Psilocybin may effectively treat addiction


She watched herself from the corner. She saw herself pull a pack of cigarettes from the pocket of her favorite red coat. As she lit the cigarette, she watched as the smoking silhouette broke like shattered glass. She saw a thousand versions of herself staring back at her, inhaling and exhaling cigarette smoke. In that moment, she realized that smoking just one cigarette was committing to smoking a thousand more. When the psilocybin-induced trip subsided, she vowed to never smoke again.

This is just one experience amongst participants in a clinical study at Johns Hopkins University. Researchers conducting the study planned to determine if psilocybin, a substance that induces hallucinations, could help smokers break the habit (1). 

Long before they turned their sights to addiction, the research team wondered if psilocybin could provide meaningful, spiritual experiences. In 2006, the team published that under expert supervision, psilocybin-induced mystical experiences could have long-term positive effects. Eighty percent of participants reported increased well-being two months after the study completed (2). 

“I think [that psilocybin] has an ability to change behavior in the long-term and allow people to see things through a new lens,” said Matthew Johnson, a psychiatric researcher at the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins University. “It seems that the models that people have used to define how they behave in the world can be changed.”

Studies from the 1950s and 1960s indicated that psychedelic drugs such as lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and psilocybin were promising candidates for addiction treatment, but further study was halted in the United States when the Controlled Substances Act was passed in 1970. The act classified psychedelic substances as schedule one substances, meaning that they were considered high risk for abuse and lacked any accepted medical applications. But after the Johns Hopkins study in 2006, psychedelics research entered a renaissance. 

In 2009, Johnson and his colleagues recruited fifteen smokers to participate in a fifteen-week trial to test if psilocybin could help smokers quit (1). Participants went through a month of preparation, where a psychiatric researcher developed a strong working relationship with the participant so that they became comfortable sharing formative and difficult life experiences. They employed cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to get a sense of the relationship between a participant and their smoking habit, why they want to stop, and any roadblocks preventing them from quitting. 

“They also keep a smoking diary, which is used as a tool to start contemplating the situations that prompt their smoking and the effect it has on them. It raises their awareness around the role that smoking plays in their life, and we can work out methods to replace smoking with alternate activities,” said Johnson.

After the initial CBT sessions, participants had three, seven-hour, medically supervised psilocybin-induced experiences spaced out over several weeks. The participants continued CBT every week before and after their experiences with psilocybin. More than 60% of the participants were non-smokers a year later (3).

Johnson and his team later reviewed the psilocybin-induced experiences the patients had to look for any commonalities (4). While the CBT employed beforehand seemed to influence their hallucinations to center around smoking, others had more general mystical experiences like those observed in the initial 2006 study conducted at Johns Hopkins University. Whether or not the hallucinations directly addressed the participant’s smoking habit, however, did not impact smoking cessation.

“We’ve had a lot of experiences where people have spiritual or unitive type qualitative features in their experiences,” said Albert Garcia-Romeu, a psychiatric researcher at the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins University, who also contributed to this study. “Those people are also having very positive effects, even in the absence of any kind of narrative, image, or memory related to smoking. That’s consistent with biological changes we’re seeing in the brain and the way that the brain is working, not only when people are under the influence of the drug.”

Alex Kwan, a neuroscientist from Yale University who was not involved in the smoking trials, recently reported that psilocybin “rewired” neurons in mouse brains within 24 hours of taking the drug, and these changes persisted for a month (5). Researchers previously hypothesized that psilocybin’s effects are mediated by serotonin, a hormone that regulates mood. Serotonin helps send messages between neurons through spine like extensions called synapses. 

Kwan found significantly increased growth in dendritic spines, which receive messages from synapses, after exposure to psylocibin. Researchers imaged the mouse brains every day for a month, and found that spine density and length increased by about 5% in just 24 hours, and capped out at about 10% increase over the course of two weeks. This increased growth persisted 34 days after the initial treatment with psilocybin.

“In addition to the immediate effect on the brain, maybe [psilocybin] changes the plasticity in the brain, which means it can change the brain’s architecture and function in a way that then sustains and mediates prolonged changes in behavior,” said Kwan. “This is strong evidence that this drug can promote plasticity in the brain.”

Psilocybin isn’t the only psychedelic shown to change neuroplasticity. 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), commonly known as ecstasy, also enhances synaptic growth. The pharmaceutical company Awakn is using MDMA and derivatives they are developing in house to treat addictions to alcohol, opioids, and tobacco. 

David Nutt, chief research officer of Awakn, said that since MDMA doesn’t have the same intense, hallucinatory effect that psilocybin does, psychotherapy can be conducted while the person experiences the drug’s effect.

“That’s what makes MDMA rather different and interesting because when the brain is more malleable and most receptive, you can actually begin to get the person to engage in and think differently,” said Nutt. “It could be that MDMA turns out to be better than [psilocybin] in therapy because it actually allows you better engage with the therapist.”

Overall, Nutt thinks that psychedelics have the potential to treat the true cause of addiction: thinking patterns.

“Addiction has many different roots, but a single trunk. Cutting off one root isn’t going to cure the problem. You’ve got to cut the tree down. This approach of disrupting the kind of core phenomenology is not only novel, but it might also be better,” said Nutt.


