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Getting Closer to a Blood Test for Alzheimer’s Disease?

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Blood Test
iStock/ericsphotography

As research on Alzheimer’s disease (AD) advances, a desperate need remains for an easy blood test to help diagnose the condition as early as possible. Ideally, such a test could also distinguish AD from other forms of dementia that produce similar symptoms. As published recently in Nature Medicine, an NIH-funded research team has designed a simple blood test that is on course to meet these criteria [1].

The latest work builds on a large body of work showing that one secret to predicting a person’s cognitive decline and treatment response in AD lies in a protein called tau. Using the powerful, but expensive, approach of PET scan imaging, we know that tau builds up in the brain as Alzheimer’s disease progresses. We also know that some tau spills from the brain into the bloodstream.

The trouble is that the circulating tau protein breaks down far too quickly for a blood test to offer a reliable measure of what’s happening in a person’s brain. A few years ago, researchers discovered a possible solution: test for blood levels of a slightly different and more stable version of the protein called pTau181 [2]. (The “p” in its name comes from the addition of phosphorus in a particular part of the protein’s structure.)

In the latest study, researchers in the lab of Adam Boxer, University of California, San Francisco, followed up further on this compelling lead. Boxer’s team measured pTau181 levels in blood samples from 362 people between the ages of 58 and 70. Those samples included 56 people with an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, along with 47 people with mild cognitive impairment and 69 healthy controls.

The researchers also included another 190 people diagnosed with frontotemporal lobar degeneration (FTLD). It is a relatively rare form of dementia that leads to a gradual decline in behavior, language, and movement, often in connection with a buildup of tau in the brain.

The study found that levels of pTau181 were roughly 3.5-times higher in the blood of people with AD compared to people without AD. Those with mild cognitive impairment due to underlying AD also showed an intermediate increase in blood levels of pTau181.

Importantly, people with FLTD had normal blood levels of pTau181. As a result, the blood test could reliably distinguish between a person with AD and a person with FLTD. That’s important because, while FLTD is a relatively rare condition, its prevalence is similar to AD in people under the age of 65. But both conditions have similar symptoms, making it often challenging to distinguish them.

The findings add to evidence that the new blood test can help in diagnosing AD and in distinguishing it from other neurodegenerative conditions. In fact, it does so with an accuracy that often rivals more expensive PET scans and more invasive cerebrospinal fluid tests, which are now the only reliable ways to measure tau.

There’s still plenty of work to do before this blood test is ready for a doctor’s office. But these initial findings are very promising in helping to simplify the diagnosis of this devastating condition that now affects an estimated 5.5 million Americans [3].

References:

[1] Diagnostic value of plasma phosphorylated tau181 in Alzheimer’s disease and frontotemporal lobar degeneration. Thijssen EH, La Joie R, Wolf A, Strom A, Wang P, Iaccarino L, Bourakova V, Cobigo Y, Heuer H, Spina S, VandeVrede L, Chai X, Proctor NK, Airey DC, Shcherbinin S, Duggan Evans C, Sims JR, Zetterberg H, Blennow K, Karydas AM, Teunissen CE, Kramer JH, Grinberg LT, Seeley WW, Rosen H, Boeve BF, Miller BL, Rabinovici GD, Dage JL, Rojas JC, Boxer AL; Advancing Research and Treatment for Frontotemporal Lobar Degeneration (ARTFL) investigators. Nat Med. 2020 Mar 2.

[2] Plasma phospho-tau181 increases with Alzheimer’s disease clinical severity and is associated with tau- and amyloid-positron emission tomography. Mielke MM, Hagen CE, Xu J, Chai X, Vemuri P, Lowe VJ, Airey DC, Knopman DS, Roberts RO, Machulda MM, Jack CR Jr, Petersen RC, Dage JL. Alzheimers Dement. 2018 Aug;14(8):989-997.

[3] Alzheimer’s Disease Fact Sheet. National Institute on Aging, May 22, 2019.

