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Where da rodents kick it
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A recent GWAS study identified the 3′ region of the liver- (not brain) expressed PECR gene (rs7590720(G) and rs1344694(T)) on chromosome 2 as a risk factor for alcohol dependency.  These results, as reported by Treutlein et al., in “Genome-wide Association Study of Alcohol Dependence” were based on a population of 487 male inpatients and a follow-up re-test in a population of 1024 male inpatients and 996 control participants.

The authors also asked whether lab rats who – given the choice between water-based and ethanol-spiked beverages over the course of 1 year – showed differential gene expression in those rats that were alcohol preferrers vs. alcohol non-preferring rats.  Among a total of 542 genes that were found to be differentially expressed in the amygdala and caudate nucleus of alcohol vs. non-alcohol-preferring rat strains,  a mere 3 genes – that is the human orthologs of these 3 genes – did also show significant association with alcohol dependency in the human populations.  Here are the “rat genes” (ie. human homologs that show differential expression in rats and association with alcohol dependency in humans): rs1614972(C) in the alcohol dehydrogenase 1C (ADH1C) gene, rs13273672(C) in the GATA binding protein 4 (GATA4) gene, and rs11640875(A) in the cadherin 13 (CDH13) gene.

My 23andMe profile gives a mixed AG at rs7590720, and a mixed GT at rs1344694 while I show a mixed CT at rs1614972, CT at rs13273672 and AG at rs11640875.  Boooring! a middling heterozygote at all 5 alcohol prefer/dependency loci.   Were these the loci for chocolate prefer/dependency I would be a full risk-bearing homozygote.

 

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Mi iPod con vídeo
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It was a great pleasure to speak with Professor Garet Lahvis from the Department of Behavioral Neuroscience at the Oregon Health and Science University, and learn more about how the biology of empathy and social behaviors in general can be approached with animal models that are suitable for genetic studies.  The podcast is HERE and the post on his lab’s recent paper, “Empathy Is Moderated by Genetic Background in Mice” is HEREThank you again Dr. Lahvis!

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creb1According to Joseph LeDoux, “One of the most important contributions of modern neuroscience has been to show that the nature/nurture debate operates around a false dichotomy: the assumption that biology, on one hand, and lived experience, on the other, affect us in fundamentally different ways” (ref).  Indeed.  While I know not where the current debate stands, I’d like to point to a fantastic example of just how inextricably linked the genome is to the environment.  In their recent paper, “A Biological Function for the Neuronal Activity-Dependent Component of Bdnf Transcription in the Development of Cortical Inhibition” [doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2008.09.024]  Hong et al., ask what happens when you take away the ability of a given gene to respond to the environment.  This is not a traditional “knockout” experiment – where the gene is inactivated from the moment of conception onwards – but rather a much more subtle type of experimental manipulation.  What happens when you prevent nurture from exerting an effect on gene expression?

The team focused on the BDNF gene whose transcription can be initiated from any one of eight promoter sites (I-XIII).  These sites vary in activity depending on the phase of development and/or the tissue or type of cell – all of which make for a complex set of instructions able to turn the BDNF gene on and off in precise developmental and/or tissue-specific ways.  In the case of promoter IV, it appears to be triggered in the cortex in response to Ca++ release that occurs when neurons are firing – a phenomena called, “neuronal activity dependent transcription” – a top example of how the environment can influence gene expression.  Seeing as how BDNF promoter IV is important for this type of environment-induced gene expression, the team asked what happens when you remove this particular promoter?

To do this, the team constructed – keep in mind that these are – mice that contain mutations in several of the Calcium (Ca++) response elements in the promoter IV region.  They introduced point mutations so that the Ca++ sensitive protein CREB could not bind to the promoter and activate gene expression.  OK, so what happens?

