Chapter 11. Motor Control and Plasticity
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By Jon Cohen A virus that long ago spliced itself into the human genome may play a role in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the deadly muscle degenerative disease that crippled baseball great Lou Gehrig and ultimately took his life. That’s the controversial conclusion of a new study, which finds elevated levels of human endogenous retrovirus K (HERV-K) in the brains of 11 people who died from the disease. “This certainly is interesting and provocative work,” says Raymond Roos, a neurologist at the University of Chicago in Illinois who treats and studies ALS but who was not involved with the finding. Still, even the scientists behind the work caution that more research is needed to confirm the link. “I’m very careful to say HERV-K doesn’t cause the disease but may play a role in the pathophysiology,” says study leader Avindra Nath, a neuroimmunologist at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, Maryland. “The darn thing is in the chromosomes to begin with. It’s going to be very hard to prove causation.” It was another retrovirus, HIV, that led Nath to first suspect a connection between viruses and ALS. In 2006, he was helping a patient control his HIV infection with antiretroviral drugs when he noticed that the man’s ALS also improved. “That intrigued me, and I looked in the ALS literature and saw that people had reported they could see reverse transcriptase in the blood.” Reverse transcriptase, an enzyme that converts RNA to DNA, is a hallmark of retroviruses, which use it to insert copies of their genes into chromosomes of their hosts. © 2015 American Association for the Advancement of Science
James Hamblin Mental exercises to build (or rebuild) attention span have shown promise recently as adjuncts or alternatives to amphetamines in addressing symptoms common to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Building cognitive control, to be better able to focus on just one thing, or single-task, might involve regular practice with a specialized video game that reinforces "top-down" cognitive modulation, as was the case in a popular paper in Nature last year. Cool but still notional. More insipid but also more clearly critical to addressing what's being called the ADHD epidemic is plain old physical activity. This morning the medical journal Pediatrics published research that found kids who took part in a regular physical activity program showed important enhancement of cognitive performance and brain function. The findings, according to University of Illinois professor Charles Hillman and colleagues, "demonstrate a causal effect of a physical program on executive control, and provide support for physical activity for improving childhood cognition and brain health." If it seems odd that this is something that still needs support, that's because it is odd, yes. Physical activity is clearly a high, high-yield investment for all kids, but especially those attentive or hyperactive. This brand of research is still published and written about as though it were a novel finding, in part because exercise programs for kids remain underfunded and underprioritized in many school curricula, even though exercise is clearly integral to maximizing the utility of time spent in class.
A 26-year-old man who is paralysed in both legs has walked for the first time in five years – just by thinking about it. He is the first person to have his brain activity recorded and used to control a muscle-stimulating device in his legs. Every year, 250,000 to 500,000 people worldwide suffer spinal cord injuries, which can leave them partially or completely paralysed below the site of damage. Many rehabilitation clinics already offer functional electric stimulation (FES) devices, which activate the nerves that innervate leg muscles at the push of a button. But people with upper-body paralysis are not always able to operate the FES in this way. The new system bypasses the button and returns control to the brain. “We want to re-establish the connection between the brain and the leg muscles, to bring back the function that was once present,” says Zoran Nenadic at the University of California Irvine. To do that, Nenadic and his colleagues combined an FES system with a brain-computer interface. The team developed an electrode cap that picks up the brainwaves created when a person thinks specifically about walking or standing still. They tailored the device to pick up brain signals from their volunteer – a man who has had little sensation below his shoulder blades for five years. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Link ID: 21437 - Posted: 09.24.2015
By Kristin Ozelli Four years ago writer and producer Jon Palfreman was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He has chronicled his experience and that of many other “Parkies,” as patients sometimes call themselves, in two books, the latest of which is Brain Storms: The Race to Unlock the Mysteries of Parkinson’s Disease, published this year by Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, which traces some of the recent progress of medical researchers in treating this disease. He shared with Scientific American MIND senior editor Kristin Ozelli some of the insights he gleaned while working on this book. You wrote an earlier book about Parkinson’s and produced a prize-winning documentary, The Case of the Frozen Addicts, and have experienced the disease personally. While you were researching Brain Storms, was there anything new you learned