Archive for the ‘neurotransmitter’ Category


Roaming bits of DNA that can relocate and proliferate throughout the genome, called “jumping genes,” may contribute to schizophrenia, a new study suggests. These rogue genetic elements pepper the brain tissue of deceased people with the disorder and multiply in response to stressful events, such as infection during pregnancy, which increase the risk of the disease. The study could help explain how genes and environment work together to produce the complex disorder and may even point to ways of lowering the risk of the disease, researchers say.

Schizophrenia causes hallucinations, delusions, and a host of other cognitive problems, and afflicts roughly 1% of all people. It runs in families—a person whose twin sibling has the disorder, for example, has a roughly 50-50 chance of developing it. Scientists have struggled to define which genes are most important to developing the disease, however; each individual gene associated with the disorder confers only modest risk. Environmental factors such as viral infections before birth have also been shown to increase risk of developing schizophrenia, but how and whether these exposures work together with genes to skew brain development and produce the disease is still unclear, says Tadafumi Kato, a neuroscientist at the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Wako City, Japan and co-author of the new study.

Over the past several years, a new mechanism for genetic mutation has attracted considerable interest from researchers studying neurological disorders, Kato says. Informally called jumping genes, these bits of DNA can replicate and insert themselves into other regions of the genome, where they either lie silent, doing nothing; start churning out their own genetic products; or alter the activity of their neighboring genes. If that sounds potentially dangerous, it is: Such genes are often the culprits behind tumor-causing mutations and have been implicated in several neurological diseases. However, jumping genes also make up nearly half the current human genome, suggesting that humans owe much of our identity to their audacious leaps.

Recent research by neuroscientist Fred Gage and colleagues at the University of California (UC), San Diego, has shown that one of the most common types of jumping gene in people, called L1, is particularly abundant in human stem cells in the brain that ultimately differentiate into neurons and plays an important role in regulating neuronal development and proliferation. Although Gage and colleagues have found that increased L1 is associated with mental disorders such as Rett syndrome, a form of autism, and a neurological motor disease called Louis-Bar syndrome, “no one had looked very carefully” to see if the gene might also contribute to schizophrenia, he says.

To investigate that question, principal investigator Kazuya Iwamoto, a neuroscientist; Kato; and their team at RIKEN extracted brain tissue of deceased people who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia as well as several other mental disorders, extracted DNA from their neurons, and compared it with that of healthy people. Compared with controls, there was a 1.1-fold increase in L1 in the tissue of people with schizophrenia, as well as slightly less elevated levels in people with other mental disorders such as major depression, the team reports today in Neuron.

Next, the scientists tested whether environmental factors associated with schizophrenia could trigger a comparable increase in L1. They injected pregnant mice with a chemical that simulates viral infection and found that their offspring did, indeed, show higher levels of the gene in their brain tissue. An additional study in infant macaques, which mimicked exposure to a hormone also associated with increased schizophrenia risk, produced similar results. Finally, the group examined human neural stem cells extracted from people with schizophrenia and found that these, too, showed higher levels of L1.

The fact that it is possible to increase the number of copies of L1 in the mouse and macaque brains using established environmental triggers for schizophrenia shows that such genetic mutations in the brain may be preventable if such exposures can be avoided, Kato says. He says he hopes that the “new view” that environmental factors can trigger or deter genetic changes involved in the disease will help remove some of the disorder’s stigma.

Combined with previous studies on other disorders, the new study suggests that L1 genes are indeed more active in the brain of patients with neuropsychiatric diseases, Gage says. He cautions, however, that no one yet knows whether they are actually causing the disease. “Now that we have multiple confirmations of this occurring in humans with different diseases, the next step is to determine if possible what role, if any, they play.”

