Posts Tagged ‘neurodegeneration’


Dr. Moir’s radical and iconoclastic theories defied conventional views of the disease. But some scientists were ultimately won over.

By Gina Kolata

Robert D. Moir, a Harvard scientist whose radical theories of the brain plaques in Alzheimer’s defied conventional views of the disease, but whose research ultimately led to important proposals for how to treat it, died on Friday at a hospice in Milton, Mass. He was 58.

His wife, Julie Alperen, said the cause was glioblastoma, a type of brain cancer.

Dr. Moir, who grew up on a farm in Donnybrook, a small town in Western Australia, had a track record for confounding expectations. He did not learn to read or write until he was nearly 12; Ms. Alperen said he had told her that the teacher at his one-room schoolhouse was “a demented nun.” Yet, she said, he also knew from age 7 that he wanted to be a scientist.

Dr. Moir succeeded in becoming a researcher who was modest and careful, said his Ph.D. adviser, Dr. Colin Masters, a neuropathologist at the University of Melbourne. So Dr. Masters was surprised when Dr. Moir began publishing papers proposing an iconoclastic rethinking of the pathology of Alzheimer’s disease.

Dr. Moir’s hypothesis “was and is a really novel and controversial idea that he alone developed,” Dr. Masters said.

“I never expected this to come from this quiet achiever,” he said.

Dr. Moir’s theory involved the protein beta amyloid, which forms plaques in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.

Conventional wisdom held that beta amyloid accumulation was a central part of the disease, and that clearing the brain of beta amyloid would be a good thing for patients.

Dr. Moir proposed instead that beta amyloid is there for a reason: It is the way the brain defends itself against infections. Beta amyloid, he said, forms a sticky web that can trap microbes. The problem is that sometimes the brain goes overboard producing it, and when that happens the brain is damaged.

The implication is that treatments designed to clear the brain of amyloid could be detrimental. The goal would be to remove some of the sticky substance, but not all of it.

The idea, which Dr. Moir first proposed 12 years ago, was met with skepticism. But he kept at it, producing a string of papers with findings that supported the hypothesis. Increasingly, some of the doubters have been won over, said Rudolph Tanzi, a close friend and fellow Alzheimer’s researcher at Harvard.

Dr. Moir’s unconventional ideas made it difficult for him to get federal grants. Nearly every time he submitted a grant proposal to the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Tanzi said in a phone interview, two out of three reviewers would be enthusiastic, while a third would simply not believe it. The proposal would not be funded.

But Dr. Moir took those rejections in stride.

“He’d make a joke about it,” Dr. Tanzi said. “He never got angry. I never saw Rob angry in my life. He’d say, ‘What do we have to do next?’ He was always upbeat, always optimistic.”

Dr. Moir was supported by the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund, and he eventually secured some N.I.H. grants.

Dr. Moir first came to the United States in 1994, when Dr. Tanzi was looking for an Alzheimer’s biochemist to work in his lab. Working with the lab as a postdoctoral fellow and later as a faculty member with his own lab, Dr. Moir made a string of major discoveries about Alzheimer’s disease.

For example, Dr. Moir and Dr. Tanzi found that people naturally make antibodies to specific forms of amyloid. These antibodies protect the brain from Alzheimer’s but do not wipe out amyloid completely. The more antibodies a person makes, the greater the protection against Alzheimer’s.

That finding, Dr. Tanzi said, inspired the development of an experimental drug, which its manufacturer, Biogen, says is helping to treat some people with Alzheimer’s disease. Biogen plans to file for approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

Robert David Moir was born on April 2, 1961, in Kojonup, Australia, to Mary and Terrence Moir, who were farmers. He studied the biochemistry of Alzheimer’s disease at the University of Western Australia before joining Dr. Tanzi’s lab.

Once he learned to read, Ms. Alperen said, he never stopped — he read science fiction, the British magazine New Scientist and even PubMed, the federal database of scientific publications.

“Rob had an encyclopedic knowledge of the natural world,” she said.

