Creative Minds: Reprogramming the Brain

Cells of a mouse retina

Caption: Neuronal circuits in the mouse retina. Cone photoreceptors (red) enable color vision; bipolar neurons (magenta) relay information further along the circuit; and a subtype of bipolar neuron (green) helps process signals sensed by other photoreceptors in dim light.
Credit: Brian Liu and Melanie Samuel, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston.

When most people think of reprogramming something, they probably think of writing code for a computer or typing commands into their smartphone. Melanie Samuel thinks of brain circuits, the networks of interconnected neurons that allow different parts of the brain to work together in processing information.

Samuel, a researcher at Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, wants to learn to reprogram the connections, or synapses, of brain circuits that function less well in aging and disease and limit our memory and ability to learn. She has received a 2016 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award to decipher the molecular cues that encourage the repair of damaged synapses or enable neurons to form new connections with other neurons. Because extensive synapse loss is central to most degenerative brain diseases, Samuel’s reprogramming efforts could help point the way to preventing or correcting wiring defects before they advance to serious and potentially irreversible cognitive problems.

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Creative Minds: A Transcriptional “Periodic Table” of Human Neurons

neuronal cell

Caption: Mouse fibroblasts converted into induced neuronal cells, showing neuronal appendages (red), nuclei (blue) and the neural protein tau (yellow).
Credit: Kristin Baldwin, Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, CA

Writers have The Elements of Style, chemists have the periodic table, and biomedical researchers could soon have a comprehensive reference on how to make neurons in a dish. Kristin Baldwin of the Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, CA, has received a 2016 NIH Director’s Pioneer Award to begin drafting an online resource that will provide other researchers the information they need to reprogram mature human skin cells reproducibly into a variety of neurons that closely resemble those found in the brain and nervous system.

These lab-grown neurons could be used to improve our understanding of basic human biology and to develop better models for studying Alzheimer’s disease, autism, and a wide range of other neurological conditions. Such questions have been extremely difficult to explore in mice and other animal models because they have shorter lifespans and different brain structures than humans.

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Antibody Makes Alzheimer’s Protein Detectable in Blood

Antibodies to Tau

Caption: The protein tau (green) aggregates abnormally in a brain cell (blue). Tau spills out of the cell and enters the bloodstream (red). Research shows that antibodies (blue) can capture tau in the blood that reflect its levels in the  brain.
Credit: Sara Moser

Age can bring moments of forgetfulness. It can also bring concern that the forgetfulness might be a sign of early Alzheimer’s disease. For those who decide to have it checked out, doctors are likely to administer brief memory exams to assess the situation, and medical tests to search for causes of memory loss. Brain imaging and spinal taps can also help to look for signs of the disease. But an absolutely definitive diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease is only possible today by examining a person’s brain postmortem. A need exists for a simple, less-invasive test to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease and similar neurodegenerative conditions in living people, perhaps even before memory loss becomes obvious.

One answer may lie in a protein called tau, which accumulates in abnormal tangles in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease and other “tauopathy” disorders. In recent years, researchers have been busy designing an antibody to target tau in hopes that this immunotherapy approach might slow or even reverse Alzheimer’s devastating symptoms, with promising early results in mice [1, 2]. Now, an NIH-funded research team that developed one such antibody have found it might also open the door to a simple blood test [3].

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Aging Research: Plasma Protein Revitalizes the Brain

Elixir of youth?For centuries, people have yearned for an elixir capable of restoring youth to their aging bodies and minds. It sounds like pure fantasy, but, in recent years, researchers have shown that the blood of young mice can exert a regenerative effect when transfused into older animals. Now, one of the NIH-funded teams that brought us those exciting findings has taken an early step toward extending them to humans.

In their latest work published in Nature, the researchers showed that blood plasma collected from the umbilical cords of newborn infants possesses some impressive rejuvenating effects [1]. When the human plasma was infused into the bloodstream of old mice, it produced marked improvements in learning and memory. Additional experiments traced many of those cognitive benefits to a specific protein called TIMP2—an unexpected discovery that could pave the way for the development of brain-boosting drugs to slow the effects of aging.

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LabTV: Curious about the Aging Brain

Saul Villeda

This LabTV video takes us to the West Coast to meet Saul Villeda, a creative young researcher who’s exploring ways to reduce the effects of aging on the human brain. Thanks to a 2012 NIH Director’s Early Independence award, Villeda set up his own lab at the University of California, San Francisco to study how age-related immune changes may affect the ability of brain cells to regenerate. By figuring out exactly what’s going on, Villeda and his team hope to devise ways to counteract such changes, possibly preventing or even reversing the cognitive declines that all too often come with age.

Villeda is the first person in his family to become a scientist. His parents immigrated to the United States from Guatemala, settled into a working-class neighborhood in Pasadena, CA, and enrolled their kids in public schools. While he was growing up, Villeda says he’d never even heard of a Ph.D. and thought all doctors were M.D.’s who wore stethoscopes. But he did have a keen mind and a strong sense of curiosity—gifts that helped him become the valedictorian of his high school class and find his calling in science. Villeda went on to earn an undergraduate degree in physiological science from the University of California, Los Angeles and a Ph.D. in neurosciences from Stanford University Medical School, Palo Alto, CA, as well as to publish his research findings in several influential scientific journals.

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