Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.
Human neurons are long, spindly structures, but if you could zoom in on their surfaces at super-high resolution, you’d see surprisingly large pores. They act as gated channels that open and close for ions and other essential molecules of life to pass in and out the cell. This rapid exchange of ions and other molecules is how neurons communicate, and why we humans can sense, think, move, and respond to the world around us .
Because these gated channels are so essential to neurons, mapping their precise physical structures at high-resolution has profound implications for informing future studies on the brain and nervous system. Good for us in these high-tech times that structural biologists keep getting better at imaging these 3D pores.
In fact, as just published in the journal Nature Communications , a team of NIH-supported scientists imaged the molecular structure of a gated pore of major research interest. The pore is called calcium homeostasis modulator 1 (CALHM1). Pictured below, you can view its 3D structure at near atomic resolution . Keep in mind, this relatively large neuronal pore still measures approximately 50,000 times smaller than the width of a hair.
The structure comes from a research team led by Hiro Furukawa, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Cold Spring Harbor, NY. He and his team relied on cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) to produce the first highly precise 3D models of CALHM1.
Cryo-EM involves flash-freezing molecules in liquid ethane and bombarding them with electrons to capture their images with a special camera. When all goes well, cryo-EM can reveal the structure of intricate macromolecular complexes in a matter of weeks.
Furukawa’s team had earlier studied CALHM1 from chickens with cryo-EM , and their latest work reveals that the human version is quite similar. Eight copies of the CALHM1 protein assemble to form the circular channel. Each of the protein subunits has a flexible arm that allows it to reach into the central opening, which the researchers now suspect allows the channels to open and close in a highly controlled manner. The researchers have likened the channels’ eight flexible arms to the arms of an octopus.
The researchers also found that fatty molecules called phospholipids play a critical role in stabilizing and regulating the eight-part channel. They used simulations to demonstrate how pockets in the CALHM1 channel binds this phospholipid over cholesterol to shore up the structure and function properly. Interestingly, these phospholipid molecules are abundant in many healthy foods, such as eggs, lean meats, and seafood.
Researchers knew that an inorganic chemical called ruthenium red can block the function of the CALHM1 channel. They’ve now shown precisely how this works. The structural details indicate that ruthenium red physically lodges in and plugs up the channel.
These details also may be useful in future efforts to develop drugs designed to target and modify the function of these channels in helpful ways. For instance, on our tongues, the channel plays a role in our ability to perceive sweet, sour, or umami (savory) flavors. In our brains, studies show the abnormal function of CALHM1 may be implicated in the plaques that accumulate in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease.
There are far too many other normal and abnormal functions to mention here in this brief post. Suffice it to say, I’ll look forward to seeing what this enabling research yields in the years ahead.
 On the molecular nature of large-pore channels. Syrjanen, J., Michalski, K., Kawate, T., and Furukawa, H. J Mol Biol. 2021 Aug 20;433(17):166994. DOI: 10.1016/j.jmb.2021.166994. Epub 2021 Apr 16. PMID: 33865869; PMCID: PMC8409005.
 Structure of human CALHM1 reveals key locations for channel regulation and blockade by ruthenium red. Syrjänen JL, Epstein M, Gómez R, Furukawa H. Nat Commun. 2023 Jun 28;14(1):3821. DOI: 10.1038/s41467-023-39388-3. PMID: 37380652; PMCID: PMC10307800.
 Structure and assembly of calcium homeostasis modulator proteins. Syrjanen JL, Michalski K, Chou TH, Grant T, Rao S, Simorowski N, Tucker SJ, Grigorieff N, Furukawa H. Nat Struct Mol Biol. 2020 Feb;27(2):150-159. DOI: 10.1038/s41594-019-0369-9. Epub 2020 Jan 27. PMID: 31988524; PMCID: PMC7015811.
Brain Basics: The Life and Death of a Neuron (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke/NIH)
Alzheimer’s Disease (National Institute on Aging/NIH)
Furukawa Lab (Cold Spring Harbor Lab, Cold Spring Harbor, NY)
NIH Support: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; National Institute of Mental Health
Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.
In people with Alzheimer’s disease, the underlying changes in the brain associated with dementia typically begin many years—or even decades—before a diagnosis. While pinpointing the exact causes of Alzheimer’s remains a major research challenge, they likely involve a combination of genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors. Now an NIH-funded study elucidates the role of another likely culprit that you may not have considered: the human gut microbiome, the trillions of diverse bacteria and other microbes that live primarily in our intestines .
