Discoveries
Neuroscience
Neuroscience
New technologies are allowing us to explore the brain as never before. We are entering a new era in neuroscience where our knowledge of the brain is beginning to match the urgent need to prevent and treat diseases of the brain.

Portraits of the Mind

Heady science paints a picture of how the brain works
Nature
10/21/2015

Targeting mutant proteins might be silver bullet for neurodegenerative diseases

Scientists have unraveled how mutant molecules damage the nervous system of people with Charcot-Marie-Tooth (CMT) disease, a group of disorders that hinder people’s ability to move and feel sensation in their hands and feet, according to a paper co-led by Samuel Pfaff. The team used a range of neurogenetic, gene therapy, biochemical and structural biology research techniques to discover that the mutant GlyRS enzyme blocked molecular signals important for maintaining the health of motor neurons. The findings suggest a possible avenue for developing new therapies for CMT.

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MOLECULAR PSYCHIATRY
10/27/2015

Making serotonin transmitting neurons in a dish

A team led by Rusty Gage has taken human skin cells and turned them into neurons that signal to one another using serotonin, a brain chemical crucial to mental wellbeing. Although serotonin neurons comprise only a small fraction of the brain’s cells, these neurons are tied to debilitating disorders such as major depression, schizophrenia and autism. Depression is commonly treated using selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, which heighten serotonin signaling in the small gaps between neighboring neurons. The new method of generating serotonintransmitting neurons gives researchers a lens with which to study neurotransmitter mechanisms and how they may go awry in mental illness.

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Nature
10/28/2015

Bipolar patients’ brain cells predict response to lithium

The brain cells of patients with bipolar disorder, characterized by severe swings between depression and elation, are more sensitive to stimuli than other people’s brain cells, as revealed by Rusty Gage’s lab. The discovery is among the first to show at a cellular level how the disorder affects the brain. The study found that cells from lithium responder patients showed weakened excitability after growing in the lithium while cells from patients who hadn’t been helped by the drug remained hyperexcitable. The findings don’t yet explain why lithium works for some patients and not others, but offer a starting point to better study bipolar disorder.

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Science
10/30/2015

Why brushing movements on our hairy skin make us scratch

Martyn Goulding and collaborators were able to show that the spinal neurons involved in the tingling sensation caused by a light touch are different from those transmitting pain. This is the first study that reveals the presence of a dedicated neural pathway for this particular sensation in the spinal cord. The new results lend insights into potential mechanisms of chronic itch, which can be caused by eczema, diabetic neuropathy, multiple sclerosis and certain types of cancers. It may also help explain why some people affected by itch are unresponsive to antihistamine drugs.

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Aging
11/12/2015

Experimental drug targeting Alzheimer’s disease shows antiaging effects

David Schubert’s lab found that an experimental drug candidate aimed at combating Alzheimer’s disease has a host of unexpected anti-aging effects in animals. His team expanded upon their previous development of a drug candidate, called J147, showing that it worked well in a mouse model of aging not typically used in Alzheimer’s research. When these mice were treated with J147, they had better memory and cognition, healthier blood vessels in the brain and other improved physiological features.

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Science
12/18/2015

Loss of tiny genetic molecules could play role in neurodegenerative diseases

A tiny sliver of DNA—several thousand times smaller than a typical gene—produces a molecule that has crucial influence over whether people have control over their muscles. Samuel Pfaff and colleagues report that animals unable to produce just one type of many genetic molecules called microRNAs develop symptoms of devastating neurodegenerative diseases like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease) and spinal muscular atrophy (SMA). The findings upend previous understanding of the role of microRNAs in the nervous system and may open a door to new avenues for treating neurodegenerative disorders.

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CELL REPORTS
01/14/2016

Autism-linked protein lays groundwork for healthy brain

A gene linked to mental disorders helps lay the foundation for a crucial brain structure, according to research from Dennis O’Leary’s lab. Researchers found that when the gene MDGA1 is disabled in early development, the neuron precursors in the cerebral cortex migrated to the wrong places in the brain and, without MDGA1, the cerebral cortex loses about half its neurons. These new results suggest that mutations in MDGA1 while the cortex is developing could produce snowball effects leading to the development of brain disorders.

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