  1. Johnson, M.W. et al. Pilot study of the 5HT2AR agonist psilocybin in the treatment of tobacco addiction. J. Psychopharmacol., 28, 983-982 (2014).
  2. Griffiths, R.R. et al. Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance. Psychopharmacology (2006).
  3. Johnson, M.W. et al. Long-term follow-up of psilocybin-facilitated smoking cessation. Am. J. Drug Alcohol Abuse43, 55-60 (2017).
  4. Noorani, N. et al, Psychedelic therapy for smoking cessation: Qualitative analysis of participant accounts. J. Psychopharmacol., 32, 756-769 (2018).  
  5. Shao, L-X. et al. Psilocybin induces rapid and persistent growth of dendritic spines in frontal cortex in vivo109, 2535-2544 (2021).

Giant Study Finds Viagra Is Linked to Almost 70% Lower Risk of Alzheimer’s


Usage of the medication sildenafil – better known to most as the brand-name drug Viagra – is associated with dramatically reduced incidence of Alzheimer’s disease, new research suggests.

According to a study led by researchers at the Cleveland Clinic, taking sildenafil is tied to a nearly 70 percent lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s compared to non-users.

That’s based on an analysis of health insurance claim data from over 7.2 million people, in which records showed that claimants who took the medication were much less likely to develop Alzheimer’s over the next six years of follow up, compared to matched control patients who didn’t use sildenafil.

It’s important to note that observed associations like this – even on a huge scale – are not the same as proof of a causative effect. For example, it’s possible that the people in the cohort who took sildenafil might have something else to thank for their improved chances of not developing Alzheimer’s.

Nonetheless, the researchers say the correlation shown here – in addition to other indicators in the study – is enough to identify sildenafil as a promising candidate drug for Alzheimer’s disease, the viability of which can be explored in future randomized clinical trials designed to test whether causality does indeed exist.

“Notably, we found that sildenafil use reduced the likelihood of Alzheimer’s in individuals with coronary artery disease, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes, all of which are comorbidities significantly associated with risk of the disease, as well as in those without,” explains computational biologist and senior author of the study, Feixiong Cheng from the Cleveland Clinic.

It’s not the first time sildenafil use has been linked with better health outcomes, with the drug previously showing promise in a range of different scientific contexts, including cancer and malaria research among others.

Here, Cheng’s team began by building over a dozen endophenotype modules, using computational techniques to map genetic factors that could hypothetically govern the manifestation of Alzheimer’s disease.

With 13 of these modules in hand, the researchers then looked at what kinds of FDA-approved drugs might hypothetically help against the identified phenotypes.

Out of over 1,600 such medications already approved by the FDA, sildenafil turned out to be one of the most promising candidates.

That might sound baffling – given the drug is so far used in the main only for treating erectile dysfunction and pulmonary hypertension – in the research community, there were already signs the sildenafil compound might have other kinds of health benefits, given its interactions with the amyloid and tau proteins implicated in Alzheimer’s pathology.

“Recent studies show that the interplay between amyloid and tau is a greater contributor to Alzheimer’s than either by itself,” Cheng says.

“We hypothesized that drugs targeting the molecular network intersection of amyloid and tau endophenotypes should have the greatest potential for success… Sildenafil, which has been shown to significantly improve cognition and memory in preclinical models, presented as the best drug candidate.”

The hypothesis appears to be borne out by the health insurance data, with the team finding sildenafil users had a 69 percent reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease compared to non-users – a reduction that was notably stronger than other kinds of medications also investigated in the study, including losartan, metformin, diltiazem, and glimepiride.

Of course, the researchers emphasize that none of this establishes causality, but on that front there may be other promising leads.

In separate experiments studying human brain cells in vitro to explore how sildenafil might confer protection against Alzheimer’s cognitive decline, the researchers observed that neurons treated with the drug showed elevated growth and reduced tau accumulation.

It’s early days, but those effects could well have something to do with the reduced chances of developing Alzheimer’s in the insurance cohort. To that end, it’s important to follow these leads further, the team says.

“We are now planning a mechanistic trial and a phase II randomized clinical trial to test causality and confirm sildenafil’s clinical benefits for Alzheimer’s patients,” Cheng says.

“We also foresee our approach being applied to other neurodegenerative diseases, including Parkinson’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, to accelerate the drug discovery process.”

The findings are reported in Nature Aging.

Taking new aim at COVID-19

The coronavirus’s tangled strands of RNA could offer new ways to treat people who get infected.

To the untrained eye, the loops, kinks and folds in the single strand of RNA that makes up the coronavirus genome look like a jumble of spaghetti or tangled yarn. But to researchers like Amanda Hargrove, a chemistry professor at Duke University, the complex shapes that RNA takes on as it folds upon itself could have untapped therapeutic potential in the fight against COVID-19.

In a study to appear Nov. 26 in the journal Science Advances, Hargrove and colleagues have identified chemical compounds that can latch onto these 3D structures and block the virus’s ability to replicate.

“These are the first molecules with antiviral activity that target the virus’s RNA specifically, so it’s a totally new mechanism in that sense,” Hargrove said.

Even more than 18 months into the pandemic, that’s good news. We have vaccines to prevent COVID-19, but effective, easy-to-administer drugs to help people survive and recover once they’ve been infected remain limited.

The virus is receding in some parts of the world, but cases are still surging in others where vaccines are in short supply. And even in regions with easy access to vaccines, COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy means many of the world’s eight billion people remain vulnerable to infection.