Earlier studies had showed that the gut microbiomes of people with symptomatic Alzheimer’s disease differ from those of healthy people with normal cognition . What this new work advances is that these differences arise early on in people who will develop Alzheimer’s, even before any obvious symptoms appear.
The science still has a ways to go before we’ll know if specific dietary changes can alter the gut microbiome and modify its influence on the brain in the right ways. But what’s exciting about this finding is it raises the possibility that doctors one day could test a patient’s stool sample to determine if what’s present from their gut microbiome correlates with greater early risk for Alzheimer’s dementia. Such a test would help doctors detect Alzheimer’s earlier and intervene sooner to slow or ideally even halt its advance.
The new findings, reported in the journal Science Translational Medicine, come from a research team led by Gautam Dantas and Beau Ances, Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis. Ances is a clinician who treats and studies people with Alzheimer’s; Dantas is a basic researcher and expert on the gut microbiome.
The pair struck up a conversation one day about the possible connection between the gut microbiome and Alzheimer’s. While they knew about the earlier studies suggesting a link, they were surprised that nobody had looked at the gut microbiomes of people in the earliest, so-called preclinical, stages of the disease. That’s when dementia isn’t detectable, but the brain has formed amyloid-beta plaques, which are associated with Alzheimer’s.
To take a look, they enrolled 164 healthy volunteers, age 68 to 94, who performed normally on standard tests of cognition. They also collected stool samples from each volunteer and thoroughly analyzed them all the microbes from their gut microbiome. Study participants also kept food diaries and underwent extensive testing, including two types of brain scans, to look for signs of amyloid-beta plaques and tau protein accumulation that precede the onset of Alzheimer’s symptoms.
Among the volunteers, about a third (49 individuals) unfortunately had signs of early Alzheimer’s disease. And, as it turned out, their microbiomes showed differences, too.
The researchers found that those with preclinical Alzheimer’s disease had markedly different assemblages of gut bacteria. Their microbiomes differed in many of the bacterial species present. Those species-level differences also point to differences in the way their microbiomes would be expected to function at a metabolic level. These microbiome changes were observed even though the individuals didn’t seem to have any apparent differences in their diets.
The team also found that the microbiome changes correlated with amyloid-beta and tau levels in the brain. But they did not find any relationship to degenerative changes in the brain, which tend to happen later in people with Alzheimer’s.
The team is now conducting a five-year study that will follow volunteers to get a better handle on whether the differences observed in the gut microbiome are a cause or a consequence of the brain changes seen in Alzheimer’s. If it’s a cause, this discovery would raise the tantalizing possibility that specially formulated probiotics or fecal transplants that promote the growth of “good” bacteria over “bad” bacteria in the gut might slow the development of Alzheimer’s and its most devastating symptoms. It’s an exciting area of research and definitely one worth following in the years ahead.
 Gut microbiome composition may be an indicator of preclinical Alzheimer’s disease. Ferreiro AL, Choi J, Ryou J, Newcomer EP, Thompson R, Bollinger RM, Hall-Moore C, Ndao IM, Sax L, Benzinger TLS, Stark SL, Holtzman DM, Fagan AM, Schindler SE, Cruchaga C, Butt OH, Morris JC, Tarr PI, Ances BM, Dantas G. Sci Transl Med. 2023 Jun 14;15(700):eabo2984. doi: 10.1126/scitranslmed.abo2984. Epub 2023 Jun 14. PMID: 37315112.
 Gut microbiome alterations in Alzheimer’s disease. Vogt NM, Kerby RL, Dill-McFarland KA, Harding SJ, Merluzzi AP, Johnson SC, Carlsson CM, Asthana S, Zetterberg H, Blennow K, Bendlin BB, Rey FE. Sci Rep. 2017 Oct 19;7(1):13537. doi: 10.1038/s41598-017-13601-y. PMID: 29051531; PMCID: PMC5648830.
Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias (National Institute on Aging/NIH)
Video: How Alzheimer’s Changes the Brain (NIA)
Dantas Lab (Washington University School of Medicine. St. Louis)
Ances Bioimaging Laboratory (Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis)
NIH Support: National Institute on Aging; National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.
Biomedical breakthroughs most often involve slow and steady research in studies involving large numbers of people. But sometimes careful study of even just one truly remarkable person can lead the way to fascinating discoveries with far-reaching implications.