He shared that love with his family, on frequent hikes and on trips with his young children to look for rocks, insects and fossils. He also played Australian-rules football, which has elements of rugby as well as American football, and helped form the Boston Demons Australian Rules Football Team in 1997, his wife said.

In addition to his wife, with whom he lived in Sharon, Mass., Dr. Moir’s survivors include three children, Alexander, Maxwell and Holly Moir; a brother, Andrew; and a sister, Catherine Moir. His marriage to Elena Vaillancourt ended in divorce.

Pioneering aerosol writer Lonny Wood, better known by his moniker, Phase 2, has died. He is remembered for his invaluable, media-spanning contributions to hip-hop and is acknowledged as the first artist to perfect the “softie” style of aerosol calligraphy, characterized by its marshmallow-like bubbled lettering.

Born in the Bronx, New York, Phase 2 began tagging subway trains in the early 1970s, becoming one of the most widely emulated stylists of that moment. As his work matured, he progressively abstracted and complicated his calligraphy, “deconstructing the letter”—in the words of hip-hop journalist Jeff Chang—“into hard lines, third eyes, horns, drills, spikes, arches, Egyptian pharos and dogs, pure geometrics.” Phase 2 was an early member of United Graffiti Artists (UGA), a collective of train painters credited with mounting the first gallery show of so-called graffiti art, a term Wood rejected for devaluing and criminalizing his work and that of his peers.

In addition to his calligraphic work, Phase 2 rapped, DJ’ed, and was a member of the New York City Breakers, a pioneering break-dancing crew. As a graphic artist, he lent his hard-edge geometric style—influenced by the Bronx’s many Art Deco theaters—to flyers promoting significant parties and shows like 1982’s Kool Lady Blue at the Roxy nightclub in Chelsea, which established a rapport between hip-hop and New York’s contemporaneous punk and New Wave scenes. In the mid-’80s, he served as the art director of the underground zine International Graffiti Times, often cited as the first publication devoted to street and subway art. In 1996, he and International Graffiti Times editor David Schmidlapp copublished the book Style: Writing from the Underground, a history of aerosol art. In recent decades, his work has been featured in numerous exhibitions of urban art.

“I’m absorbing and devouring language,” Phase 2 said of his work “and creating something else with it. . . . The English language isn’t much, especially in its current state. By comparison (to Chinese and Japanese) it’s like a dot. Why not go beyond that and just create an alphabet or language? You can’t put a limit on communication or how one can communicate, you’ve always got to look further, that’s how style expanded in the first place.”

https://www.artforum.com/news/phase-2-1955-2019-81607

Young carriers of the APOE4 allele have brains that are more connected (left, red lines illustrate connections between brain areas) and active (right, yellow indicates activity) than the brains of those without the allele.
KRISHNA SINGH, ELIFE, 8:E36011, 2019.

A growing body of evidence supports the theory that neural hyperactivity and hyperconnectivity precede the pathological changes that lead to neurodegeneration.

DIANA KWON

There are approximately 5.6 million people over the age of 65 living with Alzheimer’s disease in the United States. With the population aging, that number is projected to grow to 7.1 million by 2025. Researchers know that age, a family history of the disease, and carrying a genetic variant known as APOE4 are all associated with a higher chance of developing the condition. But the biological mechanisms leading to Alzheimer’s are still largely a mystery.

Over the last decade, scientists have amassed evidence for a hypothesis that, prior to developing full-blown Alzheimer’s disease, patients experience a period of hyperactivity and hyperconnectivity in the brain. Several functional magnetic resonance imaging studies have reported that people with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), a condition that often precedes Alzheimer’s, appear to have higher brain activity levels than their age-matched counterparts. Researchers have also found signs of such changes in healthy people carrying the APOE4 allele, as well as in presymptomatic stages of Alzheimer’s in rodent models of the disease.

Krishna Singh, a physicist and imaging neuroscientist at the Cardiff University Brain Research Imaging Center (CUBRIC) in the UK, and his colleagues wanted to investigate this theory further. Previous studies of brain activity in young APOE4 carriers were mostly conducted using small sample sizes, according to Singh. But by the mid-2010s, his team had access to neuroimaging data from close to 200 participants studied at CUBRIC as part of an effort to build a massive dataset of healthy brains. So the researchers decided to use the data to search for signs of unusual brain activity and connectivity in people with the APOE4 allele.

