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Archive for the ‘DLPFC’ Category

labyrinthine circuit board lines
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Amidst a steady flow of upbeat research news in the behavioral-genetics literature, there are many inconvenient, uncomfortable, party-pooping sentiments that are more often left unspoken.  I mean, its a big jump – from gene to behavior – and just too easy to spoil the mood by reminding your colleagues that, “well, everything is connected to everything” or “that gene association holds only for that particular task“.  Such may have been the case often times in the past decade when the so-called imaging-genetics literature emerged to parse out a role for genetic variation in the structure and functional activation of the brain using various neuroimaging methods.  Sure, the 5HTT-LPR was associated with amygdala activation during a face matching task, but what about other tasks (and imaging modalities) and other brain regions that express this gene.  How could anyone (let alone NIMH) make sense out of all of those – not to mention the hundreds of other candidate genes poised for imaging-genetic research?

With this in mind, it is a pleasure to meet the spoiler-of-spoilers! Here is a research article that examines a few candidate genetic polymorphisms and compares their findings across multiple imaging modalities.  In his article, “Neural Connectivity as an Intermediate Phenotype: Brain Networks Under Genetic Control” [doi: 10.1002/hbm.20639] Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg examines the DARPP32, 5HTT and MAOA genes and asks whether their associations with aspects of brain structure/function are in any way consistent across different neuroimaging modalities.  Amazingly, the answer seems to be, yes.

For example, he finds that the DARPP32 associations are consistently associated with the striatum and prefrontal-striatal connectivity – even as the data were collected using voxel-based morphometry, fMRI in separate tasks, and an analysis of functional connectivity.  Similarly, both the 5HTT and MAOA gene promoter repeats also showed consistent findings within a medial prefrontal and amygdala circuit across these various modalities.

This type of finding – if it holds up to the spoilers & party poopers – could radically simplify the understanding of how genes influence cognitive function and behavior.  As suggested by Meyer-Lindenberg, “features of connectivity often better account for behavioral effects of genetic variation than regional parameters of activation or structure.”  He suggests that dynamic causal modeling of resting state brain function may be a powerful approach to understand the role of a gene in a rather global, brain-wide sort of way.  I hope so and will be following this cross-cutting “connectivity” approach in much more detail!

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vix

In 1802, in a letter to then Secretary of the Treasury, Albert Gallatin, Thomas Jefferson warned that, “If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their money, first by inflation and then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around them (around the banks), will deprive the people of their property until their children will wake up homeless on the continent their fathers conquered.” (source)  Although the US now does have a central government bank, Jefferson’s warning still chillingly echoes through our current crisis as we teeter on this very brink.

The reasons why the US financial system lies stricken now (not to mention many times before) are complex for sure, but for a neuroscience & genetics buff like myself, its fun to consider the underlying mechanisms of human biology and behavior within a macroeconomic framework.  What role for the brain and human nature? How does our understanding of human social and emotional behavior reconcile with the premise of so-called “rational” behavior of investors and consumers in a marketplace? Can we regulate and design a debacle-proof economic system that accounts for human social and emotional influences on otherwise rational behavior? Luckily, if you are interested in these questions, you need only to pick up a copy of “Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism” by George Akerlof and Robert Shiller, who cover this very topic in great detail and provide a broad framework for neuropsychological research to inform macroeconomic policy.  A lofty and distant goal indeed, but perhaps the only way forward from such spectacular wreckage of the current system.

One such aspect of so-called “animal  spirits” could be, for example – fear – which has been blamed many times for financial panics and is covered in great measure by Akerlof and Shiller.  During the depths of the great depression, FDR famously tried to shake people loose from their animal spirits by suggesting “Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Fear Itself” (listen to the audio).   As another example, consider the chart at the top of the post – a 5yr trace of the VIX an index of volatility in the price of stock options over time.  In a bull or a bear market, when there are clear economic signals that stock prices should rise or fall, the VIX is rather low – since people feel relatively certain about the overall direction of the market.  Note however, what happened in the fall of 2008, when the heady days of the housing boom ended and our current crisis began – the VIX rockets toward 100% volatility – indicating rather dramatic swings in future earnings estimates and hence, tremendous uncertainty about the future direction of the market.  Indeed, for high flying investors (who may reside in tall buildings with windows that open) the VIX is sometimes referred to as the fear index.

