michael Gray, a biochemist who studies mitochondria at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia and was not involved in the study. According to Gray, the finding of a mitochondria-deficient eukaryote does not mean that the organelles did not play a major role in the evolution of eukaryotic cells.

To be sure they were not missing mitochondrial proteins, Hampl’s team also searched for potential mitochondrial protein homologs of other anaerobic species, and for signature sequences of a range of known mitochondrial proteins. While similar searches with other species uncovered a few mitochondrial proteins, the team’s analysis of Monocercomonoides came up empty.

“The data is very complete,” said Ettema. “It is difficult to prove the absence of something but [these authors] do a convincing job.”

To form the essential iron-sulfur clusters, the team discovered that Monocercomonoides use a sulfur mobilization system found in the cytosol, and that an ancestor of the organism acquired this system by lateral gene transfer from bacteria. This cytosolic, compensating system allowed Monocercomonoides to lose the otherwise essential iron-sulfur cluster-forming pathway in the mitochondrion, the team proposed.

“This work shows the great evolutionary plasticity of the eukaryotic cell,” said Karnkowska, who participated in the study while she was a postdoc at Charles University. Karnkowska, who is now a visiting researcher at the University of British Columbia in Canada, added: “This is a striking example of how far the evolution of a eukaryotic cell can go that was beyond our expectations.”

“The results highlight how many surprises may await us in the poorly studied eukaryotic phyla that live in under-explored environments,” Gabaldon said.

Ettema agreed. “Now that we’ve found one, we need to look at the bigger picture and see if there are other examples of eukaryotes that have lost their mitochondria, to understand how adaptable eukaryotes are.”

  1. Karnkowska et al., “A eukaryote without a mitochondrial organelle,” Current Biology,doi:10.1016/j.cub.2016.03.053, 2016.

organellesmitochondriagenetics & genomics and evolution


A Eukaryote without a Mitochondrial Organelle

Anna Karnkowska,  Vojtěch Vacek,  Zuzana Zubáčová,…,  Čestmír Vlček,  Vladimír HamplDOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2016.03.053  Article Info

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  • Monocercomonoides sp. is a eukaryotic microorganism with no mitochondria
  • •The complete absence of mitochondria is a secondary loss, not an ancestral feature
  • •The essential mitochondrial ISC pathway was replaced by a bacterial SUF system

The presence of mitochondria and related organelles in every studied eukaryote supports the view that mitochondria are essential cellular components. Here, we report the genome sequence of a microbial eukaryote, the oxymonad Monocercomonoides sp., which revealed that this organism lacks all hallmark mitochondrial proteins. Crucially, the mitochondrial iron-sulfur cluster assembly pathway, thought to be conserved in virtually all eukaryotic cells, has been replaced by a cytosolic sulfur mobilization system (SUF) acquired by lateral gene transfer from bacteria. In the context of eukaryotic phylogeny, our data suggest that Monocercomonoides is not primitively amitochondrial but has lost the mitochondrion secondarily. This is the first example of a eukaryote lacking any form of a mitochondrion, demonstrating that this organelle is not absolutely essential for the viability of a eukaryotic cell.



HIV Particles Used to Trap Intact Mammalian Protein Complexes

Belgian scientists from VIB and UGent developed Virotrap, a viral particle sorting approach for purifying protein complexes under native conditions.


This method catches a bait protein together with its associated protein partners in virus-like particles that are budded from human cells. Like this, cell lysis is not needed and protein complexes are preserved during purification.

With his feet in both a proteomics lab and an interactomics lab, VIB/UGent professor Sven Eyckerman is well aware of the shortcomings of conventional approaches to analyze protein complexes. The lysis conditions required in mass spectrometry–based strategies to break open cell membranes often affect protein-protein interactions. “The first step in a classical study on protein complexes essentially turns the highly organized cellular structure into a big messy soup”, Eyckerman explains.

Inspired by virus biology, Eyckerman came up with a creative solution. “We used the natural process of HIV particle formation to our benefit by hacking a completely safe form of the virus to abduct intact protein machines from the cell.” It is well known that the HIV virus captures a number of host proteins during its particle formation. By fusing a bait protein to the HIV-1 GAG protein, interaction partners become trapped within virus-like particles that bud from mammalian cells. Standard proteomic approaches are used next to reveal the content of these particles. Fittingly, the team named the method ‘Virotrap’.

The Virotrap approach is exceptional as protein networks can be characterized under natural conditions. By trapping protein complexes in the protective environment of a virus-like shell, the intact complexes are preserved during the purification process. The researchers showed the method was suitable for detection of known binary interactions as well as mass spectrometry-based identification of novel protein partners.

Virotrap is a textbook example of bringing research teams with complementary expertise together. Cross-pollination with the labs of Jan Tavernier (VIB/UGent) and Kris Gevaert (VIB/UGent) enabled the development of this platform.

Jan Tavernier: “Virotrap represents a new concept in co-complex analysis wherein complex stability is physically guaranteed by a protective, physical structure. It is complementary to the arsenal of existing interactomics methods, but also holds potential for other fields, like drug target characterization. We also developed a small molecule-variant of Virotrap that could successfully trap protein partners for small molecule baits.”

Kris Gevaert: “Virotrap can also impact our understanding of disease pathways. We were actually surprised to see that this virus-based system could be used to study antiviral pathways, like Toll-like receptor signaling. Understanding these protein machines in their natural environment is essential if we want to modulate their activity in pathology.“


Trapping mammalian protein complexes in viral particles

Sven Eyckerman, Kevin Titeca, …Kris GevaertJan Tavernier
Nature Communications Apr 2016; 7(11416)   http://dx.doi.org:/10.1038/ncomms11416

Cell lysis is an inevitable step in classical mass spectrometry–based strategies to analyse protein complexes. Complementary lysis conditions, in situ cross-linking strategies and proximal labelling techniques are currently used to reduce lysis effects on the protein complex. We have developed Virotrap, a viral particle sorting approach that obviates the need for cell homogenization and preserves the protein complexes during purification. By fusing a bait protein to the HIV-1 GAG protein, we show that interaction partners become trapped within virus-like particles (VLPs) that bud from mammalian cells. Using an efficient VLP enrichment protocol, Virotrap allows the detection of known binary interactions and MS-based identification of novel protein partners as well. In addition, we show the identification of stimulus-dependent interactions and demonstrate trapping of protein partners for small molecules. Virotrap constitutes an elegant complementary approach to the arsenal of methods to study protein complexes.

Proteins mostly exert their function within supramolecular complexes. Strategies for detecting protein–protein interactions (PPIs) can be roughly divided into genetic systems1 and co-purification strategies combined with mass spectrometry (MS) analysis (for example, AP–MS)2. The latter approaches typically require cell or tissue homogenization using detergents, followed by capture of the protein complex using affinity tags3 or specific antibodies4. The protein complexes extracted from this ‘soup’ of constituents are then subjected to several washing steps before actual analysis by trypsin digestion and liquid chromatography–MS/MS analysis. Such lysis and purification protocols are typically empirical and have mostly been optimized using model interactions in single labs. In fact, lysis conditions can profoundly affect the number of both specific and nonspecific proteins that are identified in a typical AP–MS set-up. Indeed, recent studies using the nuclear pore complex as a model protein complex describe optimization of purifications for the different proteins in the complex by examining 96 different conditions5. Nevertheless, for new purifications, it remains hard to correctly estimate the loss of factors in a standard AP–MS experiment due to washing and dilution effects during treatments (that is, false negatives). These considerations have pushed the concept of stabilizing PPIs before the actual homogenization step. A classical approach involves cross-linking with simple reagents (for example, formaldehyde) or with more advanced isotope-labelled cross-linkers (reviewed in ref. 2). However, experimental challenges such as cell permeability and reactivity still preclude the widespread use of cross-linking agents. Moreover, MS-generated spectra of cross-linked peptides are notoriously difficult to identify correctly. A recent lysis-independent solution involves the expression of a bait protein fused to a promiscuous biotin ligase, which results in labelling of proteins proximal to the activity of the enzyme-tagged bait protein6. When compared with AP–MS, this BioID approach delivers a complementary set of candidate proteins, including novel interaction partners78. Such particular studies clearly underscore the need for complementary approaches in the co-complex strategies.

The evolutionary stress on viruses promoted highly condensed coding of information and maximal functionality for small genomes. Accordingly, for HIV-1 it is sufficient to express a single protein, the p55 GAG protein, for efficient production of virus-like particles (VLPs) from cells910. This protein is highly mobile before its accumulation in cholesterol-rich regions of the membrane, where multimerization initiates the budding process11. A total of 4,000–5,000 GAG molecules is required to form a single particle of about 145 nm (ref. 12). Both VLPs and mature viruses contain a number of host proteins that are recruited by binding to viral proteins. These proteins can either contribute to the infectivity (for example, Cyclophilin/FKBPA13) or act as antiviral proteins preventing the spreading of the virus (for example, APOBEC proteins14).

We here describe the development and application of Virotrap, an elegant co-purification strategy based on the trapping of a bait protein together with its associated protein partners in VLPs that are budded from the cell. After enrichment, these particles can be analysed by targeted (for example, western blotting) or unbiased approaches (MS-based proteomics). Virotrap allows detection of known binary PPIs, analysis of protein complexes and their dynamics, and readily detects protein binders for small molecules.

Concept of the Virotrap system

Classical AP–MS approaches rely on cell homogenization to access protein complexes, a step that can vary significantly with the lysis conditions (detergents, salt concentrations, pH conditions and so on)5. To eliminate the homogenization step in AP–MS, we reasoned that incorporation of a protein complex inside a secreted VLP traps the interaction partners under native conditions and protects them during further purification. We thus explored the possibility of protein complex packaging by the expression of GAG-bait protein chimeras (Fig. 1) as expression of GAG results in the release of VLPs from the cells910. As a first PPI pair to evaluate this concept, we selected the HRAS protein as a bait combined with the RAF1 prey protein. We were able to specifically detect the HRAS–RAF1 interaction following enrichment of VLPs via ultracentrifugation (Supplementary Fig. 1a). To prevent tedious ultracentrifugation steps, we designed a novel single-step protocol wherein we co-express the vesicular stomatitis virus glycoprotein (VSV-G) together with a tagged version of this glycoprotein in addition to the GAG bait and prey. Both tagged and untagged VSV-G proteins are probably presented as trimers on the surface of the VLPs, allowing efficient antibody-based recovery from large volumes. The HRAS–RAF1 interaction was confirmed using this single-step protocol (Supplementary Fig. 1b). No associations with unrelated bait or prey proteins were observed for both protocols.

Figure 1: Schematic representation of the Virotrap strategy.



Expression of a GAG-bait fusion protein (1) results in submembrane multimerization (2) and subsequent budding of VLPs from cells (3). Interaction partners of the bait protein are also trapped within these VLPs and can be identified after purification by western blotting or MS analysis (4).

Virotrap for the detection of binary interactions

We next explored the reciprocal detection of a set of PPI pairs, which were selected based on published evidence and cytosolic localization15. After single-step purification and western blot analysis, we could readily detect reciprocal interactions between CDK2 and CKS1B, LCP2 and GRAP2, and S100A1 and S100B (Fig. 2a). Only for the LCP2 prey we observed nonspecific association with an irrelevant bait construct. However, the particle levels of the GRAP2 bait were substantially lower as compared with those of the GAG control construct (GAG protein levels in VLPs; Fig. 2a, second panel of the LCP2 prey). After quantification of the intensities of bait and prey proteins and normalization of prey levels using bait levels, we observed a strong enrichment for the GAG-GRAP2 bait (Supplementary Fig. 2).


Virotrap for unbiased discovery of novel interactions

For the detection of novel interaction partners, we scaled up VLP production and purification protocols (Supplementary Fig. 5 and Supplementary Note 1 for an overview of the protocol) and investigated protein partners trapped using the following bait proteins: Fas-associated via death domain (FADD), A20 (TNFAIP3), nuclear factor-κB (NF-κB) essential modifier (IKBKG), TRAF family member-associated NF-κB activator (TANK), MYD88 and ring finger protein 41 (RNF41). To obtain specific interactors from the lists of identified proteins, we challenged the data with a combined protein list of 19 unrelated Virotrap experiments (Supplementary Table 1 for an overview). Figure 3 shows the design and the list of candidate interactors obtained after removal of all proteins that were found in the 19 control samples (including removal of proteins from the control list identified with a single peptide). The remaining list of confident protein identifications (identified with at least two peptides in at least two biological repeats) reveals both known and novel candidate interaction partners. All candidate interactors including single peptide protein identifications are given in Supplementary Data 2 and also include recurrent protein identifications of known interactors based on a single peptide; for example, CASP8 for FADD and TANK for NEMO. Using alternative methods, we confirmed the interaction between A20 and FADD, and the associations with transmembrane proteins (insulin receptor and insulin-like growth factor receptor 1) that were captured using RNF41 as a bait (Supplementary Fig. 6). To address the use of Virotrap for the detection of dynamic interactions, we activated the NF-κB pathway via the tumour necrosis factor (TNF) receptor (TNFRSF1A) using TNFα (TNF) and performed Virotrap analysis using A20 as bait (Fig. 3). This resulted in the additional enrichment of receptor-interacting kinase (RIPK1), TNFR1-associated via death domain (TRADD), TNFRSF1A and TNF itself, confirming the expected activated complex20.

Figure 3: Use of Virotrap for unbiased interactome analysis


Figure 4: Use of Virotrap for detection of protein partners of small molecules.



Lysis conditions used in AP–MS strategies are critical for the preservation of protein complexes. A multitude of lysis conditions have been described, culminating in a recent report where protein complex stability was assessed under 96 lysis/purification protocols5. Moreover, the authors suggest to optimize the conditions for every complex, implying an important workload for researchers embarking on protein complex analysis using classical AP–MS. As lysis results in a profound change of the subcellular context and significantly alters the concentration of proteins, loss of complex integrity during a classical AP–MS protocol can be expected. A clear evolution towards ‘lysis-independent’ approaches in the co-complex analysis field is evident with the introduction of BioID6 and APEX25 where proximal proteins, including proteins residing in the complex, are labelled with biotin by an enzymatic activity fused to a bait protein. A side-by-side comparison between classical AP–MS and BioID showed overlapping and unique candidate binding proteins for both approaches78, supporting the notion that complementary methods are needed to provide a comprehensive view on protein complexes. This has also been clearly demonstrated for binary approaches15 and is a logical consequence of the heterogenic nature underlying PPIs (binding mechanism, requirement for posttranslational modifications, location, affinity and so on).

In this report, we explore an alternative, yet complementary method to isolate protein complexes without interfering with cellular integrity. By trapping protein complexes in the protective environment of a virus-like shell, the intact complexes are preserved during the purification process. This constitutes a new concept in co-complex analysis wherein complex stability is physically guaranteed by a protective, physical structure. A comparison of our Virotrap approach with AP–MS shows complementary data, with specific false positives and false negatives for both methods (Supplementary Fig. 7).

The current implementation of the Virotrap platform implies the use of a GAG-bait construct resulting in considerable expression of the bait protein. Different strategies are currently pursued to reduce bait expression including co-expression of a native GAG protein together with the GAG-bait protein, not only reducing bait expression but also creating more ‘space’ in the particles potentially accommodating larger bait protein complexes. Nevertheless, the presence of the bait on the forming GAG scaffold creates an intracellular affinity matrix (comparable to the early in vitro affinity columns for purification of interaction partners from lysates26) that has the potential to compete with endogenous complexes by avidity effects. This avidity effect is a powerful mechanism that aids in the recruitment of cyclophilin to GAG27, a well-known weak interaction (Kd=16 μM (ref. 28)) detectable as a background association in the Virotrap system. Although background binding may be increased by elevated bait expression, weaker associations are readily detectable (for example, MAL—MYD88-binding study; Fig. 2c).

The size of Virotrap particles (around 145 nm) suggests limitations in the size of the protein complex that can be accommodated in the particles. Further experimentation is required to define the maximum size of proteins or the number of protein complexes that can be trapped inside the particles.


In conclusion, Virotrap captures significant parts of known interactomes and reveals new interactions. This cell lysis-free approach purifies protein complexes under native conditions and thus provides a powerful method to complement AP–MS or other PPI data. Future improvements of the system include strategies to reduce bait expression to more physiological levels and application of advanced data analysis options to filter out background. These developments can further aid in the deployment of Virotrap as a powerful extension of the current co-complex technology arsenal.


New Autism Blood Biomarker Identified

Researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center have identified a blood biomarker that may aid in earlier diagnosis of children with autism spectrum disorder, or ASD



In a recent edition of Scientific Reports, UT Southwestern researchers reported on the identification of a blood biomarker that could distinguish the majority of ASD study participants versus a control group of similar age range. In addition, the biomarker was significantly correlated with the level of communication impairment, suggesting that the blood test may give insight into ASD severity.

“Numerous investigators have long sought a biomarker for ASD,” said Dr. Dwight German, study senior author and Professor of Psychiatry at UT Southwestern. “The blood biomarker reported here along with others we are testing can represent a useful test with over 80 percent accuracy in identifying ASD.”

ASD1 –  was 66 percent accurate in diagnosing ASD. When combined with thyroid stimulating hormone level measurements, the ASD1-binding biomarker was 73 percent accurate at diagnosis


A Search for Blood Biomarkers for Autism: Peptoids

Sayed ZamanUmar Yazdani,…, Laura Hewitson & Dwight C. German
Scientific Reports 2016; 6(19164) http://dx.doi.org:/10.1038/srep19164

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by impairments in social interaction and communication, and restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior. In order to identify individuals with ASD and initiate interventions at the earliest possible age, biomarkers for the disorder are desirable. Research findings have identified widespread changes in the immune system in children with autism, at both systemic and cellular levels. In an attempt to find candidate antibody biomarkers for ASD, highly complex libraries of peptoids (oligo-N-substituted glycines) were screened for compounds that preferentially bind IgG from boys with ASD over typically developing (TD) boys. Unexpectedly, many peptoids were identified that preferentially bound IgG from TD boys. One of these peptoids was studied further and found to bind significantly higher levels (>2-fold) of the IgG1 subtype in serum from TD boys (n = 60) compared to ASD boys (n = 74), as well as compared to older adult males (n = 53). Together these data suggest that ASD boys have reduced levels (>50%) of an IgG1 antibody, which resembles the level found normally with advanced age. In this discovery study, the ASD1 peptoid was 66% accurate in predicting ASD.


Peptoid libraries have been used previously to search for autoantibodies for neurodegenerative diseases19 and for systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE)21. In the case of SLE, peptoids were identified that could identify subjects with the disease and related syndromes with moderate sensitivity (70%) and excellent specificity (97.5%). Peptoids were used to measure IgG levels from both healthy subjects and SLE patients. Binding to the SLE-peptoid was significantly higher in SLE patients vs. healthy controls. The IgG bound to the SLE-peptoid was found to react with several autoantigens, suggesting that the peptoids are capable of interacting with multiple, structurally similar molecules. These data indicate that IgG binding to peptoids can identify subjects with high levels of pathogenic autoantibodies vs. a single antibody.

In the present study, the ASD1 peptoid binds significantly lower levels of IgG1 in ASD males vs. TD males. This finding suggests that the ASD1 peptoid recognizes antibody(-ies) of an IgG1 subtype that is (are) significantly lower in abundance in the ASD males vs. TD males. Although a previous study14 has demonstrated lower levels of plasma IgG in ASD vs. TD children, here, we additionally quantified serum IgG levels in our individuals and found no difference in IgG between the two groups (data not shown). Furthermore, our IgG levels did not correlate with ASD1 binding levels, indicating that ASD1 does not bind IgG generically, and that the peptoid’s ability to differentiate between ASD and TD males is related to a specific antibody(-ies).

ASD subjects underwent a diagnostic evaluation using the ADOS and ADI-R, and application of the DSM-IV criteria prior to study inclusion. Only those subjects with a diagnosis of Autistic Disorder were included in the study. The ADOS is a semi-structured observation of a child’s behavior that allows examiners to observe the three core domains of ASD symptoms: reciprocal social interaction, communication, and restricted and repetitive behaviors1. When ADOS subdomain scores were compared with peptoid binding, the only significant relationship was with Social Interaction. However, the positive correlation would suggest that lower peptoid binding is associated with better social interaction, not poorer social interaction as anticipated.

The ADI-R is a structured parental interview that measures the core features of ASD symptoms in the areas of reciprocal social interaction, communication and language, and patterns of behavior. Of the three ADI-R subdomains, only the Communication domain was related to ASD1 peptoid binding, and this correlation was negative suggesting that low peptoid binding is associated with greater communication problems. These latter data are similar to the findings of Heuer et al.14 who found that children with autism with low levels of plasma IgG have high scores on the Aberrant Behavior Checklist (p < 0.0001). Thus, peptoid binding to IgG1 may be useful as a severity marker for ASD allowing for further characterization of individuals, but further research is needed.

It is interesting that in serum samples from older men, the ASD1 binding is similar to that in the ASD boys. This is consistent with the observation that with aging there is a reduction in the strength of the immune system, and the changes are gender-specific25. Recent studies using parabiosis26, in which blood from young mice reverse age-related impairments in cognitive function and synaptic plasticity in old mice, reveal that blood constituents from young subjects may contain important substances for maintaining neuronal functions. Work is in progress to identify the antibody/antibodies that are differentially binding to the ASD1 peptoid, which appear as a single band on the electrophoresis gel (Fig. 4).


The ADI-R is a structured parental interview that measures the core features of ASD symptoms in the areas of reciprocal social interaction, communication and language, and patterns of behavior. Of the three ADI-R subdomains, only the Communication domain was related to ASD1 peptoid binding, and this correlation was negative suggesting that low peptoid binding is associated with greater communication problems. These latter data are similar to the findings of Heuer et al.14 who found that children with autism with low levels of plasma IgG have high scores on the Aberrant Behavior Checklist (p < 0.0001). Thus, peptoid binding to IgG1 may be useful as a severity marker for ASD allowing for further characterization of individuals, but further research is needed.


  • Titration of IgG binding to ASD1 using serum pooled from 10 TD males and 10 ASD males demonstrates ASD1’s ability to differentiate between the two groups. (B)Detecting IgG1 subclass instead of total IgG amplifies this differentiation. (C) IgG1 binding of individual ASD (n=74) and TD (n=60) male serum samples (1:100 dilution) to ASD1 significantly differs with TD>ASD. In addition, IgG1 binding of older adult male (AM) serum samples (n=53) to ASD1 is significantly lower than TD males, and not different from ASD males. The three groups were compared with a Kruskal-Wallis ANOVA, H = 10.1781, p<0.006. **p<0.005. Error bars show SEM. (D) Receiver-operating characteristic curve for ASD1’s ability to discriminate between ASD and TD males.