about the disease that really surprised you? What is truly surprising is just how long biomedical research takes to deliver life-changing therapies. The promising therapies around when I wrote my first book 20 years ago, like neural grafting and growth factors—therapies designed to replace, revive or protect dopamine neurons—well they haven’t panned out. On the other hand, since my first involvement with Parkinson’s, there have been some extraordinary advances in basic science. In a sense, the disease has been rebranded from a movement disorder (resulting from damage to a very small part of the brain) to a systemic condition involving not only tremor and rigidity but also a whole host of symptoms—from depression to sleep disorders, from constipation to dementia. Indeed, there’s an entirely new theory of the disease that sees it as being driven by a protein alpha-synuclein that goes rogue and, prionlike, jumps from neuron to neuron creating havoc. © 2015 Scientific American
Link ID: 21435 - Posted: 09.23.2015
Nathan Seppa For a historically mistrusted drink, coffee is proving to be a healthy addiction. Scientific findings in support of coffee’s nutritional attributes have been arriving at a steady drip since the 1980s, when Norwegian researchers reported that coffee seemed to fend off liver disease. Since then, the dark brown beverage has shown value against liver cancer, too, as well as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke. Coffee even appears to protect against depression, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. Taken as a whole, these results might explain the most astonishing finding of all. People who drink two or more cups of coffee a day live longer than those who don’t, after accounting for behavioral differences, U.S. researchers reported in 2012. Studies in Japan, Scotland and Finland agree. Talk about a twofer. Coffee not only picks you up, it might put off the day they lower you down. Yet coffee has had trouble shaking its bad-for-you reputation. It may be one of the most widely consumed drinks in the world, but people have long assumed that, at least in its energizing caffeinated version, coffee comes with a catch. “People notice the caffeine,” says cardiologist Arthur Klatsky, who has researched coffee for decades at the Kaiser Permanente Northern California Division of Research in Oakland. “And there is this general feeling that anything that has some effect on the nervous system has to have something bad about it.” It doesn’t help that caffeine is mildly addictive.
By Larry Greenemeier Advanced prosthetics have for the past few years begun tapping into brain signals to provide amputees with impressive new levels of control. Patients think, and a limb moves. But getting a robotic arm or hand to sense what it’s touching, and send that feeling back to the brain, has been a harder task. The U.S. Defense Department’s research division last week claimed a breakthrough in this area, issuing a press release touting a 28-year-old paralyzed person’s ability to “feel” physical sensations through a prosthetic hand. Researchers have directly connected the artificial appendage to his brain, giving him the ability to even identify which mechanical finger is being gently touched, according to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). In 2013, other scientists at Case Western Reserve University also gave touch to amputees, giving patients precise-enough feeling of pressure in their fingertips to allow them to twist the stems off cherries. The government isn’t providing much detail at this time about its achievement other than to say that researchers ran wires from arrays connected to the volunteer’s sensory and motor cortices—which identify tactile sensations and control body movements, respectively—to a mechanical hand developed by the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) at Johns Hopkins University. The APL hand’s torque sensors can convert pressure applied to any of its fingers into electrical signals routed back to the volunteer’s brain. © 2015 Scientific American
A choir of Canadians with Parkinson's disease is helping researchers test how well the performers regain facial movement to express emotions. Tremors and difficulty walking are often the most noticeable symptoms of Parkinson's disease, which affects about one in 500 people in Canada. Those with the disease may also have limited facial movement, which hampers the ability to express themselves. For people with Parkinson's who have "masked face syndrome," it can be difficult for others to decipher how they're feeling. That's because we unknowingly mimic or mirror each other during interaction to connect. "Within a hundred milliseconds of seeing someone else smile or frown, we are smiling or frowning," said Frank Russo, a psychology professor at Ryerson University in Toronto. "We're mirroring what the other person is doing. And that's one of the things that is absent in Parkinson's. It's the absence of mirroring that is leading to some of the deficit in understanding other people's emotions." Having a static face can leave people with Parkinson's seem cold and aloof as they also show deficits in understanding other people's emotions. The patient can then become emotionally disconnected from others. Studying the 28 members of the Parkinson's choir has bolstered Russo's thinking that singing, facial expressions and social communications are interconnected. So far Russo has found that mirroring effect or mimicry was restored among choir participants who sang for 13 weeks. ©2015 CBC/Radio-Canada.
