Posts tagged genetics
Posts tagged genetics
TAU researchers discover gene that may predict human responses to specific antidepressants
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most commonly prescribed antidepressants, but they don’t work for everyone. What’s more, patients must often try several different SSRI medications, each with a different set of side effects, before finding one that is effective. It takes three to four weeks to see if a particular antidepressant drug works. Meanwhile, patients and their families continue to suffer.
Now researchers at Tel Aviv University have discovered a gene that may reveal whether people are likely to respond well to SSRI antidepressants, both generally and in specific formulations. The new biomarker, once it is validated in clinical trials, could be used to create a genetic test, allowing doctors to provide personalized treatment for depression.
Doctoral students Keren Oved and Ayelet Morag led the research under the guidance of Dr. David Gurwitz of the Department of Molecular Genetics and Biochemistry at TAU’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine and Dr. Noam Shomron of the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology at TAU’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine and Sagol School of Neuroscience. Sackler faculty members Prof. Moshe Rehavi of the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology and Dr. Metsada Pasmnik-Chor of the Bioinformatics Unit were coauthors of the study, published in Translational Psychiatry.
"SSRIs only work for about 60 percent of people with depression," said Dr. Gurwitz. "A drug from other families of antidepressants could be effective for some of the others. We are working to move the treatment of depression from a trial-and-error approach to a best-fit, personalized regimen."
Good news for the depressed
More than 20 million Americans each year suffer from disabling depression that requires clinical intervention. SSRIs such as Prozac, Zoloft, and Celexa are the newest and the most popular medications for treatment. They are thought to work by blocking the reabsorption of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain, leaving more of it available to help brain cells send and receive chemical signals, thereby boosting mood. It is not currently known why some people respond to SSRIs better than others.
To find genes that may be behind the brain’s responsiveness to SSRIs, the TAU researchers first applied the SSRI Paroxetine — brand name Paxil — to 80 sets of cells, or “cell lines,” from the National Laboratory for the Genetics of Israeli Populations, a biobank of genetic information about Israeli citizens located at TAU’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine and directed by Dr. Gurwitz. The TAU researchers then analyzed and compared the RNA profiles of the most and least responsive cell lines. A gene called CHL1 was produced at lower levels in the most responsive cell lines and at higher levels in the least responsive cell lines. Using a simple genetic test, doctors could one day use CHL1 as a biomarker to determine whether or not to prescribe SSRIs.
"We want to end up with a blood test that will allow us to tell a patient which drug is best for him," said Oved. "We are at the early stages, working on the cellular level. Next comes testing on animals and people."
Rethinking how antidepressants work
The TAU researchers also wanted to understand why CHL1 levels might predict responsiveness to SSRIs. To this end, they applied Paroxetine to human cell lines for three weeks — the time it takes for a clinical response to SSRIs. They found that Paroxetine caused increased production of the gene ITGB3 — whose protein product is thought to interact with CHL1 to promote the development of new neurons and synapses. The result is the repair of dysfunctional signaling in brain regions controlling mood, which may explain the action of SSRI antidepressants.
This explanation differs from the conventional theory that SSRIs directly relieve depression by inhibiting the reabsorption of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain. Dr. Shomron adds that the new explanation resolves the longstanding mystery as to why it takes at least three weeks for SSRIs to ease the symptoms of depression when they begin inhibiting reabsorption after a couple days — the development of neurons and synapses takes weeks, not days.
The TAU researchers are working to confirm their findings on the molecular level and with animal models. Adva Hadar, a master’s student in Dr. Gurwitz’s lab, is using the same approach to find biomarkers for the personalized treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.
With evidence growing that meditation can have beneficial health effects, scientists have sought to understand how these practices physically affect the body.
A new study by researchers in Wisconsin, Spain, and France reports the first evidence of specific molecular changes in the body following a period of mindfulness meditation.
The study investigated the effects of a day of intensive mindfulness practice in a group of experienced meditators, compared to a group of untrained control subjects who engaged in quiet non-meditative activities. After eight hours of mindfulness practice, the meditators showed a range of genetic and molecular differences, including altered levels of gene-regulating machinery and reduced levels of pro-inflammatory genes, which in turn correlated with faster physical recovery from a stressful situation.