An NIH-funded case study published recently in the journal Nature Medicine falls into this far-reaching category . The report highlights the world’s second person known to have an extreme resilience to a rare genetic form of early onset Alzheimer’s disease. These latest findings in a single man follow a 2019 report of a woman with similar resilience to developing symptoms of Alzheimer’s despite having the same strong genetic predisposition for the disease .
The new findings raise important new ideas about the series of steps that may lead to Alzheimer’s and its dementia. They’re also pointing the way to key parts of the brain for cognitive resilience—and potentially new treatment targets—that may one day help to delay or even stop progression of Alzheimer’s.
The man in question is a member of a well-studied extended family from the country of Colombia. This group of related individuals, or kindred, is the largest in the world with a genetic variant called the “Paisa” mutation (or Presenilin-1 E280A). This Paisa variant follows an autosomal dominant pattern of inheritance, meaning that those with a single altered copy of the rare variant passed down from one parent usually develop mild cognitive impairment around the age of 44. They typically advance to full-blown dementia around the age of 50 and rarely live past the age of 60. This contrasts with the most common form of Alzheimer’s, which usually begins after age 65.
The new findings come from a team led by Yakeel Quiroz, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston; Joseph Arboleda-Velasquez, Massachusetts Eye and Ear, Boston; Diego Sepulveda-Falla, University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, Hamburg, Germany; and Francisco Lopera, University of Antioquia, Medellín, Colombia. Lopera first identified this family more than 30 years ago and has been studying them ever since.
In the new case report, the researchers identified a Colombian man who’d been married with two children and retired from his job as a mechanic in his early 60s. Despite carrying the Paisa mutation, his first cognitive assessment at age 67 showed he was cognitively intact, having limited difficulties with verbal learning skills or language. It wasn’t until he turned 70 that he was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment—more than 20 years later than the expected age for this family—showing some decline in short-term memory and verbal fluency.
At age 73, he enrolled in the Colombia-Boston biomarker research study (COLBOS). This study is a collaborative project between the University of Antioquia and Massachusetts General Hospital involving approximately 6,000 individuals from the Paisa kindred. About 1,500 of those in the study carry the mutation that sets them up for early Alzheimer’s. As a member of the COLBOS study, the man underwent thorough neuroimaging tests to look for amyloid plaques and tau tangles, both of which are hallmarks of Alzheimer’s.
While this man died at age 74 with Alzheimer’s, the big question is: how did he stave off dementia for so long despite his poor genetic odds? The COLBOS study earlier identified a woman with a similar resilience to Alzheimer’s, which they traced to two copies of a rare, protective genetic variant called Christchurch. This variant affects a gene called apolipoprotein E (APOE3), which is well known for its influence on Alzheimer’s risk. However, the man didn’t carry this same protective variant.
The researchers still thought they’d find an answer in his genome and kept looking. While they found several variants of possible interest, they zeroed in on a single gene variant that they’ve named Reelin-COLBOS. What helped them to narrow it down to this variant is the man also had a sister with the Paisa mutation who only progressed to advanced dementia at age 72. It turned out, in addition to the Paisa variant, the siblings also shared an altered copy of the newly discovered Reelin-COLBOS variant.
This Reelin-COLBOS gene is known to encode a protein that controls signals to chemically modify tau proteins, which form tangles that build up over time in the Alzheimer’s brain and have been linked to memory loss. Reelin is also functionally related to APOE, the gene that was altered in the woman with extreme Alzheimer’s protection. Reelin and APOE both interact with common protein receptors in neurons. Together, the findings add to evidence that signaling pathways influencing tau play an important role in Alzheimer’s pathology and protection.
The neuroimaging exams conducted when the man was age 73 have offered further intriguing clues. They showed that his brain had extensive amyloid plaques. He also had tau tangles in some parts of his brain. But one brain region, called the entorhinal cortex, was notable for having a very minimal amount of those hallmark tau tangles.
The entorhinal cortex is a hub for memory, navigation, and the perception of time. Its degeneration also leads to cognitive impairment and dementia. Studies of the newly identified Reelin-COLBOS variant in Alzheimer’s mouse models also help to confirm that the variant offers its protection by diminishing the pathological modifications of tau.
Overall, the findings in this one individual and his sister highlight the Reelin pathway and brain region as promising targets for future study and development of Alzheimer’s treatments. Quiroz and her colleagues report that they are actively exploring treatment approaches inspired by the Christchurch and Reelin-COLBOS discoveries.
