Chapter 11. Motor Control and Plasticity
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By NICHOLAS WADE After decades of disappointingly slow progress, researchers have taken a substantial step toward a possible treatment for Duchenne muscular dystrophy with the help of a powerful new gene-editing technique. Duchenne muscular dystrophy is a progressive muscle-wasting disease that affects boys, putting them in wheelchairs by age 10, followed by an early death from heart failure or breathing difficulties. The disease is caused by defects in a gene that encodes a protein called dystrophin, which is essential for proper muscle function. Because the disease is devastating and incurable, and common for a hereditary illness, it has long been a target for gene therapy, though without success. An alternative treatment, drugs based on chemicals known as antisense oligonucleotides, is in clinical trials. But gene therapy — the idea of curing a genetic disease by inserting the correct gene into damaged cells — is making a comeback. A new technique, known as Crispr-Cas9, lets researchers cut the DNA of chromosomes at selected sites to remove or insert segments. Three research groups, working independently of one another, reported in the journal Science on Thursday that they had used the Crispr-Cas9 technique to treat mice with a defective dystrophin gene. Each group loaded the DNA-cutting system onto a virus that infected the mice’s muscle cells, and excised from the gene a defective stretch of DNA known as an exon. Without the defective exon, the muscle cells made a shortened dystrophin protein that was nonetheless functional, giving all of the mice more strength. The teams were led by Charles A. Gersbach of Duke University, Eric N. Olson of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and Amy J. Wagers of Harvard University. © 2016 The New York Times Company
Tina Hesman Saey SAN DIEGO — Friendly ghosts help muscles heal after injury. Connective tissue sheaths that bundle muscle cells together leave behind hollow fibers when muscles are injured, Micah Webster of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Baltimore and colleagues discovered. Muscle-repairing stem cells build new tissue from inside those empty tunnels, known as ghost fibers, Webster reported December 13 at the annual meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology. Researchers previously knew that stem cells can heal muscle, but how stem cells integrate new cells into muscle fibers has been a mystery. Webster and colleagues used a special microscopy technique to watch stem cells in live mice as the cells fixed muscles damaged by snake venom. Stem cells from undamaged parts of the muscle fiber crawled back and forth through the ghostly part of the fibers and spaced themselves out evenly. Stem cells replicated themselves to reconstruct each muscle fiber inside its ghostly shell the researchers found. Stem cells didn’t move from one ghost fiber to another. The finding suggests that researchers will need to create artificial ghost fibers to repair injuries in which chunks of muscles are lost, such as in soldiers hit by explosives, Webster said. The researchers also reported the results online December 10 in Cell Stem Cell. M.T. Webster et al. Intravital imaging reveals ghost fibers as architectural units guiding muscle progenitors. Annual meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology, San Diego, December 13, 2015. M.T. Webster et al. Intravital imaging reveals ghost fibers as architectural units guiding myogenic progenitors during regeneration. Cell Stem Cell. Published online December 10, 2015. doi: 10.1016/j.stem.2015.11.005 © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2015
Link ID: 21704 - Posted: 12.16.2015
The clock is ticking for Ronald Cohn. He wants to use CRISPR gene editing to correct the genes of his friend’s 13-year-old son. The boy, Gavriel, has Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a genetic disease in which muscles degenerate. Breathing and heart problems often start by the time people with the condition are in their early twenties. Life expectancy is about 25 years. By the standards of science, the field of CRISPR gene editing is moving at a lightning fast pace. Although the technique was only invented a few years ago, it is already being used for research by thousands of labs worldwide to make extremely precise changes to DNA. A handful of people have already been treated using therapies enabled by the technology, and last week an international summit effectively endorsed the idea of gene editing embryos. It is too soon to try the technique out, but the summit concluded that basic research on embryos should be permitted, alongside a debate on how we should use the technology. But for people like Cohn, progress can’t come fast enough. Gavriel was diagnosed at age 4. He has already lost the use of his legs but still has some movement in his upper body, and uses a manual wheelchair. Cohn, a clinician at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, estimates that he has three years to develop and test a CRISPR-based treatment if he is to help Gavriel. Muscular dystrophy is caused by a faulty gene for the protein dystrophin, which holds our muscles together. Gavriel has a duplicated version of the gene. This week, Cohn’s team published a paper describing how they grew Gavriel’s cells in a dish and used CRISPR gene-editing techniques to snip out the duplication. With the duplication removed, his cells produced normal dystrophin protein. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