Links:

Alzheimer’s Disease & Related Dementias (National Institute on Aging/NIH)

What Are Frontotemporal Disorders? (NIA)

Accelerating Medicines Partnership: Alzheimer’s Disease (NIH)

Adam Boxer (University of California, San Francisco)

NIH Support: National Institute on Aging; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences


How Our Brains Replay Memories

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Retrieving a Memory
Caption: Encoding and replaying learned memory. Left panel shows the timed sequence of neurons firing in a part of a person’s brain involved in memory as it encodes the random pair of words, “crow” and “jeep.” Colors are assigned to different neurons to differentiate their firing within the sequence. Right panel shows a highly similar timed sequence of those same neurons firing just before a person given the word “jeep,” recalled and said the correct answer “crow.” Credit: Vaz AP, Science, 2020.

Note to my blog readers: the whole world is now facing a major threat from the COVID-19 pandemic. We at NIH are doing everything we can to apply the best and most powerful science to the development of diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines, while also implementing public health measures to protect our staff and the patients in our hospital. This crisis is expected to span many weeks, and I will occasionally report on COVID-19 in this blog format. Meanwhile, science continues to progress on many other fronts—and so I will continue to try to bring you stories across a wide range of topics. Perhaps everyone can use a little break now and then from the coronavirus news? Today’s blog takes you into the intricacies of memory.

When recalling the name of an acquaintance, you might replay an earlier introduction, trying to remember the correct combination of first and last names. (Was it Scott James? Or James Scott?) Now, neuroscientists have found that in the split second before you come up with the right answer, your brain’s neurons fire in the same order as when you first learned the information [1].

This new insight into memory retrieval comes from recording the electrical activity of thousands of neurons in the brains of six people during memory tests of random word pairs, such as “jeep” and “crow.” While similar firing patterns had been described before in mice, the new study is the first to confirm that the human brain stores memories in specific sequences of neural activity that can be replayed again and again.

The new study, published in the journal Science, is the latest insight from neurosurgeon and researcher Kareem Zaghloul at NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). Zaghloul’s team has for years been involved in an NIH Clinical Center study for patients with drug-resistant epilepsy whose seizures cannot be controlled with drugs.

As part of this work, his surgical team often temporarily places a 4 millimeter-by-4 millimeter array of tiny electrodes on the surface of the brains of the study’s participants. They do this in an effort to pinpoint brain tissues that may be the source of their seizures before performing surgery to remove them. With a patient’s informed consent to take part in additional research, the procedure also has led to a series of insights into what happens in the human brain when we make and later retrieve new memories.

Here’s how it works: The researchers record electrical currents as participants are asked to learn random word pairs presented to them on a computer screen, such as “cake” and “fox,” or “lime” and “camel.” After a period of rest, their brain activity is again recorded as they are given a word and asked to recall the matching word.

Last year, the researchers reported that the split second before a person got the right answer, tiny ripples of electrical activity appeared in two specific areas of the brain [2]. The team also had shown that, when a person correctly recalled a word pair, the brain showed patterns of activity that corresponded to those formed when he or she first learned to make a word association.

The new work takes this a step further. As study participants learned a word pair, the researchers noticed not only the initial rippling wave of electricity, but also that particular neurons in the brain’s cerebral cortex fired repeatedly in a sequential order. In fact, with each new word pair, the researchers observed unique firing patterns among the active neurons.

If the order of neuronal firing was essential for storing new memories, the researchers reasoned that the same would be true for correctly retrieving the information. And, indeed, that’s what they were able to show. For example, when individuals were shown “cake” for a second time, they replayed a very similar firing pattern to the one recorded initially for this word just milliseconds before correctly recalling the paired word “fox.”

The researchers then calculated the average sequence similarity between the firing patterns of learning and retrieval. They found that as a person recalled a word, those patterns gradually became more similar. Just before a correct answer was given, the recorded neurons locked onto the right firing sequence. That didn’t happen when a person gave an incorrect answer.

Further analysis confirmed that the exact order of neural firing was specific to each word pair. The findings show that our memories are encoded as unique sequences that must be replayed for accurate retrieval, though we still don’t understand the molecular mechanisms that undergird this.

