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Study Ties COVID-19-Related Syndrome in Kids to Altered Immune System

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Very sick child
Credit: iStock/Sasiistock

Most children infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, develop only a mild illness. But, days or weeks later, a small percentage of kids go on to develop a puzzling syndrome known as multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C). This severe inflammation of organs and tissues can affect the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, skin, and eyes.

Thankfully, most kids with MIS-C respond to treatment and make rapid recoveries. But, tragically, MIS-C can sometimes be fatal.

With COVID-19 cases in children having increased by 21 percent in the United States since early August [2], NIH and others are continuing to work hard on getting a handle on this poorly understood complication. Many think that MIS-C isn’t a direct result of the virus, but seems more likely to be due to an intense autoimmune response. Indeed, a recent study in Nature Medicine [1] offers some of the first evidence that MIS-C is connected to specific changes in the immune system that, for reasons that remain mysterious, sometimes follow COVID-19.

These findings come from Shane Tibby, a researcher at Evelina London Children’s Hospital, London. United Kingdom; Manu Shankar-Hari, a scientist at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, London; and colleagues. The researchers enlisted 25 children, ages 7 to 14, who developed MIS-C in connection with COVID-19. In search of clues, they examined blood samples collected from the children during different stages of their care, starting when they were most ill through recovery and follow-up. They then compared the samples to those of healthy children of the same ages.

What they found was a complex array of immune disruptions. The children had increased levels of various inflammatory molecules known as cytokines, alongside raised levels of other markers suggesting tissue damage—such as troponin, which indicates heart muscle injury.

The neutrophils, monocytes, and other white blood cells that rapidly respond to infections were activated as expected. But the levels of certain white blood cells called T lymphocytes were paradoxically reduced. Interestingly, despite the low overall numbers of T lymphocytes, particular subsets of them appeared activated as though fighting an infection. While the children recovered, those differences gradually disappeared as the immune system returned to normal.

It has been noted that MIS-C bears some resemblance to an inflammatory condition known as Kawasaki disease, which also primarily affects children. While there are similarities, this new work shows that MIS-C is a distinct illness associated with COVID-19. In fact, only two children in the study met the full criteria for Kawasaki disease based on the clinical features and symptoms of their illness.

Another recent study from the United Kingdom, reported several new symptoms of MIS-C [3]. They include headaches, tiredness, muscle aches, and sore throat. Researchers also determined that the number of platelets was much lower in the blood of children with MIS-C than in those without the condition. They proposed that evaluating a child’s symptoms along with his or her platelet level could help to diagnose MIS-C.

It will now be important to learn much more about the precise mechanisms underlying these observed changes in the immune system and how best to treat or prevent them. In support of this effort, NIH recently announced $20 million in research funding dedicated to the development of approaches that identify children at high risk for developing MIS-C [4].

The hope is that this new NIH effort, along with other continued efforts around the world, will elucidate the factors influencing the likelihood that a child with COVID-19 will develop MIS-C. Such insights are essential to allow doctors to intervene as early as possible and improve outcomes for this potentially serious condition.

References:

[1] Peripheral immunophenotypes in children with multisystem inflammatory syndrome associated with SARS-CoV-2 infection. Carter MJ, Fish M, Jennings A, Doores KJ, Wellman P, Seow J, Acors S, Graham C, Timms E, Kenny J, Neil S, Malim MH, Tibby SM, Shankar-Hari M. Nat Med. 2020 Aug 18.

[2] Children and COVID-19: State-Level Data Report. American Academy of Pediatrics. August 24, 2020.

[3] Clinical characteristics of children and young people admitted to hospital with covid-19 in United Kingdom: prospective multicentre observational cohort study. Swann OV, Holden KA, Turtle L, Harrison EW, Docherty AB, Semple MG, et al. Br Med J. 2020 Aug 17.

[4] NIH-funded project seeks to identify children at risk for MIS-C. NIH. August 7, 2020.

Links:

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Kawasaki Disease (Genetic and Rare Disease Information Center/National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences/NIH)

Shane Tibby (Evelina London Children’s Hospital, London)

Manu Shankar-Hari (King’s College, London)

NIH Support: Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; Office of the Director; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases; National Institute on Drug Abuse; National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities; Fogarty International Center


See the Human Cardiovascular System in a Whole New Way

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Watch this brief video and you might guess you’re seeing an animated line drawing, gradually revealing a delicate take on a familiar system: the internal structures of the human body. But this movie doesn’t capture the work of a talented sketch artist. It was created using the first 3D, full-body imaging device using positron emission tomography (PET).