Association between peptoid binding and ADOS and ADI-R subdomains

Higher scores in any domain on the ADOS and ADI-R are indicative of more abnormal behaviors and/or symptoms. Among ADOS subdomains, there was no significant relationship between Communication and peptoid binding (z = 0.04, p = 0.966), Communication + Social interaction (z = 1.53, p = 0.127), or Stereotyped Behaviors and Restrictive Interests (SBRI) (z = 0.46, p = 0.647). Higher scores on the Social Interaction domain were significantly associated with higher peptoid binding (z = 2.04, p = 0.041).

Among ADI-R subdomains, higher scores on the Communication domain were associated with lower levels of peptoid binding (z = −2.28, p = 0.023). There was not a significant relationship between Social Interaction (z = 0.07, p = 0.941) or Restrictive/Repetitive Stereotyped Behaviors (z = −1.40, p = 0.162) and peptoid binding.



Computational Model Finds New Protein-Protein Interactions

Researchers at University of Pittsburgh have discovered 500 new protein-protein interactions (PPIs) associated with genes linked to schizophrenia.


Using a computational model they developed, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine have discovered more than 500 new protein-protein interactions (PPIs) associated with genes linked to schizophrenia. The findings, published online in npj Schizophrenia, a Nature Publishing Group journal, could lead to greater understanding of the biological underpinnings of this mental illness, as well as point the way to treatments.

There have been many genome-wide association studies (GWAS) that have identified gene variants associated with an increased risk for schizophrenia, but in most cases there is little known about the proteins that these genes make, what they do and how they interact, said senior investigator Madhavi Ganapathiraju, Ph.D., assistant professor of biomedical informatics, Pitt School of Medicine.

“GWAS studies and other research efforts have shown us what genes might be relevant in schizophrenia,” she said. “What we have done is the next step. We are trying to understand how these genes relate to each other, which could show us the biological pathways that are important in the disease.”

Each gene makes proteins and proteins typically interact with each other in a biological process. Information about interacting partners can shed light on the role of a gene that has not been studied, revealing pathways and biological processes associated with the disease and also its relation to other complex diseases.

Dr. Ganapathiraju’s team developed a computational model called High-Precision Protein Interaction Prediction (HiPPIP) and applied it to discover PPIs of schizophrenia-linked genes identified through GWAS, as well as historically known risk genes. They found 504 never-before known PPIs, and noted also that while schizophrenia-linked genes identified historically and through GWAS had little overlap, the model showed they shared more than 100 common interactors.

“We can infer what the protein might do by checking out the company it keeps,” Dr. Ganapathiraju explained. “For example, if I know you have many friends who play hockey, it could mean that you are involved in hockey, too. Similarly, if we see that an unknown protein interacts with multiple proteins involved in neural signaling, for example, there is a high likelihood that the unknown entity also is involved in the same.”

Dr. Ganapathiraju and colleagues have drawn such inferences on protein function based on the PPIs of proteins, and made their findings available on a website Schizo-Pi. This information can be used by biologists to explore the schizophrenia interactome with the aim of understanding more about the disease or developing new treatment drugs.

Schizophrenia interactome with 504 novel protein–protein interactions

MK GanapathirajuM Thahir,…,  CE LoscherEM Bauer & S Chaparala
npj Schizophrenia 2016;  2(16012)   http://dx.doi.org:/10.1038/npjschz.2016.12

(GWAS) have revealed the role of rare and common genetic variants, but the functional effects of the risk variants remain to be understood. Protein interactome-based studies can facilitate the study of molecular mechanisms by which the risk genes relate to schizophrenia (SZ) genesis, but protein–protein interactions (PPIs) are unknown for many of the liability genes. We developed a computational model to discover PPIs, which is found to be highly accurate according to computational evaluations and experimental validations of selected PPIs. We present here, 365 novel PPIs of liability genes identified by the SZ Working Group of the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium (PGC). Seventeen genes that had no previously known interactions have 57 novel interactions by our method. Among the new interactors are 19 drug targets that are targeted by 130 drugs. In addition, we computed 147 novel PPIs of 25 candidate genes investigated in the pre-GWAS era. While there is little overlap between the GWAS genes and the pre-GWAS genes, the interactomes reveal that they largely belong to the same pathways, thus reconciling the apparent disparities between the GWAS and prior gene association studies. The interactome including 504 novel PPIs overall, could motivate other systems biology studies and trials with repurposed drugs. The PPIs are made available on a webserver, called Schizo-Pi at http://severus.dbmi.pitt.edu/schizo-pi with advanced search capabilities.

Schizophrenia (SZ) is a common, potentially severe psychiatric disorder that afflicts all populations.1 Gene mapping studies suggest that SZ is a complex disorder, with a cumulative impact of variable genetic effects coupled with environmental factors.2 As many as 38 genome-wide association studies (GWAS) have been reported on SZ out of a total of 1,750 GWAS publications on 1,087 traits or diseases reported in the GWAS catalog maintained by the National Human Genome Research Institute of USA3 (as of April 2015), revealing the common variants associated with SZ.4 The SZ Working Group of the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium (PGC) identified 108 genetic loci that likely confer risk for SZ.5 While the role of genetics has been clearly validated by this study, the functional impact of the risk variants is not well-understood.6,7 Several of the genes implicated by the GWAS have unknown functions and could participate in possibly hitherto unknown pathways.8 Further, there is little or no overlap between the genes identified through GWAS and ‘candidate genes’ proposed in the pre-GWAS era.9

Interactome-based studies can be useful in discovering the functional associations of genes. For example,disrupted in schizophrenia 1 (DISC1), an SZ related candidate gene originally had no known homolog in humans. Although it had well-characterized protein domains such as coiled-coil domains and leucine-zipper domains, its function was unknown.10,11 Once its protein–protein interactions (PPIs) were determined using yeast 2-hybrid technology,12 investigators successfully linked DISC1 to cAMP signaling, axon elongation, and neuronal migration, and accelerated the research pertaining to SZ in general, and DISC1 in particular.13 Typically such studies are carried out on known protein–protein interaction (PPI) networks, or as in the case of DISC1, when there is a specific gene of interest, its PPIs are determined by methods such as yeast 2-hybrid technology.

Knowledge of human PPI networks is thus valuable for accelerating discovery of protein function, and indeed, biomedical research in general. However, of the hundreds of thousands of biophysical PPIs thought to exist in the human interactome,14,15 <100,000 are known today (Human Protein Reference Database, HPRD16 and BioGRID17 databases). Gold standard experimental methods for the determination of all the PPIs in human interactome are time-consuming, expensive and may not even be feasible, as about 250 million pairs of proteins would need to be tested overall; high-throughput methods such as yeast 2-hybrid have important limitations for whole interactome determination as they have a low recall of 23% (i.e., remaining 77% of true interactions need to be determined by other means), and a low precision (i.e., the screens have to be repeated multiple times to achieve high selectivity).18,19Computational methods are therefore necessary to complete the interactome expeditiously. Algorithms have begun emerging to predict PPIs using statistical machine learning on the characteristics of the proteins, but these algorithms are employed predominantly to study yeast. Two significant computational predictions have been reported for human interactome; although they have had high false positive rates, these methods have laid the foundation for computational prediction of human PPIs.20,21

We have created a new PPI prediction model called High-Confidence Protein–Protein Interaction Prediction (HiPPIP) model. Novel interactions predicted with this model are making translational impact. For example, we discovered a PPI between OASL and DDX58, which on validation showed that an increased expression of OASL could boost innate immunity to combat influenza by activating the RIG-I pathway.22 Also, the interactome of the genes associated with congenital heart disease showed that the disease morphogenesis has a close connection with the structure and function of cilia.23Here, we describe the HiPPIP model and its application to SZ genes to construct the SZ interactome. After computational evaluations and experimental validations of selected novel PPIs, we present here 504 highly confident novel PPIs in the SZ interactome, shedding new light onto several uncharacterized genes that are associated with SZ.

We developed a computational model called HiPPIP to predict PPIs (see Methods and Supplementary File 1). The model has been evaluated by computational methods and experimental validations and is found to be highly accurate. Evaluations on a held-out test data showed a precision of 97.5% and a recall of 5%. 5% recall out of 150,000 to 600,000 estimated number of interactions in the human interactome corresponds to 7,500–30,000 novel PPIs in the whole interactome. Note that, it is likely that the real precision would be higher than 97.5% because in this test data, randomly paired proteins are treated as non-interacting protein pairs, whereas some of them may actually be interacting pairs with a small probability; thus, some of the pairs that are treated as false positives in test set are likely to be true but hitherto unknown interactions. In Figure 1a, we show the precision versus recall of our method on ‘hub proteins’ where we considered all pairs that received a score >0.5 by HiPPIP to be novel interactions. In Figure 1b, we show the number of true positives versus false positives observed in hub proteins. Both these figures also show our method to be superior in comparison to the prediction of membrane-receptor interactome by Qi et al’s.24 True positives versus false positives are also shown for individual hub proteins by our method in Figure 1cand by Qi et al’s.23 in Figure 1d. These evaluations showed that our predictions contain mostly true positives. Unlike in other domains where ranked lists are commonly used such as information retrieval, in PPI prediction the ‘false positives’ may actually be unlabeled instances that are indeed true interactions that are not yet discovered. In fact, such unlabeled pairs predicted as interactors of the hub gene HMGB1 (namely, the pairs HMGB1-KL and HMGB1-FLT1) were validated by experimental methods and found to be true PPIs (See the Figures e–g inSupplementary File 3). Thus, we concluded that the protein pairs that received a score of ⩾0.5 are highly confident to be true interactions. The pairs that receive a score less than but close to 0.5 (i.e., in the range of 0.4–0.5) may also contain several true PPIs; however, we cannot confidently say that all in this range are true PPIs. Only the PPIs predicted with a score >0.5 are included in the interactome.

Figure 1


Computational evaluation of predicted protein–protein interactions on hub proteins: (a) precision recall curve. (b) True positive versus false positives in ranked lists of hub type membrane receptors for our method and that by Qi et al. True positives versus false positives are shown for individual membrane receptors by our method in (c) and by Qi et al. in (d). Thick line is the average, which is also the same as shown in (b). Note:x-axis is recall in (a), whereas it is number of false positives in (bd). The range of y-axis is observed by varying the threshold from 1.0–0 in (a), and to 0.5 in (bd).

SZ interactome

By applying HiPPIP to the GWAS genes and Historic (pre-GWAS) genes, we predicted over 500 high confidence new PPIs adding to about 1400 previously known PPIs.

Schizophrenia interactome: network view of the schizophrenia interactome is shown as a graph, where genes are shown as nodes and PPIs as edges connecting the nodes. Schizophrenia-associated genes are shown as dark blue nodes, novel interactors as red color nodes and known interactors as blue color nodes. The source of the schizophrenia genes is indicated by its label font, where Historic genes are shown italicized, GWAS genes are shown in bold, and the one gene that is common to both is shown in italicized and bold. For clarity, the source is also indicated by the shape of the node (triangular for GWAS and square for Historic and hexagonal for both). Symbols are shown only for the schizophrenia-associated genes; actual interactions may be accessed on the web. Red edges are the novel interactions, whereas blue edges are known interactions. GWAS, genome-wide association studies of schizophrenia; PPI, protein–protein interaction.



Webserver of SZ interactome

We have made the known and novel interactions of all SZ-associated genes available on a webserver called Schizo-Pi, at the addresshttp://severus.dbmi.pitt.edu/schizo-pi. This webserver is similar to Wiki-Pi33 which presents comprehensive annotations of both participating proteins of a PPI side-by-side. The difference between Wiki-Pi which we developed earlier, and Schizo-Pi, is the inclusion of novel predicted interactions of the SZ genes into the latter.

Despite the many advances in biomedical research, identifying the molecular mechanisms underlying the disease is still challenging. Studies based on protein interactions were proven to be valuable in identifying novel gene associations that could shed new light on disease pathology.35 The interactome including more than 500 novel PPIs will help to identify pathways and biological processes associated with the disease and also its relation to other complex diseases. It also helps identify potential drugs that could be repurposed to use for SZ treatment.

Functional and pathway enrichment in SZ interactome

When a gene of interest has little known information, functions of its interacting partners serve as a starting point to hypothesize its own function. We computed statistically significant enrichment of GO biological process terms among the interacting partners of each of the genes using BinGO36 (see online at http://severus.dbmi.pitt.edu/schizo-pi).


Protein aggregation and aggregate toxicity: new insights into protein folding, misfolding diseases and biological evolution

Massimo Stefani · Christopher M. Dobson

Abstract The deposition of proteins in the form of amyloid fibrils and plaques is the characteristic feature of more than 20 degenerative conditions affecting either the central nervous system or a variety of peripheral tissues. As these conditions include Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and the prion diseases, several forms of fatal systemic amyloidosis, and at least one condition associated with medical intervention (haemodialysis), they are of enormous importance in the context of present-day human health and welfare. Much remains to be learned about the mechanism by which the proteins associated with these diseases aggregate and form amyloid structures, and how the latter affect the functions of the organs with which they are associated. A great deal of information concerning these diseases has emerged, however, during the past 5 years, much of it causing a number of fundamental assumptions about the amyloid diseases to be reexamined. For example, it is now apparent that the ability to form amyloid structures is not an unusual feature of the small number of proteins associated with these diseases but is instead a general property of polypeptide chains. It has also been found recently that aggregates of proteins not associated with amyloid diseases can impair the ability of cells to function to a similar extent as aggregates of proteins linked with specific neurodegenerative conditions. Moreover, the mature amyloid fibrils or plaques appear to be substantially less toxic than the prefibrillar aggregates that are their precursors. The toxicity of these early aggregates appears to result from an intrinsic ability to impair fundamental cellular processes by interacting with cellular membranes, causing oxidative stress and increases in free Ca2+ that eventually lead to apoptotic or necrotic cell death. The ‘new view’ of these diseases also suggests that other degenerative conditions could have similar underlying origins to those of the amyloidoses. In addition, cellular protection mechanisms, such as molecular chaperones and the protein degradation machinery, appear to be crucial in the prevention of disease in normally functioning living organisms. It also suggests some intriguing new factors that could be of great significance in the evolution of biological molecules and the mechanisms that regulate their behaviour.

The genetic information within a cell encodes not only the specific structures and functions of proteins but also the way these structures are attained through the process known as protein folding. In recent years many of the underlying features of the fundamental mechanism of this complex process and the manner in which it is regulated in living systems have emerged from a combination of experimental and theoretical studies [1]. The knowledge gained from these studies has also raised a host of interesting issues. It has become apparent, for example, that the folding and unfolding of proteins is associated with a whole range of cellular processes from the trafficking of molecules to specific organelles to the regulation of the cell cycle and the immune response. Such observations led to the inevitable conclusion that the failure to fold correctly, or to remain correctly folded, gives rise to many different types of biological malfunctions and hence to many different forms of disease [2]. In addition, it has been recognised recently that a large number of eukaryotic genes code for proteins that appear to be ‘natively unfolded’, and that proteins can adopt, under certain circumstances, highly organised multi-molecular assemblies whose structures are not specifically encoded in the amino acid sequence. Both these observations have raised challenging questions about one of the most fundamental principles of biology: the close relationship between the sequence, structure and function of proteins, as we discuss below [3].

It is well established that proteins that are ‘misfolded’, i.e. that are not in their functionally relevant conformation, are devoid of normal biological activity. In addition, they often aggregate and/or interact inappropriately with other cellular components leading to impairment of cell viability and eventually to cell death. Many diseases, often known as misfolding or conformational diseases, ultimately result from the presence in a living system of protein molecules with structures that are ‘incorrect’, i.e. that differ from those in normally functioning organisms [4]. Such diseases include conditions in which a specific protein, or protein complex, fails to fold correctly (e.g. cystic fibrosis, Marfan syndrome, amyotonic lateral sclerosis) or is not sufficiently stable to perform its normal function (e.g. many forms of cancer). They also include conditions in which aberrant folding behaviour results in the failure of a protein to be correctly trafficked (e.g. familial hypercholesterolaemia, α1-antitrypsin deficiency, and some forms of retinitis pigmentosa) [4]. The tendency of proteins to aggregate, often to give species extremely intractable to dissolution and refolding, is of course also well known in other circumstances. Examples include the formation of inclusion bodies during overexpression of heterologous proteins in bacteria and the precipitation of proteins during laboratory purification procedures. Indeed, protein aggregation is well established as one of the major difficulties associated with the production and handling of proteins in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries [5].

Considerable attention is presently focused on a group of protein folding diseases known as amyloidoses. In these diseases specific peptides or proteins fail to fold or to remain correctly folded and then aggregate (often with other components) so as to give rise to ‘amyloid’ deposits in tissue. Amyloid structures can be recognised because they possess a series of specific tinctorial and biophysical characteristics that reflect a common core structure based on the presence of highly organised βsheets [6]. The deposits in strictly defined amyloidoses are extracellular and can often be observed as thread-like fibrillar structures, sometimes assembled further into larger aggregates or plaques. These diseases include a range of sporadic, familial or transmissible degenerative diseases, some of which affect the brain and the central nervous system (e.g. Alzheimer’s and Creutzfeldt-Jakob diseases), while others involve peripheral tissues and organs such as the liver, heart and spleen (e.g. systemic amyloidoses and type II diabetes) [7, 8]. In other forms of amyloidosis, such as primary or secondary systemic amyloidoses, proteinaceous deposits are found in skeletal tissue and joints (e.g. haemodialysis-related amyloidosis) as well as in several organs (e.g. heart and kidney). Yet other components such as collagen, glycosaminoglycans and proteins (e.g. serum amyloid protein) are often present in the deposits protecting them against degradation [9, 10, 11]. Similar deposits to those in the amyloidoses are, however, found intracellularly in other diseases; these can be localised either in the cytoplasm, in the form of specialised aggregates known as aggresomes or as Lewy or Russell bodies or in the nucleus (see below).

The presence in tissue of proteinaceous deposits is a hallmark of all these diseases, suggesting a causative link between aggregate formation and pathological symptoms (often known as the amyloid hypothesis) [7, 8, 12]. At the present time the link between amyloid formation and disease is widely accepted on the basis of a large number of biochemical and genetic studies. The specific nature of the pathogenic species, and the molecular basis of their ability to damage cells, are however, the subject of intense debate [13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20]. In neurodegenerative disorders it is very likely that the impairment of cellular function follows directly from the interactions of the aggregated proteins with cellular components [21, 22]. In the systemic non-neurological diseases, however, it is widely believed that the accumulation in vital organs of large amounts of amyloid deposits can by itself cause at least some of the clinical symptoms [23]. It is quite possible, however, that there are other more specific effects of aggregates on biochemical processes even in these diseases. The presence of extracellular or intracellular aggregates of a specific polypeptide molecule is a characteristic of all the 20 or so recognised amyloid diseases. The polypeptides involved include full length proteins (e.g. lysozyme or immunoglobulin light chains), biological peptides (amylin, atrial natriuretic factor) and fragments of larger proteins produced as a result of specific processing (e.g. the Alzheimer βpeptide) or of more general degradation [e.g. poly(Q) stretches cleaved from proteins with poly(Q) extensions such as huntingtin, ataxins and the androgen receptor]. The peptides and proteins associated with known amyloid diseases are listed in Table 1. In some cases the proteins involved have wild type sequences, as in sporadic forms of the diseases, but in other cases these are variants resulting from genetic mutations associated with familial forms of the diseases. In some cases both sporadic and familial diseases are associated with a given protein; in this case the mutational variants are usually associated with early-onset forms of the disease. In the case of the neurodegenerative diseases associated with the prion protein some forms of the diseases are transmissible. The existence of familial forms of a number of amyloid diseases has provided significant clues to the origins of the pathologies. For example, there are increasingly strong links between the age at onset of familial forms of disease and the effects of the mutations involved on the propensity of the affected proteins to aggregate in vitro. Such findings also support the link between the process of aggregation and the clinical manifestations of disease [24, 25].

The presence in cells of misfolded or aggregated proteins triggers a complex biological response. In the cytosol, this is referred to as the ‘heat shock response’ and in the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) it is known as the ‘unfolded protein response’. These responses lead to the expression, among others, of the genes for heat shock proteins (Hsp, or molecular chaperone proteins) and proteins involved in the ubiquitin-proteasome pathway [26]. The evolution of such complex biochemical machinery testifies to the fact that it is necessary for cells to isolate and clear rapidly and efficiently any unfolded or incorrectly folded protein as soon as it appears. In itself this fact suggests that these species could have a generally adverse effect on cellular components and cell viability. Indeed, it was a major step forward in understanding many aspects of cell biology when it was recognised that proteins previously associated only with stress, such as heat shock, are in fact crucial in the normal functioning of living systems. This advance, for example, led to the discovery of the role of molecular chaperones in protein folding and in the normal ‘housekeeping’ processes that are inherent in healthy cells [27, 28]. More recently a number of degenerative diseases, both neurological and systemic, have been linked to, or shown to be affected by, impairment of the ubiquitin-proteasome pathway (Table 2). The diseases are primarily associated with a reduction in either the expression or the biological activity of Hsps, ubiquitin, ubiquitinating or deubiquitinating enzymes and the proteasome itself, as we show below [29, 30, 31, 32], or even to the failure of the quality control mechanisms that ensure proper maturation of proteins in the ER. The latter normally leads to degradation of a significant proportion of polypeptide chains before they have attained their native conformations through retrograde translocation to the cytosol [33, 34].


It is now well established that the molecular basis of protein aggregation into amyloid structures involves the existence of ‘misfolded’ forms of proteins, i.e. proteins that are not in the structures in which they normally function in vivo or of fragments of proteins resulting from degradation processes that are inherently unable to fold [4, 7, 8, 36]. Aggregation is one of the common consequences of a polypeptide chain failing to reach or maintain its functional three-dimensional structure. Such events can be associated with specific mutations, misprocessing phenomena, aberrant interactions with metal ions, changes in environmental conditions, such as pH or temperature, or chemical modification (oxidation, proteolysis). Perturbations in the conformational properties of the polypeptide chain resulting from such phenomena may affect equilibrium 1 in Fig. 1 increasing the population of partially unfolded, or misfolded, species that are much more aggregation-prone than the native state.

Fig. 1 Overview of the possible fates of a newly synthesised polypeptide chain. The equilibrium ① between the partially folded molecules and the natively folded ones is usually strongly in favour of the latter except as a result of specific mutations, chemical modifications or partially destabilising solution conditions. The increased equilibrium populations of molecules in the partially or completely unfolded ensemble of structures are usually degraded by the proteasome; when this clearance mechanism is impaired, such species often form disordered aggregates or shift equilibrium ② towards the nucleation of pre-fibrillar assemblies that eventually grow into mature fibrils (equilibrium ③). DANGER! indicates that pre-fibrillar aggregates in most cases display much higher toxicity than mature fibrils. Heat shock proteins (Hsp) can suppress the appearance of pre-fibrillar assemblies by minimising the population of the partially folded molecules by assisting in the correct folding of the nascent chain and the unfolded protein response target incorrectly folded proteins for degradation.


