Archive for the ‘Weill Cornell Medical College’ Category


New research explains how abstract benefits of exercise—from reversing depression to fighting cognitive decline—might arise from a group of key molecules.

While our muscles pump iron, our cells pump out something else: molecules that help maintain a healthy brain. But scientists have struggled to account for the well-known mental benefits of exercise, from counteracting depression and aging to fighting Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Now, a research team may have finally found a molecular link between a workout and a healthy brain.

Much exercise research focuses on the parts of our body that do the heavy lifting. Muscle cells ramp up production of a protein called FNDC5 during a workout. A fragment of this protein, known as irisin, gets lopped off and released into the bloodstream, where it drives the formation of brown fat cells, thought to protect against diseases such as diabetes and obesity. (White fat cells are traditionally the villains.)

While studying the effects of FNDC5 in muscles, cellular biologist Bruce Spiegelman of Harvard Medical School in Boston happened upon some startling results: Mice that did not produce a so-called co-activator of FNDC5 production, known as PGC-1α, were hyperactive and had tiny holes in certain parts of their brains. Other studies showed that FNDC5 and PGC-1α are present in the brain, not just the muscles, and that both might play a role in the development of neurons.

Spiegelman and his colleagues suspected that FNDC5 (and the irisin created from it) was responsible for exercise-induced benefits to the brain—in particular, increased levels of a crucial protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is essential for maintaining healthy neurons and creating new ones. These functions are crucial to staving off neurological diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. And the link between exercise and BDNF is widely accepted. “The phenomenon has been established over the course of, easily, the last decade,” says neuroscientist Barbara Hempstead of Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, who was not involved in the new work. “It’s just, we didn’t understand the mechanism.”

To sort out that mechanism, Spiegelman and his colleagues performed a series of experiments in living mice and cultured mouse brain cells. First, they put mice on a 30-day endurance training regimen. They didn’t have to coerce their subjects, because running is part of a mouse’s natural foraging behavior. “It’s harder to get them to lift weights,” Spiegelman notes. The mice with access to a running wheel ran the equivalent of a 5K every night.

Aside from physical differences between wheel-trained mice and sedentary ones—“they just look a little bit more like a couch potato,” says co-author Christiane Wrann, also of Harvard Medical School, of the latter’s plumper figures—the groups also showed neurological differences. The runners had more FNDC5 in their hippocampus, an area of the brain responsible for learning and memory.

Using mouse brain cells developing in a dish, the group next showed that increasing the levels of the co-activator PGC-1α boosts FNDC5 production, which in turn drives BDNF genes to produce more of the vital neuron-forming BDNF protein. They report these results online today in Cell Metabolism. Spiegelman says it was surprising to find that the molecular process in neurons mirrors what happens in muscles as we exercise. “What was weird is the same pathway is induced in the brain,” he says, “and as you know, with exercise, the brain does not move.”

So how is the brain getting the signal to make BDNF? Some have theorized that neural activity during exercise (as we coordinate our body movements, for example) accounts for changes in the brain. But it’s also possible that factors outside the brain, like those proteins secreted from muscle cells, are the driving force. To test whether irisin created elsewhere in the body can still drive BDNF production in the brain, the group injected a virus into the mouse’s bloodstream that causes the liver to produce and secrete elevated levels of irisin. They saw the same effect as in exercise: increased BDNF levels in the hippocampus. This suggests that irisin could be capable of passing the blood-brain barrier, or that it regulates some other (unknown) molecule that crosses into the brain, Spiegelman says.

Hempstead calls the findings “very exciting,” and believes this research finally begins to explain how exercise relates to BDNF and other so-called neurotrophins that keep the brain healthy. “I think it answers the question that most of us have posed in our own heads for many years.”

The effect of liver-produced irisin on the brain is a “pretty cool and somewhat surprising finding,” says Pontus Boström, a diabetes researcher at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. But Boström, who was among the first scientists to identify irisin in muscle tissue, says the work doesn’t answer a fundamental question: How much of exercise’s BDNF-promoting effects come from irisin reaching the brain from muscle cells via the bloodstream, and how much are from irisin created in the brain?

Though the authors point out that other important regulator proteins likely play a role in driving BDNF and other brain-nourishing factors, they are focusing on the benefits of irisin and hope to develop an injectable form of FNDC5 as a potential treatment for neurological diseases and to improve brain health with aging.

Thanks to Dr. Rajadhyaksha 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.