The device is called an EXPLORER (EXtreme Performance LOng axial REsearch scanneR) total-body PET scanner. By pairing this scanner with an advanced method for reconstructing images from vast quantities of data, the researchers can make movies.

For this movie in particular, the researchers injected small amounts of a short-lived radioactive tracer—an essential component of all PET scans—into the lower leg of a study volunteer. They then sat back as the scanner captured images of the tracer moving up the leg and into the body, where it enters the heart. The tracer moves through the heart’s right ventricle to the lungs, back through the left ventricle, and up to the brain. Keep watching, and, near the 30-second mark, you will see in closer focus a haunting capture of the beating heart.

This groundbreaking scanner was developed and tested by Jinyi Qi, Simon Cherry, Ramsey Badawi, and their colleagues at the University of California, Davis [1]. As the NIH-funded researchers reported recently in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, their new scanner can capture dynamic changes in the body that take place in a tenth of a second [2]. That’s faster than the blink of an eye!

This movie is composed of frames captured at 0.1-second intervals. It highlights a feature that makes this scanner so unique: its ability to visualize the whole body at once. Other medical imaging methods, including MRI, CT, and traditional PET scans, can be used to capture beautiful images of the heart or the brain, for example. But they can’t show what’s happening in the heart and brain at the same time.

The ability to capture the dynamics of radioactive tracers in multiple organs at once opens a new window into human biology. For example, the EXPLORER system makes it possible to measure inflammation that occurs in many parts of the body after a heart attack, as well as to study interactions between the brain and gut in Parkinson’s disease and other disorders.

EXPLORER also offers other advantages. It’s extra sensitive, which enables it to capture images other scanners would miss—and with a lower dose of radiation. It’s also much faster than a regular PET scanner, making it especially useful for imaging wiggly kids. And it expands the realm of research possibilities for PET imaging studies. For instance, researchers might repeatedly image a person with arthritis over time to observe changes that may be related to treatments or exercise.

Currently, the UC Davis team is working with colleagues at the University of California, San Francisco to use EXPLORER to enhance our understanding of HIV infection. Their preliminary findings show that the scanner makes it easier to capture where the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the cause of AIDS, is lurking in the body by picking up on signals too weak to be seen on traditional PET scans.

While the research potential for this scanner is clearly vast, it also holds promise for clinical use. In fact, a commercial version of the scanner, called uEXPLORER, has been approved by the FDA and is in use at UC Davis [3]. The researchers have found that its improved sensitivity makes it much easier to detect cancers in patients who are obese and, therefore, harder to image well using traditional PET scanners.

As soon as the COVID-19 outbreak subsides enough to allow clinical research to resume, the researchers say they’ll begin recruiting patients with cancer into a clinical study designed to compare traditional PET and EXPLORER scans directly.

As these researchers, and other researchers around the world, begin to put this new scanner to use, we can look forward to seeing many more remarkable movies like this one. Imagine what they will reveal!

References:

[1] First human imaging studies with the EXPLORER total-body PET scanner. Badawi RD, Shi H, Hu P, Chen S, Xu T, Price PM, Ding Y, Spencer BA, Nardo L, Liu W, Bao J, Jones T, Li H, Cherry SR. J Nucl Med. 2019 Mar;60(3):299-303.

[2] Subsecond total-body imaging using ultrasensitive positron emission tomography. Zhang X, Cherry SR, Xie Z, Shi H, Badawi RD, Qi J. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2020 Feb 4;117(5):2265-2267.

[3] “United Imaging Healthcare uEXPLORER Total-body Scanner Cleared by FDA, Available in U.S. Early 2019.” Cision PR Newswire. January 22, 2019.

Links:

Positron Emission Tomography (PET) (NIH Clinical Center)

EXPLORER Total-Body PET Scanner (University of California, Davis)

Cherry Lab (UC Davis)

Badawi Lab (UC Davis Medical Center, Sacramento)

NIH Support: National Cancer Institute; National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering; Common Fund


Searching for Ways to Prevent Life-Threatening Blood Clots in COVID-19

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At Home with Gary Gibbons

Six months into the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, researchers still have much to learn about the many ways in which COVID-19 can wreak devastation on the human body. Among the many mysteries is exactly how SARS-CoV-2, which is the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, triggers the formation of blood clots that can lead to strokes and other life-threatening complications, even in younger people.