Firstly, the team reports that the mutant mice are more or less indistinguishable from controls in appearance, gait, growth rate, brain size and can also reproduce and transmit the mutations.  WOW! Is that one strike AGAINST nurture? The team then shows that BDNF levels are more than 50% reduced in cultured neurons, but that levels of other immediate early genes are NOT affected (as expected).  In living animals, the effects were similar when they asked how much gene expression occurs in the sensory cortex when animals are exposed to light (after an extended period of darkness).  OK, so there are few effects, so far, other than lower levels of nurture-induced BDNF expression – hmmm. Looking more closely however, the team found that the mutant mice generated lower levels of inhibitory neuron activity – as measured by the firing of miniature inhibitory postsynaptic currents.  Follow-on results showed that the total number of inhibitory neurons (parvalbumin and NPY + GABAergic cells) was no different than controls and so it would seem that the activity dependence of BDNF is important for the maintenance of inhibitory synapses.

Hence, the team has found that what “nurture” does (via the BDNF promoter IV in this case) is to exert an effect on the connectivity of inhibitory neurons.  Wow, thanks mother nurture!  Although it may seem like an obscure role for something as important as THE environment, the team points out that the relative balance of excitation-to-inhibition (yin-yang as covered here for Rett syndrome) is crucial for proper cognitive development.

To explore the notion of inhibory/excitation balance further, check out this (TED link) video lecture, where Michael Merzenich describes this imbalance as a “signal-to-noise” problem wherein some children’s brains are rather noisy (due to any number of genetic/environmental reasons – such as, perhaps, poorly maintained inhibitory connections).  This can make it harder to develop and function in life.  Perhaps someday, the genetic/environment research like that of Hong and colleagues will inform the rehabilitative strategies developed by Merzenich.

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arch_fatesAm having a wonderful time reading, “Your Inner Fish” by Professor Neil Shubin – an exploration into the deep evolutionary roots of the human body.  Amazed to contemplate the embryonic structures known as the branchial arches, or gill arches – which we share with sharks! – and the role of the gcm2 gene that is expressed in these arches and controls salt balance in humans and fish.  Pharyngula has a wonderful post on this !! 

Hoping to find more deep evolutionary roots of mind and brain.
innershark

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Violinist marionette performs
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The homunculus (argument) is a pesky problem in cognitive science – a little guy who might suddenly appear when you propose a mechanism for decision making, spontaneous action or forethought  etc. – and would take credit for the origination of the neural impulse.  While there are many mechanistic models of decision making that have slain the little bugger – by invoking competition between past experience and memory as the source of new thoughts and ideas – one must always tread lightly, I suppose, to be wary that cognitive mechanisms are based completely in neural properties devoid of a homuncular source.

Still, the human mind must begin somewhere.  After all, its just a ball of cells initially, and then a tube and then some more folds, layers, neurogenesis and neural migration  etc. before maturing – miraculously – into a child that one day looks at you and says, “momma” or “dada”.  How do these neural networks come into being?  Who or what guides their development toward that unforgettable, “momma (dada)” moment?  A somewhat homuncluar “genetic program” – whose instructions we can attribute to millions of years of natural selection?  Did early hominid babies say “momma (dada)?  Hmmm. Seems like we might be placing a lot of faith in the so-called “instructions” provided by the genome, but who am I to quibble.

On the other hand, you might find that the recent paper by Akhtar et al., “Histone Deacetylases 1 and 2 Form a Developmental Switch That Controls Excitatory Synapse Maturation and Function” [doi:10.1523/jneurosci.0097-09.2009] may change the way you think about cognitive development.  The team explores the function of two very important epigenetic regulators of gene expression – histone deacetylases 1,2 (HDAC1, HDAC2) on the functionality of synapses in early developing mice and mature animals.  By epigenetic, I refer to the role of these genes in regulating chromatin structure and not via direct, site-specific DNA binding.  The way the HDAC genes work is by de-acetylating – removing acetyl groups – thus removing a electrostatic repulsion of acetyl groups (negative charge) on histone proteins with the phosphate backbone of DNA (also a negative charge).  When the histone proteins carry such an acetyl group, they do NOT bind well to DNA (negative-negative charge repulsion) and the DNA molecule is more open and exposed to binding of transcription factors that activate gene expression.  Thus if one (as Akhtar do) turns off a de-acetylating HDAC gene, then the resulting animal has a genome that is more open and exposed to transcription factor binding and gene expression.  Less HDAC = more gene expression!