"To the best of our knowledge, this is the first paper that shows rapid alterations in gene expression within subjects associated with mindfulness meditation practice," says study author Richard J. Davidson, founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds and the William James and Vilas Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
"Most interestingly, the changes were observed in genes that are the current targets of anti-inflammatory and analgesic drugs," says Perla Kaliman, first author of the article and a researcher at the Institute of Biomedical Research of Barcelona, Spain (IIBB-CSIC-IDIBAPS), where the molecular analyses were conducted.
The study was published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.
Mindfulness-based trainings have shown beneficial effects on inflammatory disorders in prior clinical studies and are endorsed by the American Heart Association as a preventative intervention. The new results provide a possible biological mechanism for therapeutic effects.
The results show a down-regulation of genes that have been implicated in inflammation. The affected genes include the pro-inflammatory genes RIPK2 and COX2 as well as several histone deacetylase (HDAC) genes, which regulate the activity of other genes epigenetically by removing a type of chemical tag. What’s more, the extent to which some of those genes were downregulated was associated with faster cortisol recovery to a social stress test involving an impromptu speech and tasks requiring mental calculations performed in front of an audience and video camera.
Perhaps surprisingly, the researchers say, there was no difference in the tested genes between the two groups of people at the start of the study. The observed effects were seen only in the meditators following mindfulness practice. In addition, several other DNA-modifying genes showed no differences between groups, suggesting that the mindfulness practice specifically affected certain regulatory pathways.
However, it is important to note that the study was not designed to distinguish any effects of long-term meditation training from those of a single day of practice. Instead, the key result is that meditators experienced genetic changes following mindfulness practice that were not seen in the non-meditating group after other quiet activities — an outcome providing proof of principle that mindfulness practice can lead to epigenetic alterations of the genome.
Previous studies in rodents and in people have shown dynamic epigenetic responses to physical stimuli such as stress, diet, or exercise within just a few hours.
"Our genes are quite dynamic in their expression and these results suggest that the calmness of our mind can actually have a potential influence on their expression," Davidson says.
"The regulation of HDACs and inflammatory pathways may represent some of the mechanisms underlying the therapeutic potential of mindfulness-based interventions," Kaliman says. "Our findings set the foundation for future studies to further assess meditation strategies for the treatment of chronic inflammatory conditions."
Researchers from the University of Bonn use reprogrammed patient neurons for drug testing
Why do certain Alzheimer medications work in animal models but not in clinical trials in humans? A research team from the University of Bonn and the biomedical enterprise LIFE & BRAIN GmbH has been able to show that results of established test methods with animal models and cell lines used up until now can hardly be translated to the processes in the human brain. Drug testing should therefore be conducted with human nerve cells, conclude the scientists. The results are published by Cell Press in the journal “Stem Cell Reports”.
In the brains of Alzheimer patients, deposits form that consist essentially of beta-amyloid and are harmful to nerve cells. Scientists are therefore searching for pharmaceutical compounds that prevent the formation of these dangerous aggregates. In animal models, certain non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) were found to a reduced formation of harmful beta-amyloid variants. Yet, in subsequent clinical studies, these NSAIDs failed to elicit any beneficial effects.
"The reasons for these negative results have remained unclear for a long time", says Prof. Dr. Oliver Brüstle, Director of the Institute for Reconstructive Neurobiology of the University of Bonn and CEO of LIFE & BRAIN GmbH. "Remarkably, these compounds were never tested directly on the actual target cells – the human neuron", adds lead author Dr. Jerome Mertens of Prof. Brüstle’s team, who now works at the Laboratory of Genetics in La Jolla (USA). This is because, so far, living human neurons have been extremely difficult to obtain. However, with the recent advances in stem cell research it has become possible to derive limitless numbers of brain cells from a small skin biopsy or other adult cell types.
Scientists transform skin cells into nerve cells
Now a research team from the Institute for Reconstructive Neurobiology and the Department of Neurology of the Bonn University Medical Center together with colleagues from the LIFE & BRAIN GmbH and the University of Leuven (Belgium) has obtained such nerve cells from humans. The researchers used skin cells from two patients with a familial form of Alzheimer’s Disease to produce so-called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells), by reprogramming the body’s cells into a quasi-embryonic stage. They then transformed the resulting so-called “jack-of-all-trades cells” into nerve cells.