Recently, I had a chance to talk with Dr. Gary Gibbons, Director of NIH’s Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) about what research is being done to tackle this baffling complication of COVID-19. Our conversation took place via videoconference, with him connecting from his home in Washington, D.C., and me linking in from my home just up the road in Maryland. Here’s a condensed transcript of our chat:

Collins: I’m going to start by asking about the SARS-CoV-2-induced blood clotting not only in the lungs, but in other parts of the body. What do we know about the virus that would explain this?

Gibbons: It seems like every few weeks another page gets turned on COVID-19, and we learn even more about how this virus affects the body. Blood clots are one of the startling and, unfortunately, devastating complications that emerged as patients were cared for, particularly in New York City. It became apparent that certain individuals had difficulty getting enough oxygen into their system. The difficulty couldn’t be explained entirely by the extent of the pneumonia affecting the lungs’ ability to exchange oxygen.

It turned out that, in addition to the pneumonia, blood clots in the lungs were compromising oxygenation. But some patients also had clotting, or thrombotic, complications in their veins and arteries in other parts of the body. Quite puzzling. There were episodes of relatively young individuals in their 30s and 40s presenting with strokes related to blood clots affecting the arterial circulation to the brain.

We’re still trying to understand what promotes the clotting. One clue involves the endothelial cells that form the inner lining of our blood vessels. These cells have on their surface a protein called the angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) receptor, and this clue is important for two reasons. One, the virus attaches to the ACE2 receptor, using it as an entry point to infect cells. Two, endothelial-lined blood vessels extend to every organ in the body. Taken together, it seems that some COVID-19 complications relate to the virus attaching to endothelial cells, not only in the lungs, but in the heart and multiple organs.

Collins: So, starting in the respiratory tree, the virus somehow breaks through into a blood vessel and then gets spread around the body. There have been strange reports of people with COVID-19 who may not get really sick, but their toes look frostbitten. Is “COVID toes,” as some people call it, also part of this same syndrome?

Gibbons: We’re still in the early days of learning about this virus. But I think this offers a further clue that the virus not only affects large vessels but small vessels. In fact, clots have been reported at the capillary level, and that’s fairly unusual. It’s suggestive that an interaction is taking place between the platelets and the endothelial surface.

Normally, there’s a tightly regulated balance in the bloodstream between pro-coagulant and anticoagulant proteins to prevent clotting and keep the blood flowing. But when you cut your finger, for example, you get activation for blood clots in the form of a protein mesh. It looks like a fishing net that can help seal the injury. In addition, platelets in the blood stream help to plug the holes in that fishing net and create a real seal of a blood vessel.

Well, imagine it happening in those small vessels, which usually have a non-stick endothelial surface, almost like Teflon, that prevents clotting. Then the virus comes along and tips the balance toward promoting clot formation. This disturbs the Teflon-like property of the endothelial lining and makes it sticky. It’s incredible the tricks this virus has learned by binding onto one of these molecules in the endothelial lining.

Collins: Who are the COVID-19 patients most at risk for this clotting problem?

Gibbons: Unfortunately, it appears right now that older adults are among the most vulnerable. They have a lot of the risks for the formation of these blood clots. What’s notable is these thrombotic complications are also happening to relatively young adults or middle-aged individuals who don’t have a lot of other chronic conditions, or comorbidities, to put them at higher risk for severe disease. Again, it’s suggestive that this virus is doing something that is particular to the coagulation system.

Collins: We’d love to have a way of identifying in advance the people who are most likely to get into trouble with blood clotting. They might be the ones you’d want to start on an intervention, even before you have evidence that things are getting out of control. Do you have any kind of biomarker to tell you which patients might benefit from early intervention?

Gibbons: Biomarkers are being actively studied. What we do know from some earlier observations is that you can assess the balance of clotting and anticlotting factors in the blood by measuring a biomarker called D-dimer. It’s basically a protein fragment, a degradation product, from a prior clot. It tells you a bit about the system’s activity in forming and dissolving clots.
If there’s a lot of D-dimer activity, it suggests a coagulation cascade is jazzed up. In those patients, it’s probably a clue that this is a big trigger in terms of coagulation and thrombosis. So, D-dimer levels could maybe tell us which patients need really aggressive full anticoagulation.

Collins: Have people tried empirically using blood thinners for people who seem to be getting into trouble with this clotting problem?