To infect your cells, the coronavirus must break in, deliver its genetic instructions in the form of RNA, and hijack the body’s molecular machinery to build new copies of itself. The infected cell becomes a virus factory, reading the 30,000 nucleotide “letters” of the virus’s genetic code and churning out the proteins the virus needs to replicate and spread.

Most antivirals — including remdesivir, molnupiravir and Paxlovid, the only antiviral drugs for COVID-19 that have been FDA-approved or are in line for approval — work by binding to these proteins. But Hargrove and colleagues are taking a different approach. They’ve identified the first molecules that take aim at the viral genome itself — and not just the linear sequence of A’s, C’s, G’s and U’s, but the complex three-dimensional structures the RNA strand folds into.

When the first terrifying hints of the pandemic started to make headlines, the team including Hargrove, Blanton Tolbert from Case Western Reserve University and Gary Brewer and Mei-Ling Li from Rutgers were already investigating potential drug candidates to fight another RNA virus — Enterovirus 71, a common cause of hand, foot and mouth disease in children.

They had identified a class of small molecules called amilorides that can bind to hairpin-like folds in the virus’s genetic material and throw a wrench in the virus’s replication.

To see if the same compounds could work against coronaviruses too, first they tested 23 amiloride-based molecules against another, far less deadly coronavirus responsible for many common colds. They identified three compounds that, when added to infected monkey cells, reduced the amount of virus within 24 hours of infection without causing collateral damage to their host cells. They also showed greater effects at higher doses. The researchers got similar results when they tested the molecules on cells infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Further work showed that the molecules stopped the virus from building up by binding to a site in the first 800 letters of the viral genome. Most of this stretch of RNA doesn’t code for proteins itself but drives their production.

The region folds in on itself to form multiple bulges and hairpin-like structures. Using computer modeling and a technique called nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, the researchers were able to analyze these 3D RNA structures and pinpoint where the chemical compounds were binding.

The researchers are still trying to figure out exactly how these compounds stop the virus from multiplying, once they’re bound to its genome.

When it comes to using RNA as a drug target, Hargrove says the field is still in its early stages. Part of the reason is that RNA structures are unstable. They bounce around a lot more than their protein counterparts, which makes it hard to design molecules that can interact with them in specific ways.

“The binding pocket that you’re looking for may not even be present most of the time,” Hargrove said.

What’s more, 85% of the RNA in an infected cell doesn’t belong to the virus, but to the ribosomes — cellular particles made of RNA and protein — of its human host. “There’s a sea of competition,” Hargrove said.

But Hargrove is hopeful. The first small-molecule drug that works by binding to non-ribosomal RNA directly, rather than proteins, was just approved by the FDA last August, to treat people with a devastating disease called spinal muscular atrophy. “So while there are lots of challenges, it’s not impossible,” Hargrove said.

The researchers have a patent pending on their method. They want to modify the compounds to make them more potent, and then test them in mice “to see if this could be a viable drug candidate,” Hargrove said.

This isn’t the first time that coronaviruses have caused an outbreak, and it likely won’t be the last, the researchers say. In the last two decades, the same family of viruses was responsible for SARS, which emerged in China and spread to more than two dozen countries in 2002, and MERS, first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012.

The researchers determined that the loops and bulges of RNA they identified have remained essentially unchanged by evolution across related coronaviruses in bats, rats and humans, including the ones that caused the SARS and MERS outbreaks. That means their method might be able to fight more than just SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

Clearly, more antivirals would be valuable weapons to have, so when the next pandemic hits we’ll be better prepared. Having more drugs on hand would have another benefit: fighting resistance. Viruses mutate over time. Being able to combine drugs with different mechanisms of action would make it less likely that the virus could develop resistance to all of them simultaneously and become impossible to treat, Hargrove said.

“This is a new way to think about antivirals for RNA viruses,” Hargrove said.


The researchers collaborated across seven institutions for this study, including Rutgers University, Case Western Reserve University, Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, University of Glasgow and the University of Michigan.

This research was supported by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (R35GM124785, GM126833), Tobacco Settlement Fund (21-5734-0010), Medical Research Council of the United Kingdom (MC_UU_12014/12), and Duke University.

CITATION: “Amilorides Inhibit SARS-CoV-2 Replication in vitro by Targeting RNA Structures,” Martina Zafferani, Christina Haddad, Le Luo, Jesse Davila-Calderon, Liang Yuan-Chiu, Christian Shema Mugisha, Adeline Monaghan, Andrew Kennedy, Joseph Yesselman, Robert Gifford, Andrew Tai, Sebla Kutluay, Mei-Ling Li, Gary Brewer, Blanton Tolbert, Amanda Hargrove. Science Advances, Nov. 26, 2021. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abl6096


Science Advances



Alzheimer’s nasal vaccine to enter human trials for the first time, spurring renewed hope for preventing the disease

An Alzheimer's Nasal Spray Vaccine Is About to Enter Human Trials For The  First Time - The Worldzz News

by Aria Bendix

Wed, November 24, 2021, 3:08 PM

Alzheimer’s treatments seemed like an unlikely prospect just months ago.

Drug trials tried and failed for 20 years to produce treatments that would stop the progression of the disease, and several large pharmaceutical companies abandoned the mission of developing Alzheimer’s treatments altogether. So patients’ only hopes of improvement were drugs that lessened Alzheimer’s symptoms — such as memory loss, insomnia, and loss of language or reasoning skills — for a limited time.

Now, the field of Alzheimer’s treatments may finally be opening up.

Last week, Brigham and Women’s Hospital announced it would spearhead the first human trial of a nasal vaccine for Alzheimer’s, designed to prevent or slow the disease’s progression.

The trial is small — 16 people between ages 60 and 85 with Alzheimer’s symptoms will receive two doses of the vaccine one week apart. But it builds on decades of research suggesting that stimulating the immune system can help clear out beta-amyloid plaques in the brain. The sticky plaques are a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. They form when pieces of the beta-amyloid protein accumulate between nerve cells, which could disrupt a person’s ability to think or recall information.

The vaccine sprays a drug called Protollin directly into the nasal passage, with the goal of activating immune cells to remove the plaque.

The concept isn’t entirely new, but it’s particularly promising now that scientists better understand how to treat the disease, Jeffrey Cummings, a brain-science professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, told Insider.

“The idea of activating immune cells is becoming more and more central to the idea of treating Alzheimer’s disease,” Cummings said. He added that a nasal spray could be better at delivering Protollin to immune cells than an infusion or inhaler.

The trial results could tell us more about how to thwart the disease’s progression, since participants must be at an early stage in their illness and otherwise in good health. Before the nasal vaccine can advance to larger trials, though, researchers must demonstrate that it’s safe and determine which dose to give.

The nasal-vaccine trial comes during a prolific year for Alzheimer’s treatments.

In June, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first new Alzheimer’s drug in nearly 20 years, an antibody infusion called Aduhelm. But that approval quickly became controversial: Many scientists questioned whether the drug warranted the FDA’s green light, since it didn’t definitively improve memory or cognition in clinical trials.

Aduhelm was shown to lower the levels of sticky plaque on the brains of Alzheimer’s patients, but an FDA advisory committee determined that there wasn’t enough evidence to confirm it worked as a treatment. Part of the skepticism stemmed from the fact that the drug’s maker, Biogen, discontinued late-stage clinical trials in 2019, as it assumed the drug would fail. Then, roughly six months later, a small group of participants started to show positive results.

“Biogen stopped the trial thinking that it was futile, then followed the patients, and it turned out not to be futile — but, of course, that created a lot of controversy in the interpretation of the data,” Cummings said.

The FDA voted to approve the drug under a special accelerated pathway, which green-lights drugs that are likely to benefit patients even when there’s uncertainty about how well they work.

As many as 5.8 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s — a leading cause of death among US adults. Nearly 122,000 Americans died of the disease in 2019, according to the latest available data.

Alzheimer’s deaths are also becoming more frequent as more Americans reach old age. From 1999 to 2019, the US mortality rate for Alzheimer’s rose 88% — from 16 deaths per 100,000 people to 30 deaths per 100,000 people. That death rate may be an underestimate, since people with cognitive decline sometimes have difficulty seeking an Alzheimer’s diagnosis or suffer from other health conditions.

But in the past five years or so, Cummings said, new technologies such as brain scans and blood tests have made it easier to confirm Alzheimer’s diagnoses and measure how well treatments are working.

“It just feels like we have turned a corner,” Cummings said.

In addition to Aduhelm, he said, a few other antibody drugs have shown promise. The pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly plans to submit data for its Alzheimer’s drug, donanemab, to the FDA by the end of the year, which puts it on track for approval in 2022. Two more companies, Biogen and Eisai, are jointly completing an FDA application for their antibody drug, lecanemab.

“These other drugs that are very like” Aduhelm appear to produce a “clinical benefit,” Cummings said.

He added: “That’s the key: Are patients better, or at least losing their cognitive capacity less rapidly, if they are treated? That seems to be true across this whole class of drugs.”

Read the original article on Business Insider

University Hospital Cleveland Medical Center Doctors Successfully Reattach Woman’s Nearly Severed Leg

n August 2020, Caroline Rarick, 18, experienced a horrific trauma. Celebrating the summer with her volleyball team on Lake Roaming Rock in Roaming Shores, Ohio, Caroline enjoyed the day jet skiing and tubing. Toward the end of the afternoon, her friend took off on the jet ski as Caroline stood on the back. A tubing rope got caught around Caroline’s right leg, just below the knee. She was yanked into the water and pulled by her leg for a short distance. After her friend stopped the jet ski, Caroline looked down and saw bone with muscle hanging from her leg.

“When I first saw it I was extremely scared,” said Caroline. “I remember seeing my bone, but I think I was in shock and didn’t completely comprehend what was going on. I didn’t feel any pain initially, but I saw the injury and I knew it was bad.”

“In case I pass out, hold me up!” Caroline told her friend as she bobbed in the water, thankfully wearing a life vest. The pair flagged down another jet skier who pulled Caroline onto his jet ski. None of them had cell phones with them on the water. As they drove toward shore, Caroline’s friend recognized a boat passing by. She knew the owner – a doctor.

They got to the boat and discovered two doctors on board – one pediatrician and one anesthesiologist. They transferred Caroline to the boat, applied a tourniquet and called 911. The doctors detected a slight pulse in Caroline’s leg, but it was growing faint because of so much bleeding.

Fighting To Save Her Leg

An ambulance arrived and rushed Caroline to UH Geauga Medical Center, about 30 miles away. That’s where Caroline’s parents met her. “The color in her leg was gone, it looked dead,” her mother Jennifer said. It was decided Caroline would be transported to UH Cleveland Medical Center, where a trauma team was already assembling. When she arrived, the the trauma team confirmed her artery was completely severed and her tibia suffered a fracture as well.