Ever waited for a bus rather than take the short walk to work? Headed for the escalator instead of the stairs? Humans clearly harbour a deep love of lethargy – and now we know how far people will go to expend less energy. We will change our walking style on the fly when our normal gait becomes even a little more difficult. The finding could have implications for the rehabilitation offered to people with spinal injuries. Jessica Selinger and her colleagues at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada, strapped volunteers into a lightweight robotic exoskeleton and put them on a treadmill. Initially, the team let the volunteers find their preferred walking rhythm – which turned out to be 1.8 steps per second, on average. Then the researchers switched on the exoskeleton, programming it to make it more difficult for the volunteers to walk at their preferred pace by preventing the knee from bending – and leg swinging – as freely. The exoskeleton didn’t interfere with the human guinea pigs’ ability to walk faster or slower than they preferred. Within minutes the volunteers had found a walking style that the exoskeleton would allow without offering resistance. Remarkably, though, they did so despite the fact that the exoskeleton only ever offered minimal resistance. By using breathing masks to analyse the volunteers’ metabolic activity, Selinger’s team found that subjects would shift to an awkward new gait even if the energy saving was only 5 per cent. “People are able to adapt and fine-tune in order to move in the most energetically optimal way,” says Selinger. “People will change really fundamental characteristics of their gait.” © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Keyword: Movement Disorders
Link ID: 21398 - Posted: 09.11.2015
By Jennifer Couzin-Frankel Some rare diseases pull researchers in and don’t let them go, and the unusual bone condition called fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva (FOP) has long had its hooks in Aris Economides. “The minute you experience it it’s impossible to step back and forget it,” says the functional geneticist who runs the skeletal disease program at Regeneron Pharmaceuticals in Tarrytown, New York. “It’s devastating in the most profound way.” The few thousand or so people with FOP worldwide live with grueling uncertainty: Some of their muscles or other soft tissues periodically, and abruptly, transform into new bone that permanently immobilizes parts of their bodies. Joints such as elbows or ankles may become frozen in place; jaw motion can be impeded and the rib cage fixed, making eating or even breathing difficult. Twenty years after he first stumbled on FOP, Economides and his colleagues report today that the gene mutation shared by 97% of people with the disease can trigger its symptoms in a manner different than had been assumed—through a single molecule not previously eyed as a suspect. And by sheer chance, Regeneron had a treatment for this particular target in its freezers. The company tested that potential therapy, a type of protein known as a monoclonal antibody, on mice with their own form of FOP and lo and behold, they stopped growing unwelcome new bone. © 2015 American Association for the Advancement of Science.
By Simon Makin Scientists claim to have discovered the first new human prion in almost 50 years. Prions are misfolded proteins that make copies of themselves by inducing others to misfold. By so doing, they multiply and cause disease. The resulting illness in this case is multiple system atrophy (MSA), a neurodegenerative disease similar to Parkinson's. The study, published August 31 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, adds weight to the idea that many neurodegenerative diseases are caused by prions. In the 1960s researchers led by Carleton Gajdusek at the National Institutes of Health transmitted kuru, a rare neurodegenerative disease found in Papua New Guinea, and Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (CJD), a rare human dementia, to chimpanzees by injecting samples from victims' brains directly into those of chimps. It wasn't until 1982, however, that Stanley Prusiner coined the term prion (for “proteinaceous infectious particle”) to describe the self-propagating protein responsible. Prusiner and colleagues at the University of California, San Francisco, showed this process caused a whole class of diseases, called spongiform encephalopathies (for the spongelike appearance of affected brains), including the bovine form known as “mad cow” disease. The same protein, PrP, is also responsible for kuru, which was spread by cannibalism; variant-CJD, which over 200 people developed after eating beef infected with the bovine variety; and others. The idea that a protein could transmit disease was radical at the time but the work eventually earned Prusiner the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. He has long argued prions may underlie other neurodegenerative diseases but the idea has been slow to gain acceptance. © 2015 Scientific American
Boer Deng Palaeontologist Stephen Gatesy wants to bring extinct creatures to life — virtually speaking. When he pores over the fossilized skeletons of dinosaurs and other long-dead beasts, he tries to imagine how they walked, ran or flew, and how those movements evolved into the gaits of their modern descendents. “I'm a very visual guy,” he says. But fossils are lifeless and static, and can only tell Gatesy so much. So instead, he relies on XROMM, a software package that he developed with his colleagues at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. XROMM (X-ray Reconstruction of Moving Morphology) borrows from the technology of motion capture, in which multiple cameras film a moving object from different angles, and markers on the object are rendered into 3D by a computer program. The difference is that XROMM uses not cameras, but X-ray machines that make videos of bones and joints moving inside live creatures such as pigs, ducks and fish. Understanding how the movements relate to the animals' bone structure can help palaeontologists to determine what movements would have been possible for fossilized creatures. “It's a completely different approach” to studying evolution, says Gatesy. XROMM, released to the public in 2008 as an open-source package, is one of a number of software tools that are expanding what researchers know about how animals and humans walk, crawl and, in some cases, fly (see ‘Movement from inside and out’). That has given the centuries-old science of animal motion relevance to a wide range of fields, from studying biodiversity to designing leg braces, prostheses and other assistive medical devices.“We're in an intense period of using camera-based and computer-based approaches to expand the questions we can ask about motion,” says Michael Dickinson, a neuroscientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. © 2015 Nature Publishing Group