What were the effects on synaptic function?  To summarize, the team found that in early development (neonatal mouse hippocampal cells) cells where the HDAC1 or 2 genes were turned off (either through pharmacologic blockers or via partial deletion of the gene(s) via lentivirus introduction of Cre recombinase) had more synapses and more synaptic electrical activity than did hippocampal cells from control animals.  Keep in mind that the HDACs are located in the nucleus of the neuron and the synapses are far, far away.  Amazingly – they are under the control of an epigenetic regulator of gene expression;  hence, ahem, “epigenetic puppetmasters”.  In adult cells, the knockdown of HDACs did not show the same effects on synaptic formation and activity.  Rather the cells where HDAC2 was shut down showed less synaptic formation and activity (HDAC1 had no effect).  Again, it is amazing to see effects on synaptic function regulated at vast distances.  Neat!

The authors suggest that the epigenetic regulatory system of HDAC1 & 2 can serve to regulate the overall levels of synaptic formation during early cognitive development.  If I understand their comments in the discussion, this may be because, you don’t necessarily want to have too many active synapses during the formation of a neural network.   Might such networks might be prone to excitotoxic damage or perhaps to being locked-in to inefficient circuits?  The authors note that HDACs interact with MecP2, a gene associated with Rett Syndrome – a developmental disorder (in many ways similar to autism) where neural networks underlying cognitive development in children fail to progress to support higher, more flexible forms of cognition.  Surely the results of Akhtar et al., must be a key to understanding and treating these disorders.

Interestingly, here, the controller of these developmental phenotypes is not a “genetic program” but rather an epigenetic one, whose effects are wide-spread across the genome and heavily influenced by the environment.  So no need for an homunculus here.

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Kali
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Joseph LeDoux‘s book, “Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are” opens with his recounting of an incidental glance at a t-shirt, “I don’t know, so maybe I’m not” (a play on Descartes’ cogito ergo sum) that prompted him to explore how our brain encodes memory and how that leads to our sense of self.  More vividly, Elizabeth Wurtzel, in “Prozac Nation” recounts, “Nothing in my life ever seemed to fade away or take its rightful place among the pantheon of experiences that constituted my eighteen years. It was all still with me, the storage space in my brain crammed with vivid memories, packed and piled like photographs and old dresses in my grandmother’s bureau. I wasn’t just the madwoman in the attic — I was the attic itself. The past was all over me, all under me, all inside me.” Both authors, like many others, have shared their personal reflections on the fact that – to put it far less eloquently than LeDoux and Wurtzl – “we” or “you” are encoded in your memories, which are “saved” in the form of synaptic connections that strengthen and weaken and morph through age and experience.  Furthermore, such synaptic connections and the myriad biochemical machinery that constitute them, are forever modulated by mood, motivation and your pharmacological concoction du jour.

Well, given that my “self” or “who I think of as myself” or ” who I’m aware of at the moment writing this blog post” … you get the neuro-philosophical dilemma here … hangs ever so tenuously on the biochemical function of a bunch of tiny little proteins that make up my synaptic connections – perhaps I should get to know these little buggers a bit better.

OK, how about a gene known as kalirin – which is named after the multiple-handed Hindu goddess Kali whose name, coincidentally, means “force of time (kala)” and is today considered the goddess of time and change (whoa, very fitting for a memory gene huh?).  The imaginative biochemists who dubbed kalirin recognized that the protein was multi-handed and able to interact with lots of other proteins.  In biochemical terms, kalirin is known as a “guanine nucleotide exchange factor” – basically, just a helper protein who helps to activate someone known as a Rho GTPase (by helping to exchange the spent GDP for a new, energy-laden GTP) who can then use the GTP to induce changes in neuronal shape through effects on the actin cytoskeleton.  Thus, kalirin, by performing its GDP-GTP exchange function, helps the actin cytoskeleton to grow.  The video below, shows how the actin cytoskeleton grows and contracts – very dynamically – in dendrites that carry synaptic spines – whose connectivity is the very essence of “self”.  Indeed, there is a lot of continuing action at the level of the synapse and its connection to other synapses, and kalirin is just one of many proteins that work in this dynamic, ever-changing biochemical reaction that makes up our synaptic connections.