“Caroline’s injury was extremely severe. Nearly all of the tissue and muscle were pulled from her bone, called a degloving injury,” said vascular surgeon Vikram Kashyap, MD, Division Chief, Vascular Surgery, UH Harrington Heart & Vascular Institute; Alan H. Markowitz, MD Chair for Cardiac and Vascular Surgery. “She had lost a lot of blood, there was no pulse below the injury, and she could barely move her foot indicating either nerve damage or severe ischemia. The injury was severe enough that we were even considering amputation as the best course of action.”

Her team of vascular, orthopedic and plastic surgeons headed into the operating room at 10 p.m., five hours after the initial accident. “Heading into the procedure I was really scared, because I finally understood how serious it was. I was terrified I was going to wake up without a leg. I asked my dad if I was going to lose my leg and he didn’t know what to say. There was a pause and that’s when Dr. Kashyap said, ’We’re not scheduled for an amputation tonight.’ That calmed my nerves,” Caroline said.

During the initial operation, Dr. Kashyap and his team explored the wound, and performed a bypass of the severed artery in the right leg using a vein from the mid-thigh of her left leg. They released the fascia (thin casing of connective tissue) in the lower leg muscle compartments to relieve pressure. Then, pediatric plastic surgery specialist Edward Davidson, MD and the plastic surgery team performed a debridement (removal of damaged tissue or foreign objects from a wound) with coverage of the bypass.

The color returned in Caroline’s leg and her pulse strengthened. Even though the initial operation appeared successful, the odds were against Caroline returning to normal function.

The Long Road to Recovery

Caroline was in the trauma intensive care unit for four days. She was released from the hospital after 12 days. But she faced a long road to normalcy: multiple debridements, fasciotomy, a wound vac, a skin graft, she fought an infection and faced several more surgeries along the way. Her leg atrophied and most of her remaining muscle disappeared.

For months, Caroline worked with determination and dedication during physical therapy and at-home exercises. Over time, she built strength and graduated from a wheelchair to crutches and was walking independently by Christmas. In April 2021, she was cleared to attempt jogging.

Caroline missed her senior year of volleyball at Gilmour Academy, but she never lost her positivity. “Everyone always asks me how I’ve remained so positive. Honestly, when I woke up from the initial surgery and I still had my leg I was just so happy. I was just so thankful to have a leg in the first place. That has kept me going,” said Caroline. “I don’t think it would have been the same outcome if I would have gone anywhere else. I’m so thankful to the doctors and everyone at University Hospitals.”

“2020 was a devastating year for so many people due to the pandemic,” said Dr. Kashyap. “We have seen our share of challenges at UH and many caregivers have witnessed depressing outcomes in patients. I can’t tell you how gratifying it is to see Caroline recover from a life-threatening and limb-threatening accident. She has had a miraculous outcome. She has returned to essentially a normal functional state and is ready to run and participate in competitive sports! Her resilience, positive attitude and mental fortitude should be a shining example for all of us.”

Caroline is thankful to the team of doctors who saved her leg as she prepares to walk onto the campus of Indiana University in fall 2021.

UH Harrington Heart & Vascular Institute

Nationally recognized for heart and vascular care, University Hospitals Harrington Heart & Vascular Institute offers a Limb Salvage Program, one of a select number of such centers in the United States. Thanks to the limb salvage program, patients like Caroline are able to receive life-saving care.

Study identifies mechanisms by which COVID-19 can lead to Alzheimer’s disease-like dementia

A new Cleveland Clinic-led study has identified mechanisms by which COVID-19 can lead to Alzheimer’s disease-like dementia. The findings, published in Alzheimer’s Research & Therapy, indicate an overlap between COVID-19 and brain changes common in Alzheimer’s, and may help inform risk management and therapeutic strategies for COVID-19-associated cognitive impairment.

Reports of neurological complications in COVID-19 patients and “long-hauler” patients whose symptoms persist after the infection clears are becoming more common, suggesting that SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) may have lasting effects on brain function. However, it is not yet well understood how the virus leads to neurological issues.

While some studies suggest that SARS-CoV-2 infects brain cells directly, others found no evidence of the virus in the brain. Identifying how COVID-19 and neurological problems are linked will be critical for developing effective preventive and therapeutic strategies to address the surge in neurocognitive impairments that we expect to see in the near future.”

– Feixiong Cheng, PhD, Study Lead Author and Assistant Staff, Cleveland Clinic, Genomic Medicine Institute

In the study, the researchers harnessed artificial intelligence using existing datasets of patients with Alzheimer’s and COVID-19. They measured the proximity between SARS-CoV-2 host genes/proteins and those associated with several neurological diseases where closer proximity suggests related or shared disease pathways. The researchers also analyzed the genetic factors that enabled SARS-COV-2 to infect brain tissues and cells.

While researchers found little evidence that the virus targets the brain directly, they discovered close network relationships between the virus and genes/proteins associated with several neurological diseases, most notably Alzheimer’s, pointing to pathways by which COVID-19 could lead to AD-like dementia. To explore this further, they investigated potential associations between COVID-19 and neuroinflammation and brain microvascular injury, which are both hallmarks of Alzheimer’s.