Zaghloul reports that there’s still more to learn about how these processes are influenced by other factors such as our attention. It’s not yet known whether the brain replays sequences similarly when retrieving longer-term memories. Along with these intriguing insights into normal learning and memory, the researchers think this line of research will yield important clues as to what changes in people who suffer from memory disorders, with potentially important implications for developing the next generation of treatments.

Reference:

[1] Replay of cortical spiking sequences during human memory retrieval. Vaz AP, Wittig JH Jr, Inati SK, Zaghloul KA. Science. 2020 Mar 6;367(6482):1131-1134.

[2] Coupled ripple oscillations between the medial temporal lobe and neocortex retrieve human memory. Vaz AP, Inati SK, Brunel N, Zaghloul KA. Science. 2019 Mar 1;363(6430):975-978.

Links:

Epilepsy Information Page (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke/NIH)

Brain Basics (NINDS)

Zaghloul Lab (NINDS)

NIH Support: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; National Institute of General Medical Sciences


Discovering the Brain’s Nightly “Rinse Cycle”

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Getting plenty of deep, restful sleep is essential for our physical and mental health. Now comes word of yet another way that sleep is good for us: it triggers rhythmic waves of blood and cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) that appear to function much like a washing machine’s rinse cycle, which may help to clear the brain of toxic waste on a regular basis.

The video above uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to take you inside a person’s brain to see this newly discovered rinse cycle in action. First, you see a wave of blood flow (red, yellow) that’s closely tied to an underlying slow-wave of electrical activity (not visible). As the blood recedes, CSF (blue) increases and then drops back again. Then, the cycle—lasting about 20 seconds—starts over again.

The findings, published recently in the journal Science, are the first to suggest that the brain’s well-known ebb and flow of blood and electrical activity during sleep may also trigger cleansing waves of blood and CSF. While the experiments were conducted in healthy adults, further study of this phenomenon may help explain why poor sleep or loss of sleep has previously been associated with the spread of toxic proteins and worsening memory loss in people with Alzheimer’s disease.

In the new study, Laura Lewis, Boston University, MA, and her colleagues at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston. recorded the electrical activity and took fMRI images of the brains of 13 young, healthy adults as they slept. The NIH-funded team also built a computer model to learn more about the fluid dynamics of what goes on in the brain during sleep. And, as it turns out, their sophisticated model predicted exactly what they observed in the brains of living humans: slow waves of electrical activity followed by alternating waves of blood and CSF.

Lewis says her team is now working to come up with even better ways to capture CSF flow in the brain during sleep. Currently, people who volunteer for such experiments have to be able to fall asleep while wearing an electroencephalogram (EEG) cap inside of a noisy MRI machine—no easy feat. The researchers are also recruiting older adults to begin exploring how age-related changes in brain activity during sleep may affect the associated fluid dynamics.

Reference:

[1] Coupled electrophysiological, hemodynamic, and cerebrospinal fluid oscillations in human sleep. Fultz NE, Bonmassar G, Setsompop K, Stickgold RA, Rosen BR, Polimeni JR, Lewis LD. Science. 2019 Nov 1;366(6465):628-631.

Links:

Sleep and Memory (National Institute of Mental Health/NIH)

Sleep Deprivation and Deficiency (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute/NIH)

Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias (National Institute on Aging/NIH)

NIH Support: National Institute of Mental Health; National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke


Largest-Ever Genetic Study of Autism Yields New Insights

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Baby and DNA Strands

Anyone who’s spent time with people affected by autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can tell you that it’s a very complex puzzle. The wide variability seen among individuals with this group of developmental brain disorders, which can disrupt communication, behavior control, and social skills, has also posed a huge challenge for researchers trying to identify underlying genetic and environmental factors. So, it’s no surprise that there’s been considerable interest in the recent findings of the largest-ever genetic study of ASD.