One tantalizing possibility is that as these restless bits of DNA drift throughout the genomes of human brain cells, they help create the vibrant cognitive diversity that helps humans as a species respond to changing environmental conditions, and produces extraordinary “outliers,” including innovators and geniuses such as Picasso, says UC San Diego neuroscientist Alysson Muotri. The price of such rich diversity may be that mutations contributing to mental disorders such as schizophrenia sometimes emerge. Figuring out what these jumping genes truly do in the human brain is the “next frontier” for understanding complex mental disorders, he says. “This is only the tip of the iceberg.”

Thanks to Dr. Rajadhyaksha for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.


Doctors in the US have induced feelings of intense determination in two men by stimulating a part of their brains with gentle electric currents.

The men were having a routine procedure to locate regions in their brains that caused epileptic seizures when they felt their heart rates rise, a sense of foreboding, and an overwhelming desire to persevere against a looming hardship.

The remarkable findings could help researchers develop treatments for depression and other disorders where people are debilitated by a lack of motivation.

One patient said the feeling was like driving a car into a raging storm. When his brain was stimulated, he sensed a shaking in his chest and a surge in his pulse. In six trials, he felt the same sensations time and again.

Comparing the feelings to a frantic drive towards a storm, the patient said: “You’re only halfway there and you have no other way to turn around and go back, you have to keep going forward.”

When asked by doctors to elaborate on whether the feeling was good or bad, he said: “It was more of a positive thing, like push harder, push harder, push harder to try and get through this.”

A second patient had similar feelings when his brain was stimulated in the same region, called the anterior midcingulate cortex (aMCC). He felt worried that something terrible was about to happen, but knew he had to fight and not give up, according to a case study in the journal Neuron.

Both men were having an exploratory procedure to find the focal point in their brains that caused them to suffer epileptic fits. In the procedure, doctors sink fine electrodes deep into different parts of the brain and stimulate them with tiny electrical currents until the patient senses the “aura” that precedes a seizure. Often, seizures can be treated by removing tissue from this part of the brain.

“In the very first patient this was something very unexpected, and we didn’t report it,” said Josef Parvizi at Stanford University in California. But then I was doing functional mapping on the second patient and he suddenly experienced a very similar thing.”

“Its extraordinary that two individuals with very different past experiences respond in a similar way to one or two seconds of very low intensity electricity delivered to the same area of their brain. These patients are normal individuals, they have their IQ, they have their jobs. We are not reporting these findings in sick brains,” Parvizi said.

The men were stimulated with between two and eight milliamps of electrical current, but in tests the doctors administered sham stimulation too. In the sham tests, they told the patients they were about to stimulate the brain, but had switched off the electical supply. In these cases, the men reported no changes to their feelings. The sensation was only induced in a small area of the brain, and vanished when doctors implanted electrodes just five millimetres away.

Parvizi said a crucial follow-up experiment will be to test whether stimulation of the brain region really makes people more determined, or simply creates the sensation of perseverance. If future studies replicate the findings, stimulation of the brain region – perhaps without the need for brain-penetrating electrodes – could be used to help people with severe depression.

The anterior midcingulate cortex seems to be important in helping us select responses and make decisions in light of the feedback we get. Brent Vogt, a neurobiologist at Boston University, said patients with chronic pain and obsessive-compulsive disorder have already been treated by destroying part of the aMCC. “Why not stimulate it? If this would enhance relieving depression, for example, let’s go,” he said.

Thanks to Kebmodee for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.


Researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College have successfully tested their novel anti-cocaine vaccine in primates, bringing them closer to launching human clinical trials. Their study, published online by the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, used a radiological technique to demonstrate that the anti-cocaine vaccine prevented the drug from reaching the brain and producing a dopamine-induced high.

“The vaccine eats up the cocaine in the blood like a little Pac-man before it can reach the brain,” says the study’s lead investigator, Dr. Ronald G. Crystal, chairman of the Department of Genetic Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College. “We believe this strategy is a win-win for those individuals, among the estimated 1.4 million cocaine users in the United States, who are committed to breaking their addiction to the drug,” he says. “Even if a person who receives the anti-cocaine vaccine falls off the wagon, cocaine will have no effect.”