Keyword: Movement Disorders
Link ID: 21370 - Posted: 09.01.2015
By Diana Kwon Each year doctors diagnose approximately 60,000 Americans with Parkinson’s disease, an incurable neurodegenerative condition for which the number-one risk factor is age. Worldwide an estimated seven to 10 million people currently live with the malady. As U.S. and global populations grow older, it is becoming increasingly urgent to understand its causes. So far, researchers know that Parkinson’s involves cell death in a few restricted areas of the brain including the substantia nigra (SNc), one of two big cell clusters in the midbrain that house a large population of dopamine neurons. These cells release dopamine and are involved in a variety of functions including reward processing and voluntary movement. Their death leads to the motor control and balance issues that are core symptoms of the disease. New research shows that these brain cells, most at risk in Parkinson’s disease, require unusually high amounts of energy to carry out their tasks because of their highly branched structures. Like a massive car with an overheating engine, these neurons are susceptible to burnout and early death. This discovery emerged from a comparison of energy use in nigral dopamine neurons and in similar neurons found in the nearby ventral tegmental area (VTA), also in the midbrain. “We were trying to understand why dopamine neurons of the substantia nigra die in Parkinson’s disease patients while there are so many other brain cells that have no problem at all,” says Louis-Eric Trudeau, a neuroscientist at the University of Montreal and senior author of the study published in the August 27 Current Biology. © 2015 Scientific American,
Link ID: 21353 - Posted: 08.28.2015
By Emily Underwood It is famous for robbing Lou Gehrig of his life and Stephen Hawking of his mobility and voice, but just how amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) destroys motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord remains a mystery. Now, scientists are converging on an explanation, at least for a fraction of the ALS cases caused by a specific mutation. In cells with the mutation, the new work shows, pores in the membrane separating the nucleus and cytoplasm become clogged, preventing vital molecules from passing through and creating a fatal cellular traffic jam. For now, the work applies only to the mutation dubbed C9orf72—a DNA stutter in which a short nucleotide sequence, GGGGCC, is repeated hundreds to thousands of times in a gene on chromosome 9. Nor do the multiple labs reporting results this week agree on exactly what plugs those nuclear pores and how the cells die. Still, the work is “a major breakthrough” in ALS research, says Amelie Gubitz, program director of the neurodegeneration division at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders in Bethesda, Maryland. The groups worked independently, starting with different hypotheses and experimental designs, yet reached similar conclusions, making the finding more convincing. And it suggests that boosting traffic through nuclear pores could be a new strategy for treating some cases of ALS and frontotemporal dementia (FTD), another neurodegenerative condition C9orf72 can cause. Based on past work by their own and other groups, neuroscientists Jeff Rothstein and Tom Lloyd at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, suspected that the long strands of excess RNA produced by C9orf72 cause neurodegeneration by binding to, and thus sequestering, key cellular proteins. The team tested the idea in fruit flies with the mutation, which display damage in the nerve cells of their eyes and in motor neurons. © 2015 American Association for the Advancement of Science
A healthy motor neuron needs to transport its damaged components from the nerve-muscle connection all the way back to the cell body in the spinal cord. If it cannot, the defective components pile up and the cell becomes sick and dies. Researchers at the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) have learned how a mutation in the gene for superoxide dismutase 1 (SOD1), which causes ALS, leads cells to accumulate damaged materials. The study, published in the journal Neuron, suggests a potential target for treating this familial form of ALS. More than 12,000 Americans have ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and roughly 5-10 percent of them inherited a genetic mutation from a parent. These cases of familial ALS are often caused by mutations in the gene that codes for SOD1, an important enzyme located in the neuron’s mitochondria, the cell’s energy-producing structures. This mutation causes the death of motor neurons that control the patient’s muscles, resulting in progressive paralysis. “About 90 percent of the energy in the brain is generated by mitochondria,” said Zu-Hang Sheng, Ph.D., an NINDS scientist and the study’s senior author. “If the mitochondria aren’t healthy, they produce energy less efficiently; they can also release harmful chemicals called reactive oxygen species that cause cell death. As a consequence, mitochondrial damage can cause neurodegeneration.” In healthy neurons, storage containers called late endosomes collect damaged mitochondria and various destructive chemicals. A motor protein called dynein then transports the endosomes to structures called lysosomes, which use the chemicals to break down the endosomes. Dr. Sheng’s team discovered that this crucial process is faulty in nerve cells with SOD1 mutations because mutant SOD1 interferes with a critical molecule called snapin that hooks the endosome to the dynein motor protein.