Using these human neurons, the scientists tested several compounds in the group of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. As control, the researchers used nerve cells they had obtained from iPS cells of donors who did not have the disease. Both in the nerve cells obtained from the Alzheimer patients and in the control cells, the NSAIDs that had previously tested positive in the animal models and cell lines typically used for drug screening had practically no effect: The values for the harmful beta-amyloid variants that form the feared aggregates in the brain remained unaffected when the cells were treated with clinically relevant dosages of these compounds.
Metabolic processes in animal models differ from humans
"In order to predict the efficacy of Alzheimer drugs, such tests have to be performed directly on the affected human nerve cells", concludes Prof. Brüstle’s colleague Dr. Philipp Koch, who led the study. Why do NSAIDs decrease the risk of aggregate formation in animal experiments and cell lines but not in human neurons? The scientists explain this with differences in metabolic processes between these different cell types. "The results are simply not transferable", says Dr. Koch.
The scientists now hope that in the future, testing of potential drugs for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease will be increasingly conducted using neurons obtained from iPS cells of patients. “The development of a single drug takes an average of ten years”, says Prof. Brüstle. “By using patient-specific nerve cells as a test system, investments by pharmaceutical companies and the tedious search for urgently needed Alzheimer medications could be greatly streamlined”.
A discovery by Emory Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center and Scripps Research Institute scientists could lead to drugs that slow Alzheimer’s disease progression.
A straightforward drug strategy against Alzheimer’s is to turn down the brain’s production of beta-amyloid, the key component of the disease’s characteristic plaques. A toxic fragment of a protein found in healthy brains, beta-amyloid accumulates in the brains of people affected by the disease.
The enzyme that determines how much beta-amyloid brain cells generate is called BACE (beta-secretase or beta-site APP cleaving enzyme). Yet finding drugs that inhibit that elusive enzyme has been far from straightforward.
Now researchers have identified a way to shut down production of beta-amyloid by diverting BACE to a different part of the cell and inhibiting its activity. The results were published this week in Journal of Neuroscience.
"This is an indirect but highly effective way of blocking BACE, which controls the chokepoint step in beta-amyloid production," says lead author Jeremy Herskowitz, PhD, instructor in neurology at Emory’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center.
"Jeremy has found a promising approach toward reducing beta-amyloid production and potentially modifying Alzheimer’s disease progression, something for which there is immense need," says senior author James Lah, MD, PhD, associate professor of neurology at Emory University School of Medicine and director of the Cognitive Neurology program. "Drugs that reduce beta-amyloid production would probably be mostly preventive. However, since amyloid-beta is toxic, such drugs could have some immediate effect on cognitive impairment."
In the paper, Herskowitz and his colleagues demonstrate that a specific inhibitor of the enzyme ROCK2 can cut beta-amyloid production in brain cells by more than 75 percent. Co-author Yangbo Feng, PhD, associate director of medicinal chemistry at Scripps Research Institute in Florida, previously discovered the ROCK2 inhibitor, called SR3677.
Alzheimer’s researchers were already interested in ROCK2 and a related enzyme, ROCK1, because of a connection with NSAIDs (non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs) such as ibuprofen. Some NSAIDS can inhibit production of a particularly toxic form of beta-amyloid, and scientists believed NSAIDs were exerting their effects through the ROCKs.
Herskowitz first showed that in cultured cells, “knocking down” the ROCK2 gene reduced beta-amyloid production, but knocking down ROCK1 had the opposite effect.
"This says that anytime you’re hitting both ROCKs at once, the effects cancel each other out," he says.
The known drugs that affect the ROCKs seemed to affect both and thus have diminished effects. In contrast, SR3677 inhibits ROCK2 much more effectively than ROCK1, and it offered a way around the obstacle. Herskowitz found that by inhibiting ROCK2, SR3677 diverts BACE to a different part of the cell, where it is less likely to act on beta-amyloid’s parent protein.