In a landmark study that analyzed the DNA of more than 35,000 people from around the world, the NIH-funded international Autism Sequencing Consortium (ASC) identified variants in 102 genes associated with increased risk of developing ASD, up from 65 identified previously. Of the 102 genes, 60 had not been previously linked to ASD and 53 appeared to be primarily connected to ASD as opposed to other types of intellectual disability or developmental delay. It is expected that this newfound genetic knowledge will serve to improve understanding of the complex biological mechanisms involved in ASD, ultimately paving the way for new approaches to diagnosis and treatment.

The study reported in the journal Cell was led by Joseph Buxbaum, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York; Stephan Sanders, University of California, San Francisco; Kathryn Roeder, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA; and Mark Daly, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Cambridge, MA. These researchers and their teams faced what might seem like a rather daunting task.

While common genetic variants collectively are known to contribute substantially to ASD, rare variants have been recognized individually as more major contributors to a person’s risk of developing ASD. The challenge was how to find such rare variants—whether inherited or newly arising.

To do so, the researchers needed to analyze a enormous amount of DNA data. Fortunately, they and their ASC colleagues already had assembled a vast trove of data. Over the last decade, the ASC had collected DNA samples with full consent from thousands of people with and without ASD, including unaffected siblings and parents. All were aggregated with other studies, and, at the time of this investigation, they had gathered 35,584 unique samples. Those included more than 21,000 family-based samples and almost 12,000 samples from people diagnosed with ASD.

In search of rare genetic alterations, they sequenced whole exomes, the approximately 1.5 percent of the genome that codes for proteins. Their search produced a list of 102 ASD-associated genes, including 30 that had never been implicated in any developmental brain disorder previously.

But that was just the beginning. Next, the ASC team dug deeper into this list. The researchers knew from previous work that up to half of people with ASD also have an intellectual disability or developmental delay. Many of the associated genes overlap, meaning they play roles in both outcomes. So, in one set of analyses, the team compared the list to the results of another genetic study of people diagnosed with developmental delays, including problems with learning or gross motor skills such as delayed walking.

The detailed comparison allowed them to discern genes that are more associated with features of ASD, as opposed to those that are more specific to these developmental delays. It turns out that 49 of the 102 autism-associated genes were altered more often in people with developmental delay than in those diagnosed with ASD. The other 53 were altered more often in ASD, suggesting that they may be more closely linked to this condition’s unique features.

Further study also showed that people who carried alterations in genes found predominantly in ASD also had better intellectual function. They also were more likely to have learned to walk without a developmental delay.

The 102 new genes fell primarily into one of two categories. Many play a role in the brain’s neural connections. The rest are involved primarily in switching other genes on and off in brain development. Interestingly, they are expressed both in excitatory neurons, which are active in sending signals in the brain, and in inhibitory neurons that squelch such activity. Many of these genes are also commonly expressed in the brain’s cerebral cortex, the outermost part of the brain that is responsible for many complex behaviors.

Overall, these findings underscore that ASD truly does exist on a spectrum. Indeed, there are many molecular paths to this disorder. The ASC researchers continue to collect samples, so we can expect this list of 102 genes will continue to expand in the future.

With these gene discoveries in hand, the researchers will now also turn their attention to unravelling additional details about how these genes function in the brain. The hope is that this growing list of genes will converge on a smaller number of important molecular pathways, pointing the way to new and more precise ways of treating ASD in all its complexity.

Reference:

[1] Large-scale exome sequencing study implicates both developmental and functional changes in the neurobiology of autism. Satterstrom FK, Kosmicki JA, Wang J, Breen MS, De Rubeis S, An JY, Peng M, Collins R, Grove J, Klei L, Stevens C, Reichert J, Mulhern MS, Artomov M, Gerges S, Sheppard B, Xu X, Bhaduri A, Norman U, Brand H, Schwartz G, Nguyen R, Guerrero EE, Dias C; Autism Sequencing Consortium; iPSYCH-Broad Consortium, Betancur C, Cook EH, Gallagher L, Gill M, Sutcliffe JS, Thurm A, Zwick ME, Børglum AD, State MW, Cicek AE, Talkowski ME, Cutler DJ, Devlin B, Sanders SJ, Roeder K, Daly MJ, Buxbaum JD.Cell. 2020 Jan 23. {Epub ahead of print]

Links:

Autism Spectrum Disorder (NIH/National Institute of Mental Health)

Joseph Buxbaum (Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York)

Sanders Lab (University of California, San Francisco)

Kathryn Roeder (Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA)

Mark Daly (Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Cambridge, MA)

Autism Sequencing Consortium (Emory University, Atlanta)

NIH Support: National Institute Mental Health; National Human Genome Research Institute


Could A Gut-Brain Connection Help Explain Autism?