Keyword: ALS-Lou Gehrig's Disease
Link ID: 21294 - Posted: 08.13.2015
Sarah Schwartz In 2011, science journalist Jon Palfreman saw a doctor about a tremor in his left hand. The doctor diagnosed Palfreman, then 60, with Parkinson’s disease. The disorder, which is newly diagnosed in 60,000 Americans each year, promised a crippling future of tremors, loss of mobility, dementia and more. Palfreman decided to use his reporting expertise to investigate how Parkinson’s disease affects the body and learn about efforts to find a cure. With Brain Storms, Palfreman follows Parkinson’s history from the careful observations of 19th century physicians to today’s cutting-edge research. Palfreman relates complex research studies as gripping medical mysteries. He describes how scientists connected Parkinson’s with the dramatic loss of the brain chemical dopamine and with tenacious protein knots called Lewy bodies that are a hallmark of the disease. Palfreman also explores treatments past and present, including the widely used drug levodopa that restores motion (sometimes uncontrollably), gene therapies, brain surgeries and promising experimental antibody treatments that attack and dissolve misfolded Parkinson’s-related proteins. Ultimately, Brain Storms is about more than Parkinson’s disease; it’s about the people living with the disorder. Palfreman describes patients who must teach themselves to walk without falling over or who freeze in place. He writes about a researcher driven to search for a cure after the disease affects his own father. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2015
Link ID: 21284 - Posted: 08.12.2015
By David Noonan Leaping through the air with ease and spinning in place like tops, ballet dancers are visions of the human body in action at its most spectacular and controlled. Their brains, too, appear to be special, able to evade the dizziness that normally would result from rapid pirouettes. When compared with ordinary people's brains, researchers found in a study published early this year, parts of dancers' brains involved in the perception of spinning seem less sensitive, which may help them resist vertigo. For millions of other people, it is their whole world, not themselves, that suddenly starts to whirl. Even the simplest task, like walking across the room, may become impossible when vertigo strikes, and the condition can last for months or years. Thirty-five percent of adults older than 39 in the U.S.—69 million people—experience vertigo at one time or another, often because of damage to parts of the inner ear that sense the body's position or to the nerve that transmits that information to the brain. Whereas drugs and physical therapy can help many, tens of thousands of people do not benefit from existing treatments. “Our patients with severe loss of balance have been told over and over again that there's nothing we can do for you,” says Charles Della Santina, an otolaryngologist who studies inner ear disorders and directs the Johns Hopkins Vestibular NeuroEngineering Laboratory. Steve Bach's nightmare started in November 2013. The construction manager was at home in Parsippany, N.J. “All of a sudden the room was whipping around like a 78 record,” says Bach, now age 57. He was curled up on the living room floor in a fetal position when his daughter found him and called 911. He spent the next five days in the hospital. © 2015 Scientific American
Keyword: Movement Disorders
Link ID: 21248 - Posted: 08.01.2015
Five men with complete motor paralysis were able to voluntarily generate step-like movements thanks to a new strategy that non-invasively delivers electrical stimulation to their spinal cords, according to a new study funded in part by the National Institutes of Health. The strategy, called transcutaneous stimulation, delivers electrical current to the spinal cord by way of electrodes strategically placed on the skin of the lower back. This expands to nine the number of completely paralyzed individuals who have achieved voluntary movement while receiving spinal stimulation, though this is the first time the stimulation was delivered non-invasively. Previously it was delivered via an electrical stimulation device surgically implanted on the spinal cord. In the study, the men’s movements occurred while their legs were suspended in braces that hung from the ceiling, allowing them to move freely without resistance from gravity. Movement in this environment is not comparable to walking; nevertheless, the results signal significant progress towards the eventual goal of developing a therapy for a wide range of individuals with spinal cord injury. “These encouraging results provide continued evidence that spinal cord injury may no longer mean a life-long sentence of paralysis and support the need for more research,” said Roderic Pettigrew, Ph.D., M.D., director of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering at NIH. “The potential to offer a life-changing therapy to patients without requiring surgery would be a major advance; it could greatly expand the number of individuals who might benefit from spinal stimulation. It’s a wonderful example of the power that comes from combining advances in basic biological research with technological innovation.”