By Gretchen Reynolds Physical fitness may be critical for maintaining a relatively youthful and nimble brain as we age, according to a new study of brain activation patterns in older people. For most of us, our bodies begin to lose flexibility and efficiency as we enter our 40s. Running and other movements slow down and become more awkward, and something similar seems to occur within our heads. As middle age encroaches, our thinking becomes less efficient. We don’t toggle between mental tasks as nimbly as we once did or process new information with the same aplomb and clarity. Recently, neuroscientists have begun to quantify how those cognitive changes play out in our brains, to disquieting effect. In studies comparing brain activation in young people with that of people past 40, they have found notable differences, especially during mental tasks that require attention, problem solving, decision-making and other types of high-level thinking. Such thinking primarily involves activation of the brain’s prefrontal cortex. In young people, activation in the cortex during these cognitive tasks tends to be highly localized. Depending on the type of thinking, young people’s brains light up almost exclusively in either the right or left portion of the prefrontal cortex. But in older people, studies show, brain activity during the same mental tasks requires far more brainpower. They typically display activity in both hemispheres of their prefrontal cortex. In effect, they require more of their brains’ resources to complete the same tasks that young people do with less cognitive effort. Neuroscientists coined an acronym for this phenomenon: Harold, for hemispheric asymmetry reduction in older adults. Most agree that it represents a general reorganization and weakening of the brain’s function with age. © 2015 The New York Times Company
by Chris Samoray Every fall, blackpoll warblers fly from North America to South America in what’s the longest migration route of any warbler in the Western Hemisphere. But some of the tiny songbirds take a detour before making their epic transoceanic leap. Over 40 years of data from 22,295 birds show that blackpoll warblers (Setophaga striata) living in western North America head east for a pit stop to put on weight, giving the birds the energy stores they need to cross the Atlantic Ocean, researchers report December 9 in the Auk: Ornithological Advances. For birds that breed farther west in places like Alaska, the eastern stopover means a migration distance that’s nearly twice that of their eastern U.S. counterparts, the scientists find. © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2015.
Keyword: Animal Migration
Link ID: 21687 - Posted: 12.10.2015
By SINDYA N. BHANOO Moderate levels of exercise may increase the brain’s flexibility and improve learning, a new study suggests. The visual cortex, the part of the brain that processes visual information, loses the ability to “rewire” itself with age, making it more difficult for adults to recover from injuries and illness, said Claudia Lunghi, a neuroscientist at the University of Pisa and one of the study’s authors. In a study in the journal Current Biology, she and her colleagues asked 20 adults to watch a movie with one eye patched while relaxing in a chair. Later, the participants exercised on a stationary bike for 10-minute intervals while watching a movie. When one eye is patched, the visual cortex compensates for the limited input by increasing its activity level. Dr. Lunghi and her colleagues tested the imbalance in strength between the participants’ eyes after the movie — a measure of changeability in the visual cortex. © 2015 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 21681 - Posted: 12.08.2015