What – in terms of brain mechanisms – might underlie such fear – which seems to stem from the uncertainty of whether things will get better or worse?  What do we know about how humans react to uncertainty and how humans process uncertainty?  What brain systems and mechanisms are at play here? One recent report that uses genetic variation as a tool to peer into such brain mechanisms suggests that dopamine signaling modulates different brain areas and our propensity to respond in conditions of low and high uncertainty.

In their article, “Prefrontal and striatal dopaminergic genes predict individual differences in exploration and exploitation“, [doi:10.1038/nn.2342] Michael Frank and colleagues examine individual differences in a so-called exploration/exploitation dilemma.  In their ‘‘temporal utility integration task’’, individuals could maximize their rewards by pressing “stop” on a rotating dial which can offer greater rewards when individuals press faster, or when individuals learn to withold and wait longer, and, in a third condition when rewards are uncertain.  The authors liken the paradigm to a common life dilemma when there are clear rewards to exploiting something you know well (like the restaurant around the corner), but, however, there may be more rewards obtained by exploring the unknown (restaurants on the other side of town).  In the case of the VIX and its massive rise on the eve of our nations financial calamity, investors were forced to switch from an exploitation strategy (buy housing-related securities!!!) to an exploration strategy (oh shit, what to do?!!).

The neurobiological model hypothesized by Frank and colleagues predicts that the striatum will be important for exploitation strategies and find supporting data in gene associations with the striatally-enriched DARPP-32 gene (a marker for dopamine D1-dependent signalling) and DRD2 for the propensity to respond faster and slower, respectively, in the exploitative conditions (rs907094 & rs1800496).  For the exploratory conditions, the team found an association with the COMT gene which is well-known to modulate neural function in the prefrontal cortex (rs4680). Thus, in my (admittedly loose) analogy, I can imagine investors relying on their striata during the housing boom years and then having to rely more on their prefrontal cortices suddenly in the fall of 2008 when it was no longer clear how to maximize investment rewards.  Egregious bailouts were not yet an option!

Click here and here to read more breakthrough neuroeconomics & genetic research from Michael Frank and colleagues.  Here and here for more on Shiller and Keynes.

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facial expressions
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One of the difficulties in understanding mental illness is that so many aspects of mental life can go awry – and its a challenge to understand what abnormalities are directly linked to causes and what abnormalities might be consequences or later ripples in a chain reaction of neural breakdown.  Ideally, one would prefer to treat the fundamental cause, rather than only offer palliative measures for symptoms that arise from tertiary neural inefficiencies. In their research article entitled, “Evidence That Altered Amygdala Activity in Schizophrenia Is Related to Clinical State and Not Genetic Risk“, [doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2008.08020261] (audio link) Rasetti and colleagues explore this issue.

Specifically, they focus on the function of the amygdala and its role in responding to, and processing, social and emotional information.  In schizophrenia, it has been found that this brain region can be somewhat unresponsive when viewing faces displaying fearful expressions – and so, the authors ask whether the response of the amygdala to fearful faces is, itself, an aspect of the disorder that can be linked to underlying genetic risk (a type of core, fundamental cause).

To do this, the research team assembled 3 groups of participants: 34 patients, 29 of their unaffected siblings and 20 demographically and ethnically matched control subjects.  The rationale was that if a trait – such as amygdala response – was similar for the patient/sibling comparison and dissimilar for the patient/control comparison, then one can conclude that the similarity is underlain by the similarity or shared genetic background of the patients and their siblings.  When the research team colected brain activity data in response to a facial expression matching task performed in an MRI scanner, they found that the patient/sibling comparison was not-similar, but rather the siblings were more similar to healthy controls instead of their siblings.  This suggests that the trait (amygdala response) is not likely to be directly related to core genetic risk factor(s) of schizophrenia, but rather related to apsects of the disorder that are consequences, or the state, of having the disorder.

A follow-up study using a different trait (prefrontal cortex activity during a working memory task) showed that this trait was similar for the patient/sibling contrast, but dissimilar for the patient/control contrast – suggesting that prefrontal cortex function IS somewhat linked to core genetic risk.  Congratulations to the authors on this very informative study!

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A graphical representation of the normal human...
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One of the mental functions many of us take for granted is memory – that is – until we’re at the grocery store.  If you’re like me, you dart out of the house confident that you don’t need a list since you’re just going to “pick up a few things” – only to return home and discover (hours later when you’re comfortably ensconced on the couch) that you forgot the ice cream.  Damn, why can’t I have a more efficient working memory system ?  What’s the matter with my lateral frontal cortex ?  Can I (should I) blame it on my genes ? What genes specifically ?

One group recently reported the use of the so-called BOLD-response (blood oxygen level dependent) as a means to sift through the human genome and identify genes that mediate the level of brain activity in the lateral frontal cortex that occur during a working memory task – somewhat akin to remembering a list of groceries.  Steven Potkin and associates in their paper, “Gene discovery through imaging-genetics: identification of two novel genes associated with schizophrenia” [doi: 10.1038/mp.2008.127] examine the level of brain activity in 28 patients with schizophrenia (a disorder where mental function in the lateral frontal cortex is disrupted) and correlate this brain activity (difference between short and long list) with genetic differences at 100,000 snps spread across the autosomes.

They identify 2 genes (that pass an additional series of statistical hurdles designed to weed-out false positive results) RSRC1 and ARHGAP18, heretofore, never having been connected to mental function.  Although neither protein is neuron or brain-specific in its expression, ARHGAP18 is a member of the Rho/Rac/Cdc42-like GTPase activating (RhoGAP) gene family which are well known regulators of the actin cytoskeleton (perhaps  a role in synaptic plasticity ?) and RSRC1 is reported to bind to actin homologs. Also, RSRC1 may play a role in forebrain development since it is expressed in cdc34+ stem cells that migrate under the control of TGF-alpha (As an aside, yours truly co-published a paper showing that TGF-alpha is regulated by early maternal care – possible connection ? Hmm).  A last possibility is a role in RNA splicing which many SR-proteins like RSRC1 function in – which also could be important for synaptic function as many mRNA’s are stored in synaptic terminals.

The authors’ method is completely novel and they seem to have discovered 2 new points from which to further explore the genetic basis of mental disability.  It will be of great interest to see where the research leads next.

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Flash circuit

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A recent paper from Andreas Heinz and colleagues (doi: 10.1038/nn2222) provides more neuroimaging evidence in humans for a a circuit that regulates our responsivity to stimuli that evoke emotional responses.  The basic circuitry involves the amygdala (a place in the brain where emotional memories are registered), the prefrontal cortex (a part of the brain that is involved in making decisions and assessing threats) and the cingulate cortex (a place in the brain where expectations are compared to sensory inputs & outgoing responses).  These 3 brain regions are interconnected in a loop through various synaptic contacts and the responsivity of these synapses can be modulated by neuomodulators such as dopamine, serotonin and noradrenaline.  It turns out, that several neuroimaging studies have begun to demonstrate that this (relatively) simple circuitry underlies human personality and temperament. In the Heinz study, the level of dopamine that was released into the amygdala was correlated with levels of functional activation to emotional stimuli as well as a dimension of temperament known as negative affect.

I recall once having taken the Meyers-Briggs assessment in graduate school and had a blast comparing my results with my wife – who was almost my polar opposite. Now, the latest neuroimaging and imaging-genetic research has begun to explain the complexities of human personality in basic neural circuitry where genes such as 5HTT and MAOA ‘turn up’ or turn down’ the gain on various synaptic contacts in this circuit – leading to the immense, yet systematic variation in personality and temperament that makes our social lives so interesting.  As I navigate my way through marriage and parenthood, I’m often glad I took the personality test with my wife many years ago.  It always helps to see things from the other person’s perspective.  Now, as she obtains her 23andMe profile, perhaps we will begin to compare our genomes together – the ultimate form of marriage counseling !!  Click here for more personality tests.

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inside my brain
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Every student can recall at least one stereotypical professor who – while brilliant – kept the students amused with nervous and socially inept behavior. Let’s face it, if you’re in academia, you’re surrounded by these – uh, nerds – and, judging by the fact that you are reading (not to mention writing) this blog right now – probably one of them. So, its natural to ask whether there might be a causal connection between emotionality, on the one hand, and cognitive performance on the other. Research on the neuromodulator serotonin shows that it plays a key role in emotional states – in particular, anxiety. Might it exert effects on cognitive performance ? In their paper, “A functional variant of the tryptophan hydroxylase 2 gene impacts working memory: A genetic imaging study“, (DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2007.12.002) Reuter and colleagues use a genetic variation a G to T snp (rs4570625) in the tryptophan hydroxylase 2 gene, a rate limiting biosynthetic isoenzyme for serotonin to evaluate its effect on a cognitive task. They ask subjects (who are laying in an MRI scanner) to perform a rather difficult cognitive task called the N-back task where the participant must maintain a running memory queue of a series of sequentially presented stimuli. Previous research shows that individuals with the GG genotype show higher scores on anxiety-related personality traits and so Reuter and team ask whether these folks activate more or less of their brain when performing the N-back working memory task. It turns out that the GG group showed clusters of activity in the frontal cortex that showed less activation than the TT group. The authors suggest that the GG group can perform the task using by recruiting less of their brains – hence suggesting that perhaps there just might be a genetic factor that accounts for a possible negative correlation between efficient cognitive performance and emotionality.

My 23andMe profile shows a GG here – nerd to the hilt – what will I use the rest of my PFC for ? Something else to worry about.

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Holiday time is full of all things delicious and fattening. Should I have a little chocolate now, or wait till later and have a bigger dessert ? Of course, this is not a real forced choice (in my case, the answer too often seems – alas – “I’ll have both!”), but there are many times in life when we are forced to decide between ‘a little now’ or ‘more later’. Sometimes, its clear that the extra $20 in your pocket now would be better utilized later on, after a few years of compound interest. Other times, its not so clear. Consider the recent ruling by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which allows employers to drop retirees’ health coverage once they turn 65 and become eligible for Medicare. Do I save my resources now to provide for my geezerdom healthcare spending, or do I enjoy (spend) my resources now while I’m young and able ? How do I make these decisions ? How does my life experience and genome interact to influence the brain systems that support these computations ? Boettiger and company provide some insight to these questions in their paper, “Immediate Reward Bias in Humans: Fronto-Parietal Networks and a Role for the Catechol-O-Methyltransferase 158Val/Val Genotype(DOI). The authors utilize an assay that measures a subject’s preference for rewards now or later and use functional brain imaging to seek out brain regions where activity is correlated to preferences for immediate rewards. Dopamine rich brain regions such as the posterior parietal cortex, dorsal prefrontal cortex and rostral parahippocampal gyrus showed (+) correlations while the lateral orbitofrontal cortex showed a (-) correlation. Variation in the dopaminergic enzyme COMT at the rs165688 SNP also showed a correlation with preferences for immediate reward as well as with brain activation. The authors’ results suggest that improving one’s ability to weigh long-term outcomes is a likely therapeutic avenue for helping impulsive folks (like me) optimize our resource allocation. I have not yet had my genome deCODEd or Google-ed, but strongly suspect I am a valine/valine homozygote.

Indeed it seems I am a GG (Valine/Valine) at this site according to 23andMe !

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