“We discovered that SARS-CoV-2 infection significantly altered Alzheimer’s markers implicated in brain inflammation and that certain viral entry factors are highly expressed in cells in the blood-brain barrier,” explained Dr. Cheng. “These findings indicate that the virus may impact several genes or pathways involved in neuroinflammation and brain microvascular injury, which could lead to Alzehimer’s disease-like cognitive impairment.”

The researchers also found that individuals with the allele APOE E4/E4, the greatest genetic risk factor for Alzheimer’s, had decreased expression of antiviral defense genes, which could make these patients more susceptible to COVID-19.

“Ultimately, we hope to have paved the way for research that leads to testable and measurable biomarkers that can identify patients at the highest risk for neurological complications with COVID-19,” said Dr. Cheng.

Dr. Cheng and his team are now working to identify actionable biomarkers and new therapeutic targets for COVID-19-associated neurological issues in COVID long-haulers using cutting-edge network medicine and artificial intelligence technologies.


Cleveland ClinicJournal reference:

Zhou, Y., et al. (2021) Network medicine links SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 infection to brain microvascular injury and neuroinflammation in dementia-like cognitive impairment. Alzheimer’s Research and

Broken Heart Syndrome Linked to the Brain

A chronically stressed amygdala can prime the heart to overreact to acute stress events, a new study shows.

The paper
A. Radfar et al., “Stress-associated neurobiological activity associates with the risk for and timing of subsequent Takotsubo syndrome,” Eur Heart J, ehab029, 2021

Takotsubo syndrome, also known as broken heart syndrome, is a rare, reversible condition with symptoms mimicking a mild heart attack. A disease that disproportionately affects women, TTS is triggered by stressful events such as bankruptcy, the death of a loved one, or divorce, and results in a weakening of the heart’s left ventricle such that it becomes temporarily misshapen.

Previous work has shown that TTS patients have elevated activity in their amygdala, a brain region involved in stress response. What has never been clear, however, is whether “this activity in the brain happens as a result of the syndrome or whether it began many years before,” says Shady Abohashem, a nuclear cardiologist at Harvard Medical School.

Abohashem and his colleagues retrospectively analyzed full-body PET/CT scans from 104 patients, most of whom had cancer and 41 of whom had developed TTS since first being scanned, and 63 individually matched controls. The team calculated ratios of the activity in each person’s amygdala to that of two brain regions that attenuate the stress response, the temporal lobe and the prefrontal cortex. Higher amygdala activity was associated with an increased risk for TTS, and among those with the condition, patients with higher ratios had developed TTS roughly two years earlier following the imaging than those with lower ratios. “We can now show that this syndrome happens as a result of chronic stress over years that makes you vulnerable to developing the syndrome more easily and sooner than [less stressed] people,” Abohashem says.

“This study confirms our suspicion that there’s a relationship between amygdala activity and future risk of Takotsubo,” says Janet Wei, a cardiologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center who was not involved in the work. The results, she adds, “necessitate further study to see why these patients have higher amygdala activity and how it actually regulates the acute response.”  

FDA Approves Aduhelm, First of its Kind Amyloid-Targeted Alzheimer’s Therapy

by Marisa Wexler MS

For the first time in almost 18 years, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a new treatment — Aduhelm, formerly known as aducanumab — for Alzheimer’s disease, and a first targeted treatment for patients.

With this approval, Aduhelm becomes the first disease-modifying therapy for Alzheimer’s, and the first such therapy to come under FDA review. Disease-modifying therapies are those capable of slowing the progression of a disease itself, and not just its symptoms.

It is also the first new treatment for Alzheimer’s to be approved by the FDA since October 2003.

“This FDA drug approval ushers in a new era in Alzheimer’s treatment and research. History has shown us that approvals of the first drug in a new category invigorates the field, increases investments in new treatments and encourages greater innovation. We are hopeful and this is the beginning — both for this drug and for better treatments for Alzheimer’s,” Maria Carrillo, PhD, said in an email to Alzheimer’s News TodayCarrillo is chief science officer at the Alzheimer’s Association, which had called on the FDA to approve Aduhelm.

Following an initial titration period, the therapy is administered at a maintenance dose of 10 mg/kg, given as an intravenous infusion over about one hour every four weeks. According to its label, Aduhelm has been known to cause allergic reactions and ARIA-E (fluid accumulation in the brain), which should be monitored in people being treated. 

The FDA approved Aduhelm under the accelerated approval pathway, which is intended to provide earlier access to therapies that are expected to benefit patients with serious diseases, even if there is some residual uncertainty regarding that benefit.

“In determining that the application met the requirements for Accelerated Approval, the Agency concluded that the benefits of Aduhelm for patients with Alzheimer’s disease outweighed the risks of the therapy,” the FDA stated in a press release.

A tumultuous road to approval

Aduhelm, by Biogen and Eisai, is a human-made antibody designed to remove toxic clumps of the protein beta-amyloid, which are thought to drive the death of nerve cells (neurons) in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s.

The therapy’s development has been both unusual and tumultuous. Data from an early Phase 1b clinical trial called PRIME (NCT01677572) suggested that the treatment could safely slow cognitive decline, and indicated that it could remove beta-amyloid plaques as it was designed to do.

Biogen then launched two Phase 3 clinical trials, ENGAGE (NCT02477800) and EMERGE (NCT02484547), to evaluate the therapy’s safety and efficacy in early Alzheimer’s patients. Collectively, these trials enrolled nearly 3,300 people with relatively mild, or early stage, disease.