Little is known at present about the detailed arrangement of the polypeptide chains themselves within amyloid fibrils, either those parts involved in the core βstrands or in regions that connect the various β-strands. Recent data suggest that the sheets are relatively untwisted and may in some cases at least exist in quite specific supersecondary structure motifs such as β-helices [6, 40] or the recently proposed µ-helix [41]. It seems possible that there may be significant differences in the way the strands are assembled depending on characteristics of the polypeptide chain involved [6, 42]. Factors including length, sequence (and in some cases the presence of disulphide bonds or post-translational modifications such as glycosylation) may be important in determining details of the structures. Several recent papers report structural models for amyloid fibrils containing different polypeptide chains, including the Aβ40 peptide, insulin and fragments of the prion protein, based on data from such techniques as cryo-electron microscopy and solid-state magnetic resonance spectroscopy [43, 44]. These models have much in common and do indeed appear to reflect the fact that the structures of different fibrils are likely to be variations on a common theme [40]. It is also emerging that there may be some common and highly organised assemblies of amyloid protofilaments that are not simply extended threads or ribbons. It is clear, for example, that in some cases large closed loops can be formed [45, 46, 47], and there may be specific types of relatively small spherical or ‘doughnut’ shaped structures that can result in at least some circumstances (see below).


The similarity of some early amyloid aggregates with the pores resulting from oligomerisation of bacterial toxins and pore-forming eukaryotic proteins (see below) also suggest that the basic mechanism of protein aggregation into amyloid structures may not only be associated with diseases but in some cases could result in species with functional significance. Recent evidence indicates that a variety of micro-organisms may exploit the controlled aggregation of specific proteins (or their precursors) to generate functional structures. Examples include bacterial curli [52] and proteins of the interior fibre cells of mammalian ocular lenses, whose β-sheet arrays seem to be organised in an amyloid-like supramolecular order [53]. In this case the inherent stability of amyloid-like protein structure may contribute to the long-term structural integrity and transparency of the lens. Recently it has been hypothesised that amyloid-like aggregates of serum amyloid A found in secondary amyloidoses following chronic inflammatory diseases protect the host against bacterial infections by inducing lysis of bacterial cells [54]. One particularly interesting example is a ‘misfolded’ form of the milk protein α-lactalbumin that is formed at low pH and trapped by the presence of specific lipid molecules [55]. This form of the protein has been reported to trigger apoptosis selectively in tumour cells providing evidence for its importance in protecting infants from certain types of cancer [55]. ….

Amyloid formation is a generic property of polypeptide chains ….

It is clear that the presence of different side chains can influence the details of amyloid structures, particularly the assembly of protofibrils, and that they give rise to the variations on the common structural theme discussed above. More fundamentally, the composition and sequence of a peptide or protein affects profoundly its propensity to form amyloid structures under given conditions (see below).

Because the formation of stable protein aggregates of amyloid type does not normally occur in vivo under physiological conditions, it is likely that the proteins encoded in the genomes of living organisms are endowed with structural adaptations that mitigate against aggregation under these conditions. A recent survey involving a large number of structures of β-proteins highlights several strategies through which natural proteins avoid intermolecular association of β-strands in their native states [65].  Other surveys of protein databases indicate that nature disfavours sequences of alternating polar and nonpolar residues, as well as clusters of several consecutive hydrophobic residues, both of which enhance the tendency of a protein to aggregate prior to becoming completely folded [66, 67].


Precursors of amyloid fibrils can be toxic to cells

It was generally assumed until recently that the proteinaceous aggregates most toxic to cells are likely to be mature amyloid fibrils, the form of aggregates that have been commonly detected in pathological deposits. It therefore appeared probable that the pathogenic features underlying amyloid diseases are a consequence of the interaction with cells of extracellular deposits of aggregated material. As well as forming the basis for understanding the fundamental causes of these diseases, this scenario stimulated the exploration of therapeutic approaches to amyloidoses that focused mainly on the search for molecules able to impair the growth and deposition of fibrillar forms of aggregated proteins. ….

Structural basis and molecular features of amyloid toxicity

The presence of toxic aggregates inside or outside cells can impair a number of cell functions that ultimately lead to cell death by an apoptotic mechanism [95, 96]. Recent research suggests, however, that in most cases initial perturbations to fundamental cellular processes underlie the impairment of cell function induced by aggregates of disease-associated polypeptides. Many pieces of data point to a central role of modifications to the intracellular redox status and free Ca2+ levels in cells exposed to toxic aggregates [45, 89, 97, 98, 99, 100, 101]. A modification of the intracellular redox status in such cells is associated with a sharp increase in the quantity of reactive oxygen species (ROS) that is reminiscent of the oxidative burst by which leukocytes destroy invading foreign cells after phagocytosis. In addition, changes have been observed in reactive nitrogen species, lipid peroxidation, deregulation of NO metabolism [97], protein nitrosylation [102] and upregulation of heme oxygenase-1, a specific marker of oxidative stress [103]. ….

Results have recently been reported concerning the toxicity towards cultured cells of aggregates of poly(Q) peptides which argues against a disease mechanism based on specific toxic features of the aggregates. These results indicate that there is a close relationship between the toxicity of proteins with poly(Q) extensions and their nuclear localisation. In addition they support the hypotheses that the toxicity of poly(Q) aggregates can be a consequence of altered interactions with nuclear coactivator or corepressor molecules including p53, CBP, Sp1 and TAF130 or of the interaction with transcription factors and nuclear coactivators, such as CBP, endowed with short poly(Q) stretches ([95] and references therein)…..

Concluding remarks
The data reported in the past few years strongly suggest that the conversion of normally soluble proteins into amyloid fibrils and the toxicity of small aggregates appearing during the early stages of the formation of the latter are common or generic features of polypeptide chains. Moreover, the molecular basis of this toxicity also appears to display common features between the different systems that have so far been studied. The ability of many, perhaps all, natural polypeptides to ‘misfold’ and convert into toxic aggregates under suitable conditions suggests that one of the most important driving forces in the evolution of proteins must have been the negative selection against sequence changes that increase the tendency of a polypeptide chain to aggregate. Nevertheless, as protein folding is a stochastic process, and no such process can be completely infallible, misfolded proteins or protein folding intermediates in equilibrium with the natively folded molecules must continuously form within cells. Thus mechanisms to deal with such species must have co-evolved with proteins. Indeed, it is clear that misfolding, and the associated tendency to aggregate, is kept under control by molecular chaperones, which render the resulting species harmless assisting in their refolding, or triggering their degradation by the cellular clearance machinery [166, 167, 168, 169, 170, 171, 172, 173, 175, 177, 178].

Misfolded and aggregated species are likely to owe their toxicity to the exposure on their surfaces of regions of proteins that are buried in the interior of the structures of the correctly folded native states. The exposure of large patches of hydrophobic groups is likely to be particularly significant as such patches favour the interaction of the misfolded species with cell membranes [44, 83, 89, 90, 91, 93]. Interactions of this type are likely to lead to the impairment of the function and integrity of the membranes involved, giving rise to a loss of regulation of the intracellular ion balance and redox status and eventually to cell death. In addition, misfolded proteins undoubtedly interact inappropriately with other cellular components, potentially giving rise to the impairment of a range of other biological processes. Under some conditions the intracellular content of aggregated species may increase directly, due to an enhanced propensity of incompletely folded or misfolded species to aggregate within the cell itself. This could occur as the result of the expression of mutational variants of proteins with decreased stability or cooperativity or with an intrinsically higher propensity to aggregate. It could also occur as a result of the overproduction of some types of protein, for example, because of other genetic factors or other disease conditions, or because of perturbations to the cellular environment that generate conditions favouring aggregation, such as heat shock or oxidative stress. Finally, the accumulation of misfolded or aggregated proteins could arise from the chaperone and clearance mechanisms becoming overwhelmed as a result of specific mutant phenotypes or of the general effects of ageing [173, 174].

The topics discussed in this review not only provide a great deal of evidence for the ‘new view’ that proteins have an intrinsic capability of misfolding and forming structures such as amyloid fibrils but also suggest that the role of molecular chaperones is even more important than was thought in the past. The role of these ubiquitous proteins in enhancing the efficiency of protein folding is well established [185]. It could well be that they are at least as important in controlling the harmful effects of misfolded or aggregated proteins as in enhancing the yield of functional molecules.


Nutritional Status is Associated with Faster Cognitive Decline and Worse Functional Impairment in the Progression of Dementia: The Cache County Dementia Progression Study1

Sanders, Chelseaa | Behrens, Stephaniea | Schwartz, Sarahb | Wengreen, Heidic | Corcoran, Chris D.b; d | Lyketsos, Constantine G.e | Tschanz, JoAnn T.a; d;
Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease 2016; 52(1):33-42,     http://content.iospress.com/articles/journal-of-alzheimers-disease/jad150528   http://dx.doi.org:/10.3233/JAD-150528

Nutritional status may be a modifiable factor in the progression of dementia. We examined the association of nutritional status and rate of cognitive and functional decline in a U.S. population-based sample. Study design was an observational longitudinal study with annual follow-ups up to 6 years of 292 persons with dementia (72% Alzheimer’s disease, 56% female) in Cache County, UT using the Mini-Mental State Exam (MMSE), Clinical Dementia Rating Sum of Boxes (CDR-sb), and modified Mini Nutritional Assessment (mMNA). mMNA scores declined by approximately 0.50 points/year, suggesting increasing risk for malnutrition. Lower mMNA score predicted faster rate of decline on the MMSE at earlier follow-up times, but slower decline at later follow-up times, whereas higher mMNA scores had the opposite pattern (mMNA by time β= 0.22, p = 0.017; mMNA by time2 β= –0.04, p = 0.04). Lower mMNA score was associated with greater impairment on the CDR-sb over the course of dementia (β= 0.35, p <  0.001). Assessment of malnutrition may be useful in predicting rates of progression in dementia and may provide a target for clinical intervention.


Shared Genetic Risk Factors for Late-Life Depression and Alzheimer’s Disease

Ye, Qing | Bai, Feng* | Zhang, Zhijun
Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease 2016; 52(1): 1-15.                                      http://dx.doi.org:/10.3233/JAD-151129

Background: Considerable evidence has been reported for the comorbidity between late-life depression (LLD) and Alzheimer’s disease (AD), both of which are very common in the general elderly population and represent a large burden on the health of the elderly. The pathophysiological mechanisms underlying the link between LLD and AD are poorly understood. Because both LLD and AD can be heritable and are influenced by multiple risk genes, shared genetic risk factors between LLD and AD may exist. Objective: The objective is to review the existing evidence for genetic risk factors that are common to LLD and AD and to outline the biological substrates proposed to mediate this association. Methods: A literature review was performed. Results: Genetic polymorphisms of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, apolipoprotein E, interleukin 1-beta, and methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase have been demonstrated to confer increased risk to both LLD and AD by studies examining either LLD or AD patients. These results contribute to the understanding of pathophysiological mechanisms that are common to both of these disorders, including deficits in nerve growth factors, inflammatory changes, and dysregulation mechanisms involving lipoprotein and folate. Other conflicting results have also been reviewed, and few studies have investigated the effects of the described polymorphisms on both LLD and AD. Conclusion: The findings suggest that common genetic pathways may underlie LLD and AD comorbidity. Studies to evaluate the genetic relationship between LLD and AD may provide insights into the molecular mechanisms that trigger disease progression as the population ages.


Association of Vitamin B12, Folate, and Sulfur Amino Acids With Brain Magnetic Resonance Imaging Measures in Older Adults: A Longitudinal Population-Based Study

B Hooshmand, F Mangialasche, G Kalpouzos…, et al.
AMA Psychiatry. Published online April 27, 2016.    http://dx.doi.org:/10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2016.0274

Importance  Vitamin B12, folate, and sulfur amino acids may be modifiable risk factors for structural brain changes that precede clinical dementia.

Objective  To investigate the association of circulating levels of vitamin B12, red blood cell folate, and sulfur amino acids with the rate of total brain volume loss and the change in white matter hyperintensity volume as measured by fluid-attenuated inversion recovery in older adults.

Design, Setting, and Participants  The magnetic resonance imaging subsample of the Swedish National Study on Aging and Care in Kungsholmen, a population-based longitudinal study in Stockholm, Sweden, was conducted in 501 participants aged 60 years or older who were free of dementia at baseline. A total of 299 participants underwent repeated structural brain magnetic resonance imaging scans from September 17, 2001, to December 17, 2009.

Main Outcomes and Measures  The rate of brain tissue volume loss and the progression of total white matter hyperintensity volume.

Results  In the multi-adjusted linear mixed models, among 501 participants (300 women [59.9%]; mean [SD] age, 70.9 [9.1] years), higher baseline vitamin B12 and holotranscobalamin levels were associated with a decreased rate of total brain volume loss during the study period: for each increase of 1 SD, β (SE) was 0.048 (0.013) for vitamin B12 (P < .001) and 0.040 (0.013) for holotranscobalamin (P = .002). Increased total homocysteine levels were associated with faster rates of total brain volume loss in the whole sample (β [SE] per 1-SD increase, –0.035 [0.015]; P = .02) and with the progression of white matter hyperintensity among participants with systolic blood pressure greater than 140 mm Hg (β [SE] per 1-SD increase, 0.000019 [0.00001]; P = .047). No longitudinal associations were found for red blood cell folate and other sulfur amino acids.

Conclusions and Relevance  This study suggests that both vitamin B12 and total homocysteine concentrations may be related to accelerated aging of the brain. Randomized clinical trials are needed to determine the importance of vitamin B12supplementation on slowing brain aging in older adults.



Notes from Kurzweill

This vitamin stops the aging process in organs, say Swiss researchers

A potential breakthrough for regenerative medicine, pending further studies


Improved muscle stem cell numbers and muscle function in NR-treated aged mice: Newly regenerated muscle fibers 7 days after muscle damage in aged mice (left: control group; right: fed NR). (Scale bar = 50 μm). (credit: Hongbo Zhang et al./Science) http://www.kurzweilai.net/images/improved-muscle-fibers.png

EPFL researchers have restored the ability of mice organs to regenerate and extend life by simply administering nicotinamide riboside (NR) to them.

NR has been shown in previous studies to be effective in boosting metabolism and treating a number of degenerative diseases. Now, an article by PhD student Hongbo Zhang published in Science also describes the restorative effects of NR on the functioning of stem cells for regenerating organs.

As in all mammals, as mice age, the regenerative capacity of certain organs (such as the liver and kidneys) and muscles (including the heart) diminishes. Their ability to repair them following an injury is also affected. This leads to many of the disorders typical of aging.

Mitochondria —> stem cells —> organs

To understand how the regeneration process deteriorates with age, Zhang teamed up with colleagues from ETH Zurich, the University of Zurich, and universities in Canada and Brazil. By using several biomarkers, they were able to identify the molecular chain that regulates how mitochondria — the “powerhouse” of the cell — function and how they change with age. “We were able to show for the first time that their ability to function properly was important for stem cells,” said Auwerx.

Under normal conditions, these stem cells, reacting to signals sent by the body, regenerate damaged organs by producing new specific cells. At least in young bodies. “We demonstrated that fatigue in stem cells was one of the main causes of poor regeneration or even degeneration in certain tissues or organs,” said Zhang.

How to revitalize stem cells

Which is why the researchers wanted to “revitalize” stem cells in the muscles of elderly mice. And they did so by precisely targeting the molecules that help the mitochondria to function properly. “We gave nicotinamide riboside to 2-year-old mice, which is an advanced age for them,” said Zhang.

“This substance, which is close to vitamin B3, is a precursor of NAD+, a molecule that plays a key role in mitochondrial activity. And our results are extremely promising: muscular regeneration is much better in mice that received NR, and they lived longer than the mice that didn’t get it.”

Parallel studies have revealed a comparable effect on stem cells of the brain and skin. “This work could have very important implications in the field of regenerative medicine,” said Auwerx. This work on the aging process also has potential for treating diseases that can affect — and be fatal — in young people, like muscular dystrophy (myopathy).

So far, no negative side effects have been observed following the use of NR, even at high doses. But while it appears to boost the functioning of all cells, it could include pathological ones, so further in-depth studies are required.

Abstract of NAD+ repletion improves mitochondrial and stem cell function and enhances life span in mice

Adult stem cells (SCs) are essential for tissue maintenance and regeneration yet are susceptible to senescence during aging. We demonstrate the importance of the amount of the oxidized form of cellular nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD+) and its impact on mitochondrial activity as a pivotal switch to modulate muscle SC (MuSC) senescence. Treatment with the NAD+ precursor nicotinamide riboside (NR) induced the mitochondrial unfolded protein response (UPRmt) and synthesis of prohibitin proteins, and this rejuvenated MuSCs in aged mice. NR also prevented MuSC senescence in the Mdx mouse model of muscular dystrophy. We furthermore demonstrate that NR delays senescence of neural SCs (NSCs) and melanocyte SCs (McSCs), and increased mouse lifespan. Strategies that conserve cellular NAD+ may reprogram dysfunctional SCs and improve lifespan in mammals.


Hongbo Zhang, Dongryeol Ryu, Yibo Wu, Karim Gariani, Xu Wang, Peiling Luan, Davide D’amico, Eduardo R. Ropelle, Matthias P. Lutolf, Ruedi Aebersold, Kristina Schoonjans, Keir J. Menzies, Johan Auwerx. NAD repletion improves mitochondrial and stem cell function and enhances lifespan in mice. Science, 2016 DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf2693


Enhancer–promoter interactions are encoded by complex genomic signatures on looping chromatin

Sean WhalenRebecca M Truty & Katherine S Pollard
Nature Genetics 2016; 48:488–496

Discriminating the gene target of a distal regulatory element from other nearby transcribed genes is a challenging problem with the potential to illuminate the causal underpinnings of complex diseases. We present TargetFinder, a computational method that reconstructs regulatory landscapes from diverse features along the genome. The resulting models accurately predict individual enhancer–promoter interactions across multiple cell lines with a false discovery rate up to 15 times smaller than that obtained using the closest gene. By evaluating the genomic features driving this accuracy, we uncover interactions between structural proteins, transcription factors, epigenetic modifications, and transcription that together distinguish interacting from non-interacting enhancer–promoter pairs. Most of this signature is not proximal to the enhancers and promoters but instead decorates the looping DNA. We conclude that complex but consistent combinations of marks on the one-dimensional genome encode the three-dimensional structure of fine-scale regulatory interactions.

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Reversal of Alzheimer Disease in Fruit Flies

Curator: Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP



Reversal of AD in fruit flies

Transatlantic team reverses Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s symptoms in fruit flies

by Amirah Al Idrus | Apr 26, 2016


Scientists from the University of Leicester and the University of Maryland have reversed Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s symptoms by inhibiting an enzyme in fruit fly models, highlighting a new avenue to treat neurodegenerative diseases.

Maryland’s Robert Schwarcz and Leicester’s Flaviano Giorgini studied the amino acid tryptophan, which degrades in the body into several metabolites that have different effects on the nervous system. These include 3-hydroxykynurenine (3-HK), which can damage the nervous system, and kynurenic acid (KYNA), which can prevent nerve degeneration. The relative abundance of these two compounds in the brain could be critical in Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s disease, the University of Maryland said in a statement.

3-HK and KYNA  exist in a balance between “good” and “bad” metabolites in the body. In neurodegenerative disease, the balance shifts toward the “bad,” Giorgini said in a statement. The researchers shifted the balance back toward “good” by giving genetically modified fruit flies a chemical that selectively inhibits the enzyme TDO, which controls the relationship between 3-HK and KYNA. This increased levels of the “protective” KYNA, and improved movement and lengthened life span in fruit flies genetically modified to model neurodegenerative disease.

Giorgini’s team at Leicester has previously used genetic approaches to inhibit TDO and another enzyme, KMO. The treatment lowered the levels of toxic tryptophan metabolites and reduced neuron loss in fruit fly models of Huntington’s disease.

It is estimated that 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease and as many as 1 million have Parkinson’s. Current treatments may help to control symptoms but do not halt or delay disease progression. “Our hope is that by improving our knowledge of how these nerve cells become sick and die in the brain, we can help devise ways to interfere with these processes, and thereby either delay disease onset or prevent disease altogether,” Giorgini said in the Leicester statement. Giorgini’s next step will be to validate the work in mammalian models.

Meanwhile, a UC San Diego team recently spotlighted the dendritic spines of neurons as a possible target in Alzheimer’s. And The Wall Street Journalreported this week that seniors are clamoring to participate in a clinical trial to see if the diabetes drug metformin can stave off the diseases that come with aging, including cognitive decline.

– here’s a statement from the University of Maryland
– and here’s the University of Leicester’s statement
– read the study abstract


Tryptophan-2,3-dioxygenase (TDO) inhibition ameliorates neurodegeneration by modulation of kynurenine pathway metabolites

Carlo BredaaKorrapati V. SathyasaikumarbShama Sograte IdrissiaFrancesca M. Notarangelob,
….., Robert Schwarczb, and Flaviano Giorginia,1


Neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s (AD), Parkinson’s (PD), and Huntington’s (HD) present a significant and increasing burden on society. Perturbations in the kynurenine pathway (KP) of tryptophan degradation have been linked to the pathogenesis of these disorders, and thus manipulation of this pathway may have therapeutic relevance. Here we show that genetic inhibition of two KP enzymes—kynurenine-3-monooxygenase and tryptophan-2,3-dioxygenase (TDO)—improved neurodegeneration and other disease symptoms in fruit fly models of AD, PD, and HD, and that alterations in levels of neuroactive KP metabolites likely underlie the beneficial effects. Furthermore, we find that inhibition of TDO using a drug-like compound reverses several disease phenotypes, underscoring the therapeutic promise of targeting this pathway in neurodegenerative disease.


Metabolites of the kynurenine pathway (KP) of tryptophan (TRP) degradation have been closely linked to the pathogenesis of several neurodegenerative disorders. Recent work has highlighted the therapeutic potential of inhibiting two critical regulatory enzymes in this pathway—kynurenine-3-monooxygenase (KMO) and tryptophan-2,3-dioxygenase (TDO). Much evidence indicates that the efficacy of KMO inhibition arises from normalizing an imbalance between neurotoxic [3-hydroxykynurenine (3-HK); quinolinic acid (QUIN)] and neuroprotective [kynurenic acid (KYNA)] KP metabolites. However, it is not clear if TDO inhibition is protective via a similar mechanism or if this is instead due to increased levels of TRP—the substrate of TDO. Here, we find that increased levels of KYNA relative to 3-HK are likely central to the protection conferred by TDO inhibition in a fruit fly model of Huntington’s disease and that TRP treatment strongly reduces neurodegeneration by shifting KP flux toward KYNA synthesis. In fly models of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, we provide genetic evidence that inhibition of TDO or KMO improves locomotor performance and ameliorates shortened life span, as well as reducing neurodegeneration in Alzheimer’s model flies. Critically, we find that treatment with a chemical TDO inhibitor is robustly protective in these models. Consequently, our work strongly supports targeting of the KP as a potential treatment strategy for several major neurodegenerative disorders and suggests that alterations in the levels of neuroactive KP metabolites could underlie several therapeutic benefits.

neurodegeneration, KMO, TDO, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease


The kynurenine pathway (KP), the major catabolic route of tryptophan (TRP) metabolism in mammals (Fig. 1), has been closely linked to the pathogenesis of several brain disorders (1). This pathway contains several neuroactive metabolites, including 3-hydroxykynurenine (3-HK), quinolinic acid (QUIN) and kynurenic acid (KYNA) (2). QUIN is a well-characterized endogenous neurotoxin that specifically activates N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors, thereby inducing excitotoxicity (34). The metabolites 3-HK and QUIN are also neurotoxic via the generation of free radicals and oxidative stress (56). Conversely, KYNA—synthesized by kynurenine aminotransferases (KATs)—is neuroprotective through its antioxidant properties and antagonism of both the α7 nicotinic acetylcholine receptor and the glycine coagonist site of the NMDA receptor (713). Levels of these metabolites are regulated at two critical points in the KP: (i) the initial, rate-limiting conversion of TRP into N-formylkynurenine by either tryptophan-2,3-dioxygenase (TDO) or indoleamine-2,3-dioxygenase 1 and 2 (IDO1 and IDO2); and (ii) synthesis of 3-HK from kynurenine by the flavoprotein kynurenine-3-monoxygenase (KMO) (1).



Fig. 1.

Consequences of KP manipulation. KP metabolites and enzymatic steps are indicated in black, whereas the key KP enzymes TDO, KMO, and KATs are indicated in purple. The metabolites 3-HK and QUIN are neurotoxic (as indicated by red arrows), whereas KYNA and TRP are neuroprotective (as indicated by green arrows). Inhibition of TDO results in increased TRP levels, and either TDO or KMO inhibition leads to a reduction in the 3-HK/KYNA ratio (highlighted in blue). The enzyme 3-hydroxyanthranilic acid dioxygenase is not present in flies, and thus QUIN is not synthesized.

Alterations in levels of the KP metabolites have been observed in a broad range of brain disorders, including both neurodegenerative and psychiatric conditions (14). In neurodegenerative diseases such as Huntington’s (HD), Parkinson’s (PD), and Alzheimer’s (AD), a shift toward increased synthesis of the neurotoxic metabolites QUIN and 3-HK relative to KYNA may contribute to disease (1). Indeed, in patients with HD and HD model mice, 3-HK and QUIN levels are increased in the neostriatum and cortex (1516). Moreover, KYNA levels are reduced in the striatum of patients with HD (17). Several studies have also found perturbation in KP metabolites in the blood and cerebrospinal fluid of patients with AD, with decreased levels of KYNA correlating with reduced cognitive performance (1819). Similarly, in the basal ganglia of patients with PD, a reduction in KYNA levels combined with increased 3-HK has been observed (2021).

Drosophila melanogaster has provided a useful model for interrogation of the KP in both normal physiology and in neurodegenerative disease (2223). In fruit flies, TDO and KMO are encoded by vermillion (v) andcinnabar (cn), respectively, and both are implicated in Drosophila eye color pigmentation and brain plasticity (2425). In flies, TDO is the sole enzyme that catalyzes the initial step of the KP, as IDO1 and IDO2 are not present (Fig. 1), and so provides a distinctive model for examining the role of this critical step in the pathway. Moreover, we have previously found that downregulating cn and v gene expression significantly reduces neurodegeneration in flies expressing a mutant huntingtin (HTT) fragment—the central causative insult underlying HD (22). We also observed that pharmacological manipulations that reduced the 3-HK/KYNA ratio were always associated with neuroprotection. Notably, reintroduction of physiological levels of 3-HK in HD flies that lacked this metabolite due to KMO inhibition was sufficient to abolish neuroprotection (22). Furthermore, in a Caenorhabditis elegans model of PD, genetic down-regulation of TDO ameliorates α-synuclein (aSyn) toxicity (26). This effect appeared to be independent of changes in the levels of serotonin or KP metabolites but was correlated with increased TRP levels. Supplementing worms with TRP also suppressed aSyn-dependent phenotypes (26). The present study was designed to further define the mechanism(s) that underlies the neuroprotection conferred by TRP treatment and TDO inhibition and to extend our analyses of the neuroprotective potential of the KP to fruit fly models of AD and PD.



Impairments in KP metabolism have been linked to several neurodegenerative disorders, and in particular to the pathogenesis of HD (37). Notably, increased levels of 3-HK and QUIN have been measured in the neostriatum and cortex of patients with early stage HD (15), and these changes are associated with an up-regulation of IDO1 transcription (38) and a reduction in the activity of KAT, which is critical for KYNA synthesis (17). These data in patients with HD are supported by observations in HD mice, which show increased cerebral KMO activity (39). We previously found that either genetic or pharmacological inhibition of KMO is protective in HD flies and leads to a corresponding increase in KYNA levels relative to 3-HK (22). Furthermore, we reported that KYNA treatment reduced neurodegeneration in these flies. Here, we have extended this work by generating transgenic flies that overexpress hKAT and thereby synthesize ∼20-fold more KYNA than control flies. This increased formation of KYNA reduced neurodegeneration and eclosion defects in HD model flies. Furthermore, KMO inhibition by RNAi revealed beneficial effects in several behavioral and disease-relevant outcome measures, including larval crawling, longevity, climbing, and rhabdomere degeneration, in AD and PD model flies. These results strongly support the notion that KMO inhibition has relevance as a treatment strategy in a broad range of neurodegenerative diseases. In addition, these data also suggest that the design of small molecules capable of increasing KAT activity could have therapeutic relevance for neurodegenerative disorders.

The present results, demonstrating that both genetic and pharmacological inhibition of TDO provides robust neuroprotection in fly models of AD and PD, also confirmed and extended the results of our previous study, which had identified TDO as a candidate drug target in HD flies (22). These protective effects are associated with a decrease in the 3-HK/KYNA ratio, i.e., a shift toward increased KYNA synthesis. Work inC. elegans has revealed that TDO inhibition is also protective in models of proteotoxicity, although amelioration of the phenotypes occurred independently of changes in the levels of KP metabolites and was instead associated with elevated TRP levels (26). Although the underlying mechanism remained unclear, the favorable effects of high TRP levels in the nematode were substantiated by the fact that TRP treatment conferred robust protection from disease-related phenotypes (Fig. 1). In the present study, too, TRP supplementation of the diet was effective, ameliorating rhabdomere degeneration and eclosion defects in HD flies. However, TRP feeding was also associated with a reduction in the 3-HK/KYNA ratio, suggesting that the protective effects of the amino acid may be linked to an increase in the production of the neuroprotective metabolite KYNA (Fig. 1). Indeed, partial inhibition of KYNA synthesis in TDO-deficient flies proved sufficient to completely reverse neuroprotection. In addition, restoration of physiological 3-HK levels in TDO-deficient HD flies did not reverse neuroprotection, in contrast to KMO-deficient flies (22). In primary neurons, 3-HK toxicity is dependent upon its uptake via neutral amino acid transporters, and coapplication of TRP can block this toxicity by competing for the same transporters (6). Thus, it is possible that the vast excess of TRP observed in the heads of HTT93Q v−/− flies (approximately eightfold versus controls) competes with 3-HK for rhabdomere uptake, thereby requiring hyperphysiological levels of 3-HK to reverse TDO-dependent neuroprotection. A similar mechanism may also contribute to the neuroprotection observed with TRP treatment in general. Herein, we have also found that RNAi knockdown of either cn or v does not increase TRP levels, and thus the neuroprotection observed in the AD and PD flies strongly correlates with a decrease in the 3-HK/KYNA ratio. The mechanism causing TRP treatment to favor KYNA synthesis over the formation of 3-HK in Drosophila, as well as the unexpected qualitative differences in the effects of TDO inhibition and TRP administration on KP metabolism between fruit flies and nematodes, clearly requires further investigation.

Interestingly, we found that QUIN—which is not normally synthesized in fruit flies (30)—potentiated neurodegeneration in HD flies, and reversed the protective effects of KMO inhibition. As the same QUIN treatment did not cause neuron loss in wild-type flies, mutant HTT may potentiate vulnerability by enhancing NMDA receptor function (4041) and/or by increasing susceptibility to toxic free radicals (42), i.e., by augmenting the two major mechanisms known to be involved in QUIN-induced neurotoxicity (43). If verified in mammals, a reduction in brain QUIN levels—along with a decrease in 3-HK levels—relative to KYNA could therefore be especially promising in the treatment of HD (44). Our observation of increased levels of QUIN in HTT93Q versus WT flies is enigmatic, but may be due to altered feeding behavior, increased permeability of the blood–brain barrier (4546), or differences in KP metabolism, and would be interesting to explore in future studies.

In conclusion, the present set of experiments further validates the hypothesis that KP metabolism is causally linked to neuronal viability and that modulation of the KP constitutes a promising therapeutic strategy for a variety of major neurodegenerative disorders. Notably, we provide the first genetic evidence to our knowledge that KMO inhibition is protective in animal models of PD and AD and that pharmacological targeting of TDO is also neuroprotective. We have clarified the mechanism underlying the protective effects of TDO inhibition, which will stimulate efforts to target this step of the KP in neurodegenerative disease. These results, together with supportive studies in flies (47) and rodents (48), raise the possibility that inhibition of TDO and KMO—or combinatorial treatment—may offer therapeutic advantages. The availability of new TDO inhibitors (4950), and access to the crystal structures of both TDO (51) and KMO (52), should allow further testing of these hypotheses in the near future.





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Cancer detection and therapeutics, Volume 2 (Volume Two: Latest in Genomics Methodologies for Therapeutics: Gene Editing, NGS and BioInformatics, Simulations and the Genome Ontology), Part 1: Next Generation Sequencing (NGS)

Cancer detection and therapeutics

Curator: Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP



Kurzweill Reports


Machine learning rivals human skills in cancer detection

Two announcements yesterday (April 21) suggest that deep learning algorithms rival human skills in detecting cancer from ultrasound images and in identifying cancer in pathology reports.

Samsung Medison RS80A ultrasound imaging system (credit: Samsung)

Samsung Medison, a global medical equipment company and an affiliate of Samsung Electronics, has just updated its RS80A ultrasound imaging system with a deep learning algorithm for breast-lesion analysis.

The “S-Detect for Breast” feature uses big data collected from breast-exam cases and recommends whether the selected lesion is benign or malignant. It’s used in in lesion segmentation, characteristic analysis, and assessment processes, providing “more accurate results.”

“We saw a high level of conformity from analyzing and detecting lesion in various cases by using the S-Detect,” said professor Han Boo Kyung, a radiologist at Samsung Medical Center.

“Users can reduce taking unnecessary biopsies and doctors-in-training will likely have more reliable support in accurately detecting malignant and suspicious lesions.”

Deep learning is better than humans in extracting meaning from cancer pathology reports

Meanwhile, researchers from the Regenstrief Institute and Indiana University School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis say they’ve found that open-source machine learning tools are as good as — or better than — humans in extracting crucial meaning from free-text (unstructured) pathology reports and detecting cancer cases. The computer tools are also faster and less resource-intensive.

(U.S. states require cancer cases to be reported to statewide cancer registries for disease tracking, identification of at-risk populations, and recognition of unusual trends or clusters. This free-text information can be difficult for health officials to interpret, which can further delay health department action, when action is needed.)

“We think that its no longer necessary for humans to spend time reviewing text reports to determine if cancer is present or not,” said study senior author Shaun Grannis*, M.D., M.S., interim director of the Regenstrief Center of Biomedical Informatics.

Awash in oceans of data

“We have come to the point in time that technology can handle this. A human’s time is better spent helping other humans by providing them with better clinical care. Everything — physician practices, health care systems, health information exchanges, insurers, as well as public health departments — are awash in oceans of data. How can we hope to make sense of this deluge of data? Humans can’t do it — but computers can.”

This is especially relevant for underserved nations, where a majority of clinical data is collected in the form of unstructured free text, he said.

The researchers sampled 7,000 free-text pathology reports from over 30 hospitals that participate in the Indiana Health Information Exchange and used open source tools, classification algorithms, and varying feature selection approaches to predict if a report was positive or negative for cancer. The results indicated that a fully automated review yielded results similar or better than those of trained human reviewers, saving both time and money.

Major infrastructure advance

“We found that artificial intelligence was as least as accurate as humans in identifying cancer cases from free-text clinical data. For example the computer ‘learned’ that the word ‘sheet’ or ‘sheets’ signified cancer as ‘sheet’ or ‘sheets of cells’ are used in pathology reports to indicate malignancy.

“This is not an advance in ideas; it’s a major infrastructure advance — we have the technology, we have the data, we have the software from which we saw accurate, rapid review of vast amounts of data without human oversight or supervision.”

The study was published in the April 2016 issue of the Journal of Biomedical Informatics. It was conducted with support from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Co-authors of the study include researchers at the IU Fairbanks School of Public Health, the IU School of Medicine and the School of Science at IUPUI.

* Grannis, a Regenstrief Institute investigator and an associate professor of family medicine at the IU School of Medicine, is the architect of the Regenstrief syndromic surveillance detector for communicable diseases and led the technical implementation of Indiana’s Public Health Emergency Surveillance System — one of the nation’s largest. Studies over the past decade have shown that this system detects outbreaks of communicable diseases seven to nine days earlier and finds four times as many cases as human reporting while providing more complete data.

Yann Lecun is Director of AI Research, Facebook and a noted deep-learning expert. 


Toward better public health reporting using existing off the shelf approaches: A comparison of alternative cancer detection approaches using plaintext medical data and non-dictionary based feature selection

Suranga N. Kasthurirathnea, , Brian E. Dixonb, cJudy GichoyadHuiping XucYuni XiadBurke Mamlinb, dShaun J. Grannisb, d


• Cancer cases can be identified in unstructured clinical data to support public health reporting.
• Such cancer detection methods do not require complex external ontologies or human intervention.
• Such approaches can identify cases with sensitivity, specificity, PPV, accuracy, and AUC exceeding 80–90%.
• Automated cancer detection methods perform as well as approaches that require costly clinician input.
• These approaches may be generalized for other health analytics applications and healthcare domains.



Increased adoption of electronic health records has resulted in increased availability of free text clinical data for secondary use. A variety of approaches to obtain actionable information from unstructured free text data exist. These approaches are resource intensive, inherently complex and rely on structured clinical data and dictionary-based approaches. We sought to evaluate the potential to obtain actionable information from free text pathology reports using routinely available tools and approaches that do not depend on dictionary-based approaches.

Materials and methods

We obtained pathology reports from a large health information exchange and evaluated the capacity to detect cancer cases from these reports using 3 non-dictionary feature selection approaches, 4 feature subset sizes, and 5 clinical decision models: simple logistic regression, naïve bayes, k-nearest neighbor, random forest, and J48 decision tree. The performance of each decision model was evaluated using sensitivity, specificity, accuracy, positive predictive value, and area under the receiver operating characteristics (ROC) curve.


Decision models parameterized using automated, informed, and manual feature selection approaches yielded similar results. Furthermore, non-dictionary classification approaches identified cancer cases present in free text reports with evaluation measures approaching and exceeding 80–90% for most metrics.


Our methods are feasible and practical approaches for extracting substantial information value from free text medical data, and the results suggest that these methods can perform on par, if not better, than existing dictionary-based approaches. Given that public health agencies are often under-resourced and lack the technical capacity for more complex methodologies, these results represent potentially significant value to the public health field.

Graphical abstract
 Image for unlabelled figure

Scientists shoot anticancer drugs deep into tumors

Ultrasonic vibrations cause gas microbubbles to explode, releasing nanoparticles containing anticancer drugs

Schematic of a magnetic microbubble used in the study, containing gas core (blue) and shell of magnetic iron-oxide nanoparticles (red) that form a dense shell (center) around drug-containing nanoparticles. When stimulated by ultrasound at resonant frequencies, the microbubbles explode, releasing the nanoparticles, which can travel hundreds of micrometers into tumor tissue to deliver anticancer drugs and can also be imaged on an MRI machine. (credit: Yu Gao et al./NPG Asia Materials)    http://www.kurzweilai.net/images/magnetic-microbubble.jpg


Scientists at Nanyang Technological University (NTU Singapore) have invented a new way to deliver cancer drugs deep into tumor cells.

They created micro-sized gas bubbles coated with anticancer drug particles embedded in iron oxide nanoparticles and used MRI or other magnetic sources to direct these microbubbles to gather around a specific tumor. Then they used ultrasound to vibrate the microbubbles, providing the energy to direct the drug particles into a targeted kill zone in the tumor. The magnetic nanoparticles also allow for imaging in an MRI machine.

The microbubbles were successfully tested in mice and the study has been published by the Nature Publishing Group in Asia Materials.

Overcoming limitations of chemotherapy

This innovative technique was developed by a multidisciplinary team of scientists led by Asst Prof C. J. Xu from the School of Chemical and Biomedical Engineering and Assoc. Prof Claus-Dieter Ohl from the School of Physical and Mathematical Sciences.

Xu, who is also a researcher at the NTU-Northwestern Institute for Nanomedicine, said their new method may solve some of the most pressing problems faced in chemotherapy used to treat cancer.

The main problem is that current chemotherapy drugs cannot be easily targeted. The drug particles flow in the bloodstream, damaging both healthy and cancerous cells. Typically, these drugs are flushed away quickly in organs such as the lungs and liver, limiting their effectiveness.

The remaining drugs are also unable to penetrate deep into the core of the tumor, leaving some cancer cells alive, which could lead to a resurgence in tumor growth.

Delivering anticancer drugs deep into tumors

Schematic of the apparatus used to investigate magnetic microbubble oscillation and nanoparticle release (credit: Yu Gao et al./NPG Asia Materials)

The microbubbles are magnetic, so after injecting them into the bloodstream, they can be clustered around the tumor using magnets to ensure that they don’t kill the healthy cells, explains Xu, who has been working on cancer diagnosis and drug delivery systems since 2004.

“More importantly, our invention is the first of its kind that allows drug particles to be directed deep into a tumor in a few milliseconds. They can penetrate a depth of 50 cell layers or more (about 200 micrometers) — twice the width of a human hair. This helps to ensure that the drugs can reach the cancer cells on the surface and also inside the core of the tumor.”

According to Clinical Associate Professor Chia Sing Joo, a Senior Consultant at the Tan Tock Seng Hospital’s Endoscopy Centre and the Urology & Continence Clinic, “For anticancer drugs to achieve their best effectiveness, they need to penetrate into the tumor efficiently in order to reach the cytoplasm of all the cancer cells that are being targeted without affecting the normal cells.

“Currently, this can [only] be achieved by means of a direct injection into the tumor or by administering a large dosage of anticancer drugs, which can be painful, expensive, impractical and might have various side effects. If successful, I envisage [the new drug-delivery system] can be a good alternative treatment in the future, one which is low cost and yet effective for the treatment of cancers involving solid tumors, as it might minimize the side effects of drugs.” Joo is a surgeon experienced in the treatment of prostate, bladder and kidney cancer and a consultant for this study.

According to Ohl, an expert in biophysics who has published previous studies involving drug delivery systems and bubble dynamics, “most prototype drug delivery systems on the market face three main challenges before they can be commercially successful: they have to be non-invasive, patient-friendly, and yet cost-effective. We were able to come up with our solution that addresses these three challenges.”

The 12-person study team included scientists from City University of Hong Kong and Technion – Israel Institute of Technology (Technion). The team plans to use this new drug delivery system in studies on lung and liver cancer using animal models, and eventually clinical studies.

They estimate that it will take another eight to ten years before it reaches human clinical trials.


Abstract of Controlled nanoparticle release from stable magnetic microbubble oscillations

Magnetic microbubbles (MMBs) are microbubbles (MBs) coated with magnetic nanoparticles (NPs). MMBs not only maintain the acoustic properties of MBs, but also serve as an important contrast agent for magnetic resonance imaging. Such dual-modality functionality makes MMBs particularly useful for a wide range of biomedical applications, such as localized drug/gene delivery. This article reports the ability of MMBs to release their particle cargo on demand under stable oscillation. When stimulated by ultrasound at resonant frequencies, MMBs of 450 nm to 200 μm oscillate in volume and surface modes. Above an oscillation threshold, NPs are released from the MMB shell and can travel hundreds of micrometers from the surface of the bubble. The migration of NPs from MMBs can be described with a force balance model. With this technology, we deliver doxorubicin-containing poly(lactic-co-glycolic acid) particles across a physiological barrier bothin vitro and in vivo, with a 18-fold and 5-fold increase in NP delivery to the heart tissue of zebrafish and tumor tissue of mouse, respectively. The penetration of released NPs in tissues is also improved. The ability to remotely control the release of NPs from MMBs suggests opportunities for targeted drug delivery through/into tissues that are not easily diffused through or penetrated.



Artificial protein controls first self-assembly of C60 fullerenes

New discovery expected to lead to new materials with properties such as higher strength, lighter weight, and greater chemical reactivity, resulting in applications ranging from medicine to energy and electronics
Buckminsterfullerene (C60), aka fullerene and buckyball (credit: St Stev via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND)   http://www.kurzweilai.net/images/Dartmouth-Artificial-Protein-Study.jpg

A Dartmouth College scientist and his collaborators* have created the first high-resolution co-assembly between a protein and buckminsterfullerene (C60), aka fullerene and buckyball (a sphere-like molecule composed of 60 carbon atoms and shaped like a soccer ball).

“This is a proof-of-principle study demonstrating that proteins can be used as effective vehicles for organizing nanomaterials by design,” says senior author Gevorg Grigoryan, an assistant professor of computer science at Dartmouth and senior author of a study discussed in an open-access paper in the journal in Nature Communications.

Proteins organize and orchestrate essentially all molecular processes in our cells. The goal of the new study was to create a new artificial protein that can direct the self-assembly of fullerene into ordered superstructures.

COP, a stable tetramer (a polymer derived from four identical single molecule) in isolation, interacts with C60 (fullerene) molecules via a surface-binding site and further self-assembles into a co-crystalline array called C60Sol–COP (credit: Kook-Han Kim et al./Nature Communications)   http://www.kurzweilai.net/images/self-assembly-with-fullernene.jpg

Grigoryan and his colleagues show that that their artificial protein organizes a fullerene into a lattice called C60Sol–COP. COP, a protein that is a stable tetramer (a polymer derived from four identical single molecules), interacted with fullerene molecules via a surface-binding site and further self-assembled into an ordered crystalline superstructure. Interestingly, the superstructure exhibits high charge conductance, whereas both the protein-alone crystal and amorphous C60 are electrically insulating.

Grigoryan says that if we learn to do the programmable self-assembly of precisely organized molecular building blocks more generally, it will lead to a range of new materials with properties such as higher strength, lighter weight, and greater chemical reactivity, resulting in a host of applications, from medicine to energy and electronics.

Fullerenes are currently used in nanotechnology because of their high heat resistance and electrical superconductivity (when doped), but the molecule has been difficult to organize in useful ways.

* The study also included researchers from Dartmouth College, Sungkyunkwan University, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, the National Institute of Science Education and Research, the University of California-San Francisco, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Institute for Basic Science.

Abstract of Protein-directed self-assembly of a fullerene crystal

Learning to engineer self-assembly would enable the precise organization of molecules by design to create matter with tailored properties. Here we demonstrate that proteins can direct the self-assembly of buckminsterfullerene (C60) into ordered superstructures. A previously engineered tetrameric helical bundle binds C60 in solution, rendering it water soluble. Two tetramers associate with one C60, promoting further organization revealed in a 1.67-Å crystal structure. Fullerene groups occupy periodic lattice sites, sandwiched between two Tyr residues from adjacent tetramers. Strikingly, the assembly exhibits high charge conductance, whereas both the protein-alone crystal and amorphous C60 are electrically insulating. The affinity of C60 for its crystal-binding site is estimated to be in the nanomolar range, with lattices of known protein crystals geometrically compatible with incorporating the motif. Taken together, these findings suggest a new means of organizing fullerene molecules into a rich variety of lattices to generate new properties by design.


Protein-directed self-assembly of a fullerene crystal

Kook-Han KimDong-Kyun KoYong-Tae KimNam Hyeong Kim,….., Yong Ho Kim Gevorg Grigoryan
Nature Communications 2016;7,(11429)

Programmable self-assembly of molecular building blocks is a highly desirable way of achieving bottom-up control over novel functions and materials. Applications of molecular assemblies are well explored in the literature, ranging from optoelectronic1, 2, magnetic3, and photovoltaic4 devices to chemical and bioanalytical sensing5, and medicine6. However, it has been a daunting challenge to quantitatively describe and control the driving forces that govern self-assembly, particularly given the broad range of molecular building blocks one would like to organize. In this respect, nature’s self-assembling macromolecules hold considerable promise as standard chassis for encoding precise organization. By learning to engineer the assembly of these molecules, myriad other molecular building blocks can be co-organized in desired ways through non-covalent or covalent attachment. The protein polymer is a particularly attractive candidate for a standard assembly chassis given its rich chemical alphabet, diversity of available assembly geometries, broad ability to engage other molecular moieties, and the possibility of engineered function. Considerable progress has been made in the area of engineering protein assemblies7, 8, using either computational9, 10,11, 12, 13, 14 or rational approaches15, 16, 17, 18, but the problem remains a grand challenge. A major difficulty lies in accounting for the enormous continuum of possible assembly geometries available to proteins to engineer a sequence that predictably prefers just one. General design principles, which provide predictive rules of assembly, are thus of enormous utility in limiting the geometric search space and enabling robust design11, 19.

In this work, we demonstrate the first ever high-resolution structure of co-assembly between a protein and buckminsterfullerene (C60), which suggests a simple structural mode for protein–fullerene co-organization. Three separate crystal structures, resolved to 1.67, 1.76 and 2.35Å, reveal a protein lattice with C60 groups occupying periodic sites wedged between two helical segments, each donating a Tyr residue. A half site of the motif is estimated to have nM-scale affinity for C60, such that binding of fullerene appears to direct the organization of protein units in the co-crystal. The assembly exhibits a nm-spaced helical arrangement of fullerenes along a crystallographic axis, endowing the crystal with electrical conductance properties. We closely investigate the interfacial geometry of the C60-binding motif, finding it to be common among protein crystal lattices. C60 and its derivatives have been previously reported to interact with several proteins20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, although a high-resolution structure of a protein–C60 has been lacking. Still, prior evidence of interaction indicates that fullerenes and proteins are compatible as materials. This, together with the simple (and naturally recurrent) geometry of the C60-binding motif we discover, suggests that it may be possible to use the structural principles emergent from our study to generate a variety of C60–protein co-assemblies to further explore and exploit the properties of fullerenes26.


The aim of programmable self-assembly is to anticipate and harness unique collective properties that arise from precisely organized molecular building blocks. To this end, achieving atomic-level precision is crucial. This work demonstrates the first atomic resolution structures of a fullerene–protein assembly, establishing the feasibility of creating such objects, and further suggests a possible design principle for engineering such assemblies in general. How robust the discovered C60-binding motif is towards designing novel assemblies will need to be tested through a number of future design studies. However, the straightforward manner in which self-organization arose in our case, the simplicity of the C60-organizing motif in the lattice, together with its high affinity and the ubiquity of associated interfaces in natural protein lattices, are certainly promising with respect to the general applicability of the design principle. Our work also demonstrates the potential utility of exploring C60/protein co-organization, as derived supercrystals already showed synergistic charge conductance properties. Taken together, these results point to an exciting direction of inquiry towards generating protein–fullerene assemblies for the study and design of novel properties.


Scientists turn skin cells into heart and brain cells using only drugs — no stem cells required

Closer to the natural regeneration that happens in animals like newts and salamanders and no medical-safety and embryo concerns
Neurons created from chemically induced neural stem cells. The cells were created from skin cells that were reprogrammed into neural stem cells using a cocktail of only nine chemicals. This is the first time cellular reprogramming has been accomplished without adding external genes to the cells. (credit: Mingliang Zhang, PhD, Gladstone Institutes)   http://www.kurzweilai.net/images/Neurons-Created-From-Chemically-Induced-Neural-Stem-Cells.jpg

Scientists at the Gladstone Institutes have used chemicals to transform skin cells into heart cells and brain cells, instead of adding external genes — making this accomplishment a breakthrough, according to the scientists.

The research lays the groundwork for one day being able to regenerate lost or damaged cells directly with pharmaceutical drugs — a more efficient and reliable method to reprogram cells and one that avoids medical concerns surrounding genetic engineering.

Instead, in two studies published in an open-access paper in Science and in Cell Stem Cell, the team of scientists at the Roddenberry Center for Stem Cell Biology and Medicine at Gladstone used chemical cocktails to gradually coax skin cells to change into organ-specific stem-cell-like cells and ultimately into heart or brain cells.

“This method brings us closer to being able to generate new cells at the site of injury in patients,” said Gladstone senior investigator Sheng Ding, PhD, the senior author on both studies. “Our hope is to one day treat diseases like heart failure or Parkinson’s disease with drugs that help the heart and brain regenerate damaged areas from their own existing tissue cells. This process is much closer to the natural regeneration that happens in animals like newts and salamanders, which has long fascinated us.”

Chemically Repaired Hearts

A human heart cell that was chemically reprogrammed from a human skin cell (credit: Nan Cao/Gladstone Institutes)  http://www.kurzweilai.net/images/chemically-programmed-heart-cell.jpg

Transplanted adult heart cells do not survive or integrate properly into the heart and few stem cells can be coaxed into becoming heart cells.

Instead, in the Science study, the researchers used a cocktail of nine chemicals to change human skin cells into beating heart cells. By trial and error, they found the best combination of chemicals to begin the process by changing the cells into a state resembling multipotent stem cells (cells that can turn into many different types of cells in a particular organ). A second cocktail of chemicals and growth factors then helped transition the cells to become heart muscle cells.

With this method, more than 97% of the cells began beating, a characteristic of fully developed, healthy heart cells. The cells also responded appropriately to hormones, and molecularly, they resembled heart muscle cells, not skin cells. What’s more, when the cells were transplanted into a mouse heart early in the process, they developed into healthy-looking heart muscle cells within the organ.

“The ultimate goal in treating heart failure is a robust, reliable way for the heart to create new muscle cells,” said Srivastava, co-senior author on the Science paper. “Reprogramming a patient’s own cells could provide the safest and most efficient way to regenerate dying or diseased heart muscle.”

Rejuvenating the brain with neural stem cell-like cells

In the second study, authored by Gladstone postdoctoral scholar Mingliang Zhang, PhD, and published in Cell Stem Cell, the scientists created neural stem-cell-like cells from mouse skin cells using a similar approach.

The chemical cocktail again consisted of nine molecules, some of which overlapped with those used in the first study. Over ten days, the cocktail changed the identity of the cells, until all of the skin-cell genes were turned off and the genes of the neural stem-cell-like cells were gradually turned on.

When transplanted into mice, the neural stem-cell-like cells spontaneously developed into the three basic types of brain cells: neurons, oligodendrocytes, and astrocytes. The neural stem-cell-like cells were also able to self-replicate, making them ideal for treating neurodegenerative diseases or brain injury.

With their improved safety, these neural stem-cell-like cells could one day be used for cell replacement therapy in neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease, according to co-senior author Yadong Huang, MD, PhD, a senior investigator at Gladstone. “In the future, we could even imagine treating patients with a drug cocktail that acts on the brain or spinal cord, rejuvenating cells in the brain in real time.”


Gladstone Institutes | Chemically Reprogrammed Beating Heart Cell

Abstract of Conversion of human fibroblasts into functional cardiomyocytes by small molecules

Reprogramming somatic fibroblasts into alternative lineages would provide a promising source of cells for regenerative therapy. However, transdifferentiating human cells to specific homogeneous, functional cell types is challenging. Here we show that cardiomyocyte-like cells can be generated by treating human fibroblasts with a combination of nine compounds (9C). The chemically induced cardiomyocyte-like cells (ciCMs) uniformly contracted and resembled human cardiomyocytes in their transcriptome, epigenetic, and electrophysiological properties. 9C treatment of human fibroblasts resulted in a more open-chromatin conformation at key heart developmental genes, enabling their promoters/enhancers to bind effectors of major cardiogenic signals. When transplanted into infarcted mouse hearts, 9C-treated fibroblasts were efficiently converted to ciCMs. This pharmacological approach for lineage-specific reprogramming may have many important therapeutic implications after further optimization to generate mature cardiac cells.

Abstract of Pharmacological Reprogramming of Fibroblasts into Neural Stem Cells by Signaling-Directed Transcriptional Activation

Cellular reprogramming using chemically defined conditions, without genetic manipulation, is a promising approach for generating clinically relevant cell types for regenerative medicine and drug discovery. However, small-molecule approaches for inducing lineage-specific stem cells from somatic cells across lineage boundaries have been challenging. Here, we report highly efficient reprogramming of mouse fibroblasts into induced neural stem cell-like cells (ciNSLCs) using a cocktail of nine components (M9). The resulting ciNSLCs closely resemble primary neural stem cells molecularly and functionally. Transcriptome analysis revealed that M9 induces a gradual and specific conversion of fibroblasts toward a neural fate. During reprogramming specific transcription factors such as Elk1 and Gli2 that are downstream of M9-induced signaling pathways bind and activate endogenous master neural genes to specify neural identity. Our study provides an effective chemical approach for generating neural stem cells from mouse fibroblasts and reveals mechanistic insights into underlying reprogramming processes.


Ultrafast laser technique identifies brain tumors in real time

04/19/2016  Posted by Lee DubayAssociate Editor, BioOptics World

A research group at VU University Amsterdam (The Netherlands) has shown that an ultrafast laser technique can reveal exactly where brain tumors are, producing images in less than a minute and enabling surgeons to removetumors without compromising healthy tissue.

Related: OCT-based approach facilitates brain cancer surgery

Pathologists typically use staining methods, in which chemicals like hematoxylin and eosin turn different tissue components blue and red, revealing its structure and whether there are any tumor cells. But for a definitive diagnosis, this process can take up to 24 hours—which means surgeons may not realize some cancerous tissue has escaped from their attention until after surgery, requiring a second operation and more risk.

But the research team’s new ultrafast laser technique is label-free—instead, they fire short, 20-fs-long laser pulses into the tissue, and when three photons converge at the same time and place, the photons interact with the nonlinear optical properties of the tissue. Through well-known phenomena in optics called second- and third-harmonic generation, these interactions produce a single photon.

The key is that the incoming and outgoing photons have different wavelengths. The incoming photons are at 1200 nm, long enough to penetrate deep into the tissue. The single photon that is produced, however, is at 600 or 400 nm, depending on if it’s second- or third-harmonic generation. The shorter wavelengths mean the photon can scatter in the tissue. The scattered photon thus contains information about the tissue, and when it reaches a detector—in this case, a high-sensitivity gallium arsenide phosphide (GaAsP) photomultiplier tube—it reveals what the tissue looks like inside.

Tissue from a patient diagnosed with low-grade glioma. The green image is taken with the new method, while the pink uses conventional hematoxylin and eosin staining. Going from the upper left to the lower right, both images show increasing cell density because of more tumor tissue. The insets reveal the high density of tumor cells. (Credit: N.V. Kuzmin et al, VU University Amsterdam, The Netherlands)

The research team used the technique to analyze glial brain tumors, which are particularly deadly because it’s hard to get rid of tumor cells by surgery, irradiation, and chemotherapy without substantial collateral damage to the surrounding brain tissue. They tested their method on samples of glial brain tumors from humans, finding that the histological detail in these images was as good—if not better—than those made with conventional staining techniques. They were able to make most images in under a minute. The smaller ones took less than a second, while larger images of a few square millimeters took five minutes—making it possible to do it in real time in the operating room, according to Marloes Groot of VU University Amsterdam, who led the work.

Now that they’ve shown their approach works, the researchers are developing a handheld device that a surgeon can use to identify a tumor’s border during surgery. The incoming laser pulses can only reach a depth of about 100 µm into the tissue. To reach farther, Groot envisions attaching a needle that can pierce the tissue and deliver photons deeper, allowing diagnosis during an operation and possibly before surgery begins.

Full details of the work appear in the journal Biomedical Optics Express; for more information, please visit http://dx.doi.org/10.1364/boe.7.001889.

Third harmonic generation imaging for fast, label-free pathology of human brain tumors

N. V. Kuzmin, P. Wesseling, P. C. de Witt Hamer, D. P. Noske, G. D. Galgano, H. D. Mansvelder, J. C. Baayen, and M. L. Groot
Biomedical Optics Express > Volume 7 > Issue 5 > Page 1889

In brain tumor surgery, recognition of tumor boundaries is key. However, intraoperative assessment of tumor boundaries by the neurosurgeon is difficult. Therefore, there is an urgent need for tools that provide the neurosurgeon with pathological information during the operation. We show that third harmonic generation (THG) microscopy provides label-free, real-time images of histopathological quality; increased cellularity, nuclear pleomorphism, and rarefaction of neuropil in fresh, unstained human brain tissue could be clearly recognized. We further demonstrate THG images taken with a GRIN objective, as a step toward in situ THG microendoscopy of tumor boundaries. THG imaging is thus a promising tool for optical biopsies.



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Alzheimer Disease Developments – Spring 2015

Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP, Curator




Cognitive Stimulation Modulates Platelet Total Phospholipases A2 Activity in Subjects with Mild Cognitive Impairment


JNK: A Putative Link Between Insulin Signaling and VGLUT1 in Alzheimer’s Disease

Omega-3 Fatty Acid Status Enhances the Prevention of Cognitive Decline by B Vitamins in Mild Cognitive ImpairmentOpenly Available
Oulhaj, Abderrahim | Jernerén, Fredrik | Refsum, Helga | Smith, A. David | de Jager, Celeste A.

Preliminary Study of Plasma Exosomal Tau as a Potential Biomarker for Chronic Traumatic EncephalopathyOpenly Available
Stern, Robert A. | Tripodis, Yorghos | Baugh, Christine M. | Fritts, Nathan G. | Martin, Brett M. | Chaisson, Christine | Cantu, Robert C. | Joyce, James A. | Shah, Sahil | Ikezu, Tsuneya | Zhang, Jing | Gercel-Taylor, Cicek | Taylor, Douglas D

AZD3293: A Novel, Orally Active BACE1 Inhibitor with High Potency and Permeability and Markedly Slow Off-Rate KineticsOpenly Available
Eketjäll, Susanna | Janson, Juliette | Kaspersson, Karin | Bogstedt, Anna | Jeppsson, Fredrik | Fälting, Johanna | Haeberlein, Samantha Budd | Kugler, Alan R. | Alexander, Robert C. | Cebers, Gvido

Predictive Value of Cerebrospinal Fluid Visinin-Like Protein-1 Levels for Alzheimer’s Disease Early Detection and Differential Diagnosis in Patients with Mild Cognitive Impairment
Babić Leko, Mirjana | Borovečki, Fran | Dejanović, Nenad | Hof, Patrick R. | Šimić, Goran

Plasma Phospholipid and Sphingolipid Alterations in Presenilin1 Mutation Carriers: A Pilot Study
Chatterjee, Pratishtha | Lim, Wei L.F. | Shui, Guanghou | Gupta, Veer B. | James, Ian | …… | Wenk, Marcus R. | Bateman, Randall J. | Morris, John C. | Martins, Ralph N.

Cognitive reserve in ageing and Alzheimer’s disease / Stern Y / Lancet Neurol. 2012 Nov; 11(11):1006-12. PMID: 23079557.

A mutation in APP protects against Alzheimer’s disease and age-related cognitive decline/ Jonsson T, Atwal JK, Steinberg S, Snaedal J, Jonsson PV, Bjornsson S, Stefansson H, Sulem P, Gudbjartsson D, Maloney J, et al. / Nature. 2012 Aug 2; 488(7409):96-9. PMID: 22801501.

 Propagation of tau pathology in a model of early Alzheimer’s disease / de Calignon A, Polydoro M, Suárez-Calvet M, William C, Adamowicz DH, Kopeikina KJ, Pitstick R, Sahara N, Ashe KH, Carlson GA, et al. / Neuron. 2012 Feb 23; 73(4):685-97. PMID: 22365544.

Stages of the pathologic process in Alzheimer disease: age categories from 1 to 100 years/ Braak H, Thal DR, Ghebremedhin E, Del Tredici K / J Neuropathol Exp Neurol. 2011 Nov; 70(11):960-9. PMID: 22002422.

Neuroinflammation in Alzheimer’s disease and mild cognitive impairment: a field in its infancy / McGeer EG, McGeer PL / J Alzheimers Dis. 2010; 19(1):355-61. PMID: 20061650.

Metallothioneins in Prion- and Amyloid-Related Diseases


Microglia are the immune cells of the CNS and account for approximately 10% of the CNS cellpopulation, with regional variation in density [27, 28]. During embryonic development, microglia originate from yolk sac progenitor cells that migrate into the developing CNS during early embryogenesis [29,30].Following construction of the blood-brain barrier (BBB), microglia are renewed by local turnover [31]. In the healthy brain, microglia actively support neurons through the release of insulin-like growth factor 1, nerve growth factor, ciliary neurotrophic factor, and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) [32–34]. Microglia also provide indirect support to neurons by clearance of debris to maintain the extracellular environment, and phagocytosis of apoptotic cells to facilitate neurogenesis [35, 36]. In the adult brain, microglia coordinate much of their activity with astrocytes and activate in response to similar stimuli [37, 38]. Dysfunctional signaling between microglia and astrocytes often results in chronic inflammation, a characteristic of many neurodegenerative diseases [39, 40].

Historically, it has been thought that microglia ‘rest’ when not responding to inflammatory stimuli or damage [41, 42]. However, this notion is being increasingly recognized as inaccurate [43]. When not involved in active inflammatory signaling, microglia constantly patrol the neuropil by extension and retraction of their finely branched processes [44]. Microglial activation is often broadly classified into two states; pro-inflammatory (M1) or anti-inflammatory (M2) [36, 45], based on similar phenotypes in peripheral macrophages [46]. M1 activated microglia are characterized by increased expression of pro-inflammatory mediators and cytokines, including inducible nitric oxide synthase, tumor necrosis factor-α, and interleukin-1β, often under the control of the transcription factor nuclear factor-κB [45]. Pro-inflammatory microglia rapidly retract their processes and adopt an amoeboid morphology and often migrate closer to the site of injury [47]. Anti-inflammatory M2 activation of microglia, often referred to as alternative activation, represents the other side of microglial behavior. Anti-inflammatory activation is characterized by increased expression of cytokines including arginase 1 and interleukin-10, and is associated with increased ramification of processes [45]. The polarization of microglia into M1 or M2 throughout the brain is well characterized, especially in neurodegenerative diseases [48]. In the AD brain, microglia expressing markers of M1 activation are typically localized to brain regions such as the hippocampus that are most heavily affected in the disease [49]. However, it is important to note that M1 and M2 classifications of microglia may over-simplify microglial phenotypes and may only represent the extremes of microglial activation [50]. It has been more recently proposed that microglia likely occupy a continuum between these phenotypes [39, 51].

Do microglia have multiple roles in AD?

Classical pro-inflammatory activation of microglia has long been associated with AD [39, 49]. Samples taken from late-stage AD brains contain characteristic signs of inflammation, including amoeboid morphology of microglia, high levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines in the cerebrospinal fluid, and evidence of neuronal damage due to chronic exposure to pro-inflammatory cytokines and oxidative stress [52, 53]. The cause of this inflammation may be in response to direct toxicity of Aβ to neurons resulting in activation of nearby microglia and astrocytes [53, 54]. However, Aβ may also induce inflammatory activation of microglia and astrocytes. Activated immune cells are typically present surrounding amyloid plaques [55–57], with such peri-plaque cells exhibiting strong evidence of pro-inflammatory activation [56, 58–60]. The presence of undigested Aβ particles within these activated microglia may suggest that the Aβ peptide itself is a pro-inflammatory signal for microglia [61–64]. In vitro experiments provide supporting evidence for the in vivo studies, with Aβ promoting pro-inflammatory microglial activation [65, 66], and also acting as a potent chemotactic signal [67].

However, it is important to note that although widespread inflammation is characteristic of late-stage AD, it remains unclear what role inflammation could play in early stages of the disease. Some evidence suggests that reducing inflammation through the long-term use of some non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can reduce the risk of AD [68]. However, these findings have not yet been verified in clinical trials [69, 70]. Little is understood about how NSAIDs and related compounds affect the delicate balance of pro- versus anti-inflammatory microglial activity within the brain. Although there is considerable evidence to suggest that chronic inflammation may contribute to pathology in the later stages of AD, it is important to note that inflammation normally only represents a small aspect of microglial function. The non-inflammatory functions of microglia may play a more important role in early disease; specifically, microglial functions relating to maintenance of the CNS.