Link ID: 21242 - Posted: 08.01.2015
By Smitha Mundasad Health reporter A type of diabetes drug may offer a glimmer of hope in the fight against Parkinson's disease, research in the journal Plos Medicine suggests. Scientists found people taking glitazone pills were less likely to develop Parkinson's than patients on other diabetes drugs. But they caution the drugs can have serious side-effects and should not be given to healthy people. Instead, they suggest the findings should prompt further research. 'Unintended benefits' There are an estimated 127,000 people in the UK with Parkinson's disease, which can lead to tremor, slow movement and stiff muscles. And charities say with no drugs yet proven to treat the condition, much more work is needed in this area. The latest study focuses solely on people with diabetes who did not have Parkinson's disease at the beginning of the project. Researchers scoured UK electronic health records to compare 44,597 people prescribed glitazone pills with 120,373 people using other anti-diabetic treatment. They matched participants to ensure their age and stage of diabetes treatment were similar. Scientists found fewer people developed Parkinson's in the glitazone group - but the drug did not have a long-lasting benefit. Any potential protection disappeared once patients switched to another type of pill. Dr Ian Douglas, lead researcher at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: "We often hear about negative side-effects associated with medications, but sometimes there can also be unintended beneficial effects. "Our findings provide unique evidence that we hope will drive further investigation into potential drug treatments for Parkinson's disease." © 2015 BBC
Link ID: 21199 - Posted: 07.22.2015
Results from tests of the drug, announced this week, show that it breaks up plaques in mice affected with Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease, and improves the memories and cognitive abilities of the animals. Other promising results in rats and monkeys mean that the drug developers, NeuroPhage Pharmaceuticals, are poised to apply for permission to start testing it in people, with trials starting perhaps as early as next year. The drug is the first that seems to target and destroy the multiple types of plaque implicated in human brain disease. Plaques are clumps of misfolded proteins that gradually accumulate into sticky, brain-clogging gunk that kills neurons and robs people of their memories and other mental faculties. Different kinds of misfolded proteins are implicated in different brain diseases, and some can be seen within the same condition (see “Proteins gone rogue”, below). One thing they share, however, is a structural kink known as a canonical amyloid fold, and it is this on which the new drug acts (Journal of Molecular Biology, DOI: 10.1016/j.jmb.2014.04.015). Animal tests show that the drug reduces levels of amyloid beta plaques and tau protein deposits implicated in Alzheimer’s disease, and the alpha-synuclein protein deposits thought to play a role in Parkinson’s disease. Tests on lab-made samples show that the drug also targets misfolded transthyretin, clumps of which can clog up the heart and kidney, and prion aggregates, the cause of CJD, another neurodegenerative condition. Because correctly folded proteins do not have the distinct “kink”, the drug has no effect on them. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Carl Zimmer A single neuron can’t do much on its own, but link billions of them together into a network and you’ve got a brain. But why stop there? In recent years, scientists have wondered what brains could do if they were linked together into even bigger networks. Miguel A. Nicolelis, director of the Center for Neuroengineering at Duke University, and his colleagues have now made the idea a bit more tangible by linking together animal brains with electrodes. In a pair of studies published on Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports, the researchers report that rats and monkeys can coordinate their brains to carry out such tasks as moving a simulated arm or recognizing simple patterns. In many of the trials, the networked animals performed better than individuals. “At least some times, more brains are better than one,” said Karen S. Rommelfanger, director of the Neuroethics Program at the Center for Ethics at Emory University, who was not involved in the study. Brain-networking research might someday allow people to join together in useful ways, Dr. Rommelfanger noted. Police officers might be able to make collective decisions on search-and-rescue missions. Surgeons might collectively operate on a single patient. But she also warned that brain networks could create a host of exotic ethical quandaries involving privacy and legal responsibility. If a brain network were to commit a crime, for example, who exactly would be guilty? © 2015 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 21160 - Posted: 07.11.2015