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What is Your Big Idea?
Diego Bohórquez/Credit: Duke University, Durham, NC

You might think nutrient-sensing cells in the human gastrointestinal (GI) tract would have no connection whatsoever to autism spectrum disorder (ASD). But if Diego Bohórquez’s “big idea” is correct, these GI cells, called neuropods, could one day help to provide a direct link into understanding and treating some aspects of autism and other brain disorders.

Bohórquez, a researcher at Duke University, Durham, NC, recently discovered that cells in the intestine, previously known for their hormone-releasing ability, form extensions similar to neurons. He also found that those extensions connect to nerve fibers in the gut, which relay signals to the vagus nerve and onward to the brain. In fact, he found that those signals reach the brain in milliseconds [1].

Bohórquez has dedicated his lab to studying this direct, high-speed hookup between gut and brain and its impact on nutrient sensing, eating, and other essential behaviors. Now, with support from a 2019 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, he will also explore the potential for treating autism and other brain disorders with drugs that act on the gut.

Bohórquez became interested in autism and its possible link to the gut-brain connection after a chance encounter with Geraldine Dawson, director of the Duke Center for Autism and Brain Development. Dawson mentioned that autism typically affects multiple organ systems.

With further reading, he discovered that kids with autism frequently cope with GI issues, including bowel inflammation, abdominal pain, constipation, and/or diarrhea [2]. They often also show unusual food-related behaviors, such as being extremely picky eaters. But his curiosity was especially piqued by evidence that certain gut microbes can influence abnormal behaviors in mice that model autism.

With his New Innovator Award, Bohórquez will study neuropods and the gut-brain connection in a mouse model of autism. Using the tools of optogenetics, which make it possible to activate cells with light, he’ll also see whether autism-like symptoms in mice can be altered or alleviated by controlling neuropods in the gut. Those symptoms include anxiety, repetitive behaviors, and lack of interest in interacting with other mice. He’ll also explore changes in the animals’ eating habits.

In another line of study, he will take advantage of intestinal tissue samples collected from people with autism. He’ll use those tissues to grow and then examine miniature intestinal “organoids,” looking for possible evidence that those from people with autism are different from others.

For the millions of people now living with autism, no truly effective drug therapies are available to help to manage the condition and its many behavioral and bodily symptoms. Bohórquez hopes one day to change that with drugs that act safely on the gut. In the meantime, he and his fellow “GASTRONAUTS” look forward to making some important and fascinating discoveries in the relatively uncharted territory where the gut meets the brain.

References:

[1] A gut-brain neural circuit for nutrient sensory transduction. Kaelberer MM, Buchanan KL, Klein ME, Barth BB, Montoya MM, Shen X, Bohórquez DV. Science. 2018 Sep 21;361(6408).

[2] Association of maternal report of infant and toddler gastrointestinal symptoms with autism: evidence from a prospective birth cohort. Bresnahan M, Hornig M, Schultz AF, Gunnes N, Hirtz D, Lie KK, Magnus P, Reichborn-Kjennerud T, Roth C, Schjølberg S, Stoltenberg C, Surén P, Susser E, Lipkin WI. JAMA Psychiatry. 2015 May;72(5):466-474.

Links:

Autism Spectrum Disorder (National Institute of Mental Health/NIH)

Bohórquez Lab (Duke University, Durham, NC)

Bohórquez Project Information (NIH RePORTER)

NIH Director’s New Innovator Award (Common Fund)

NIH Support: Common Fund; National Institute of Mental Health


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