Phagocytosis: A vital role of microglia that may be lost in AD    


Recently, a new function has been proposed for microglia. A number of studies have provided evidence that microglia prune synapses throughout life. Microglia are known to remove extraneous synapses during development to ensure that only meaningful connections remain [43]. It was, however, thought that differentiated astrocytes performed the majority of synaptic pruning in the adult brain [91]. The discovery that microglial processes are constantly active within the brain and are often positioned near synapses raised the question of whether microglial synaptic pruning continued throughout life [44, 47, 92–94]. This question was answered in 2014 in a study that demonstrated that microglia do prune synapses into adulthood, and that this activity is important for normal brain function [95]. These findings supported those found a year earlier in a study reporting that ablation of microglia from brain slices increases synapse density and results in abnormal firing of hippocampalneurons [96].

Altered microglial behavior may underlie altered neuronal firing in AD  

Altered neuronal activity is an early phenomenon in AD

The cause of DMN hypoactivity in AD is not yet clear; however studies performed in cohorts that are genetically predisposed to AD suggest that DMN hypoactivity is preceded by a period of hyperactivity and increased functional connectivity [123, 136], often manifesting as an absence of normal DMN deactivation during external tasks [137–140]. DMN hyperactivity may interfere with hippocampal memory encoding, leading to the memory deficits that are present in mild cognitive impairment [141, 142]. It has been proposed that hippocampal hyperexcitability in AD may develop as a protective mechanism against increased input from the DMN [142–144]. As AD progresses, the initial hyperexcitability of the DMN and hippocampus may result in hypoactivity due to exhaustion of compensatory mechanisms [123, 136]. Evidence from both transgenic AD mice and longitudinal human studies supports an exhaustion model of hyperactivation leading to later hypoactivation [143, 145–147]. Interestingly, a number of studies report a lower incidence of AD among those who regularly practice meditation which specifically ‘calms’ the DMN [148].

Our understanding of AD as a disease is changing. Historically considered to be primarily a disease of neuronal degeneration, this neurocentric view has widened to encompass non-neuronal cells such as astrocytes into our understanding of the disease process and pathogenesis. A proposed model for microglia in AD is shown in Fig. 2. Microglia perform a wide range of functions in the CNS and although this includes induction of an inflammatory reaction in response to damage, they also have critical roles for maintaining normal function in the brain. Recent evidence shows that microglia regulate neuronal activity through synaptic pruning throughout life as an extension on their normal phagocytosis behavior. The discovery of a large number of AD risk genes associated with reduced immune cell function suggests that perturbed microglial phagocytosis could lead to AD. In our model, altered microglial phagocytosis of synapses results in network dysfunction and onset of AD, occurring downstream of Aβ.

The immune system and microglia represent a novel target for intervention in AD. Importantly, a large number of anti-inflammatory drugs are already in use for other conditions. What is important to know at this stage is exactly how to best target immune cell function. The studies outlined here provide evidence that an indiscriminate dampening down of all microglial activity may result in a worse outcome for individuals by suppressing normal microglial regulatory functions. We currently do not know whether future microglial-based therapies should focus on reducing chronic inflammation or conversely, whether they should be aimed at boosting microglial phagocytosis. It is also likely that future treatment strategies may use a combination of approaches to target Aβ, immune cell phagocytosis and network activity. An increasing view in the AD field is that any drug or therapy needs to be provided very early in the disease process to maximize its beneficial effects. Although we are currently unable to effectively target those at risk of AD at such an early stage, advances in neuroimaging for subtle changes in network activity, or in assays for immune cell function, may provide new avenues for identification of early damage and risk of disease.



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Late-Onset Metachromatic Leukodystrophy with Early Onset Dementia Associated with a Novel Missense Mutation in the Arylsulfatase A Gene

Microbes and Alzheimer’s DiseaseOpenly Available
Itzhaki, Ruth F. | Lathe, Richard | Balin, Brian J. | Ball, Melvyn J. | Bearer, Elaine L. | Braak, Heiko | Bullido, Maria J. | Carter, Chris | Clerici, Mario | Cosby, S. Louise | Del Tredici, Kelly | Field, Hugh | Fulop, Tamas | Grassi, Claudio | Griffin, W. Sue T. | Haas, Jürgen | Hudson, Alan P. | Kamer, Angela R. | Kell, Douglas B. | Licastro, Federico | Letenneur, Luc | Lövheim, Hugo | Mancuso, Roberta | Miklossy, Judith | Otth, Carola | Palamara, Anna Teresa | Perry, George | Preston, Christopher | Pretorius, Etheresia | Strandberg, Timo | Tabet, Naji | Taylor-Robinson, Simon D. | Whittum-Hudson, Judith A.

Longitudinal Relationships between Caloric Expenditure and Gray Matter in the Cardiovascular Health StudyOpenly Available
Raji, Cyrus A. | Merrill, David A. | Eyre, Harris | Mallam, Sravya | Torosyan, Nare | Erickson, Kirk I. | Lopez, Oscar L. | Becker, James T. | Carmichael, Owen T. | Gach, H. Michael | Thompson, Paul M. | Longstreth Jr., W.T. | Kuller, Lewis H.

Preliminary Study of Plasma Exosomal Tau as a Potential Biomarker for Chronic Traumatic EncephalopathyOpenly Available
Stern, Robert A. | Tripodis, Yorghos | Baugh, Christine M. | Fritts, Nathan G. | Martin, Brett M. | Chaisson, Christine | Cantu, Robert C. | Joyce, James A. | Shah, Sahil | Ikezu, Tsuneya | Zhang, Jing | Gercel-Taylor, Cicek | Taylor, Douglas D.

Unraveling Alzheimer’s: Making Sense of the Relationship between Diabetes and Alzheimer’s Disease1Openly Available
Schilling, Melissa A.

Pain Assessment in Elderly with Behavioral and Psychological Symptoms of DementiaOpenly Available
Malara, Alba | De Biase, Giuseppe Andrea | Bettarini, Francesco | Ceravolo, Francesco | Di Cello, Serena | Garo, Michele | Praino, Francesco | Settembrini, Vincenzo | Sgrò, Giovanni | Spadea, Fausto | Rispoli, Vincenzo

Editor’s Choice from Volume 50, Number 4 / 2016

Post Hoc Analyses of ApoE Genotype-Defined Subgroups in Clinical Trials
Kennedy, Richard E. | Cutter, Gary R. | Wang, Guoqiao | Schneider, Lon S.

Protective Effect of Amyloid-β Peptides Against Herpes Simplex Virus-1 Infection in a Neuronal Cell Culture Model
Bourgade, Karine | Le Page, Aurélie | Bocti, Christian | Witkowski, Jacek M. | Dupuis, Gilles | Frost, Eric H. | Fülöp, Tamás

Association Between Serum Ceruloplasmin Specific Activity and Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease
Siotto, Mariacristina | Simonelli, Ilaria | Pasqualetti, Patrizio | Mariani, Stefania | Caprara, Deborah | Bucossi, Serena | Ventriglia, Mariacarla | Molinario, Rossana | Antenucci, Mirca | Rongioletti, Mauro | Rossini, Paolo Maria | Squitti, Rosanna

Effects of Hypertension and Anti-Hypertensive Treatment on Amyloid-β (Aβ) Plaque Load and Aβ-Synthesizing and Aβ-Degrading Enzymes in Frontal Cortex
Ashby, Emma L. | Miners, James S. | Kehoe , Patrick G. | Love, Seth

AZD3293: A Novel, Orally Active BACE1 Inhibitor with High Potency and Permeability and Markedly Slow Off-Rate KineticsOpenly Available
Eketjäll, Susanna | Janson, Juliette | Kaspersson, Karin | Bogstedt, Anna | Jeppsson, Fredrik | Fälting, Johannad | Haeberlein, Samantha Budd | Kugler, Alan R. | Alexander, Robert C. | Cebers, Gvido

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Genomics and epigenetics link to DNA structure, Volume 2 (Volume Two: Latest in Genomics Methodologies for Therapeutics: Gene Editing, NGS and BioInformatics, Simulations and the Genome Ontology), Part 1: Next Generation Sequencing (NGS)

Genomics and epigenetics link to DNA structure

Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP, Curator



Sequence and Epigenetic Factors Determine Overall DNA Structure



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


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.

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Schizophrenia, broken-links

Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP, Curator



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


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?”


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?


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


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


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.


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.



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 |



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.”




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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Brain and behavior

Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP, Curator



Behavior Brief

A round-up of recent discoveries in behavior research

By Catherine Offord | March 25, 2016


Manta in the mirror


The mirror self-recognition (MSR) test is commonly used to evaluate nonhuman animals’ self-awareness, and has been reportedly passed by several mammals and birds including apes, elephants, dolphins, and magpies. According to a study published earlier this month (March 11) in The Journal of Ethology, there’s now evidence to add manta rays to that list.

Contingency checking and self-directed behaviors in giant manta rays: Do elasmobranchs have self-awareness?

Csilla Ari  , Dominic P. D’Agostino     Journal of Ethology   11 March 2016: 1-8    http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10164-016-0462-z    doi:10.​1007/​s10164-016-0462-z

Elaborate cognitive skills arose independently in different taxonomic groups. Self-recognition is conventionally identified by the understanding that one’s own mirror reflection does not represent another individual but oneself, which has never been proven in any elasmobranch species to date. Manta rays have a high encephalization quotient, similar to those species that have passed the mirror self-recognition test, and possess the largest brain of all fish species. In this study, mirror exposure experiments were conducted on two captive giant manta rays to document their response to their mirror image. The manta rays did not show signs of social interaction with their mirror image. However, frequent unusual and repetitive movements in front of the mirror suggested contingency checking; in addition, unusual self-directed behaviors could be identified when the manta rays were exposed to the mirror. The present study shows evidence for behavioral responses to a mirror that are prerequisite of self-awareness and which has been used to confirm self-recognition in apes.

X-RAY MAG: How did you become interested in studying the behavior of manta rays?

CA: I knew that I wanted to dedicate my life to study and protect marine life since I was 13 years old. It was during a family vacation in Croatia when I first had the chance to try scuba diving. I was so mesmerized by the experience that when I surfaced I decided to try to find out more about this magical world. I became especially fascinated by the majestic and mysterious manta rays after watching a nature documentary, soon after this first dive. It described how little we know about them and how vulnerable they are.

But growing up in Hungary, a landlocked country, I did not have much option to pursue my dream as a marine biologist, so I got my master’s degree in zoology and my doctorate in neurobiology, while volunteering at oceanography institutes in different countries during the summers. During my PhD studies, I worked on the neuroanatomy and neurohistology of several shark and ray species, including mobulids (mantas and mobulas). During these years, I had the chance to explore the brain structures of mantas and mobulas, which reflected some very unique and surprising features. It was the unusual enlargement of some of their brain parts that got me interested in focusing on their behavior.

“Manta rays are likely the first fish species found to exhibit self-awareness, which implies higher order brain function, as well as sophisticated cognitive and social skills,” study coauthor Csilla Ari told X-Ray Mag.


Observing two rays in a tank at the Atlantis Aquarium in the Bahamas, the researchers noticed that the animals changed their behavior when a mirror was placed on one of the walls. New behaviors included apparently checking out their fins (see this video) and blowing bubbles at their reflections.     https://youtu.be/LQ1KErB_2oU

X-RAY MAG: What were the findings that caused you to conclude that these animals are using cognition?

CA: Animal cognition, often referred to as animal intelligence, is an exciting scientific field that attempts to describe the mental capacity of an animal. It developed from the field of comparative psychology and it includes exciting research questions, such as perception, attention, selective learning, memory, spatial cognition, tool use, problem solving or consciousness.

There are no easy ways to test these on manta rays, but I found a widely-used and well-established test that can give us insight on their cognitive abilities. The mirror self-recognition (MSR) test is considered to be a reliable behavioral index to show the animal’s ability for self-recognition/self-awareness. Recognizing oneself in a mirror is a very rare capacity among animals. Only a few, large-brained species have passed this test so far, including Asian elephants, bottlenose dolphins and great apes, but no fish species so far.

So, employing a protocol adapted from primates and bottlenose dolphin MSR studies, I exposed captive manta rays to a large mirror and recorded their behavior. The manta rays showed significantly higher frequency of repetitive behavior, such as circling at the mirror or high frequency cephalic fin movements when the mirror was placed in the tank. Contingency checking and self-directed behavior included body turns into a vertical direction, exposing the ventral side of the body to the mirror while staying visually oriented to the mirror. Most surprisingly, such self-directed behaviors were sometimes accompanied with bubble blowing front of the mirror and sharp downward swims.

“This new discovery is incredibly important,” Marc Bekoff of the University of Colorado in Boulder who was not involved in the study told New Scientist. “It shows that we really need to expand the range of animals we study.”

But the MSR test’s developer, Gordon Gallup of the State University of New York at Albany, told New Scientist that the observed movements might reflect curious, rather than self-aware, behavior. “Humans, chimpanzees, and orangutans are the only species for which there is compelling, reproducible evidence for mirror self-recognition,” he said.

Manta rays are first fish to recognise themselves in a mirror  https://www.newscientist.com/article/2081640-manta-rays-are-first-fish-to-recognise-themselves-in-a-mirror

Manta Ray (Manta birostris) feeding on plankton in current, Sangalakki Island, Borneo

Manta ray hears the dinner bell    Norbert Wu/Minden Pictures/FLPA

Giant manta rays have been filmed checking out their reflections in a way that suggests they are self-aware.

Harmless but zippy

Rattlesnakes and other vipers are well-known for their lightning-quick bites, but nonvenomous snakes may be just as speedy, according to a study published this month (March 15) in Biology Letters.

Debunking the viper’s strike: harmless snakes kill a common assumption

David A. Penning, Baxter Sawvel, Brad R. Moon

“There’s this kind of pre-emptive discussion that [vipers] are faster,” study coauthor David Penning of the University of Louisiana, Lafayette, told Smithsonian. But, he added, “as sexy as the topic sounds, there’s not that much research on it.”

To Scientists’ Surprise, Even Nonvenomous Snakes Can Strike at Ridiculous Speeds  By Marcus Woo

The Texas rat snake was just as much of a speed demon as deadly vipers, challenging long-held notions about snake adaptations


Texas Rat Snake

Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/scientists-surprise-even-nonvenomous-snakes-can-strike-ridiculous-speeds-180958452/#XCyQyDlTqj1JWi14.99

To put the assumption to the test, Penning and his colleagues used a high-speed camera to film strikes from three snake species—the western cottonmouth and the western diamond-backed rattlesnake (both vipers), and a relatively harmless Texas rat snake that kills its prey using constriction.

When a snake strikes, it literally moves faster than the blink of an eye, whipping its head forward so quickly that it can experience accelerations of more than 20 Gs. “It’s the lynchpin of their strategy as predators,” says Rulon Clark at San Diego State University. “Natural selection has optimized a series of adaptations around striking and using venom that really helps them be effective predators.”

When Penning and his colleagues compared strike speeds in three types of snakes, they found that at least one nonvenomous species was just as quick as the vipers. The results hint that serpents’ need for speed may be much more widespread than thought, which raises questions about snake evolution and physiology.  They compared the western cottonmouth and the western diamond-backed rattlesnake, which are both vipers, and the nonvenomous Texas rat snake. They put each snake inside a container and inserted a stuffed glove on the end of a stick. They waved the glove around until the animal struck, recording the whole thing with a high-speed camera. The team tested 14 rat snakes, 6 cottonmouths and 12 rattlesnakes, recording several strikes for each individual.

The recordings revealed that although the highest head acceleration—279 meters per second squared, or nearly 29 g—did indeed come from a rattlesnake, one of the rat snakes followed close behind, accelerating its head at 274 meters per second squared.   All the snakes turned out to be speed demons, the team reports this week in Biology Letters. The rattlesnake scored the highest measured acceleration, at 279 meters per second squared. But to their surprise, the nonvenomous rat snake came in a close second at 274 meters per second squared. That’s lightning-quick, considering that a Formula One race car accelerates at less than 27 meters per second squared to go from 0 to 60 in just one second.

“I was really surprised, because this comparison hadn’t been made before,” Rulon Clark of San Diego Statue University who was not involved in the work told Smithsonian. “It’s not that the vipers are slow, it’s that this very high-speed striking ability is something that seems common to a lot of snake species—or a wider array than people might’ve expected.”

Penning told Discover Magazine that the results make sense, since even nonvenomous snakes have to catch their food. “Prey are not passively waiting to be eaten by snakes,” he said.

Even Harmless Snakes Strike at Deadly Speed

Rather than offering the snakes some sacrificial prey animals, the researchers baited the snakes into striking in self-defense. They used a stuffed glove on a stick. The glove would move around the snake until the animal realized the glove was “clearly not going away,” Penning says, and struck at it. High-speed cameras and mirrors captured these attacks, which happened in the blink of an eye.

Early learning

Emerging evidence suggests that both humans and superb fairywrens begin learning the vocal patterns of their mothers even before birth. Now, a study published this month (March 16) in The Auk: Ornithological Advances indicates that the same is true of the red-backed fairywren, offering the possibility of studying the phenomenon across related species.

“Fairywrens have become a new model system in which to test new dimensions in the ontogeny of parent-offspring communication in vertebrates,” study coauthor Mark Hauber of New York City’s Hunter College said in a statement.

Following on their previous discovery of prenatal learning in superb fairywrens, the researchers compared the structure of nestling calls in the red-backed fairywren to the calls of the birds’ mothers. The team found that the more calls per hour that nestlings received when in the egg, the higher the similarity to maternal calls after hatching. (The number of calls received during the nestling period had no effect on call similarity.)

“Prenatal vocal learning has rarely been described in any animal, with the exception of humans and Australian superb fairywrens,” William Feeney of the University of Queensland, Australia, who was not involved in the work said in the statement. “This result is exciting as it opens the door to investigating the taxonomic diversity of this ability, which could provide insights into why it evolves.”

Vocal imitation of mother’s calls by begging Red-backed Fairywren nestlings increases parental provisioning

Red-backed fairywren (Malurus melanocephalus)  J WELKIN


Prenatal imitative learning is an emerging research area in both human and non-human animals. Previous studies in Superb Fairywrens (Malurus cyaneus) showed that mothers are vocal tutors to their embryos and that better imitation of maternal calls yields more parental provisions after hatching. To begin to test if such adaptive behavior is widespread amongst Australasian wrens in Maluridae, we investigated maternal in-nest calling patterns in Red-backed Fairywrens (Malurus melanocephalus). We first compared the structure of maternal and nestling call elements. Next, we examined how in-nest calling behavior varied with parental behaviors and ecological contexts (i.e. prevalence of brood parasitism and nest predation). All Red-backed Fairywren females called to their eggs during incubation and they continued to do so for several days after hatching at a lower rate. Embryos that received more calls per hour during the incubation period (but not the nestling period) developed into hatchlings with higher call element similarity between mother and young. Female call rate was mostly independent of nest predation but in years with more interspecific brood parasitism, nestling element similarity was greater and female call rates tended to be higher. Playback experiments showed that broods with higher element similarity to their mother received more successful feeds. The potential for prenatal tutoring and imitative begging calls in 2 related fairywren taxa sets the stage for a full-scale comparative analysis of the evolution and function of these behaviors across Maluridae and in other vocal-learning lineages.


Traveling junk-foodies

White storks may be addicted to junk food, in some cases making migratory trips of tens of kilometers to landfill sites during the breeding season, according to a study published earlier this month (March 15) in Movement Ecology.

“We found that the continuous availability of junk food from landfill has influenced nest use, daily travel distances, and foraging ranges,” study coauthor Aldina Franco of the University of East Anglia said in a statement. “Storks now rely on landfill sites for food—especially during the non-breeding season when other food sources are more scarce.”

Using GPS tracking, the researchers focused on 17 storks traveling between nesting and feeding areas over the course of a year. They found that most long-distance trips were made to landfill sites, and that “having a nest close to a guaranteed food supply also means that the storks are less inclined to leave for the winter,” Franco explained in the statement. “They instead spend their non-breeding season defending their highly desirable nest locations.”

“It’s clear migratory behaviors are quite plastic, in that the [storks] are adaptable and can change quickly,” Andrew Farnsworth of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology who was not involved in the work told National Geographic. He added that the new, detailed dataset will help scientists “consider how such changes in behavior may affect the future population of these birds.”

Are white storks addicted to junk food? Impacts of landfill use on the movement and behaviour of resident white storks (Ciconia ciconia) from a partially migratory population

Nathalie I. Gilbert Email authorRicardo A. CorreiaJoão Paulo Silva,…, Jenny A. Gill and Aldina M. A. Franco

Movement Ecology 2016; 4:7      http://dx.doi.org:/10.1186/s40462-016-0070-0

The migratory patterns of animals are changing in response to global environmental change with many species forming resident populations in areas where they were once migratory. The white stork (Ciconia ciconia) was wholly migratory in Europe but recently guaranteed, year-round food from landfill sites has facilitated the establishment of resident populations in Iberia. In this study 17 resident white storks were fitted with GPS/GSM data loggers (including accelerometer) and tracked for 9.1 ± 3.7 months to quantify the extent and consistency of landfill attendance by individuals during the non-breeding and breeding seasons and to assess the influence of landfill use on daily distances travelled, percentage of GPS fixes spent foraging and non-landfill foraging ranges.   Results   Resident white storks used landfill more during non-breeding (20.1 % ± 2.3 of foraging GPS fixes) than during breeding (14.9 % ± 2.2). Landfill attendance declined with increasing distance between nest and landfill in both seasons. During non-breeding a large percentage of GPS fixes occurred on the nest throughout the day (27 % ± 3.0 of fixes) in the majority of tagged storks. This study provides first confirmation of year-round nest use by resident white storks. The percentage of GPS fixes on the nest was not influenced by the distance between nest and the landfill site. Storks travelled up to 48.2 km to visit landfills during non-breeding and a maximum of 28.1 km during breeding, notably further than previous estimates. Storks nesting close to landfill sites used landfill more and had smaller foraging ranges in non-landfill habitat indicating higher reliance on landfill. The majority of non-landfill foraging occurred around the nest and long distance trips were made specifically to visit landfill.  Conclusions   The continuous availability of food resources on landfill has facilitated year-round nest use in white storks and is influencing their home ranges and movement behaviour. White storks rely on landfill sites for foraging especially during the non-breeding season when other food resources are scarcer and this artificial food supplementation probably facilitated the establishment of resident populations. The closure of landfills, as required by EU Landfill Directives, will likely cause dramatic impacts on white stork populations.

WEIRD & WILD   Junk Food-Loving Birds Diss Migration, Live on Landfill    By Brian Handwerk

Spain and Portugal’s white storks are forgoing their annual journeys to African wintering grounds, a new study says


You’ve heard of the staycation. Some white storks in Europe are now opting for the staygration. 

The big birds are skipping their annual trip to African wintering grounds to remain year-round in Spain and Portugal, a new study shows.

Why? They’ve developed an addiction to junk food at landfills.

“White storks used to be wholly migratory. Before the 1980s, there were no white storks staying in” Spain and Portugal, says study leader Aldina Franco, a conservation ecologist at the University of East Anglia in the U.K.