Dr. Crystal says he expects to begin human testing of the anti-cocaine vaccine within a year.

Cocaine, a tiny molecule drug, works to produce feelings of pleasure because it blocks the recycling of dopamine — the so-called “pleasure” neurotransmitter — in two areas of the brain, the putamen in the forebrain and the caudate nucleus in the brain’s center. When dopamine accumulates at the nerve endings, “you get this massive flooding of dopamine and that is the feel good part of the cocaine high,” says Dr. Crystal.

The novel vaccine Dr. Crystal and his colleagues developed combines bits of the common cold virus with a particle that mimics the structure of cocaine. When the vaccine is injected into an animal, its body “sees” the cold virus and mounts an immune response against both the virus and the cocaine impersonator that is hooked to it. “The immune system learns to see cocaine as an intruder,” says Dr. Crystal. “Once immune cells are educated to regard cocaine as the enemy, it produces antibodies, from that moment on, against cocaine the moment the drug enters the body.”

In their first study in animals, the researchers injected billions of their viral concoction into laboratory mice, and found a strong immune response was generated against the vaccine. Also, when the scientists extracted the antibodies produced by the mice and put them in test tubes, it gobbled up cocaine. They also saw that mice that received both the vaccine and cocaine were much less hyperactive than untreated mice given cocaine.

In this study, the researchers sought to precisely define how effective the anti-cocaine vaccine is in non-human primates, who are closer in biology to humans than mice. They developed a tool to measure how much cocaine attached to the dopamine transporter, which picks up dopamine in the synapse between neurons and brings it out to be recycled. If cocaine is in the brain, it binds on to the transporter, effectively blocking the transporter from ferrying dopamine out of the synapse, keeping the neurotransmitter active to produce a drug high.

In the study, the researchers attached a short-lived isotope tracer to the dopamine transporter. The activity of the tracer could be seen using positron emission tomography (PET). The tool measured how much of the tracer attached to the dopamine receptor in the presence or absence of cocaine.

The PET studies showed no difference in the binding of the tracer to the dopamine transporter in vaccinated compared to unvaccinated animals if these two groups were not given cocaine. But when cocaine was given to the primates, there was a significant drop in activity of the tracer in non-vaccinated animals. That meant that without the vaccine, cocaine displaced the tracer in binding to the dopamine receptor.

Previous research had shown in humans that at least 47 percent of the dopamine transporter had to be occupied by cocaine in order to produce a drug high. The researchers found, in vaccinated primates, that cocaine occupancy of the dopamine receptor was reduced to levels of less than 20 percent.

“This is a direct demonstration in a large animal, using nuclear medicine technology, that we can reduce the amount of cocaine that reaches the brain sufficiently so that it is below the threshold by which you get the high,” says Dr. Crystal.

When the vaccine is studied in humans, the non-toxic dopamine transporter tracer can be used to help study its effectiveness as well, he adds.

The researchers do not know how often the vaccine needs to be administered in humans to maintain its anti-cocaine effect. One vaccine lasted 13 weeks in mice and seven weeks in non-human primates.

“An anti-cocaine vaccination will require booster shots in humans, but we don’t know yet how often these booster shots will be needed,” says Dr. Crystal. “I believe that for those people who desperately want to break their addiction, a series of vaccinations will help.”

Co-authors of the study include Dr. Anat Maoz, Dr. Martin J. Hicks, Dr. Shankar Vallabhajosula, Michael Synan, Dr. Paresh J. Kothari, Dr. Jonathan P. Dyke, Dr. Douglas J. Ballon, Dr. Stephen M. Kaminsky, Dr. Bishnu P. De and Dr. Jonathan B. Rosenberg from Weill Cornell Medical College; Dr. Diana Martinez from Columbia University; and Dr. George F. Koob and Dr. Kim D. Janda from The Scripps Research Institute.

The study was funded by grants from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

Thanks to Kebmodee and Dr. Rajadhyaksha for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.