By Karen Weintraub Essential tremor is involuntary shaking – usually of the hands, but sometimes also of the neck, jaw, voice or legs. “Any fine tasks with the hands can be very difficult when the tremor is pronounced,” said Dr. Albert Hung, center director of the Massachusetts General Hospital National Parkinson Foundation Center of Excellence. Essential tremor can affect balance, walking, hearing and cognition, and can get worse over time, said Dr. Elan Louis, chief of the division of movement disorders at Yale School of Medicine. People with essential tremor run almost twice the risk of developing Alzheimer’s as the general population. Essential tremor appears with movement; if people let their hands sit still, they don’t tremble. That is the big difference between an essential tremor and the tremor of Parkinson’s disease, which can occur while at rest, Dr. Louis said. Essential tremor also tends to strike both hands while Parkinson’s is more one-sided at first, said Dr. Hung. The cause of essential tremor remains a mystery, though it seems to run in families. People of any age or sex can have the condition, though it is more common as people grow older. Roughly 4 percent of 40-year-olds have essential tremor, compared with about 20 percent of 90-year-olds, Dr. Louis said. Available treatments “aren’t great,” Dr. Louis said. Two medications – the beta blocker propranolol and the epilepsy drug primidone, sold under the brand name Mysoline – can reduce tremors by 10 to 30 percent, he said, but they work only in about half of patients. Deep brain stimulation – implanting electrodes into the brain to override faulty electrical signals – has been shown to markedly reduce hand tremor severity, he said. But the treatment can worsen cognitive and balance problems and “doesn’t cure the underlying disease. It merely and temporarily lessons a single symptom, which is the tremor.” © 2015 The New York Times Company
Keyword: Movement Disorders
Link ID: 21653 - Posted: 11.24.2015
By Gretchen Reynolds Sturdy legs could mean healthy brains, according to a new study of British twins. As I frequently have written in this column, exercise may cause robust improvements in brain health and slow age-related declines in memory and thinking. Study after study has shown correlations between physical activity, muscular health and mental acuity, even among people who are quite old. But these studies have limitations and one of them is that some people may be luckier than others. They may have been born to have a more robust brain than someone else. Their genes and early home environment might have influenced their brain health as much as or more than their exercise habits. Their genes and early home environment also might have influenced those exercise habits, as well as how their bodies and brains responded to exercise. In other words, genes and environment can seriously confound experimental results. That problem makes twins so valuable for scientific purposes. (Full disclosure, I am a twin, although not an identical one.) Twins typically share the same early home environment and many of the same genes, and if they are identical, all their genes are the same. So if one twin’s body, brain and thinking abilities begin to differ substantially over the years from their twin’s, the cause is less likely to be solely genetic or the early environment, and more likely to be attributable to lifestyle, including exercise habits. It was that possibility that recently prompted Claire Steves, a senior lecturer in twin research at King’s College London, to consider twins and their thighs. © 2015 The New York Times Company
Link ID: 21641 - Posted: 11.18.2015
Ewen Callaway Ringo, a golden retriever born in 2003 in a Brazilian kennel, was never expected to live long. Researchers bred him and his littermates to inherit a gene mutation that causes severe muscular dystrophy. They hoped that the puppies would provide insight into Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), an untreatable and ultimately fatal human disease caused by inactivation of the same gene. But Ringo’s muscles didn't waste away like his littermates', and researchers have now determined why: he was born with another mutation that seems to have protected him from the disease, according to a paper published in Cell1. Scientists hope that by studying Ringo’s mutation — which has never before been linked to muscular dystrophy — they can find new treatments for the disease. As many as 1 in 3,500 boys inherit mutations that produce a broken version of a protein called dystrophin, causing DMD. (The disease appears in boys because the dystrophin gene sits on the X chromosome, so girls must inherit two copies of the mutated gene to develop DMD.) The protein helps to hold muscle fibres together, and its absence disrupts the regenerative cycle that rebuilds muscle tissue. Eventually, fat and connective tissue replace muscle, and people with DMD often become reliant on a wheelchair before their teens. Few survive past their thirties. Some golden retriever females carry dystrophin mutations that cause a similar disease when passed onto male puppies. Dog breeders can prevent this through genetic screening. But Mayana Zatz, a geneticist at the University of São Paulo in Brazil, and her colleagues set out to breed puppies with the mutation to model the human disease. © 2015 Nature Publishing Group,
By Emily Underwood Researchers have found a way to increase how fast, and for how long, four paralyzed people can type using just their thoughts. The advance has to do with brain-machine interfaces (BCI), which are implanted in brain tissue and record hundreds of neurons firing as people imagine moving a computer cursor. The devices then use a computer algorithm to decode those signals and direct a real cursor toward words and letters on a computer screen. One of the biggest problems with BCIs is the brain itself: When the soft, squishy organ shifts in the skull, as it frequently does, it can displace the electrode implants. As a result, the movement signal extracted from neuronal firing is constantly being distorted, making it impossible for a patient to keep the cursor from drifting off course without a researcher recalibrating the instrument every 10 minutes or so. In the new study, part of a clinical trial of BCIs called BrainGate, researchers performed several software tweaks that allow the devices to self-correct in real time by calculating the writer’s intention based on the words they’ve already written. The devices can now also correct for neuronal background noise whenever a person stops typing. These improvements, demonstrated in the video above, allow BCI users to type faster and for longer periods of time, up to hours or days, the team reports today in Science Translational Medicine. Though the technology still needs to be miniaturized and wireless before it can be used outside of the lab, the new work is a big step towards BCIs that paralyzed people can use on their own at home, the scientists say. © 2015 American Association for the Advancement of Science
Link ID: 21626 - Posted: 11.12.2015
By Diana Kwon Six years before her husband was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a progressive neurodegenerative disorder marked by tremors and movement difficulties, Joy Milne detected a change in his scent. She later linked the subtle, musky odor to the disease when she joined the charity Parkinson’s UK and met others with the same, distinct smell. Being one of the most common age-related disorders, Parkinson’s affects an estimated seven million to 10 million people worldwide. Although there is currently no definitive diagnostic test, researchers hope that this newly found olfactory signature will lead help create one. Milne, a super-smeller from Perth, Scotland, wanted to share her ability with researchers. So when Tilo Kunath, a neuroscientist at the University of Edinburgh, gave a talk during a Parkinson’s UK event in 2012, she raised her hand during the Q&A session and claimed she was able to smell the disease. “I didn’t take her seriously at first,” Kunath says. “I said, ‘No, I never heard of that, next question please.’” But months later Kunath shared this anecdote with a colleague and received a surprising response. “She told me that that lady wasn’t wrong and that I should find her,” Kunath says. Once the researchers found Milne, they tested her claim by having her sniff 12 T-shirts: six that belonged to people with Parkinson’s and six from healthy individuals. Milne correctly identified 11 out of 12, but miscategorized one of the non-Parkinson’s T-shirts in the disease category. It turned out, however, she was not wrong at all—that person would be diagnosed with Parkinson’s less than a year later. © 2015 Scientific American
By Diana Kwon | In the human form of mad cow disease, called Creutzfeldt-Jakob, a person's brain deteriorates—literally developing holes that cause rapidly progressing dementia. The condition is fatal within one year in 90 percent of cases. The culprits behind the disease are prions—misfolded proteins that can induce normal proteins around them to also misfold and accumulate. Scientists have known that these self-propagating, pathological proteins cause some rare brain disorders, such as kuru in Papua New Guinea. But growing evidence suggests that prions are at play in many, if not all, neurodegenerative disorders, including Alzheimer's, Huntington's and Parkinson's, also marked by aggregations of malformed proteins. Until recently, there was no evidence that the abnormal proteins found in people who suffer from these well-known diseases could be transmitted directly from person to person. The tenor of that discussion suddenly changed this September when newly published research in the journal Nature provided the first hint such human-to-human transmission may be possible. (Scientific American is part of Springer Nature.) For the study, John Collinge, a neurologist at University College London, and his colleagues conducted autopsies on eight patients who died between the ages of 36 and 51 from Creutzfeldt-Jakob. All the subjects had acquired the disease after treatment with growth hormone later found to be contaminated with prions. The surprise came when the researchers discovered that six of the brains also bore telltale signs of Alzheimer's—in the form of clumps of beta-amyloid proteins, diagnostic for the disease—even though the patients should have been too young to exhibit such symptoms. © 2015 Scientific American,
By Hanae Armitage CHICAGO, ILLINOIS—Huntingtons disease, a neurological condition caused by brain-destroying mutant proteins, starts with mood swings and twitching and ends in dementia and death. The condition, which afflicts about 30,000 Americans, has no cure. But now, a new gene-editing method that many believe will lead to a Nobel Prize has been shown to effectively halt production of the defective proteins in mice, leading to hope that a potent therapy for Huntingtons is on the distant horizon. That new method is CRISPR, which uses RNA-guided enzymes to snip out or add segments of DNA to a cell. In the first time it has been applied to Huntingtons disease, CRISPR’s results are “remarkably encouraging,” says neuroscientist Nicole Déglon of the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, who led the mouse study, results of which she and her co-researcher Nicolas Merienne shared yesterday at the Society for Neuroscience Conference in Chicago, Illinois. As neurological diseases go, Huntingtons is an ideal candidate for CRISPR therapy, because the disease is determined by a single gene, Déglon notes. A mutation in the gene, which codes for a normally helpful brain protein called huntingtin, consists of different numbers of “tandem repeats,” repeating segments of DNA that cause the protein to fold into a shape that is toxic to the brain. Déglon and her team wondered whether CRISPR could halt production of this dangerous molecule. Using a virus as a delivery vehicle, the researchers infected two separate groups of healthy adult mice with a mutant huntingtin gene, but only one group received the therapy: a CRISPR “cassette,” which includes DNA for the gene-editing enzyme Cas9 and the RNA to target the huntingtin gene. © 2015 American Association for the Advancement of Science
Link ID: 21538 - Posted: 10.21.2015
Alan Hoffman says nilotinib has changed his life. Just weeks after he started taking the drug in a clinical trial, he began to feel himself recovering from his Parkinson’s disease. The retired professor of social science first started to show the signs of Parkinson’s in 1997. Over the years, his symptoms worsened. “I couldn’t get out of bed without my wife,” Hoffman says. Once a prolific reader, devouring four or five books a week, Hoffman found himself unable to keep his attention on even a short magazine article. His body became increasingly rigid, and he started to lose his sense of balance. “I fell a lot,” he says. And it affected his social life. The disorder was such a struggle, Hoffman says he considered taking his own life. He tried a range of medications, which eased his symptoms to varying degrees. In 2008, he had surgery to implant an electrode into his brain. The deep brain stimulation that followed helped with the rigidity, he says. But deep brain stimulation doesn’t offer a cure – the brain cells continue to die. So Hoffman agreed to join a six-month clinical trial of nilotinib – a drug typically used to treat leukaemia. Nilotinib blocks a protein that interferes with lysosomes – cell structures that destroy harmful proteins. Researchers behind the trial think that nilotinib can free up lysosomes to do a better job of clearing out proteins associated with Parkinson’s disease. (For a full report on the effect of the drug see “People with Parkinson’s walk again after promising drug trial”.) © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Link ID: 21537 - Posted: 10.21.2015
An expensive cancer drug may reverse late-stage Parkinson’s disease, enabling participants in a small clinical trial to speak and walk again for the first time in years. While there are several treatments for the symptoms of Parkinson’s, if confirmed this would be the first time a drug has worked on the causes of the disease. “We’ve seen patients at end stages of the disease coming back to life,” says Charbel Moussa of Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington DC, who led the trial. The drug, called nilotinib, works by boosting the brain’s own “garbage disposal system” to clear proteins that accumulate in the brains of people with Parkinson’s disease, says Moussa. These proteins are thought to trigger the death of brain cells that make molecules like dopamine that are needed for movement and other functions. Nilotinib is already approved to treat cancer – it blocks a protein that drives chronic myeloid leukaemia. It also blocks another protein that interferes with lysosomes – cell structures that destroy harmful proteins. Moussa thinks that nilotinib can free up lysosomes to do a better job of clearing out proteins associated with Parkinson’s disease. Tests in animals showed promise, so Moussa, his colleague Fernando Pagan and their team set up a small trial of 12 volunteers with Parkinson’s disease or a similar condition called dementia with Lewy bodies. The trial was designed to test only the safety of the oral drug, which was given as a daily dose for six months. © Copyright Reed Business Information Ltd.