In their paper”Kalirin regulates cortical spine morphogenesis and disease-related behavioral phenotypes” [doi: 10.1073/pnas.0904636106] Michael Cahill and colleagues put this biochemical model of kalirin to the test, by examining a mouse whose version of kalirin has been inactivated.  Although the mice born with this inactivated form are able to live, eat and breed, they do have significantly less dense patterns of dendritic spines in layer V of the frontal cortex (not in the hippocampus however, even though kalirin is expressed there).  Amazingly, the deficits in spine density could be rescued by subsequent over-expression of kalirinHmm, perhaps a kalirin medication in the future? Further behavior analyses revealed deficits in memory that are dependent on the frontal cortex (working memory) but not hippocampus (reference memory) which seems consistent with the synaptic spine density findings.

Lastly, the authors point out that human kalirin gene expression and variation has been associated with several neuro-psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia, ADHD and Alzheimer’s Disease.   All of these disorders are particularly cruel in the way they can deprive a person of their own self-perception, self-identity and dignity.  It seems that kalirin is a goddess I plan on getting to know better.  I hope she treats “me” well in the years to come.

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Lonely child
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For humans, there are few sights more heart-wrenching than an orphaned child (or any orphaned vertebrate for that matter).  Isolated, cold, unprotected, vulnerable – what could the cold, hard calculus of natural selection – “red in tooth and claw” – possibly have to offer these poor, vulnerable unfortunates?

So I wondered while reading, “Functional CRH variation increases stress-induced alcohol consumption in primates” [doi:10.1073/pnas.0902863106].  In this paper, the authors considered the role of a C-to-T change at position -248 in the promoter of the corticotropin releasing hormone (CRH or CRF) gene.  Its biochemical role was examined using nuclear extracts from hypothalamic cells, to demonstrate that this C-to-T nucleotide change disrupts protein-DNA binding, and, using transcriptional reporter assays, that the T-allele showed higher levels of transcription after forskolin stimulation.  Presumably, biochemical differences conferred by the T-allele can have a physiological role and alter the wider functionality of the hypothalamic-pituitary-axis (HPA axis), in which the CRH gene plays a critical role.

The authors ask whether primates (rhesus macaques) who differ in genotype (CC vs. CT) show any differences in physiological stress reactivity – as predicted by differences in the activity of the CRH promoter.  As a stressor, the team used a form of brief separation stress and found that there were no differences in HPA function (assessed by ACTH and Cortisol levels) in animals who were reared by their mothers.  However, when the stress paradigm was performed on animals who were reared without a mother (access to play with other age-matched macaques) there were significant differences in HPA function between the 2 genetic groups (T-alleles showing greater release of stress hormones).  Further behavioral assessments found that the peer reared animals who carried the T-allele explored their environment less when socially separated as adults (again no C vs. T differences in maternally reared animals).  In a separate assessment the T-carriers showed a preference for sweetened alcohol vs. sweetened water in ad lib consumption.

One way of summarizing these findings, could be to say that having no mother is a bad thing (more stress reactivity) and having the T-allele just makes it worse!  Another way could be to say that the T-allele enhances the self-protection behaviors (less exploration could be advantageous in the wild?) that arise from being orphaned.  Did mother nature (aka. natural selection) provide the macaque with a boost of self-preservation (in the form of a T-allele that enhances emotional/behavioral inhibition)?  I’m not sure, but it will be fun to report on further explorations of this query.  Click here for an interview with the corresponding author, Dr. Christina Barr.

—p.s.—

The authors touch on previous studies (here and here) that explored natural selection on this gene in primates and point out that humans and macaques both have 2 major haplotype clades (perhaps have been maintained in a yin-yang sort of fashion over the course of primate evolution) and that humans have a C-to-T change (rs28364015) which would correspond to position -201 in the macaque (position 68804715 on macaque chr. 8), which could be readily tested for similar functionality in humans.  In any case, the T-allele is rare in macaques, so it may be the case that few orphaned macaques ever endure the full T-allele experience.  In humans, the T-allele at rs28364015 seems more common.

Nevertheless, this is yet another – complicated – story of how genome variation is not destiny, but rather a potentiator or life experience – for better or worse.  Related posts on genes and early development (MAOA-here), (DAT-here), (RGS2-here), or just click the “development tag“.

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