Gibbons: There’s a paper out of the Mount Sinai in New York City that looked at thousands of patients being treated for COVID-19 [1]. Based on clinical practice and judgments, one of the striking findings is that those who were fully anticoagulated had better survival than those who were not. Now, this was not a randomized, controlled clinical trial, where some were given full anticoagulation and others were not. It was just an observational study that showed an association. But this study indicated indirectly that by giving the blood thinners, changing that thrombotic risk, maybe it’s possible to reduce morbidity and mortality. That’s why we need to do a randomized, controlled clinical trial to see if it can be used to reduce these case fatality rates.

Collins: You and your colleagues got together and came up with a design for such a clinical trial. Tell us about that.

Gibbons: My institute studies the heart, lung, and blood. The virus attacks all three. So, our community has a compelling need to lean in and study COVID-19. Recently, NIH helped to launch a public-private partnership called Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines (ACTIV). As the name spells out, this initiative provides is a clinical platform to generate life-saving treatments as we wait for the development of a vaccine.

Through ACTIV, a protocol is now in the final stages of review for a clinical trial that will involve a network of hospitals and explore the question: is it sufficient to try a low-dose thrombo-prophylactic, or clot preventative, approach versus full anticoagulation? Some think patients ought to have full anticoagulation, but that’s not without risk. So, we want to put that question to the test. As part of that, we’ll also learn more about biomarkers and what could be predictive of individuals getting the greatest benefit.

If we find that fully anticoagulating patients prevents clots, then that’s great. But it begs the question: what happens when patients go home? Is it sufficient to just turn off the drip and let them go their merry way? Should they have a low dose thrombo-prophylactic regimen for a period of time? If so, how long? Or should they be fully anticoagulated with oral anticoagulation for a certain period of time? All these and other questions still remain.

Collins: This can make a huge difference. If you’re admitted to the hospital with COVID-19, that means you’re pretty sick and, based on the numbers that I’ve seen, your chance of dying is about 12 percent if nothing else happens. If we can find something like an anticoagulant that would reduce that risk substantially, we can have a huge impact on reducing deaths from COVID-19. How soon can we get this trial going, Gary?

Gibbons: We have a sense of urgency that clearly this pandemic is taking too many lives and time is of the essence. So, we’ve indeed had a very streamlined process. We’re leveraging the fact that we have clinical trial networks, where regardless of what they were planning to do, it’s all hands on deck. As a result, we’re able to move faster to align with that sense of urgency. We hope that we can be off to a quick launch within the next two to three weeks with the anticoagulation trials.

Collins: This is good because people are waiting on the vaccines, but realistically we won’t know whether the vaccines are working for several more months, and having them available for lots of people will be at the very end of this year or early 2021 at best. Meanwhile, people still are going to be getting sick with COVID-19. We want to be able to have as many therapeutic options as possible to offer to them. And this seems like a pretty exciting one to try and move forward as quickly as possible. You and your colleagues deserve a lot of credit for bringing this to everybody’s attention.

But before we sign off, I have to raise another issue of deep significance. Gary, I think both of us are struggling not only with the impact of COVID-19 on the world, but the profound sorrow, grief, frustration, and anger that surrounds the death of George Floyd. This brings into acute focus the far too numerous other circumstances where African Americans have been mistreated and subjected to tragic outcomes.

This troubling time also shines a light on the health disparities that affect our nation in so many ways. We can see what COVID-19 has done to certain underrepresented groups who have borne an undue share of the burden, and have suffered injustices at the hands of society. It’s been tough for many of us to admit that our country is far from treating everyone equally, but it’s a learning opportunity and a call to redouble our efforts to find solutions.

Gary, you’ve been a wonderful leader in that conversation for a long time. I want to thank you both for what you’re doing scientifically and for your willingness to speak the truth and stand up for what’s right and fair. It’s been great talking to you about all these issues.

Gibbons: Thank you. We appreciate this opportunity to fulfill NIH’s mission of turning scientific discovery into better health for all. If there’s any moment that our nation needs us, this is it.

Reference:

[1] Association of Treatment Dose Anticoagulation With In-Hospital Survival Among Hospitalized Patients With COVID-19. Paranjpe I, Fuster V, Lala A, Russak A, Glicksberg BS, Levin MA, Charney AW, Narula J, Fayad ZA, Bagiella E, Zhao S, Nadkarni GN. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2020 May 5;S0735-1097(20)35218-9.

Links:

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Rising to the Challenge of COVID-19: The NHLBI Community Response,” Director’s Messages, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute/NIH, April 29, 2020.

Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines (ACTIV) (NIH)


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


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