Using magnetoencephalography (MEG), a neuroimaging technique that records the magnetic fields generated by electrical activity in the brain, Singh and his colleagues had measured resting-state brain activity in a group of 183 healthy adults, which included 51 individuals who carried at least one copy of APOE4. The average age of the participants was 24 years old, although ages ranged from 18 to 65 years old.

Analysis of the imaging data revealed that, compared with controls, young APOE4 carriers displayed greater activity in several regions in the right side of the brain, including parts of what’s known as the default mode network, which is active when a person is not focused on a specific task. A similar set of brain regions also showed an overall increase in connectivity.

The researchers next compared the results to brain activity and connectivity data from a previous neuro­imaging study they had conducted, which found that elderly people with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease had decreased neuronal activity and connectivity compared with that of age-matched controls. The network of brain areas that displayed increased connectivity in young APOE4 carriers, the team found, partially overlapped with the brain regions that exhibited a decrease in connectivity in people with early-stage Alzheimer’s. These findings are intriguing, Singh says, because they suggest that brain areas that end up getting impaired in Alzheimer’s may be highly active and connected early in life—long before symptoms of the disease appear.

“This study adds further evidence that hyperactivity and hyperconnectivity may play an influential role in Alzheimer’s disease,” says Tal Nuriel, a professor of pathology and cell biology at the Columbia University Medical Center who wasn’t involved in the work. Because this was an observational study, the findings can only establish a correlation between brain activity and Alzheimer’s, Nuriel adds, so it’s still unclear whether the hyperactivity and hyperconnectivity observed during the early stages of the disease are a cause or a consequence of pathological changes that lead to neurodegeneration.

Scientists used to think that increased activity was simply a compensatory effect—the brain trying to make up for a loss of neurons and synapses, says Willem de Haan, a neurologist at the Amsterdam University Medical Center who was not involved in the latest study. “But I think there’s overwhelming evidence that this may actually be pathological hyperactivity.”

Much of that evidence comes from animal experiments conducted over the last decade or so. In rodents, researchers have found that hyperactivity can increase the production and spread of amyloid-ß, the peptide that accumulates into plaques found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s—and that amyloid-ß can in turn induce neuronal hyperactivity. These findings have led some scientists to speculate that there might be a self-amplifying loop, where a progressive hyperactivity and build-up of amyloid-ß drives pathological changes associated with the neurodegenerative disease.

Research in humans also supports the idea that hyperactivity could play a causal role in Alzheimer’s disease. In 2012, researchers at Johns Hopkins University treated individuals with MCI with the anti-epileptic drug levetiracetam and found that the therapy suppressed activity in the hippocampus and led to improved memory performance. The team is currently testing levetiracetam for MCI in clinical trials. “I think this is one of the most interesting results,” says de Haan. “It seems to show that by correcting hyperactivity we can actually find some improvements in patients that might point to a completely new type of therapy for [Alzheimer’s disease].”

For the current study, Singh’s team also trained a machine-learning algorithm to distinguish APOE4 carriers from non-carriers based on their MEG data and tested whether it would be able to predict cases of Alzheimer’s. They found that while the program was able to perform above chance, the effect was not significant. “In a way, that was kind of encouraging,” Singh says. “Because I don’t think anybody would predict that we could find a signature [for Alzheimer’s] in 20- and 30-year-olds.”

For now, Singh says, his team’s findings simply shed light on what might be going on in the brains of people with the APOE4 allele. There are still a number of unanswered questions—such as when the transition from hyper- to hypoconnectivity and activity happens, what changes occur in the largely understudied middle-aged cohort, and whether there are differences between APOE4 carriers who go on to develop Alzheimer’s and those who don’t. Ultimately, to understand how disruptions in neuronal activity lead to behavioral and cognitive deficits, scientists need to decipher what’s going on inside a healthy brain, Singh says. “[We] require a model of how the brain works—and those are still in their infancy.”

https://www.the-scientist.com/notebook/genetic-risk-for-alzheimers-disease-linked-to-highly-active-brains-66483?utm_campaign=TS_DAILY%20NEWSLETTER_2019&utm_source=hs_email&utm_medium=email&utm_content=78081371&_hsenc=p2ANqtz-98aZf5axxCqtPYITNqfIVWKM6xuk3ni-QSpgTS4gFXzeQcntecrOf6DFFXjrf5qcktWTUz2M3xnAEJlvXTaS7WDQEKNg&_hsmi=78081371

A technology that originated at the University of Minnesota is well on its way to commercialization thanks to an investment award from Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation (ADDF).

The investment of up to $500,000 was awarded through the ADDF’s Diagnostics Accelerator initiative. Toronto, Ontario-based RetiSpec licensed through the University of Minnesota’s Technology Commercialization program. The technology harnesses hyperspectral imaging and machine learning.

“We are focused on bringing to market a noninvasive, easy-to-use, screening technology that can change when and how we detect Alzheimer’s disease at its earliest stages including before a patient presents with symptoms,” said Eliav Shaked, CEO of RetiSpec. “Early detection provides an important window of opportunity for timely therapeutic interventions that can slow or even prevent the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. ADDF’s investment represents another point of external validation of the promise of our technology.”

In preclinical studies and a pilot human study, the retinal imaging technology was effective in detecting small changes in biomarkers associated with elevated cerebral amyloid beta levels early in the disease process including before the onset of clinical symptoms.

RetiSpec is currently collaborating with Toronto Memory Program, Canada’s largest Alzheimer’s clinical trial site, to validate the accuracy and usability of the technology in patients.

“We believe that RetiSpec’s retinal scanner stands out and shows promise as a unique diagnostic tool among a range of technologies in development,” said Howard Fillit , MD, founding executive director and chief science officer of ADDF The technology has the potential to facilitate early diagnosis, improve the lives of patients and their loved ones and save the healthcare system money and resources. The technology will also be useful in making clinical trials for Alzheimer’s disease more efficient.”

https://www.mddionline.com/feast-your-eyes-new-technology-early-alzheimers-screening


Brain tissue from deceased patients with Alzheimer’s has more tau protein buildup (brown spots) and fewer neurons (red spots) as compared to healthy brain tissue.

By Yasemin Saplakoglu

Alzheimer’s disease might be attacking the brain cells responsible for keeping people awake, resulting in daytime napping, according to a new study.

Excessive daytime napping might thus be considered an early symptom of Alzheimer’s disease, according to a statement from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF).

Some previous studies suggested that such sleepiness in patients with Alzheimer’s results directly from poor nighttime sleep due to the disease, while others have suggested that sleep problems might cause the disease to progress. The new study suggests a more direct biological pathway between Alzheimer’s disease and daytime sleepiness.

In the current study, researchers studied the brains of 13 people who’d had Alzheimer’s and died, as well as the brains from seven people who had not had the disease. The researchers specifically examined three parts of the brain that are involved in keeping us awake: the locus coeruleus, the lateral hypothalamic area and the tuberomammillary nucleus. These three parts of the brain work together in a network to keep us awake during the day.

The researchers compared the number of neurons, or brain cells, in these regions in the healthy and diseased brains. They also measured the level of a telltale sign of Alzheimer’s: tau proteins. These proteins build up in the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s and are thought to slowly destroy brain cells and the connections between them.

The brains from patients who had Alzheimer’s in this study had significant levels of tau tangles in these three brain regions, compared to the brains from people without the disease. What’s more, in these three brain regions, people with Alzheimer’s had lost up to 75% of their neurons.

“It’s remarkable because it’s not just a single brain nucleus that’s degenerating, but the whole wakefulness-promoting network,” lead author Jun Oh, a research associate at UCSF, said in the statement. “This means that the brain has no way to compensate, because all of these functionally related cell types are being destroyed at the same time.”

The researchers also compared the brains from people with Alzheimer’s with tissue samples from seven people who had two other forms of dementia caused by the accumulation of tau: progressive supranuclear palsy and corticobasal disease. Results showed that despite the buildup of tau, these brains did not show damage to the neurons that promote wakefulness.

“It seems that the wakefulness-promoting network is particularly vulnerable in Alzheimer’s disease,” Oh said in the statement. “Understanding why this is the case is something we need to follow up in future research.”

Though amyloid proteins, and the plaques that they form, have been the major target in several clinical trials of potential Alzheimer’s treatments, increasing evidence suggests that tau proteins play a more direct role in promoting symptoms of the disease, according to the statement.

The new findings suggest that “we need to be much more focused on understanding the early stages of tau accumulation in these brain areas in our ongoing search for Alzheimer’s treatments,” senior author Dr. Lea Grinberg, an associate professor of neurology and pathology at the UCSF Memory and Aging Center, said in the statement.

The findings were published Monday (Aug. 12) in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association.

https://www.livescience.com/alzheimers-attacks-wakefulness-neurons.html?utm_source=notification

by Carly Cassella

Over a dozen dolphins, stranded on the beaches of Florida and Massachusetts, have been found with brains full of amyloid plaques, a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. The scientists who made the discovery think it may be a warning to us all: alongside the Alzheimer’s-like plaques, the team also found the environmental toxin BMAA.

Produced by blue-green algae blooms, this neurotoxin is easily caught up in the ocean food web, and chronic dietary exposure has long been suspected to be a cause of neurological disease, including Alzheimers, Parkinson’s and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).

The presence of both BMAA and amyloid plaques in 13 stranded dolphins now adds even more weight to this hypothesis.

“Dolphins are an excellent sentinel species for toxic exposures in the marine environment,” says neurologist Deborah Mash from the University of Miami.

“With increasing frequency and duration of cyanobacterial blooms in coastal waters, dolphins might provide early warning of toxic exposures that could impact human health.”

They might also be a good animal model for how BMAA could trigger Alzheimer’s disease. In 2017, it was discovered that dolphins are the only known wild animal to show signs of this common human disease.

Meanwhile, dolphins that inhabit Florida coastal waters are also commonly exposed to recurring harmful algae blooms (HABs). This might just be a coincidence, but experiments have shown that chronic BMAA dietary exposure can trigger neurodegenerative changes in both humans and non-human primates.

“Acute and chronic exposures to such toxins can be harmful to both humans and animals resulting in respiratory illnesses, severe dermatitis, mucosal damage, cancer, organ failure and death,” the authors write.

As the world warms at a rapid rate, these HABs are only becoming more frequent, and the authors worry that dolphins will accumulate even more BMAA as a result, “both by exposure to HABs and by the ingestion of prey previously exposed to the cyanotoxin”.

As such, these creatures may very well be our first indication of poor environmental conditions, and while it’s still not clear if these blooms directly lead to Alzheimer’s in dolphins or in humans, the researchers say it’s a risk we shouldn’t be willing to take.

“The $64,000 question is whether these marine mammals experienced cognitive deficits and disorientation that led to their beaching,” says co-author Paul Alan Cox, an ethnobotanist at the Brain Chemistry Labs in Jackson Hole.

“Until further research clarifies this question, people should take simple steps to avoid cyanobacterial exposure.”

This study has been published in PLOS ONE.

https://www.sciencealert.com/beached-dolphins-had-alzheimer-s-like-plaques-and-it-s-a-warning-to-us-all

by Debora MacKenzie

We may finally have found a long-elusive cause of Alzheimer’s disease: Porphyromonas gingivalis, the key bacteria in chronic gum disease. That’s bad, as gum disease affects around a third of all people. But the good news is that a drug that blocks the main toxins of P. gingivalis is entering major clinical trials this year, and research published this week shows it might stop and even reverse Alzheimer’s. There could even be a vaccine.

Alzheimer’s is one of the biggest mysteries in medicine. As populations have aged, dementia has skyrocketed to become the fifth biggest cause of death worldwide. Alzheimer’s constitutes some 70 per cent of these cases and yet, we don’t know what causes it. The disease often involves the accumulation of proteins called amyloid and tau in the brain, and the leading hypothesis has been that the disease arises from defective control of these two proteins. But research in recent years has revealed that people can have amyloid plaques without having dementia. So many efforts to treat Alzheimer’s by moderating these proteins have failed, and the hypothesis has now been seriously questioned.

Indeed, evidence has been growing that the function of amyloid proteins may be as a defence against bacteria, leading to a spate of recent studies looking at bacteria in Alzheimer’s, particularly those that cause gum disease, which is known to be a major risk factor for the condition.

Bacteria involved in gum disease and other illnesses have been found after death in the brains of people who had Alzheimer’s, but until now, it hasn’t been clear whether these bacteria caused the disease or simply got in via brain damage caused by the condition.

Gum disease link

Multiple research teams have been investigating P. gingivalis, and have so far found that it invades and inflames brain regions affected by Alzheimer’s; that gum infections can worsen symptoms in mice genetically engineered to have Alzheimer’s; and that it can cause Alzheimer’s-like brain inflammation, neural damage, and amyloid plaques in healthy mice.

“When science converges from multiple independent laboratories like this, it is very compelling,” says Casey Lynch of Cortexyme, a pharmaceutical firm in San Francisco, California.

In the new study, Cortexyme have now reported finding the toxic enzymes – called gingipains – that P. gingivalis uses to feed on human tissue in 96 per cent of the 54 Alzheimer’s brain samples they looked at, and found the bacteria themselves in all three Alzheimer’s brains whose DNA they examined.

“This is the first report showing P. gingivalis DNA in human brains, and the associated gingipains, co-lococalising with plaques,” says Sim Singhrao, of the University of Central Lancashire, UK. Her team previously found that P. gingivalis actively invades the brains of mice with gum infections. She adds that the new study is also the first to show that gingipains slice up tau protein in ways that could allow it to kill neurons, causing dementia.

The bacteria and its enzymes were found at higher levels in those who had experienced worse cognitive decline, and had more amyloid and tau accumulations. The team also found the bacteria in the spinal fluid of living people with Alzheimer’s, suggesting that this technique may provide a long-sought after method of diagnosing the disease.

When the team gave P. gingivalis gum disease to mice, it led to brain infection, amyloid production, tangles of tau protein, and neural damage in the regions and nerves normally affected by Alzheimer’s.

Cortexyme had previously developed molecules that block gingipains. Giving some of these to mice reduced their infections, halted amyloid production, lowered brain inflammation and even rescued damaged neurons.

The team found that an antibiotic that killed P. gingivalis did this too, but less effectively, and the bacteria rapidly developed resistance. They did not resist the gingipain blockers. “This provides hope of treating or preventing Alzheimer’s disease one day,” says Singhrao.

New treatment hope

Some brain samples from people without Alzheimer’s also had P. gingivalis and protein accumulations, but at lower levels. We already know that amyloid and tau can accumulate in the brain for 10 to 20 years before Alzheimer’s symptoms begin. This, say the researchers, shows P. gingivalis could be a cause of Alzheimer’s, but it is not a result.

Gum disease is far more common than Alzheimer’s. But “Alzheimer’s strikes people who accumulate gingipains and damage in the brain fast enough to develop symptoms during their lifetimes,” says Lynch. “We believe this is a universal hypothesis of pathogenesis.”

Cortexyme reported in October that the best of their gingipain blockers had passed initial safety tests in people, and entered the brain. It also seemed to improve participants with Alzheimer’s. Later this year the firm will launch a larger trial of the drug, looking for P. gingivalis in spinal fluid, and cognitive improvements, before and after.

They also plan to test it against gum disease itself. Efforts to fight that have led a team in Melbourne to develop a vaccine for P. gingivalis that started tests in 2018. A vaccine for gum disease would be welcome – but if it also stops Alzheimer’s the impact could be enormous.

Journal reference: Science Advances

https://www.newscientist.com/article/2191814-we-may-finally-know-what-causes-alzheimers-and-how-to-stop-it/