Link ID: 21528 - Posted: 10.20.2015
Three teams of scientists supported by the National Institutes of Health showed that a genetic mutation linked to some forms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and frontotemporal degeneration (FTD) may destroy neurons by disrupting the movement of materials in and out of the cell’s nucleus, or command center where most of its DNA is stored. The results, published in the journals Nature and NatureNeuroscience, provide a possible strategy for treating the two diseases. “This research shines a spotlight on the role of nuclear transport in the health of neurons,” said Amelie Gubitz, Ph.D., program director at the NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). “The results provide new insights into how this mutation derails an essential process in neurons and opens new avenues for therapy development.” Both ALS and FTD are caused by the death of specific neurons. In ALS, this leads to movement difficulties and eventually paralysis, while in FTD, patients experience problems with language and decision making. Past research has connected a specific mutation in the C9orf72 gene to 40 percent of inherited ALS cases and 25 percent of inherited FTD cases, as well as nearly 10 percent of non-inherited cases of each disorder. The recent experiments, conducted in yeast, fruit flies, and neurons from patients, found that the mutation prevents proteins and genetic material called RNA from moving between the nucleus and the cytoplasm that surrounds it. “At the end of the day, this culminates in a defect in the flow of genetic information, which leads to problems expressing genes in the right place at the right time,” said J. Paul Taylor, M.D., Ph.D., a researcher at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, and the senior author of one of the papers.
Keyword: ALS-Lou Gehrig's Disease
Link ID: 21524 - Posted: 10.17.2015
By Gretchen Reynolds Can a shot of salt water make you a faster runner? The answer appears to be a resounding yes, if you believe that the salt water contains something that should make you a faster runner, according to a new study of the power of placebos in athletic performance. Anyone who exercises knows from experience that our minds and mental attitudes affect physical performance. Who hasn’t faced a moment when, tiring at the end of a strenuous workout or race, we are about to quit before suddenly being passed on the path or shown up in the gym by someone we know we should outperform, and somehow we find an extra, unexploited gear and spurt on? This phenomenon is familiar to physiologists, many of whom believe that our brains, in order to protect our bodies, send out signals telling those bodies to quit before every single resource in our muscles and other tissues is exhausted. We think we are at the outer limits of our endurance or strength, when, in reality, we may still have a physical reserve available to us, if we can find a way to tap it. Past studies have shown that lying to people is one way to exploit that reserve. Telling athletes that they are moving slower than in fact they are, for instance, often results in their speeding up past the pace that they thought they could maintain. Or give them a sugar pill that they think contains caffeine or steroids and they will run more swiftly or lift more weight than before. But none of these studies tested the effects of placebos and deception in relatively real-world competitive situations, which have their own effects on mental responses. People are almost always faster during competitive races than in training, studies show, even when they are trying to replicate race pace. © 2015 The New York Times Company
Keyword: Pain & Touch
Link ID: 21509 - Posted: 10.14.2015
Laura Sanders Scribes usually have pretty good handwriting. That’s not the case for one prolific 13th century writer known to scholars only as the Tremulous Hand of Worcester. Now scientists suggest the writer suffered from a neurological condition called essential tremor. Neurologist Jane Alty and historical handwriting researcher Deborah Thorpe, both of the University of York in England, made the retrospective diagnosis August 31 in Brain after studying the spidery wiggles that pervade the scribe’s writing. Essential tremor can cause shaking of the hands, head and voice and is distinct from other tremor-causing conditions such as Parkinson’s disease. Here, the anonymous writer’s peculiar script is evident (lighter portion of text) in an early Middle English version of the Nicene Creed, a summary of the Christian faith. Buried in the manuscript are clues that helped the researchers conclude that essential tremor plagued the Tremulous Hand. The Tremulous Hand of Worcester’s writing appeared in more than 20 books, including the Nicene Creed, a summary of the Christian faith. The writer’s distinctive script is the lighter portion of the text, about a third of the way down the page. Several clues led researchers to diagnose the scribe with essential tremor (see following images). © Society for Science & the Public 2000 - 2015.
Keyword: Movement Disorders
Link ID: 21482 - Posted: 10.07.2015
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.