Of course, there’s surely more to discover from continued study of these few individuals and others like them. Other as yet undescribed genetic and environmental factors are likely at play. But the current findings certainly offer some encouraging news for those at risk for Alzheimer’s disease—and a reminder of how much can be learned from careful study of remarkable individuals.
 Resilience to autosomal dominant Alzheimer’s disease in a Reelin-COLBOS heterozygous man. Lopera F, Marino C, Chandrahas AS, O’Hare M, Reiman EM, Sepulveda-Falla D, Arboleda-Velasquez JF, Quiroz YT, et al. Nat Med. 2023 May;29(5):1243-1252.
 Resistance to autosomal dominant Alzheimer’s disease in an APOE3 Christchurch homozygote: a case report. Arboleda-Velasquez JF, Lopera F, O’Hare M, Delgado-Tirado S, Tariot PN, Johnson KA, Reiman EM, Quiroz YT et al. Nat Med. 2019 Nov;25(11):1680-1683.
Alzheimer’s Disease & Related Dementias (National Institute on Aging/NIH)
“NIH Support Spurs Alzheimer’s Research in Colombia,” Global Health Matters, January/February 2014, Fogarty International Center/NIS
“COLBOS Study Reveals Mysteries of Alzheimer’s Disease,” NIH Record, August 19, 2022.
Yakeel Quiroz (Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston)
Joseph Arboleda-Velasquez (Massachusetts Eye and Ear, Harvard Medical School, Boston)
Diego Sepulveda-Falla Lab (University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf, Hamburg, Germany)
Francisco Lopera (University of Antioquia, Medellín, Colombia)
NIH Support: National Institute on Aging; National Eye Institute; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; Office of the Director
Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.
Detecting the earliest signs of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) in middle-aged people and tracking its progression over time in research studies continue to be challenging. But it is easier to do in shorter-lived mammalian models of AD, especially when paired with cutting-edge imaging tools that look across different regions of the brain. These tools can help basic researchers detect telltale early changes that might point the way to better prevention or treatment strategies in humans.
That’s the case in this technicolor snapshot showing early patterns of inflammation in the brain of a relatively young mouse bred to develop a condition similar to AD. You can see abnormally high levels of inflammation throughout the front part of the brain (orange, green) as well as in its middle part—the septum that divides the brain’s two sides. This level of inflammation suggests that the brain has been injured.
What’s striking is that no inflammation is detectable in parts of the brain rich in cholinergic neurons (pink), a distinct type of nerve cell that helps to control memory, movement, and attention. Though these neurons still remain healthy, researchers would like to know if the inflammation also will destroy them as AD progresses.
This colorful image comes from medical student Sakar Budhathoki, who earlier worked in the NIH labs of Lorna Role and David Talmage, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). Budhathoki, teaming with postdoctoral scientist Mala Ananth, used a specially designed wide-field scanner that sweeps across brain tissue to light up fluorescent markers and capture the image. It’s one of the scanning approaches pioneered in the Role and Talmage labs [1,2].
The two NIH labs are exploring possible links between abnormal inflammation and damage to the brain’s cholinergic signaling system. In fact, medications that target cholinergic function remain the first line of treatment for people with AD and other dementias. And yet, researchers still haven’t adequately determined when, why, and how the loss of these cholinergic neurons relates to AD.
It’s a rich area of basic research that offers hope for greater understanding of AD in the future. It’s also the source of some fascinating images like this one, which was part of the 2022 Show Us Your BRAIN! Photo and Video Contest, supported by NIH’s Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative.
 NeuRegenerate: A framework for visualizing neurodegeneration. Boorboor S, Mathew S, Ananth M, Talmage D, Role LW, Kaufman AE. IEEE Trans Vis Comput Graph. 2021;Nov 10;PP.
 NeuroConstruct: 3D reconstruction and visualization of neurites in optical microscopy brain images. Ghahremani P, Boorboor S, Mirhosseini P, Gudisagar C, Ananth M, Talmage D, Role LW, Kaufman AE. IEEE Trans Vis Comput Graph. 2022 Dec;28(12):4951-4965.
Alzheimer’s Disease & Related Dementias (National Institute on Aging/NIH)
Role Lab (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke/NIH)
Talmage Lab (NINDS)
Show Us Your BRAINs! Photo and Video Contest (BRAIN Initiative)
NIH Support: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke