Chapter 5. The Sensorimotor System

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James Gorman When the leader of a flock goes the wrong way, what will the flock do? With human beings, nobody can be sure. But with homing pigeons, the answer is that they find their way home anyway. Either the lead pigeon recognizes that it has no clue and falls back into the flock, letting birds that know where they are going take over, or the flock collectively decides that the direction that it is taking just doesn’t feel right, and it doesn’t follow. Several European scientists report these findings in a stirring report in Biology Letters titled, “Misinformed Leaders Lose Influence Over Pigeon Flocks.” Isobel Watts, a doctoral student in zoology at Oxford, conducted the study with her advisers, Theresa Burt de Perera and Dora Biro, and with the participation of Mate Nagy, a statistical physicist from Hungary, who is affiliated with several institutions, including Oxford and the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Dr. Biro, who studies social behavior in primates as well as pigeons, said that the common questions that ran through her work were “about group living and what types of challenges and opportunities it brings.” She and her colleagues at Oxford have pioneered a method of studying flock behavior that uses very-fine-resolution GPS units, which the birds wear in pigeon-size backpacks. The devices record a detailed position for each bird a number of times a second. Researchers in Budapest and Oxford developed software to analyze small movements and responses of every bird in a flock. With this method, the scientists can identify which pigeons are leading the way. They can build a picture of how each bird responds to changes in the flight of other birds. © 2016 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Animal Migration; Attention
Link ID: 22696 - Posted: 09.26.2016

By Alison F. Takemura Bodies like to keep their pH close to 7.4, whether that means hyperventilating to make the blood alkaline, or burning energy, shifting to anaerobic metabolism, and producing lactate to make the blood acidic. The lungs and kidneys can regulate pH changes systemically, but they may not act quickly on a local scale. Because even small pH changes can dramatically affect the nervous system, a study led by Sten Grillner of Karolinska Institute in Sweden looked for a mechanism for pH homeostasis in the spinal cord. Using the lamprey as a model system, the researchers observed that a type of spinal canal neuron, called CSF-c, fired more rapidly when they bathed it with high pH (7.7) or low pH (7.1) media. They could suspend the elevated activity by blocking two ion channels: PKD2L1 channels, which stimulate neurons in alkaline conditions, or ASIC3 channels, which, the team showed previously, do the same in acidic states. As the neurons fired, they released the hormone somatostatin, which inhibited the lamprey’s locomotor network. These results suggest that, whichever direction pH deviates, “the response of the system is just to reduce activity as much as possible,” Grillner says. The pH-regulating role of CSF-c neurons is likely conserved among animals, the authors suspect, given the presence of these neurons across vertebrate taxa. © 1986-2016 The Scientist

Keyword: Movement Disorders
Link ID: 22688 - Posted: 09.24.2016

By Michael Price A soft brush that feels like prickly thorns. A vibrating tuning fork that produces no vibration. Not being able to tell which direction body joints are moving without looking at them. Those are some of the bizarre sensations reported by a 9-year-old girl and 19-year-old woman in a new study. The duo, researchers say, shares an extremely rare genetic mutation that may shed light on a so-called “sixth sense” in humans: proprioception, or the body’s awareness of where it is in space. The new work may even explain why some of us are klutzier than others. The patients’ affliction doesn’t have a name. It was discovered by one of the study’s lead authors, pediatric neurologist Carsten Bönnemann at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, who specializes in diagnosing unknown genetic illnesses in young people. He noticed that the girl and the woman shared a suite of physical symptoms, including hips, fingers, and feet that bent at unusual angles. They also had scoliosis, an unusual curvature of the spine. And, significantly, they had difficulty walking, showed an extreme lack of coordination, and couldn’t physically feel objects against their skin. Bönnemann screened their genomes and looked for mutations that they might have in common. One in particular stood out: a catastrophic mutation in PIEZO2, a gene that has been linked to the body’s sense of touch and its ability to perform coordinated movements. At about the same time, in a “very lucky accident,” Bönnemann attended a lecture by Alexander Chesler, a neurologist also at NIH, on PIEZO2. Bönnemann invited Chesler to help study his newly identified patients. © 2016 American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Keyword: Movement Disorders; Genes & Behavior
Link ID: 22683 - Posted: 09.22.2016

Nicola Davis Tyrannosaur, Breaking the Waves and Schindler’s List might make you reach for the tissues, but psychologists say they have found a reason why traumatic films are so appealing. Researchers at Oxford University say that watching traumatic films boosts feelings of group bonding, as well as increasing pain tolerance by upping levels of feel-good, pain-killing chemicals produced in the brain. “The argument here is that actually, maybe the emotional wringing you get from tragedy triggers the endorphin system,” said Robin Dunbar, a co-author of the study and professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Oxford. Previous research has found that laughing together, dancing together and working in a team can increase social bonding and heighten pain tolerance through an endorphin boost. “All of those things, including singing and dancing and jogging and laughter, all produce an endorphin kick for the same reason - they are putting the musculature of the body under stress,” said Dunbar. Being harrowed, he adds, could have a similar effect. “It has turned out that the same areas in the brain that deal with physical pain also handle psychological pain,” said Dunbar. Writing in the journal Royal Society Open Science, Dunbar and colleagues describe how they set out to unpick whether our love of storytelling, a device used to share knowledge and cultivate a sense of identity within a group, is underpinned by an endorphin-related bonding mechanism. © 2016 Guardian News and Media Limited

Keyword: Emotions; Pain & Touch
Link ID: 22677 - Posted: 09.21.2016

By SABRINA TAVERNISE WASHINGTON — The Food and Drug Administration approved the first drug to treat patients with the most common childhood form of muscular dystrophy, a vivid example of the growing power that patients and their advocates wield over the federal government’s evaluation of drugs. The agency’s approval went against the recommendation of its experts. The main clinical trial of the drug was small, involving only 12 boys with the disease known as Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and did not have an adequate control group of boys who had the disease but did not take the drug. A group of independent experts convened by the agency this spring said there was not enough evidence that it was effective. But the vote was close. Large and impassioned groups of patients, including boys in wheelchairs, and their advocates, weighed in. The muscular dystrophy community is well organized and has lobbied for years to win approval for the drug, getting members of Congress to write letters to the agency. A decision on the drug had been delayed for months. The approval was so controversial that F.D.A. employees fought over it, a dispute that was taken to the agency’s commissioner, Dr. Robert M. Califf, who ultimately decided that it would stand. The approval delighted the drug’s advocates and sent the share price of the drug’s maker, Sarepta Therapeutics, soaring. But it was taken as a deeply troubling sign among drug policy experts who believe the F.D.A. has been far too influenced by patient advocates and drug companies, and has allowed the delicate balance in drug approvals to tilt toward speedy decisions based on preliminary data and away from more conclusive evidence of effectiveness and safety. © 2016 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Movement Disorders; Muscles
Link ID: 22671 - Posted: 09.20.2016

Carrie Arnold Could a protein that originated in a virus explain why men are more muscular than women? Viruses are notorious for their ability to cause disease, but they also shape human biology in less obvious ways. Retroviruses, which insert their genetic material into our genomes to copy themselves, have left behind genes that help to steer our immune systems and mold the development of embryos and the placenta. Now researchers report in PLOS Genetics that syncytin, a viral protein that enables placenta formation, also helps to increase muscle mass in male mice1. These results could partially explain a lingering mystery in biology: why the males of many mammalian species tend to be more muscular than females. “As soon as I read it, my mind started racing with the potential implications,” says evolutionary virologist Aris Katzourakis of the University of Oxford, UK. About 8% of the 3 billion pairs of As, Ts, Gs and Cs that make up our DNA are viral detritus. Many of those viral hand-me-downs have degraded into useless junk — but not all, as a series of discoveries over the past 15 years has revealed. In 2000, scientists discovered that syncytin, a protein that enables the formation of the placenta, actually originated as a viral protein that humans subsequently ‘borrowed’2. That original viral protein enables the retrovirus to fuse with host cells, depositing its entire genome into the safe harbour of the cytoplasm. Syncytin has changed little from this ancestral protein form; it directs certain placental cells to fuse with cells in the mother’s uterus, forming the outer layer of the placenta. © 2016 Macmillan Publishers Limited

Keyword: Muscles; Sexual Behavior
Link ID: 22650 - Posted: 09.13.2016

By Karen Weintraub Researchers have long believed that problems with mitochondria—the power plants of cells—underlie some cases of Parkinson’s disease. Now a new study details those problems, and suggests that they may form a common thread linking previously unexplained cases of the disease with those caused by different genetic anomalies or toxins. Finding a common mechanism behind different suspected causes of Parkinson’s suggests that there might also be a common means to measure, treat or cure it, says Marco Baptista, research director at the nonprofit Michael J. Fox Foundation, a leading center for study and advocacy in the fight against Parkinson’s. The study, published Thursday in Cell Stem Cell, did identify a possible way to reverse the damage of Parkinson’s—but only in individual cells and fruit flies. Finding a treatment that does the same thing in people will be challenging, Baptista says. Roughly one million Americans have Parkinson’s disease, which is characterized by motor problems and can cause other symptoms including cognitive and gastrointestinal difficulties. About 1 to 2 percent of cases are linked to mutations in the LRRK2 gene, with far fewer associated with genes known as PINK1 and Parkin. Exposure to environmental factors such as toxic chemicals can also lead to Parkinson’s, although most cases have no obvious cause. In the new paper Xinnan Wang, an assistant professor of neurosurgery at Stanford University, and her colleagues show that mitochondria are underpowered in several types of Parkinson’s and that these mitochondria also release toxic chemicals. Looking at fly models of the disease as well as cells taken from patients, the researchers found that they could correct these problems and reverse neurodegeneration if they reduced levels of a protein involved in mitochondrial activity. © 2016 Scientific American

Keyword: Parkinsons
Link ID: 22642 - Posted: 09.10.2016

By Abby Olena Mammalian prions are notoriously difficult as structural biology subjects, given their insolubility and tendency to aggregate. Researchers have now overcome these challenges to figure out the preliminary structure of a shortened form of infectious prion (PrPSc), which they report today (September 8) in PLOS Pathogens. “For the first time, we have a structure of an infectious mammalian prion,” said Giuseppe Legname of Scuola Internazionale Superiore di Studi Avanzati in Trieste, Italy, who was not involved in this study. “It’s a very important paper,” he added. “What we have done is to obtain a very simple, very preliminary idea of what the structure of these mammalian prions are,” said study coauthor Jesús Requena of the University of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Requena and colleagues generated a shortened form of PrPSc by injecting a laboratory strain of prions into transgenic mice that express a truncated form of normal cellular prion protein (PrPC), which lacks the attachment of a membrane anchor present in full-length PrPSc. In nature, PrPC transforms into full-length PrPSc, which causes Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans, scrapie in sheep, and mad cow disease. The absence of the membrane anchor in shortened PrPSc from the transgenic mice allowed the researchers to isolate a fairly homogeneous population of PrPSc. They confirmed that this population was infectious by inoculating wild-type mice, which then developed symptoms of prion disease. © 1986-2016 The Scientist

Keyword: Prions
Link ID: 22638 - Posted: 09.10.2016

By JACK HEALY CINCINNATI — On the day he almost died, John Hatmaker bought a packet of Oreos and some ruby-red Swedish Fish at the corner store for his 5-year-old son. He was walking home when he spotted a man who used to sell him heroin. Mr. Hatmaker, 29, had overdosed seven times in the four years he had been addicted to pain pills and heroin. But he hoped he was past all that. He had planned to spend that Saturday afternoon, Aug. 27, showing his son the motorcycles and enjoying the music at a prayer rally for Hope Over Heroin in this region stricken by soaring rates of drug overdoses and opioid deaths. But first, he decided as he palmed a sample folded into a square of paper, he would snort this. As he crumpled to the sidewalk, Mr. Hatmaker became one of more than 200 people to overdose in the Cincinnati area in the past two weeks, leaving three people dead in what the officials here called an unprecedented spike. Similar increases in overdoses have rippled recently through Indiana, Kentucky and West Virginia, overwhelming ambulance crews and emergency rooms and stunning some antidrug advocates. Addiction specialists said the sharp increases in overdoses were a grim symptom of America’s heroin epidemic, and of the growing prevalence of powerful synthetic opiates like fentanyl. The synthetics are often mixed into batches of heroin, or sprinkled into mixtures of caffeine, antihistamines and other fillers. In Cincinnati, some medical and law enforcement officials said they believed the overdoses were largely caused by a synthetic drug called carfentanil, an animal tranquilizer used on livestock and elephants with no practical uses for humans. Fentanyl can be 50 times stronger than heroin, and carfentanil is as much as 100 times more potent than fentanyl. Experts said an amount smaller than a snowflake could kill a person. © 2016 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Drug Abuse; Pain & Touch
Link ID: 22637 - Posted: 09.07.2016

By The Scientist Staff Growing up, we learn that there are five senses: sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing. For the past five years, The Scientist has taken deep dives into each of those senses, explorations that revealed diverse mechanisms of perception and the impressive range of these senses in humans and diverse other animals. But as any biologist knows, there are more than just five senses, and it’s difficult to put a number on how many others there are. Humans’ vestibular sense, for example, detects gravity and balance through special organs in the bony labyrinth of the inner ear. Receptors in our muscles and joints inform our sense of body position. (See “Proprioception: The Sense Within.”) And around the animal kingdom, numerous other sense organs aid the perception of their worlds. The comb jelly’s single statocyst sits at the animal’s uppermost tip, under a transparent dome of fused cilia. A mass of cells called lithocytes, each containing a large, membrane-bound concretion of minerals, forms a statolith, which sits atop four columns called balancers, each made up of 150–200 sensory cilia. As the organism tilts, the statolith falls towards the Earth’s core, bending the balancers. Each balancer is linked to two rows of the ctenophore’s eight comb plates, from which extend hundreds of thousands of cilia that beat together as a unit to propel the animal. As the balancers bend, they adjust the frequency of ciliary beating in their associated comb plates. “They’re the pacemakers for the beating of the locomotor cilia,” says Sidney Tamm, a researcher at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, who has detailed the structure and function of the ctenophore statocyst (Biol Bull, 227:7-18, 2014; Biol Bull, 229:173-84, 2015). © 1986-2016 The Scientist

Keyword: Pain & Touch; Chemical Senses (Smell & Taste)
Link ID: 22629 - Posted: 09.05.2016

By CATHERINE SAINT LOUIS In seven countries that recently experienced Zika outbreaks, there were also sharp increases in the numbers of people suffering from a form of temporary paralysis, researchers reported Wednesday. The analysis, published online in The New England Journal of Medicine, adds to substantial evidence that Zika infections — even asymptomatic ones — may bring on a paralysis called Guillain-Barré syndrome. The syndrome can be caused by a number of other factors, including infection with other viruses. Researchers studying the Zika epidemic in French Polynesia had estimated that roughly 1 in 4,000 people infected with the virus could develop the syndrome. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that the Zika virus is “strongly associated” with Guillain-Barré, but has stopped short of declaring it a cause of the condition. The new data suggest a telling pattern: Each country in the study saw unusual increases in Guillain-Barré that coincided with peaks in Zika infections, the researchers concluded. “It’s pretty obvious that in all seven sites there is a clear relationship,” said Dr. Marcos A. Espinal, the study’s lead author and the director of communicable diseases at the Pan American Health Organization, which collected data on confirmed and suspected cases of Zika infection and on the incidence of Guillain-Barré. “Something is going on.” In Venezuela, officials expected roughly 70 cases of Guillain-Barré from December 2015 to the end of March 2016, as mosquitoes were spreading the virus. Instead, there were 684 cases. Similarly, during five months in which the Zika virus was circulating in Colombia, officials recorded 320 cases of Guillain-Barré when there should have been about 100. From September 2015 to March 2016, while Zika infections peaked in El Salvador, cases of Guillain-Barré doubled to 184 from 92. © 2016 The New York Times Company

Keyword: Movement Disorders
Link ID: 22618 - Posted: 09.01.2016

Laura Sanders Scientists have identified the “refrigerator” nerve cells that hum along in the brains of mice and keep the body cool. These cells kick on to drastically cool mice’s bodies and may prevent high fevers, scientists report online August 25 in Science. The results “are totally new and very important,” says physiologist Andrej Romanovsky of the Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix. "The implications are far-reaching." By illuminating how bodies stay at the right temperature, the discovery may offer insights into the relationship between body temperature and metabolism. Scientists had good reasons to think that nerve cells controlling body temperature are tucked into the hypothalamus, a small patch of neural tissue in the middle of the brain. Temperature fluctuations in a part of the hypothalamus called the preoptic area prompt the body to get back to baseline by conserving or throwing off heat. But the actual identify of the heat sensors remained mysterious. The new study reveals the cells to be those that possess a protein called TRPM2. “Overall, this is a major discovery in the field of thermoregulation,” says Shaun Morrison of Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Jan Siemens, a neurobiologist at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, and colleagues tested an array of molecules called TRP channels, proteins that sit on cell membranes and help sense a variety of stimuli, including painful tear gas and cool menthol. In tests of nerve cells in lab dishes, one candidate, the protein TRPM2, seemed to respond to heat. |© Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 201

Keyword: Pain & Touch
Link ID: 22605 - Posted: 08.27.2016

By Kas Roussy, In a room at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, Brian Smith gives one last hug to his wife, Noreen. "You're doing really well, sweetheart," he says to her. Doctors have finished prepping the 76-year-old patient. She's clad in a blue hospital gown, her head has been shaved and metallic headgear is attached to her skull. Google's latest a spoon that steadies tremors New technology could help seniors stay independent longer She's ready to be wheeled into an MRI room, where she'll undergo a procedure that her doctors believe will revolutionize the way brain diseases are treated. Before that happens, Noreen leans into her husband for a kiss. "Best buddy," she whispers. Noreen Smith is among the three per cent of the Canadian population who suffer from a nervous system disorder called essential tremor. It causes uncontrollable shaking, most often in a person's hands. Smith noticed the first signs when she was 33. "It started developing in my dominant hand, which is my right hand," she said the day before her medical procedure from her home in Bobcaygeon, Ont. She went to a specialist who delivered the diagnosis: essential tremor. Media placeholder Smith ‘really, really excited’ about treatment’s potential0:48 Just as shocking was what he said next, alluding to a high-profile actor who had the condition. "This particular person wasn't terribly helpful because he said: 'Do you happen to know Katharine Hepburn? I'm going to give you some medication, and you can go home and get used to the idea that eventually you're going to end up looking like Katharine Hepburn.' I was devastated," says Smith. Medication helped for the first few years. But Smith's tremor was still severe and like others who suffer from this disorder, the shaking worsened with simple movements or everyday tasks like applying makeup or pouring a glass of water. ©2016 CBC/Radio-Canada.

Keyword: Movement Disorders
Link ID: 22603 - Posted: 08.25.2016

Neuroscience News Researchers have identified a brain mechanism that could be a drug target to help prevent tolerance and addiction to opioid pain medication, such as morphine, according to a study by Georgia State University and Emory University. The findings, published in the Nature journal Neuropsychopharmacology in August, show for the first time that morphine tolerance is due to an inflammatory response produced in the brain. This brain inflammation is caused by the release of cytokines, chemical messengers in the body that trigger an immune response, similar to a viral infection. Researchers’ results show blocking a particular cytokine eliminated morphine tolerance, and they were able to reduce the dose of morphine required to alleviate pain by half. “These results have important clinical implications for the treatment of pain and also addiction,” said Lori Eidson, lead author and a graduate student in the laboratory of Dr. Anne Murphy in the Neuroscience Institute of Georgia State. “Until now, the precise underlying mechanism for opioid tolerance and its prevention have remained unknown.” Over 67 percent of the United States population will experience chronic pain at some point in their lives. Morphine is the primary drug used to manage severe and chronic pain, with 3 to 4 percent of adults in the U.S. receiving long-term opioid therapy. However, tolerance to morphine, defined as a decrease in pain relief over time, significantly impedes treatment for about 60 percent of patients. Long-term treatment with opioids is associated with increased risk of abuse, dependence and fatal overdoses.

Keyword: Drug Abuse; Pain & Touch
Link ID: 22596 - Posted: 08.24.2016

Laura Sanders For some people, fentanyl can be a life-saver, easing profound pain. But outside of a doctor’s office, the powerful opioid drug is also a covert killer. In the last several years, clandestine drugmakers have begun experimenting with this ingredient, baking it into drugs sold on the streets, most notably heroin. Fentanyl and closely related compounds have “literally invaded the entire heroin supply,” says medical toxicologist Lewis Nelson of New York University Langone Medical Center. Fentanyl is showing up in other drugs, too. In San Francisco’s Bay Area in March, high doses of fentanyl were laced into counterfeit versions of the pain pill Norco. In January, fentanyl was found in illegal pills sold as oxycodone in New Jersey. And in late 2015, fentanyl turned up in fake Xanax pills in California. This ubiquitous recipe-tinkering makes it impossible for users to know whether they’re about to take drugs mixed with fentanyl. And that uncertainty has proved deadly. Fentanyl-related deaths are rising sharply in multiple areas. National numbers are hard to come by, but in many regions around the United States, fentanyl-related fatalities have soared in recent years. Maryland is one of the hardest-hit states. From 2007 to 2012, the number of fentanyl-related deaths hovered around 30 per year. By 2015, that number had grown to 340. A similar rise is obvious in Connecticut, where in 2012, there were 14 fentanyl-related deaths. In 2015, that number was 188. |© Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2016.

Keyword: Drug Abuse; Pain & Touch
Link ID: 22581 - Posted: 08.22.2016

Researchers may have discovered a method of detecting changes in the eye which could identify Parkinson's disease before its symptoms develop. Scientists at University College London (UCL) say their early animal tests could lead to a cheap and non-invasive way to spot the disease. Parkinson's affects 1 in 500 people and is the second most common neurodegenerative disease worldwide. The charity Parkinson's UK welcomed the research as a "significant step". The researchers examined rats and found that changes could be seen at the back of their eyes before visible symptoms occurred. Professor Francesca Cordeiro who led the research said it was a "potentially revolutionary breakthrough in the early diagnosis and treatment of one of the world's most debilitating diseases". "These tests mean we might be able to intervene much earlier and more effectively treat people with this devastating condition." Symptoms of Parkinson's include tremors and muscle stiffness, slowness of movement and a reduced quality of life. These symptoms usually only emerge after brain cells have been damaged. But there is currently no brain scan, or blood test, that can definitively diagnose Parkinson's disease. Parkinson's does not directly cause people to die, but symptoms do get worse over time. © 2016 BBC

Keyword: Parkinsons
Link ID: 22577 - Posted: 08.20.2016

Dean Burnett A lot of people, when they travel by car, ship, plane or whatever, end up feeling sick. They’re fine before they get into the vehicle, they’re typically fine when they get out. But whilst in transit, they feel sick. Particularly, it seems, in self-driving cars. Why? One theory is that it’s due to a weird glitch that means your brain gets confused and thinks it’s being poisoned. This may seem surprising; not even the shoddiest low-budget airline would get away with pumping toxins into the passengers (airline food doesn’t count, and that joke is out of date). So where does the brain get this idea that it’s being poisoned? Despite being a very “mobile” species, humans have evolved for certain types of movement. Specifically, walking, or running. Walking has a specific set of neurological processes tied into it, so we’ve had millions of years to adapt to it. Think of all the things going on in your body when you’re walking, and how the brain would pick up on these. There’s the steady thud-thud-thud and pressure on your feet and lower legs. There’s all the signals from your muscles and the movement of your body, meaning the motor cortex (which controls conscious movement of muscles) and proprioception (the sense of the arrangement of your body in space, hence you can know, for example, where your arm is behind your back without looking at it directly) are all supplying particular signals. © 2016 Guardian News and Media Limited

Keyword: Miscellaneous; Vision
Link ID: 22570 - Posted: 08.18.2016

Angus Chen Once people realized that opioid drugs could cause addiction and deadly overdoses, they tried to use newer forms of opioids to treat the addiction to its parent. Morphine, about 10 times the strength of opium, was used to curb opium cravings in the early 19th century. Codeine, too, was touted as a nonaddictive drug for pain relief, as was heroin. Those attempts were doomed to failure because all opioid drugs interact with the brain in the same way. They dock to a specific neural receptor, the mu-opioid receptor, which controls the effects of pleasure, pain relief and need. Now scientists are trying to create opioid painkillers that give relief from pain without triggering the euphoria, dependence and life-threatening respiratory suppression that causes deadly overdoses. That wasn't thought possible until 2000, when a scientist named Laura Bohn found out something about a protein called beta-arrestin, which sticks to the opioid receptor when something like morphine activates it. When she gave morphine to mice that couldn't make beta-arrestin, they were still numb to pain, but a lot of the negative side effects of the drug were missing. They didn't build tolerance to the drug. At certain dosages, they had less withdrawal. Their breathing was more regular, and they weren't as constipated as normal mice on morphine. Before that experiment, scientists thought the mu-opioid receptor was a simple switch that flicked all the effects of opioids on or off together. Now it seems they could be untied. © 2016 npr

Keyword: Pain & Touch; Drug Abuse
Link ID: 22569 - Posted: 08.18.2016

By Robin Wylie Scientists have been searching for a genetic explanation for athletic ability for decades. So far their efforts have focused largely on genes related to physical attributes, such as muscular function and aerobic efficiency. But geneticists have also started to investigate the neurologicalbasis behind what makes someone excel in sports—and new findings implicate dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for the feelings of reward and pleasure. Dopamine is also involved in a host of other mental functions, including the ability to deal with stress and endure pain. Consequently, the new research supports the idea that the mental—not just the physical—is what sets elite athletes above the rest. In an effort to piece together what makes a great athlete great, researchers at the University of Parma in Italy collected DNA from 50 elite athletes (ones who had achieved top scores at an Olympic Games or other international competition) and 100 nonprofessional athletes (ones who played sports regularly, but below competitive level). They then compared four genes across the two groups that had previously been suggested as linked to athletic ability: one related to muscle development, one involved with transporting dopamine in the brain, another that regulates levels of cerebral serotonin and one involved in breaking down neurotransmitters. The researchers found a significant genetic difference between the two groups in only one of the genes: the one involved in transporting dopamine. Two particular variants of this gene (called the dopamine active transporter, or DAT) were significantly more common among the elite athletes than in the control group. One variant was almost five times more prevalent in the elite group (occurring in 24 percent of the elites versus 5 percent of the rest); the other variant was approximately 1.7 times more prevalent (51 percent versus 30 percent). The results were published in Journal of Biosciences. © 2016 Scientific American

Keyword: Drug Abuse; Genes & Behavior
Link ID: 22566 - Posted: 08.17.2016

Neuroscientists peered into the brains of patients with Parkinson’s disease and two similar conditions to see how their neural responses changed over time. The study, funded by the NIH’s Parkinson’s Disease Biomarkers Program and published in Neurology, may provide a new tool for testing experimental medications aimed at alleviating symptoms and slowing the rate at which the diseases damage the brain. “If you know that in Parkinson’s disease the activity in a specific brain region is decreasing over the course of a year, it opens the door to evaluating a therapeutic to see if it can slow that reduction,” said senior author David Vaillancourt, Ph.D., a professor in the University of Florida’s Department of Applied Physiology and Kinesiology. “It provides a marker for evaluating how treatments alter the chronic changes in brain physiology caused by Parkinson’s.” Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder that destroys neurons in the brain that are essential for controlling movement. While many medications exist that lessen the consequences of this neuronal loss, none can prevent the destruction of those cells. Clinical trials for Parkinson’s disease have long relied on observing whether a therapy improves patients’ symptoms, but such studies reveal little about how the treatment affects the underlying progressive neurodegeneration. As a result, while there are treatments that improve symptoms, they become less effective as the neurodegeneration advances. The new study could remedy this issue by providing researchers with measurable targets, called biomarkers, to assess whether a drug slows or even stops the progression of the disease in the brain. “For decades, the field has been searching for an effective biomarker for Parkinson’s disease,” said Debra Babcock, M.D., Ph.D., program director at the NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).

Keyword: Parkinsons; Brain imaging
Link ID: 22562 - Posted: 08.16.2016