When an interim analysis using data from these studies’ first 18 months indicated that Aduhelm, given as a monthly intravenous infusion, was unlikely to benefit patients, Biogen halted development of the investigational therapy in 2019.  

After the trials were discontinued, however, an additional three months’ of data from ENGAGE and EMERGE became available. A new analysis using these findings showed that, contrary the interim analysis, EMERGE had actually met its primary efficacy endpoint (goal): relative to placebo, treatment with Aduhelm improved cognition and function, including memory, orientation, language, and activities of daily living.

ENGAGE did not meet its primary goal, but data suggested the therapy benefitted those given the high, up to 10 mg/kg, dose in the trial.

According to Carrillo, these results indicate that the medication would give patients more time in early stages of the disease, before progressing to more substantial dementia.

In an interview, Carrillo said that Aduhelm might enable patients “to do more with their families, to have more quality time with their families at a stage where they can still maintain their independence.”

Based on the new and favorable analysis, in conjunction with the positive results from earlier trials, Biogen and Eisai sought regulatory approval of Aduhelm in the U.S. The FDA put the therapy under priority review in August 2020, which was extended into June after Biogen submitted additional analyses.

Prior to that extension, an FDA advisory committee voted that the available clinical data did not support Aduhelm as an effective Alzheimer’s treatment. Notably, the advisory committee did not consider the possibility of accelerated approval.

Some experts also continued to favor a new Phase 3 trial, testing the treatment at high dose prior to it being approved.

“Based on our review of data presented publicly in December 2019,” neurologists with the Mayo Clinic and Stanford University wrote in a policy forum paper published in November 2020, “we do not agree with Biogen’s claim for efficacy. … Aducanumab’s efficacy as a treatment for the cognitive dysfunction in Alzheimer’s disease cannot be proven by clinical trials with divergent outcomes.”

“We are well-aware of the attention surrounding this approval. … With a treatment for a serious, life-threatening disease in the balance, it makes sense that so many people were following the outcome of this review,” the FDA stated, adding that the clinical trial data on the therapy “were highly complex and left residual uncertainties regarding clinical benefit.”

Accelerated approval

Although the clinical trials were not conclusive on the therapy’s effect on cognition and function, they clearly showed that Aduhelm can reduce levels of beta-amyloid plaques, according to the FDA. These data formed the basis for the FDA’s decision to give the therapy accelerated approval, which allows for earlier approval based on a surrogate endpoint as a marker, such as a laboratory measure (in this case, the reduction in beta-amyloid).

“Treatment with Aduhelm was clearly shown in all trials to substantially reduce amyloid beta plaques. This reduction in plaques is reasonably likely to result in clinical benefit,” the FDA wrote.

As a stipulation of the approval, the medication’s manufacturers will be required to conduct additional clinical testing to verify the anticipated clinical benefit, known as Phase 4 confirmatory trials. If data from these trials do not verify the anticipated benefit, the FDA could remove Aduhelm from the market.

“This approval is a victory for people living with Alzheimer’s and their families,” said Harry Johns, president and CEO of the Alzheimer’s Association. “It is a new day. This approval allows people living with Alzheimer’s more time to live better. For families it means being able to hold on to their loved ones longer. It is about reinvigorating scientists and companies in the fight against this scourge of a disease. It is about hope.”

Applications seeking approval of Aduhelm in the European Union and Japan are currently under review.

Biogen has initiated the open-label EMBARK trial (NCT04241068), which is testing Aduhelm at its high dose (up to 10 mg/kg) in people who previously took part in ENGAGE, EMERGE, or other aducanumab clinical trials that were discontinued in 2019.

As graduates cheered, an HBCU president announced that their debt to the university was wiped away

By Jaclyn Peiser

Seated in white folding chairs inside a gymnasium on Saturday morning, the 2020 and 2021 graduating classes of Wilberforce University listened as the president of the historically Black university in Ohio lauded the students for their resilience during an arduous year.

Then he made an unexpected announcement.

“We wish to give you a fresh start,” Elfred Anthony Pinkard, the university’s president, told the students. “Therefore, the Wilberforce University Board of Trustees has authorized me to forgive any debt.”

Students jumped from their seats and cheered; parents clapped from the bleachers. One student stood, awestruck, mouth agape and looking side to side, making sure he had heard Pinkard correctly.

“Your accounts have been cleared,” Pinkard continued, followed by more applause and yelps of joy. “And you don’t owe Wilberforce anything. Congratulations.”

In all, more than $375,000 in student debt was wiped away, said the university, which is about 20 miles east of Dayton.

Wilberforce, which enrolls more than 700 students, 166 of whom were in this year’s graduating class, secured funding to erase the debt through the United Negro College Fund and other nonprofit organizations, including Jack and Jill of America, the school said.

The move came during a week of racial reckoning as President Biden pledged to close the wealth gap between White and Black Americans at an event on Tuesday commemorating the 100th anniversary of a massacre that left hundreds dead and more than 1,250 homes destroyed in a prosperous Black community in Tulsa. But Biden’s proposals did not include plans to alleviate student debt, an omission that attracted criticism from Derrick Johnson, the president of the NAACP.

“Components of the plan are encouraging, but it fails to address the student loan debt crisis that disproportionately affects African Americans,” Johnson said. “You cannot begin to address the racial wealth gap without addressing the student loan debt crisis.”