He and ADRC colleagues found that ROCK2 levels are higher than usual in tissue samples from brains of patients with Alzheimer’s, including those with mild cognitive impairment, thought to be a precursor stage of the disease.
"There is plenty of ROCK2 in the brain, and its levels are elevated in Alzheimer’s patients, indicating that it’s an excellent drug target," Herskowitz says. "We are eager to pursue more extensive studies of this strategy in animal models of Alzheimer’s."
SR3677 can substantially inhibit beta-amyloid production in an animal model of Alzheimer’s, but so far, this effect has been observed when the drug is injected directly into the brain. More studies are required to learn if SR3677 or related drugs can pass the blood-brain barrier and thus be given by injection or orally, and what side effects could appear. ROCK inhibitors are also being investigated for treating other conditions such as glaucoma, hypertension and multiple sclerosis.
Using a powerful gene-hunting technique for the first time in mammalian brain cells, researchers at Johns Hopkins report they have identified a gene involved in building the circuitry that relays signals through the brain. The gene is a likely player in the aging process in the brain, the researchers say. Additionally, in demonstrating the usefulness of the new method, the discovery paves the way for faster progress toward identifying genes involved in complex mental illnesses such as autism and schizophrenia — as well as potential drugs for such conditions. A summary of the study appears in the Dec. 12 issue of Cell Reports.
(Image: A mouse neuron with synapses shown: Red dots mark excitatory synapses, while green dots mark so-called inhibitory synapses. Credit: Kamal Sharma/Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine)
“We have been looking for a way to sift through large numbers of genes at the same time to see whether they affect processes we’re interested in,” says Richard Huganir, Ph.D., director of the Johns Hopkins University Solomon H. Snyder Department of Neuroscience and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, who led the study. “By adapting an automated process to neurons, we were able to go through 800 genes to find one needed for forming synapses — connections — among those cells.”
Although automated gene-sifting techniques have been used in other areas of biology, Huganir notes, many neuroscience studies instead build on existing knowledge to form a hypothesis about an individual gene’s role in the brain. Traditionally, researchers then disable or “knock out” the gene in lab-grown cells or animals to test their hypothesis, a time-consuming and laborious process.
In this study, Huganir’s group worked to test many genes all at once using plastic plates with dozens of small wells. A robot was used to add precise allotments of cells and nutrients to each well, along with molecules designed to knock out one of the cells’ genes — a different one for each well.
“The big challenge was getting the neurons, which are very sensitive, to function under these automated conditions,” says Kamal Sharma, Ph.D., a research associate in Huganir’s group. The team used a trial-and-error approach, adjusting how often the nutrient solution was changed and adding a washing step, and eventually coaxed the cells to thrive in the wells. In addition, Sharma says, they fine-tuned an automated microscope used to take pictures of the circuitry that had formed in the wells and calculated the numbers of synapses formed among the cells.
The team screened 800 genes in this way and found big differences in the well of cells with a gene called LRP6 knocked out. LRP6 had previously been identified as a player in a biochemical chain of events known as the Wnt pathway, which controls a range of processes in the brain. Interestingly, Sharma says, the team found that LRP6 was only found on a specific kind of synapse known as an excitatory synapse, suggesting that it enables the Wnt pathway to tailor its effects to just one synapse type.
“Changes in excitatory synapses are associated with aging, and changes in the Wnt pathway in later life may accelerate aging in general. However, we do not know what changes take place in the synaptic landscape of the aging brain. Our findings raise intriguing questions: Is the Wnt pathway changing that landscape, and if so, how?” says Sharma. “We’re interested in learning more about what other proteins LRP6 interacts with, as well as how it acts in different types of brain cells at different developmental stages of circuit development and refinement.”
Another likely outcome of the study is wider use of the gene-sifting technique, he says, to explore the genetics of complex mental illnesses. The automated method could also be used to easily test the effects on brain cells of a range of molecules and see which might be drug candidates.
For some, the disease multiple sclerosis (MS) attacks its victims slowly and progressively over a period of many years. For others, it strikes without warning in fits and starts. But all patients share one thing in common: the disease had long been present in their nervous systems, hiding under the radar from even the most sophisticated detection methods. But now, scientists at the Gladstone Institutes have devised a new molecular sensor that can detect MS at its earliest stages—even before the onset of physical signs.
In a new study from the laboratory of Gladstone Investigator Katerina Akassoglou, PhD, scientists reveal in animal models that the heightened activity of a protein called thrombin in the brain could serve as an early indicator of MS. By developing a fluorescently labeled probe specifically designed to track thrombin, the team found that active thrombin could be detected at the earliest phases of MS—and that this active thrombin correlates with disease severity. These findings, reported online in Annals of Neurology, could spur the development of a much-needed early-detection method for this devastating disease.
MS, which afflicts millions of people worldwide, develops when the body’s immune system attacks the protective myelin sheath that surrounds nerve cells. This attack damages the nerve cells, leading to a host of symptoms that include numbness, fatigue, difficulty walking, paralysis and loss of vision. While some drugs can delay these symptoms, they do not treat the disease’s underlying causes—causes that researchers are only just beginning to understand.
Last year, Dr. Akassoglou and her team found that a key step in the progression of MS is the disruption of the blood brain barrier (BBB). This barrier physically separates the brain from the blood circulation and if it breaks down, a blood protein called fibrinogen seeps into the brain. When this happens, thrombin responds by converting fibrinogen into fibrin—a protein that should normally not be present in the brain. As fibrin builds up in the brain, it triggers an immune response that leads to the degradation of the nerve cells’ myelin sheath, over time contributing to the progression of MS.
"We already knew that the buildup of fibrin appears early in the development of MS—both in animal models and in human patients, so we wondered whether thrombin activity could in turn serve as an early marker of disease." said Dr. Akassoglou, who directs the Gladstone Center for In Vivo Imaging Research (CIVIR). She is also a professor of neurology at the University of California, San Francisco, with which Gladstone is affiliated. "In fact, we were able to detect thrombin activity even in our animal models—before they exhibited any of the disease’s neurological signs."
Exposure to air pollution appears to increase the risk for autism among people who carry a genetic disposition for the neurodevelopmental disorder, according to newly published research led by scientists at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California (USC).
"Our research shows that children with both the risk genotype and exposure to high air pollutant levels were at increased risk of autism spectrum disorder compared to those without the risk genotype and lower air pollution exposure," said the study’s first author, Heather E. Volk, Ph.D., M.P.H., assistant professor of research in preventive medicine and pediatrics at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and principal investigator at The Saban Research Institute of Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
The study, “Autism spectrum disorder: Interaction of air pollution with the MET receptor tyrosine kinase gene,” is scheduled to appear in the January 2014 edition of Epidemiology.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a lifelong neurodevelopmental disability characterized by problems with social interaction, communication and repetitive behaviors. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in 88 children in the United States has an ASD.
ASD is highly heritable, suggesting that genetics are an important contributing factor, but many questions about its causes remain. There currently is no cure for the disorder.
"Although gene-environment interactions are widely believed to contribute to autism risk, this is the first demonstration of a specific interaction between a well-established genetic risk factor and an environmental factor that independently contribute to autism risk," said Daniel B. Campbell, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry and the behavioral sciences at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and the study’s senior author. "The MET gene variant has been associated with autism in multiple studies, controls expression of MET protein in both the brain and the immune system, and predicts altered brain structure and function. It will be important to replicate this finding and to determine the mechanisms by which these genetic and environmental factors interact to increase the risk for autism."
Independent studies by Volk and Campbell have previously reported associations between autism and air pollution exposure and between autism and a variant in the MET gene. The current study suggests that air pollution exposure and the genetic variant interact to augment the risk of ASD.
Campbell and Volk’s team studied 408 children between 2 and 5 years of age from the Childhood Autism Risks From Genetics and the Environment Study, a population-based, case-control study of preschool children from California. Of those, 252 met the criteria for autism or autism spectrum disorder. Air pollution exposure was determined based on the past residences of the children and their mothers, local traffic-related sources, and regional air quality measures. MET genotype was determined through blood sampling.
Campbell and Volk continue to study the interaction of air pollution exposure and the MET genotype in mothers during pregnancy.
A study published recently in the Journal of Neuroscience points, for the first time, to the gene trkC as a factor in susceptibility to the disease. The researchers define the specific mechanism for the formation of fear memories which will help in the development of new pharmacological and cognitive treatments.
Five out of every 100 people* in Spain suffer from panic disorder, one of the diseases included within the anxiety disorders, and they experience frequent and sudden attacks of fear that may influence their everyday lives, sometimes even rendering them incapable of things like going to the shops, driving the car or holding down a job.
It was known that this disease had a neurobiological and genetic basis and for some time the search had been on to discover which genes were involved in its development, with certain genes being implicated without their physiopathological contribution being understood. Now, for the first time, researchers from the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG) have revealed that the gene NTRK3, responsible for encoding a protein essential for the formation of the brain, the survival of neurones and establishing connections between them, is a factor in genetic susceptibility to panic disorder.
"We have observed that deregulation of NTRK3 produces changes in brain development that lead to malfunctions in the fear-related memory system", explains Mara Dierssen, head of the Cellular and Systems Neurobiology group at the CRG. “In particular, this system is more efficient at processessing information to do with fear, the thing that makes a person overestimate the risk in a situation and therefore feel more frightened and, also, that stores that information in a more lasting and consistent manner".
Different regions of the human brain are responsible for processing this feeling, although the hippocampus and amygdala play crucial roles. On the one hand, the hippocampus is responsible for forming memories and processing contextual information, which means that the person may be afraid of being in places where they could suffer a panic attack; and on the other, the amygdala is crucial in converting this information into a physiological fear response.
Although these circuits are activated in everyone in warning situations, what the CRG researchers have discovered is that “in those people who suffer from panic disorder there is overactivation of the hippocampus and altered activation in the amygdala circuitry, resulting in exaggerated formation of fear memories”, explains Davide D’Amico, a PhD student at the CRG, co-author of the work and the article published in the Journal of Neuosciences, together with Dierssen and the researcher Mónica Santos.
They have also found that Tiagabine, a drug that modulates the brain’s fear inhibition system, is able to reverse the formation of panic memories. Although it had already been observed to alleviate certain symptoms in some patients, “we have discovered that it specifically helps restore the fear memory system”, points out Dierssen.
Panic attacks are a key symptom of panic disorder. They can last several minutes, be sudden and repeated, and the sufferer has a physical reaction similar to the alarm response to real danger, involving palpitations, cold sweats, dizziness, shortness of breath, tingling in the body, nausea and stomach pain. On top of this, they feel continuously anxious when faced with the prospect of suffering another attack.
This study by the CRG researchers reveals that the way in which the memories resulting from a panic attack are stored is what ultimately ends up producing the disorder, which usually appears between 20 and 30 years of age. Although it has a genetic basis, it is also influenced by other environmental factors, such as accumulated stress. This is why the authors of the paper consider elevated environmental stress in Spanish society to have led to an increase in the occurrence of these disorders.
Currently, there is no cure for this disease, which is treated with medicines that block the more serious symptoms, as well as with cognitive therapy, which aims to help the person learn to survive the attacks better. “The problem is that drugs have many side effects and psychotherapy is not really aimed at specific moments in the process of forming and forgetting fear memories. In our work we have defined a specific creation mechanism for these fear memories that could help in the development of new drugs and, also, in identifying the key moments for applying cognitive therapy”, indicates D’Amico.
As we age, our body rhythms lose time before they finally stop. Breaking the body clock by genetically disrupting a core clock gene, Bmal1, in mice has long been known to accelerate aging , causing arthritis, hair loss, cataracts, and premature death.
New research now reveals that the nerve cells of these mice with broken clocks show signs of deterioration before the externally visible signs of aging are apparent, raising the possibility of novel approaches to staving off or delaying neurodegeneration – hallmarks of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.
Erik Musiek, M.D., Ph.D., who was a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Garret FitzGerald, M.D., director of the Institute of Translational Medicine and Therapeutics, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, took on this project four years ago. Musiek, now an assistant professor at Washington University, completed this line of research over the last two years in the lab of David Holtzman, M.D., also at WashU.
The Penn-WashU team found that the expression of certain clock genes, including Bmal1, plays a fundamental role in delaying emergence of age-related signs of decay in the brain. The clock proteins appear to do this by protecting the brain against oxidative stress – a process akin to rusting – that is normally controlled by enzymes that degrade harmful forms of oxygen generated in the course of normal metabolism. Their findings appear this week in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.
“I had lunch with Garret four years ago when I was a resident in neurology at Penn and this led me to work in his lab,” recalls Musiek. “He had studied oxidative stress in cells and the lab was actively pursuing the role of the molecular clock in cardiovascular and metabolic function. However, he hadn’t studied the brain nor the role of the clock as a regulator of oxidative stress. Others had connected the clock to signs of aging, but hadn’t focused on the brain - it seemed like an opportunity to pursue.”
They found, to their surprise, that inflammation – reflected by activation of astrocytes – brain cells involved in this type of response, among other functions — was marked in young mice in which the clock was broken by deleting Bmal1. This anticipated even more marked changes in brain pathology as the mice aged, including declines in how parts of the brain connected to each other and degenerative features in nerve-cell anatomy – all characteristic of Parkinsons and Alzheimer’s disease in humans.
“When we saw this, we knew we were on to something,” notes Musiek.
Further experiments revealed that these effects were not restricted to disrupting the function of Bmal1, but also occurred when genes – Clock and Npas2 – with which Bmal1 works in tandem, were both removed. By contrast, deletion of other genes in the clock apparatus had no such effect.
As for mechanism, the exaggerated rusting, or oxidation, was key. Expression of several antioxidant enzymes, which normally keep oxidant stress in check are themselves controlled by clock proteins, and thus were depleted when the clock was broken. Musiek and his colleagues found evidence that inflammation and the attendant oxidant stress were both increased in the brains of the mutant mice.
Experimental drugs are beginning to emerge that may retain waning rhythms driven by the molecular clock. “Erik’s studies raise the intriguing possibility of novel therapeutic approaches to delaying the progress of age-related diseases, perhaps not only those related to the brain, as suggested by the present studies, but also in other systems, such as cardiometabolic function,” says FitzGerald.
In a final twist, the Penn-WashU team pinned the neuroprotective role of the body clock to clock genes in neurons and astrocytes, rather than changes in whole-animal circadian rhythms. By selectively deleting Bmal1 in these cell types, they found that the inflammatory aspects of astrocytes, neurodegeneration, and hallmarks of oxidative stress and inflammation seen when Bmal1 was missing in all cells of the body was recapitulated.
“Our findings indicate that the protein complex of BMAL1 with CLOCK or NPAS2, in addition to, or perhaps intrinsic to the complex’s internal body-clock function, regulates protection of the brain from inflammation and oxygen free-radical induced damage. This dynamic system connects impaired clock-gene function to neurodegeneration for the first time,” says Musiek.
UCL scientists have shown that there are widespread differences in how genes, the basic building blocks of the human body, are expressed in men and women’s brains.
Based on post-mortem adult human brain and spinal cord samples from over 100 individuals, scientists at the UCL Institute of Neurology were able to study the expression of every gene in 12 brain regions. The results are published today in Nature Communications.
They found that the way that the genes are expressed in the brains of men and women were different in all major brain regions and these differences involved 2.5% of all the genes expressed in the brain.
Among the many results, the researchers specifically looked at the gene NRXN3, which has been implicated in autism. The gene is transcribed into two major forms and the study results show that although one form is expressed similarly in both men and women, the other is produced at lower levels in women in the area of the brain called the thalamus. This observation could be important in understanding the higher incidence of autism in males.
Overall, the study suggests that there is a sex-bias in the way that genes are expressed and regulated, leading to different functionality and differences in susceptibility to brain diseases observed by neurologists and psychiatrists.
Dr. Mina Ryten, UCL Institute of Neurology and senior author of the paper, said: “There is strong evidence to show that men and women differ in terms of their susceptibility to neurological diseases, but up until now the basis of that difference has been unclear.
“Our study provides the most complete information so far on how the sexes differ in terms of how their genes are expressed in the brain. We have released our data so that others can assess how any gene they are interested in is expressed differently between men and women.”