“During the 1980s, the first individuals started staying, and now we see those numbers increasing exponentially.” (Related: “Beloved Storks, Emblems of Fertility, Rebounding in France.”)


Unlikely allies

Israel’s barren Negev desert is home to striped hyenas and gray wolves—two large scavenger species with considerably overlapping diets. But although such conditions might be expected to create fierce competition, researchers in Israel and the U.S. have now presented evidence that—at least in some cases—these animals form alliances and may even hunt collaboratively for food. The findings were published last month (February 10) in Zoology in the Middle East.

Wolves and hyenas in the desert might “just need each other to survive, because food is so, so limited,” study coauthor Vladimir Dinets of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville told The Washington Post.

Collating observations made over the past two decades (including reports of overlapping paw prints, and sightings of hyenas among packs of wolves), the researchers note that the findings could reflect the behavior of a few, oddly behaving hyenas, or a more widespread commensal, or even cooperative, relationship between the species.

“Animal behavior is often more flexible than described in textbooks,” Dinets said in a press release. “When necessary, animals can abandon their usual strategies and learn something completely new and unexpected. It’s a very useful skill for people, too.”

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Brain, learning and memory

Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP, Curator



March 23, 2016   Exploring long-range communications in the brain

Red and green dots reveal a region in the brain that that is very dense with synapses. A optically activated fluorescent protein allows Ofer Yizhar, PhD, and his group to record the activity of the synapses. (credit: Weizmann Institute of Science)

Weizmann Institute of Science researchers have devised a new way to track long-distance communications between nerve cells in different areas of the brain. They used optogenetic techniques (using genetic engineering of neurons and laser light in thin optical fibers to temporarily silence long-range axons, effectively leading to a sustained “disconnect” between two distant brain nodes.

By observing what happens when crucial connections are disabled, the researchers could begin to determine the axons’ role in the brain. Mental and neurological diseases are often thought to result from changes in long-range brain connectivity, so these studies could contribute to a better understanding of the mechanisms behind health and disease in the brain.

The study, published in Nature Neuroscience, “led us to a deeper understanding of the unique properties of the axons and synapses that form the connections between neurons,” said Ofer Yizhar, PhD, in the Weizmann Institute of Science’s Neurobiology Department. “We were able to uncover the responses of axons to various optogenetic manipulations. Understanding these differences will be crucial to unraveling the mechanisms for long-distance communication in the brain.”

Abstract of Biophysical constraints of optogenetic inhibition at presynaptic terminals

We investigated the efficacy of optogenetic inhibition at presynaptic terminals using halorhodopsin, archaerhodopsin and chloride-conducting channelrhodopsins. Precisely timed activation of both archaerhodopsin and halorhodpsin at presynaptic terminals attenuated evoked release. However, sustained archaerhodopsin activation was paradoxically associated with increased spontaneous release. Activation of chloride-conducting channelrhodopsins triggered neurotransmitter release upon light onset. Thus, the biophysical properties of presynaptic terminals dictate unique boundary conditions for optogenetic manipulation.


DARPA’s ‘Targeted Neuroplasticity Training’ program aims to accelerate learning ‘beyond normal levels’

The transhumanism-inspired goal: train superspy agents to rapidly master foreign languages and cryptography
New DARPA “TNT” technology will be designed to safely and precisely modulate peripheral nerves to control synaptic plasticity during cognitive skill training. (No mention of NZT.) (credit: DARPA)

DARPA has announced a new program called Targeted Neuroplasticity Training (TNT) aimed at exploring how to use peripheral nerve stimulation and other methods to enhance learning.

DARPA already has research programs underway to use targeted stimulation of the peripheral nervous system as a substitute for drugs to treat diseases and accelerate healing*, to control advanced prosthetic limbs**, and to restore tactile sensation.

But now DARPA plans to to take an even more ambitious step: It aims to enlist the body’s peripheral nerves to achieve something that has long been considered the brain’s domain alone: facilitating learning — specifically, training in a wide range of cognitive skills.

The goal is to reduce the cost and duration of the Defense Department’s extensive training regimen, while improving outcomes. If successful, TNT could accelerate learning and reduce the time needed to train foreign language specialists, intelligence analysts, cryptographers, and others.

“Many of these skills, such as understanding and speaking a new foreign language, can be challenging to learn,” says the DARPA statement. “Current training programs are time consuming, require intensive study, and usually require evidence of a more-than-minimal aptitude for eligibility. Thus, improving cognitive skill learning in healthy adults is of great interest to our national security.”

Going beyond normal levels of learning

The program is also notable because it will not just train; it will advance capabilities beyond normal levels — a transhumanist approach.

“Recent research has shown that stimulation of certain peripheral nerves, easily and painlessly achieved through the skin, can activate regions of the brain involved with learning,” by releasing neurochemicals in the brain that reorganize neural connections in response to specific experiences, explained TNT Program Manager Doug Weber,

“This natural process of synaptic plasticity is pivotal for learning, but much is unknown about the physiological mechanisms that link peripheral nerve stimulation to improved plasticity and learning,” Weber said. “You can think of peripheral nerve stimulation as a way to reopen the so-called ‘Critical Period’ when the brain is more facile and adaptive. TNT technology will be designed to safely and precisely modulate peripheral nerves to control plasticity at optimal points in the learning process.”

The goal is to optimize training protocols that expedite the pace of learning and maximize long-term retention of even the most complicated cognitive skills. DARPA intends to take a layered approach to exploring this new terrain:

  • Fundamental research will focus on gaining a clearer and more complete understanding of how nerve stimulation influences synaptic plasticity, how cognitive skill learning processes are regulated in the brain, and how to boost these processes to safely accelerate skill acquisition while avoiding potential side effects.
  • The engineering side of the program will target development of a non-invasive device that delivers peripheral nerve stimulation to enhance plasticity in brain regions responsible for cognitive functions.

Proposers Day

TNT expects to attract multidisciplinary teams spanning backgrounds such as cognitive neuroscience, neural plasticity, electrophysiology, systems neurophysiology, biomedical engineering, human performance, and computational modeling.

To familiarize potential participants with the technical objectives of TNT, DARPA will host a Proposers Day on Friday, April 8, 2016, at the Westin Arlington Gateway in Arlington, Va. (registration closes on Thursday, March 31, 2016). ADARPA Special Notice announces the Proposers Day and describes the specific capabilities sought. A Broad Agency Announcement with full technical details on TNT will be forthcoming. For more information, please email DARPA-SN-16-20@darpa.mil.

* DARPA’s ElectRx program is looking for “demonstrations of feedback-controlled neuromodulation strategies to establish healthy physiological states,” along with “disruptive biological-interface technologies required to monitor biomarkers and peripheral nerve activity … [and] deliver therapeutic signals to peripheral nerve targets, using in vivo, real-time biosensors and novel neural interfaces using optical, acoustic, electromagnetic, or engineered biology strategies to achieve precise targeting with potentially single-axon resolution.”

** DARPA’s HAPTIX (Hand Proprioception and Touch Interfaces) program “seeks to create a prosthetic hand system that moves and provides sensation like a natural hand. … HAPTIX technologies aim to tap in to the motor and sensory signals of the arm, allowing users to control and sense the prosthesis via the same neural signaling pathways used for intact hands and arms. … The system will include electrodes for measuring prosthesis control signals from muscles and motor nerves, and sensory feedback will be delivered through electrodes placed in sensory nerves.”


Fading of Epigenetic Memories across Generations Is Regulated
Neurons involved in working memory fire in bursts, not continuously

  • Epigenetic “remembering” is better understood than epigenetic “forgetting,” and so it is an open question whether epigenetic forgetting is, like epigenetic remembering, active—a distinct biomolecular process—or passive—a matter of dilution or decay. New research, however, suggests that epigenetic forgetting is an active process, one in which a feedback mechanism determines the duration of transgenerational epigenetic memories.

    The new research comes out of Tel Aviv University, where researchers have been working with the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans to elucidate epigenetic mechanisms. In particular, the researchers, led by Oded Rechavi, Ph.D., have been preoccupied with how the effects of stress, trauma, and other environmental exposures are passed from one generation to the next.

    In previous work, Dr. Rechavi’s team enhanced the state of knowledge of small RNA molecules, short sequences of RNA that regulate the expression of genes. The team identified a “small RNA inheritance” mechanism through which RNA molecules produced a response to the needs of specific cells and how they were regulated between generations.

    “We previously showed that worms inherited small RNAs following the starvation and viral infections of their parents. These small RNAs helped prepare their offspring for similar hardships,” Dr. Rechavi explained. “We also identified a mechanism that amplified heritable small RNAs across generations, so the response was not diluted. We found that enzymes called RdRPs [RNA-dependent RNA polymerases] are required for re-creating new small RNAs to keep the response going in subsequent generations.”

    Most inheritable epigenetic responses in C. elegans were found to persist for only a few generations. This created the assumption that epigenetic effects simply “petered out” over time, through a process of dilution or decay. “But this assumption,” said Dr. Rechavi, “ignored the possibility that this process doesn’t simply die out but is regulated instead.”

    This possibility was explored in the current study, in which C. elegans were treated with small RNAs that target the GFP (green fluorescent protein) gene, a reporter gene commonly used in experiments. “By following heritable small RNAs that regulated GFP—that ‘silenced’ its expression—we revealed an active, tunable inheritance mechanism that can be turned ‘on’ or ‘off,'” declared Dr. Rechavi.

    Details of the work appeared March 24 in the journal Cell, in an article entitled, “A Tunable Mechanism Determines the Duration of the Transgenerational Small RNA Inheritance in C. elegans.” The article shows that exposure to double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) activates a feedback loop whereby gene-specific RNA interference (RNAi) responses “dictate the transgenerational duration of RNAi responses mounted against unrelated genes, elicited separately in previous generations.”

    Essentially, amplification of heritable exo-siRNAs occurs at the expense of endo-siRNAs. Also, a feedback between siRNAs and RNAi genes determines heritable silencing duration.

    “RNA-sequencing analysis reveals that, aside from silencing of genes with complementary sequences, dsRNA-induced RNAi affects the production of heritable endogenous small RNAs, which regulate the expression of RNAi factors,” wrote the authors of the Cell paper. “Manipulating genes in this feedback pathway changes the duration of heritable silencing.”

    The scientists also indicated that specific genes, which they named MOTEK (Modified Transgenerational Epigenetic Kinetics), were involved in turning on and off epigenetic transmissions.

    “We discovered how to manipulate the transgenerational duration of epigenetic inheritance in worms by switching ‘on’ and ‘off’ the small RNAs that worms use to regulate genes,” said Dr. Rechavi. “These switches are controlled by a feedback interaction between gene-regulating small RNAs, which are inheritable, and the MOTEK genes that are required to produce and transmit these small RNAs across generations.

    “The feedback determines whether epigenetic memory will continue to the progeny or not, and how long each epigenetic response will last.”

    Although its research was conducted on worms, the team believes that understanding the principles that control the inheritance of epigenetic information is crucial for constructing a comprehensive theory of heredity for all organisms, humans included.

    “We are now planning to study the MOTEK genes to know exactly how these genes affect the duration of epigenetic effects,” said Leah Houri-Ze’evi, a Ph.D. student in Dr. Rechavi’s lab and first author of the paper. “Moreover, we are planning to examine whether similar mechanisms exist in humans.”

    The current study notes that the active control of transgenerational effects could be adaptive, because ancestral responses would be detrimental if the environments of the progeny and the ancestors were different.

    A Tunable Mechanism Determines the Duration of the Transgenerational Small RNA Inheritance in C. elegans

    Leah Houri-Ze’ev, Yael Korem, Hila Sheftel,…, Luba Degani, Uri Alon, Oded Rechavi
    Cell 24 March 2016; Volume 165, Issue 1, p88–99.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cell.2016.02.057
  • New RNAi episodes extend the duration of heritable epigenetic effects
  • Amplification of heritable exo-siRNAs occurs at the expense of endo-siRNAs
  • A feedback between siRNAs and RNAi genes determines heritable silencing duration
  • Modified transgenerational epigenetic kinetics (MOTEK) mutants are identified

Figure thumbnail fx1

In C. elegans, small RNAs enable transmission of epigenetic responses across multiple generations. While RNAi inheritance mechanisms that enable “memorization” of ancestral responses are being elucidated, the mechanisms that determine the duration of inherited silencing and the ability to forget the inherited epigenetic effects are not known. We now show that exposure to dsRNA activates a feedback loop whereby gene-specific RNAi responses dictate the transgenerational duration of RNAi responses mounted against unrelated genes, elicited separately in previous generations. RNA-sequencing analysis reveals that, aside from silencing of genes with complementary sequences, dsRNA-induced RNAi affects the production of heritable endogenous small RNAs, which regulate the expression of RNAi factors. Manipulating genes in this feedback pathway changes the duration of heritable silencing. Such active control of transgenerational effects could be adaptive, since ancestral responses would be detrimental if the environments of the progeny and the ancestors were different.

How we are able to keep several things simultaneously in working memory
Pictured is an artist’s interpretation of neurons firing in sporadic, coordinated bursts. “By having these different bursts coming at different moments in time, you can keep different items in memory separate from one another,” Earl Miller says. (credit: Jose-Luis Olivares/MIT)

Think of a sentence you just read. Like that one. You’re now using your working memory, a critical brain system that’s roughly analogous to RAM memory in a computer.

Neuroscientists have believed that as information is held in working memory, brain cells associated with that information must be firing continuously. Not so — they fire in sporadic, coordinated bursts, says Earl Miller, the Picower Professor in MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory and the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.

That makes sense. These different bursts could help the brain hold multiple items in working memory at the same time, according to the researchers. “By having these different bursts coming at different moments in time, you can keep different items in memory separate from one another,” says Miller, the senior author of a study that appears in the March 17 issue of Neuron.

Bursts of activity, not averaged activity

So why hasn’t anyone noticed this before? Because previous studies averaged the brain’s activity over seconds or even minutes of performing the task, Miller says. “We looked more closely at this activity, not by averaging across time, but from looking from moment to moment. That revealed that something way more complex is going on.”

To do that, Miller and his colleagues recorded neuron activity in animals as they were shown a sequence of three colored squares, each in a different location. Then, the squares were shown again, but one of them had changed color. The animals were trained to respond when they noticed the square that had changed color — a task requiring them to hold all three squares in working memory for about two seconds.

The researchers found that as items were held in working memory, ensembles of neurons in the prefrontal cortex were active in brief bursts, and these bursts only occurred in recording sites in which information about the squares was stored. The bursting was most frequent at the beginning of the task, when the information was encoded, and at the end, when the memories were read out.

The findings fit well with a model that Lundqvist had developed as an alternative to the model of sustained activity as the neural basis of working memory. According to the new model, information is stored in rapid changes in the synaptic strength of the neurons. The brief bursts serve to “imprint” information in the synapses of these neurons, and the bursts reoccur periodically to reinforce the information as long as it is needed.

The bursts create waves of coordinated activity at the gamma frequency (45 to 100 hertz), like the ones that were observed in the data. These waves occur sporadically, with gaps between them, and each ensemble of neurons, encoding a specific item, produces a different burst of gamma waves, like a fingerprint.

Implications for other cognitive functions

The findings suggest that it would be worthwhile to look for this kind of cyclical activity in other cognitive functions such as attention, the researchers say. Oscillations like those seen in this study may help the brain to package information and keep it separate so that different pieces of information don’t interfere with each other.

Robert Knight, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of California at Berkeley, says the new study “provides compelling evidence that nonlinear oscillatory dynamics underlie prefrontal dependent working memory capacity.”

“The work calls for a new view of the computational processes supporting goal-directed behavior,” adds Knight, who was not involved in the research. “The control processes supporting nonlinear dynamics are not understood, but this work provides a critical guidepost for future work aimed at understanding how the brain enables fluid cognition.”

editor’s comments: I’m curious how this relates to forgetting things to make space to learn new things. (Turns out the hippocampus works closely with the prefrontal cortex in working memory, as this open-access Nature paper explains.) Also, what’s the latest on how many things we can keep in working memory (it used to be around five)? Is that number limited by forgetting or by the capacity to differentiate different spike trains? Any tricks for keeping more things in working memory?

Abstract of Gamma and Beta Bursts Underlie Working Memory

Working memory is thought to result from sustained neuron spiking. However, computational models suggest complex dynamics with discrete oscillatory bursts. We analyzed local field potential (LFP) and spiking from the prefrontal cortex (PFC) of monkeys performing a working memory task. There were brief bursts of narrow-band gamma oscillations (45–100 Hz), varied in time and frequency, accompanying encoding and re-activation of sensory information. They appeared at a minority of recording sites associated with spiking reflecting the to-be-remembered items. Beta oscillations (20–35 Hz) also occurred in brief, variable bursts but reflected a default state interrupted by encoding and decoding. Only activity of neurons reflecting encoding/decoding correlated with changes in gamma burst rate. Thus, gamma bursts could gate access to, and prevent sensory interference with, working memory. This supports the hypothesis that working memory is manifested by discrete oscillatory dynamics and spiking, not sustained activity.

Gamma and Beta Bursts Underlie Working Memory

Mikael Lundqvist5, Jonas Rose5, Pawel Herman, Scott L. Brincat, Timothy J. Buschman, Earl K. Miller

  • Working memory information in neuronal spiking is linked to brief gamma bursts
  • The narrow-band gamma bursts increase during encoding, decoding, and with WM load
  • Beta bursting reflects a default network state interrupted by gamma
  • Support for a model of WM is based on discrete dynamics and not sustained activity


References  Authors  Title   Source

Amit, D.J. and Brunel, N.Model of global spontaneous activity and local structured activity during delay periods in the cerebral cortex.

Cereb. Cortex. 1997; 7: 237–252

Asaad, W.F. and Eskandar, E.N.A flexible software tool for temporally-precise behavioral control in Matlab.

J. Neurosci. Methods. 2008;174: 245–258

Axmacher, N., Henseler, M.M., Jensen, O., Weinreich, I., Elger, C.E., and Fell, J.Cross-frequency coupling supports multi-item working memory in the human hippocampus.

Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA.2010; 107: 3228–3233

Brunel, N. and Wang, X.J.What determines the frequency of fast network oscillations with irregular neural discharges? I. Synaptic dynamics and excitation-inhibition balance.

J. Neurophysiol. 2003; 90:415–430

Buschman, T.J., Siegel, M., Roy, J.E., and Miller, E.K.Neural substrates of cognitive capacity limitations.

Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA.2011; 108: 11252–11255

Johan Eriksson, Edward K. Vogel, Anders Lansner, Fredrik Bergström, Lars Nyberg
Neuron, Vol. 88, Issue 1, p33–46
Published in issue: October 07, 2015
Abstract Image
Alexander Bratch, Spencer Kann, Joshua A. Cain, Jie-En Wu, Nilda Rivera-Reyes, Stefan Dalecki, Diana Arman, Austin Dunn, Shiloh Cooper, Hannah E. Corbin, Amanda R. Doyle, Matthew J. Pizzo, Alexandra E. Smith, Jonathon D. Crystal
Current Biology, Vol. 26, Issue 3, p351–355
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Open Archive

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Lily Kahsai, Troy Zars
Current Biology, Vol. 23, Issue 18, R843–R845
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Open Archive

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Open Archive

Synaptic Amplifier

Gene discovery reveals mechanism behind how we think

By ELIZABETH COONEY   March 16, 2016

Skyler Jackman and colleagues studied the phenomenon known as synaptic facilitation by using light to turn neuronal connections on and off. The optogenetic protein used in this technique appears yellow. Image: Regehr lab

Our brains are marvels of connectivity, packed with cells that continually communicate with one another. This communication occurs across synapses, the transit points where chemicals called neurotransmitters leap from one neuron to another, allowing us to think, to learn and to remember.
Now Harvard Medical School researchers have discovered a gene that provides that boost by increasing neurotransmitter release in a phenomenon known as synaptic facilitation. And they did so by turning on a light or two.
Image: Jasmine Vazquez
image: Jasmine Vazquez

The gene is synaptotagmin 7 (syt7 for short), a calcium sensor that dynamically increases neurotransmitter release; each release serves to strengthen communication between neurons for about a second. These swift releases are thought to be critical for the brain’s ability to perform computations involved in short-term memory, spatial navigation and sensory perception.

A team of researchers who made this discovery was led by Skyler Jackman, a postdoctoral researcher in the lab of Wade Regehr, professor of neurobiology at HMS. They recently reported their findings in Nature.

 The calcium sensor synaptotagmin 7 is required for synaptic facilitationSkyler L. JackmanJosef TurecekJustine E. Belinsky & Wade G. Regehr
Nature 529, 88–91 (07 January 2016)
It has been known for more than 70 years that synaptic strength is dynamically regulated in a use-dependent manner1. At synapses with a low initial release probability, closely spaced presynaptic action potentials can result in facilitation, a short-term form of enhancement in which each subsequent action potential evokes greater neurotransmitter release2. Facilitation can enhance neurotransmitter release considerably and can profoundly influence information transfer across synapses3, but the underlying mechanism remains a mystery. One proposed mechanism is that a specialized calcium sensor for facilitation transiently increases the probability of release24, and this sensor is distinct from the fast sensors that mediate rapid neurotransmitter release. Yet such a sensor has never been identified, and its very existence has been disputed56. Here we show that synaptotagmin 7 (Syt7) is a calcium sensor that is required for facilitation at several central synapses. In Syt7-knockout mice, facilitation is eliminated even though the initial probability of release and the presynaptic residual calcium signals are unaltered. Expression of wild-type Syt7 in presynaptic neurons restored facilitation, whereas expression of a mutated Syt7 with a calcium-insensitive C2A domain did not. By revealing the role of Syt7 in synaptic facilitation, these results resolve a longstanding debate about a widespread form of short-term plasticity, and will enable future studies that may lead to a deeper understanding of the functional importance of facilitation.

“We really think one of the most important things the brain can do is change the strength of connections between neurons,” Jackman said. “Now that we have a tool to selectively turn off facilitation, we can test some long-held beliefs about its importance for thinking and working memory.”

Although synaptic facilitation was first described 70 years ago by Te-Pei Feng, known as the father of Chinese physiology, Jackman and colleagues were able to identify the mechanism behind synaptic strengthening by taking advantage of advanced laboratory techniques unavailable to previous generations of scientists.

A dozen years ago, Regehr suspected that syt7 might drive this synaptic strengthening process: The gene turns on slowly and then ramps up in speed, which would fit gradual release of neurotransmitters.

About eight years ago scientists in another lab engineered “knockout” mice that lack the syt7 gene, setting the stage for experiments to test Regehr’s speculations. But when grown in a lab dish, neurons from these knockout mice behaved no differently than other neurons; results that, at the time, dashed hopes that syt7 could explain the synaptic boost.

A year ago Jackman took another tack. He tested synaptic connections in brain tissue taken from the knockout mice but still having intact brain circuits, an experiment more reflective of how neurons and synapses might work in a living animal.

“It was striking. It was amazing,” Jackman said. “As soon as we probed these connections we saw there was a huge deficit, a complete lack of synaptic facilitation in the knockout mice, completely different from their wild-type brothers and sisters.”

To be certain that knocking out syt7 was responsible for this change, Jackman had to find a way to reinsert syt 7 and restore its function. He did that by using optogenetics, a genetic manipulation tool that allows neuronal connections to be turned on and off with light. He augmented this technique with bicistronic expression, a method that packages one optogenetic protein and one syt7protein into a single virus that infects all neurons equally. Using these two techniques, Jackman could selectively study what happened when syt7 was reinserted into a neuron and measure its effects reliably.


We need to forget things to make space to learn new things, scientists discover

Mice study, if confirmed in people, might help forget traumatic experiences

The three routes into the hippocampus seem to be linked to different aspects of learning: forming memories (green), recalling them (yellow) and forgetting them (red) (credit: John Wood)

While you’re reading this (and learning about this new study), your brain is actively trying to forget something.

We apologize, but that’s what scientists at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) and the University Pablo Olavide in Sevilla, Spain, found in a new study published Friday (March 18) in an open-access paper in Nature Communications.

“This is the first time that a pathway in the brain has been linked to forgetting — to actively erasing memories,” says Cornelius Gross, who led the work at EMBL.

Working with mice, Gross and colleagues studied the hippocampus, a region of the brain known to help form memories. Information enters this part of the brain through three different routes. As memories are formed, connections between neurons along the “main” route become stronger.

When they blocked this main route (dentate gyrus granule cells), the scientists found that the mice were no longer capable of learning (in this case, a specific Pavlovian response).* But surprisingly, blocking that main route  also resulted in its connections weakening, meaning the memory was actually being erased.

Limited space in the brain

Gross proposes that one explanation: “There is limited space in the brain, so when you’re learning, you have to weaken some connections to make room for others,” says Gross.

Interestingly, this active push for forgetting only happens in learning situations. When the scientists blocked the main route into the hippocampus under other circumstances, the strength of its connections remained unaltered.

The findings were made using genetically engineered mice, but the scientists demonstrated that it is possible to produce a drug that activates this “forgetting” route in the brain without the need for genetic engineering. This approach, they say, might help people forget traumatic experiences.

* But if the mice had learned that association before the scientists stopped information flow in that main route, they could still retrieve that memory. This confirmed that this route is involved in forming memories, but isn’t essential for recalling those memories. The latter probably involves the second route into the hippocampus, the scientists surmise.

Abstract of Rapid erasure of hippocampal memory following inhibition of dentate gyrus granule cells

The hippocampus is critical for the acquisition and retrieval of episodic and contextual memories. Lesions of the dentate gyrus, a principal input of the hippocampus, block memory acquisition, but it remains unclear whether this region also plays a role in memory retrieval. Here we combine cell-type specific neural inhibition with electrophysiological measurements of learning-associated plasticity in behaving mice to demonstrate that dentate gyrus granule cells are not required for memory retrieval, but instead have an unexpected role in memory maintenance. Furthermore, we demonstrate the translational potential of our findings by showing that pharmacological activation of an endogenous inhibitory receptor expressed selectively in dentate gyrus granule cells can induce a rapid loss of hippocampal memory. These findings open a new avenue for the targeted erasure of episodic and contextual memories.


Rapid erasure of hippocampal memory following inhibition of dentate gyrus granule cells

Noelia MadroñalJosé M. Delgado-GarcíaAzahara Fernández-GuizánJayanta ChatterjeeMaja KöhnCamilla Mattucci, et al.

Nature Communications7,Article number:10923    http://www.nature.com/ncomms/2016/160318/ncomms10923/full/ncomms10923.html

The hippocampus is an evolutionarily ancient part of the cortex that makes reciprocal excitatory connections with neocortical association areas and is critical for the acquisition and retrieval of episodic and contextual memories. The hippocampus has been the subject of extensive investigation over the last 50 years as the site of plasticity thought to be critical for memory encoding. Models of hippocampal function propose that sensory information reaching the hippocampus from the entorhinal cortex via dentate gyrus (DG) granule cells is encoded in CA3 auto-association circuits and can in turn be retrieved via Schaffer collateral (SC) projections linking CA3 and CA1 (refs 1, 2, 3, 4; Fig. 1a). Learning-associated plasticity in CA3–CA3 auto-associative networks encodes the memory trace, and plasticity in SC connections is necessary for the efficient retrieval of this trace2, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. In addition, both CA3 and CA1 regions receive direct, monosynaptic inputs from entorhinal cortex that are thought to convey information about ongoing sensory inputs that could modulate CA3 memory trace acquisition and/or retrieval via SC (refs 11,12, 13; Fig. 1a). In DG granule cells, sensory information is thought to undergo pattern separation into orthogonal cell ensembles before encoding (or reactivating, in the case of retrieval) memories in CA3 (ref. 14). However, how the hippocampus executes both the acquisition and recall of memories stored in CA3 remains a question of debate with some models attributing a role for DG inputs in memory acquisition, but not retrieval2, 15, 16, 17.

Rapid and selective inhibition of DG neurotransmission in vivo.

(a) The hippocampal tri-synaptic circuit receives PP inputs from entorhinal cortex to DG, CA3 and CA1. (b) A stimulating electrode was implanted in the PP and a recording electrode in CA3 pyramidal layer. (c) Strength of CA3 pyramidal layer fEPSPs evoked in anaesthetized mice by electrical stimulation of PP inputs showed fast and slow latency population spike components corresponding to direct PP-CA3 and indirect PP–DG-CA3 inputs, respectively. Systemic administration of the selective Htr1a agonist, 8-OH-DPAT (0.3mgkg−1, subcutaneous), to Htr1aDG (Tg) mice caused a rapid and selective decrease in the long-latency component that persisted for several hours. Quantification indicated a significant decrease in DG neurotransmission following agonist treatment of Htr1aDG, but not Htr1aKO (KO) littermates or vehicle treated wild-type mice that reached 80% suppression and persisted for >2h (mean±s.e.m.; n=10;*P<0.05; two-way analysis of variance followed by Holm–Sidak post hoc test). (d) Representative fEPSPs evoked at CA3 pyramidal layer after stimulation of PP inputs before and after agonist treatment. The fast and the slow latency population spike components are indicated (black arrow, short; grey arrow, long).


Figure 2

Inhibition of DG induces rapid and persistent loss of hippocampal memory and plasticity.

Figure 4

Loss of plasticity depends on entorhinal cortex inputs and local adenosine signalling.

In the present study we examined the contribution of DG granule cells to learning and recall and its associated synaptic plasticity in animals that had previously acquired a hippocampal memory. We found that transient pharmacogenetic inhibition of DG granule cells did not impair conditioned responding to CS presentation nor alter SC synaptic plasticity demonstrating that DG is not required for memory recall (Fig. 3c,d). However, when DG inhibition occurred during paired presentation of CS and US, we observed a rapid loss of SC synaptic plasticity and conditioned responding to CS (Fig. 2d,e and Supplementary Fig. 3). Strikingly, the synaptic plasticity and behavioural impairment persisted in the absence of further stimulus presentation and later relearning occurred at a rate indistinguishable from initial learning, suggesting a loss of the memory trace (Fig. 2f,g).

One possible explanation for the memory loss seen on DG inhibition is that presentation of paired CS–US has a dual effect on CA1 plasticity, on the one hand strengthening SC synapses via a DG-dependent mechanism (indirect inputs to CA1 via the tri-synaptic circuit) and on the other hand weakening SC synapses in a non-DG-dependent manner (direct PP-CA1 inputs). This explanation is consistent with several studies in the literature reporting mechanistic and functional differences between the direct and the indirect inputs to CA1 (refs 12, 13, 30, 31, 32). Furthermore, earlier in vitro12, 23 and in vivo33 electrophysiology studies found that stimulation of PP-CA1 inputs to the hippocampus could depotentiate synaptic plasticity that had been previously acquired at SC synapses suggesting that the direct PP pathway might promote depotentiation during hippocampal learning. To test this possibility, we used dual, orthogonal pharmacogenetic inhibition of DG and entorhinal cortex to show that the memory loss phenomenon we observed depended on PP inputs (Fig. 4e). Furthermore, one of the earlier studies23 had shown that PP stimulation-induced SC depotentiation could be inhibited by blockade of adenosine A1 receptors, but not several other receptors, and we found that bilateral administration of DPCPX to the CA1 region of the hippocampus blocked synaptic depotentiation in our model (Fig. 4g).

Our data lead us to propose a novel function for PP-CA1 inputs to the hippocampus. During CS–US presentation, but not during presentation of unpaired CS–US or CS alone, information arriving via this pathway actively promotes depotentiation of SC synapses, while information arriving via the DG pathway opposes this depotentiation. Thus, in an animal that has successfully acquired a hippocampal-dependent memory, and in which the direct and indirect pathways are intact, SC synaptic strength is stable and memories can be retrieved. However, when the DG pathway is blocked, as we have done artificially in our study, depotentiation is favoured and memory is lost (see scheme, Fig. 6). The precise function of PP-dependent SC depotentiation remains unclear at this point, but we speculate that it may play a role in weakening previously acquired associations to facilitate the encoding of new memories. Existing data show that selective blockade of synaptic activity in entorhinal cortex neurons projecting to CA1 impairs the acquisition of trace fear conditioning34 and support our hypothesis of a positive role for this pathway in learning13, 30, 32, 33. Moreover, our DPCPX experiments suggest that blockade of the depotentiation mechanism promotes SC synaptic plasticity during CS–US presentation in otherwise intact animals (Fig. 4g). However, further loss and gain-of-function manipulations of this pathway coupled with in vivoelectrophysiology and learning behaviour are needed to directly test a role of PP-CA1 inputs in memory clearing.

Figure 6: Model for function of PP-CA1 inputs to the hippocampus.

Figure 6

Model for function of PP-CA1 inputs to the hippocampus.

Model for function of PP-CA1 inputs to the hippocampus.

Area CA1 of the hippocampus receives information directly from the entorhinal cortex (direct PP-CA1 pathway) and also indirectly via the tri-synaptic circuit. (a) Presentation of paired CS–US promotes potentiation of SC synapses (+) via the indirect pathway depotentiation of SC synapses (–) via the PP-CA1 pathway. In an animal having successfully undergone learning, potentiation and depotentiation are balanced, SC synaptic strength is stable and memories can be retrieved. (b) Inhibition of DG during CS–US presentation suppresses potentiation via the indirect pathway, unmasking depotentiation of SC synapses and promoting memory loss.

Our finding that DG granule cells are not required for retrieval of hippocampal memory is consistent with previous data arguing that retrieval of associative information encoded in CA3–CA3 and SC plasticity is achieved via direct PP projections to CA3 (refs 1, 2, 3, 4, 35, 36, 37, 38). However, our data appear to contradict at least one recent study demonstrating a role for DG granule cells in retrieval during contextual fear conditioning39. We believe this discrepancy is due to a requirement for DG granule cells in the processing of the contextual CS (ref. 40). However, to rule out the possibility that other methodological differences between the studies underlie the discrepancy, it would be important to determine whether the cell-type specific optogenetic inhibition method used in their study left intact the recall of hippocampal-dependent memories for discrete cues.

Our study raises several questions. First, while we show SC depotentiation is adenosine receptor dependent, the location of adenosine signalling is not clear. Adenosine A1 receptors are expressed highly in CA3 pyramidal cells as well as more modestly in CA1 (ref. 28), and a study in which this receptor was selectively knocked out in one or the other of these structures demonstrated a role for presynaptic CA3, but not postsynaptic CA1 receptors in dampening SC neurotransmission41suggesting a presynaptic mechanism for our effect. The source of adenosine, on the other hand, could involve pre- and/or postsynaptic release as well as release from non-neuronal cells such as astrocytes27, 42. Second, although our DPCPX experiment pointed to a role for PP-CA1 projections in SC depotentiation, our entorhinal cortex pharmacogenetic inhibition experiment did not allow us to distinguish between contributions of PP-CA1 and PP-CA3 inputs. Although we cannot rule out a contribution of PP-CA3 projections to SC depotentiation, earlier in vitro and in vivo electrophysiology studies clearly demonstrate a role for PP-CA1 in SC depotentiation12, 22, 33. Third, the method we used to assess SC postsynaptic strength, namely electrical stimulation evoked field potentials does not allow us to rule out that changes in synaptic plasticity at non-SC inputs underlie our plasticity effects. Experiments using targeted optogenetic stimulation of CA3 efferents could be used to more selectively measure SC synaptic strength. Fourth, our observation that SC depotentiation and memory loss occurred only during paired, but not unpaired CS–US presentation (Fig. 2d,e) suggests that the memory loss phenomenon we describe is distinct from other well-described avenues for memory degradation, including enhancement of extinction43 and blockade of reconsolidation44. Finally, our findings demonstrating generalization of DG inhibition-induced memory loss across tasks coupled with our identification of an endogenous pharmacological target that can induce similar memory loss raise the possibility that the novel memory mechanism we have uncovered may be useful for erasing unwanted memories in a clinical setting.

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Sleep and memory

Larry H. Bernstein, MD, FCAP, Curator



Learning with the Lights Out

Researchers are uncovering the link between sleep and learning and how it changes throughout our lives.

By Jenny Rood | March 1, 2016    http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/45335/title/Learning-with-the-Lights-Out

NIGHTY NIGHT: Goffredina Spanò from Jamie Edgin’s University of Arizona lab uses polysomnography to measure sleep in a toddler with Down syndrome.PAMELA SPEDER

By the early 2000s, scientists had found that sleep helps young adults consolidate memory by reinforcing and filing away daytime experiences. But the older adults that Rebecca Spencer was studying at the University of Massachusetts Amherst didn’t seem to experience the same benefit. Spencer wondered if developmental stage altered the relationship between sleep and memory, and chose nearby preschool children as subjects. She found that habitual nappers benefitted the most from daytime rest, largely because their memories decayed the most without a nap. “By staying awake, they have more interference from daytime experiences,” Spencer explains.

Until recently, most of the research into the relationship between memory and sleep has been conducted using young adults or animal models. These studies have suggested that dampened sensory inputs during sleep allow the brain to replay the day’s events during a period relatively free of distracting information, helping to solidify connections and transfer daytime hippocampal memories into long-term storage in the cortex. But how sleep and memory interact at different ages has been an open question.

In children younger than 18 months, learning is thought to occur in the cortex because the hippocampus isn’t yet fully developed. As a result, researchers hypothesize that infants don’t replay memories during sleep, the way adults do. Instead, sleep merely seems to prevent infants from forgetting as much as they would if they were awake. “The net effect is that sleep permits infants to retain more of the redundant details of a learning experience,” says experimental psychologist Rebecca Gómez of the University of Arizona. By the time they are two years old, “we think that children have the brain development that supports an active process of consolidation,” she adds.

At that age, adequate nighttime sleep becomes critical for learning. Toddlers who sleep less than 10 hours display lasting cognitive deficits, even if they catch up on sleep later in their development (Sleep, 30:1213-19, 2007). The effects are particularly strong in children with developmental disorders, who often suffer from sleep disruptions. “Kids with Down syndrome that are sleep-impaired look like they have very large differences in language,” says Jamie Edgin of the University of Arizona who studies sleep and cognition in such children. When comparing Down syndrome children who are sleep deprived with those who sleep normally, she has observed a vocabulary difference of more than 190 words on language tests, even after controlling for behavioral differences.

Understanding the impact of sleep on memory could also help another at-risk group of learners at the other end of the age spectrum. Previous research has suggested that older adults don’t remember newly acquired motor skills as well as young adults do, perhaps because the posttraining stages of the learning process appear diminished. But neuroscientist Maria Korman and her colleagues at the University of Haifa in Israel recently demonstrated that a nap soon after learning can allow the elderly to retain procedural memories just as well as younger people (Neurosci Lett, 606:173-76, 2015). Korman hypothesizes that by shortening the interval between learning and consolidation, the nap prevents intervening experiences from weakening the memory before it solidifies. Overnight sleep might be even better, if the motor skills—in this case a complex sequence of finger and thumb movements on the nondominant hand—are taught late enough in the day, something she is testing now.

Optimizing the timing of sleep and training in the elderly takes advantage of something Korman sees as a positive side of growing old. “As we age, our neural system becomes more aware of the relevance of the task,” Korman says. Unlike young adults who solidify all the information they acquire throughout the day, older people consolidate “those experiences that were tagged by the brain as very important.”

Tests for older adults’ memory acuity are generating new findings about the relationship between sleep and memory at other ages as well. After learning at a conference about a memory test for cognitive impairment and dementia in older adults, neuroscientist Jeanne Duffy of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston wondered if sleep could help strengthen the connection between names and faces. She and her colleagues found that young adults who slept overnight after learning a list of 20 names and faces showed a 12 percent increase in retention when tested 12 hours later compared with subjects who didn’t sleep between training and testing (Neurobiol Learn Mem, 126:31-38, 2015). The findings have “an immediate real-world application,” Duffy says, as they address a common memory concern among people of all ages.

A poll by the National Sleep Foundation found that adolescents have a deficit of nearly two hours of sleep per night during the school week compared with the weekend, suggesting the potential for serious learning impairments, according to Jared Saletin, a postdoctoral sleep researcher at Brown University. In fact, one study found that restricting 13- to 17-year-olds to six and a half hours of sleep a night for five nights reduced the information they absorbed in a school-like setting (J Adolesc Health, 47:523-25, 2010). However, other studies have suggested that four nights of just five hours of sleep didn’t impair 14- to 16-year-olds’ performance on tests of skills and vocabulary (Sleep Med, 12:170-78, 2011). A lack of consistency in study design and the ages of the subjects makes these conflicting results difficult to interpret, Gómez writes in a review, and much remains to be discovered about the true impact of sleep deficits on teenagers’ learning (Trans Issues in Psych Sci, 1:116-25, 2015).

Developing a fuller picture of what happens to memories during sleep—and how best to tweak sleep habits to aid the recall process—could benefit some of society’s most sleep-deprived members of every age. “We need to understand this role of sleep in memory because there is such potential for intervention,” Spencer says. “Now that we have a well-founded concept of what sleep can do for memory, it’s time to put it to the test.”


Associations Between Sleep Duration Patterns and Behavioral/Cognitive Functioning at School Entry

Évelyne Touchette, MPs,1,2 Dominique Petit, PhD,1 Jean R. Séguin, PhD,3,4,5 Michel Boivin, PhD,6,7 Richard E. Tremblay, PhD,2,3,4,5,8 and Jacques Y. Montplaisir, MD, CRCP(c), PhD1,5
Sleep. 2007 Sep 1; 30(9): 1213–1219.     http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1978413/
See commentary “Sleep and the Developing Brain

The aim of the study was to investigate the associations between longitudinal sleep duration patterns and behavioral/cognitive functioning at school entry.
Design, Setting, and Participants:   Hyperactivity-impulsivity (HI), inattention, and daytime sleepiness scores were measured by questionnaire at 6 years of age in a sample of births from 1997 to 1998 in a Canadian province (N=1492). The Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test – Revised (PPVT-R) was administered at 5 years of age and the Block Design subtest (WISC-III) was administered at 6 years of age. Sleep duration was reported yearly by the children’s mothers from age 2.5 to 6 years. A group-based semiparametric mixture model was used to estimate developmental patterns of sleep duration. The relationships between sleep duration patterns and both behavioral items and neurodevelopmental tasks were tested using weighted multivariate logistic regression models to control for potentially confounding psychosocial factors.  Results:   Four sleep duration patterns were identified: short persistent (6.0%), short increasing (4.8%),10-hour persistent (50.3%), and 11-hour persistent (38.9%). The association of short sleep duration patterns with high HI scores (P=0.001), low PPVT-R performance (P=0.002), and low Block Design subtest performance (P=0.004) remained significant after adjusting for potentially confounding variables.   Conclusions:   Shortened sleep duration, especially before the age of 41 months, is associated with externalizing problems such as HI and lower cognitive performance on neurodevelopmental tests. Results highlight the importance of giving a child the opportunity to sleep at least 10 hours per night throughout early childhood.

Citation: Touchette E; Petit D; Séguin JR; Boivin M; Tremblay RE; Montplaisir JY. Associations between sleep duration patterns and behavioral/cognitive functioning at school entry. SLEEP 2007;30(9):1213-1219.

Nap it or leave it in the elderly: A nap after practice relaxes age-related limitations in procedural memory consolidation

M. Kormana, , Y. DaganbA. Karnib   


•   Elderly individuals gain in practicing a new motor task as do young adults.
•   But elderly individuals fail to show delayed (offline) memory related gains.
•   A post-training nap uncovered robust offline skill consolidation in the elderly.
•   Consolidation processes are preserved in aging but are more stringently controlled.
•   Sleep scheduling can relax age related constraints on mnemonic processes.       
Using a training protocol that effectively induces procedural memory consolidation (PMC) in young adults, we show that older adults are good learners, robustly improving their motor performance during training. However, performance declined over the day, and overnight ‘offline’ consolidation phase performance gains were under-expressed. A post-training nap countered these deficits. PMC processes are preserved but under-engaged in the elderly; sleep can relax some of the age-related constraints on long-term plasticity.


A new face of sleep: The impact of post-learning sleep on recognition memory for face-name associations

Leonie Maurera, c, Kirsi-Marja Zittinga, b, Kieran Elliotta, Charles A. Czeislera, b, Joseph M. Rondaa, b, Jeanne F. Duffya, b, ,


•   We tested whether sleep influences the accuracy of remembering face-name associations.
•   Presentation and recall were 12 h apart, one time with 8 h sleep and once without.
•   More correct face-name pairs were recalled when there was a sleep opportunity.
•   Sleep duration or sleep stage was not associated with improvement between conditions.     

Sleep has been demonstrated to improve consolidation of many types of new memories. However, few prior studies have examined how sleep impacts learning of face-name associations. The recognition of a new face along with the associated name is an important human cognitive skill. Here we investigated whether post-presentation sleep impacts recognition memory of new face-name associations in healthy adults.

Fourteen participants were tested twice. Each time, they were presented 20 photos of faces with a corresponding name. Twelve hours later, they were shown each face twice, once with the correct and once with an incorrect name, and asked if each face-name combination was correct and to rate their confidence. In one condition the 12-h interval between presentation and recall included an 8-h nighttime sleep opportunity (“Sleep”), while in the other condition they remained awake (“Wake”).

There were more correct and highly confident correct responses when the interval between presentation and recall included a sleep opportunity, although improvement between the “Wake” and “Sleep” conditions was not related to duration of sleep or any sleep stage.

These data suggest that a nighttime sleep opportunity improves the ability to correctly recognize face-name associations. Further studies investigating the mechanism of this improvement are important, as this finding has implications for individuals with sleep disturbances and/or memory impairments.

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