The problem has been particularly acute at HBCUs like Wilberforce, which enroll a disproportionate number of students from low-income families, according to the United Negro College Fund. Unlike major state schools, most HBCUs have smaller endowments thanks to decades of limited funding, The Washington Post recently reported, which has complicated efforts to help reduce tuitions.About 25 percent of students who attend HBCUs borrow $40,000 or more, according to UNCF.

Wilberforce University, the country’s first private university owned and run by African Americans, was established before the Civil War and named after William Wilberforce, a British abolitionist. Although the university shut down during the war, it became a destination point for the Underground Railroad. In the late 19th century, W.E.B. Du Bois taught at the university and met his wife, who was a student there.

When the pandemic hit last year, Wilberforce transitioned to remote learning. The university resumed in-person learning in February, although students could still choose to take classes from home.

On Sunday, the graduates learned they would leave with a degree and less debt than they planned.Although the Wilberforce graduates are still responsible for paying back their federal, state or private loans, their debts to the university are now wiped clean.

“As these graduates begin their lives as responsible adults, we are honored to be able to give them a fresh start,” Pinkard said in a news release.

Rodman Allen, a member of the 2021 graduating class, said the move gave him a more stable foundation for his future.

“I couldn’t believe it when he said it,” Allen said in a news release from the university. “It’s a blessing. I know God will be with me. I’m not worried. I can use that money and invest it into my future.”

Two years ago, another group of graduating students at an HBCU received a similar surprise at their graduation. During his 2019 commencement address at Morehouse College, an all-male school in Atlanta, billionaire and philanthropist Robert F. Smith told graduates that his family was establishing a grant that would pay off all their student loans. (Last year, Smith admitted to not paying taxes on more than $200 million and agreed to help prosecutors in a case against his associate, Robert Brockman, who is accused of hiding more than $2 billion in offshore accounts.)

Last month, officials at Delaware State University announced they were using stimulus funds to forgive over $730,000 of student debt for recent graduates who faced financial hardships during the coronavirus pandemic.

During his speech at the Wilberforce commencement ceremony, Pinkard stressed that the effort was meant to acknowledge the difficulty of graduating during the pandemic.

“Because we are in awe of your strengths and perseverance; because you have made your family and yourselves proud; because you have shown that you are capable of doing work under difficult circumstances; because you represent the best of your generation, we wish to give you a fresh start,” Pinkard said.

ADHD medications associated with reduced risk of suicidality in certain children

ADHD medications may lower suicide risk in children with hyperactivity, oppositional defiance and other behavioral disorders, according to new research from the Lifespan Brain Institute (LiBI) of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and the University of Pennsylvania. The findings, published today in JAMA Network Open, address a significant knowledge gap in childhood suicide risk and could inform suicide prevention strategies at a time when suicide among children is on the rise.

“This study is an important step in the much-needed effort of childhood suicide prevention, as it leverages data collected from approximately 12,000 U.S. children to identify an actionable target to reduce childhood suicides,” said senior author Ran Barzilay, MD, Ph.D., an assistant professor at LiBI. “Early diagnosis and treatment of behavioral symptoms with ADHD medication, particularly among children with severe externalizing symptoms, may serve not only to improve learning and behavior problems, but also to decrease suicidality risk.”

Suicide rates among children have been steadily rising. According to the CDC, suicide was the second leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 10 and 24 in 2018. Yet the rates are still relatively low in preadolescent children, making it difficult to identify factors that may lead to or prevent suicidal tendencies in this age range. Additionally, there are ethical limitations in enrolling potentially suicidal youth in placebo-controlled randomized clinical trials.

“In an ideal world, we want to test a medication effect on suicidality with a randomized prospective trial,” Barzilay said. “But given the challenges of conducting such studies, we are obligated as a society and as scientists to generate clinical insights using data collected in large-scale observational studies of children.”

The LiBI researchers, in concert with Gal Shoval, MD of Tel Aviv University, circumvented this barrier by leveraging data from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) Study. As the largest long-term study of brain development and health in the country, the ABCD Study sample includes a cohort of 11,878 children between the ages of 9 and 10 who were recruited through school systems. The cohort spans 21 sites across the United States, encompassing more than 20% of the U.S. population in this age group, and includes comprehensive data on child development, including data on mental, social, and emotional health. The magnitude and breadth of data collected in the ABCD study allowed the research team to control for multiple confounders and to dissect specifically the association of ADHD medications with suicidal tendencies.

Performing a secondary analysis of the ABCD Study data, the LiBI researchers found that of the 11,878 children in the study, 8.5% were treated with ADHD medication, such as methylphenidate, Adderall or clonidine, and 8.8% reported past or current suicidality. The researchers found that children expressing suicidal tendencies had more externalizing symptoms and were more likely to receive ADHD medication than non-suicidal children. However, among children who demonstrated significant externalizing behaviors, those taking ADHD medications had lesser odds for suicidality, suggesting a moderating role for ADHD medications in these children.

To study whether this effect endured, the researchers analyzed data from participants’ one-year follow-up assessments. They found that children with high externalizing symptoms who were treated with ADHD medications at baseline were less likely to be suicidal one year later. Children who were not receiving ADHD medications at baseline but had high externalizing symptoms were more likely to be suicidal at the one-year follow up.

“Given the connection between childhood suicidality and poor adult mental health, these findings emphasize the importance of better and more thorough screening of school-aged children for externalizing behavioral symptoms,” Barzilay said. “These symptoms are treatable, and addressing them early has the strong potential to prevent and mitigate serious mental health issues later in life.”