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How the brain drives adaptive behavior

How the brain drives adaptive behavior—When we react to sensory stimuli, our brains tap into a network of neurons that drives behavior. But little is understood about that network’s architecture, the contributions of its individual cells nor how the network changes with learning. Jose Luis Peña, M.D., Ph.D., has been awarded a five-year $3-million NIH BRAIN Initiative grant to investigate how neural networks become fine-tuned to their environment and adapt through exposure to life experiences. The research will involve barn owls, which are keenly attuned to relying on sound for locating prey. Dr. Pena and colleagues from Seattle University, University of California in Davis and San Diego will use high-throughput electrophysiology, electron microscopy, behavior and theory to determine how sound drives the owl's orienting behavior. Dr. Peña is a professor in the Dominick P. Purpura Department of Neuroscience. (1R01NS104911-01)

Tuesday, November 28, 2017
The Cerebellum -Addiction Connection

The Cerebellum -Addiction Connection—Evidence suggests that dysregulation of the cerebellum—a part of the brain well known for motor coordination—contributes to mental health disorders including schizophrenia, autism and addiction. Yet the cerebellum’s impact on cognitive function remains largely unexplored. Kamran Khodakhah, Ph.D., has received a five-year, $3.6 million grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to expand on his earlier research linking the cerebellum to the ventral tegmental area (VTA), a brain region involved in addiction and other reward-seeking behaviors. He and his colleagues will use anatomical and physiological approaches to find the neural pathways by which the cerebellum can affect the VTA as well as two other regions associated with addiction: the prefrontal cortex and the nucleus accumbens. Dr. Khodakhah is professor and chair of the Dominick P. Purpura Department of Neuroscience and the Florence and Irving Rubinstein Chair in Neuroscience. (1R01DA044761-01A1)

Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Unlocking Another Key to Aging

Unlocking Another Key to Aging—Transposons, also known as “jumping genes,” are DNA sequences that move from one location in the genome to another. Transposons are thought to contribute to aging, but their actual role remains to be clarified. The National Institute on Aging has awarded Julie Secombe, Ph.D., a five-year, $1.69 million grant to study whether transposons influence aging. So far, research on transposons and aging has been limited by available techniques. Dr. Secombe and her team will use novel methods to analyze the genomes of single cells. They will also focus on the role of Myc, a transcription factor (i.e., a protein regulating gene expression) known to affect aging in model organisms. By determining interconnections among Myc transposons that contribute to aging, the team may develop strategies for suppressing this activity and, ultimately, improve human longevity. Dr. Secombe is associate professor of genetics and is associate professor in the Dominick P. Purpura Department of Neuroscience. (1R01AG053269-01A1)

Wednesday, October 18, 2017
New Niemann-Pick Treatment Shows Promise

New Niemann-Pick Treatment Shows Promise—In the genetic disorder Niemann-Pick disease type C1 (NPC1), abnormally high levels of lipids accumulate in cells and damage organs including the liver, spleen and brain. NPC1 is usually diagnosed when children develop neurological symptoms such as clumsiness or learning difficulties. Symptoms progressively worsen and patients usually die 10 to 15 years following diagnosis. No FDA-approved treatment exists. Steven Walkley, D.V.M., Ph.D., has co-authored a study in the August 10 issue of The Lancet showing that the drug 2-hydroxypropyl-β-cyclodextrin (HPβCD) can safely slow NPC1’s progression. Patients received monthly or bi-weekly spinal injections of the drug for 18 months. Following the treatment period, biochemical and neurological tests showed that, compared with historical data for patients the same age, patients treated with the drug experienced significantly less cognitive dysfunction, with minimal side effects. Dr. Walkley is director of the Rose F. Kennedy Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center and professor in the Dominick P. Purpura Department of Neuroscience, in the department of pathology, and in the Saul R. Korey Department of Neurology at Einstein.

Monday, October 02, 2017
Memories Are Made of This

Memories Are Made of This—Long-term potentiation (LTP) strengthens synapses (specialized junctions where neurons come together to communicate) by repetitively stimulating them. It’s considered a key mechanism underlying learning and memory. In their study of hippocampal mossy cells and granule cells of the brain’s hippocampus, Pablo Castillo, M.D., Ph.D., and colleagues identified a novel form of LTP in which synaptic strengthening depends on the presynaptic neuron (which releases the neurotransmitter into the synapse) rather than on the postsynaptic neuron (which receives the neurotransmitter). This form of LTP may be involved in learning as well as the neuronal excitation that causes temporal lobe epilepsy. The researchers reported their findings online on August 16 in Neuron. Dr. Castillo is professor in the Dominick P. Purpura Department of Neuroscience and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, as well as the Harold and Muriel Block Chair in Neuroscience.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017
Insights into Autism Spectrum Disorder

Insights into Autism Spectrum Disorder—Noboru Hiroi, Ph.D., has been awarded a five-year, $1.8 million grant from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders to investigate the interplay among genes, early social communication and neonatal maternal care in determining the severity of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Working with a genetic mouse model of ASD, Dr. Hiroi’s lab has observed that newborn mice display an unusual vocalization or “call,” to communicate with their mothers and that this abnormal call reduces the level of maternal care that newborns receive. The researchers will study whether abnormal newborn-to-mother vocalization is caused by ASD-related gene variants and whether this early experience of social communication gone awry worsens ASD-like behaviors through the epigenetic modification of these gene variants. Dr. Hiroi is professor in the Dominick P. Purpura Department of Neuroscience and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. (1R01DC015776-01A1)

Wednesday, September 13, 2017
Studying How Nerve Cells Connect

Studying How Nerve Cells Connect—The National Institute of Mental Health has awarded Scott W. Emmons, Ph.D., a five-year, $2 million grant to investigate the synaptic connections that allow signals to travel from neuron to neuron throughout the brain. The researchers will conduct their studies on the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans, which depends on genes similar to those that lay down the neuronal architecture in human brains. Through a combination of genetic, molecular and biochemical studies, the research should shed light on the function of these genes and the factors that make accurate nerve connectivity possible. Dr. Emmons is professor of genetics and of neuroscience and holds the Siegfried Ullmann Chair in Molecular Genetics. (1R01MH112689-01)

Thursday, March 23, 2017
New Target For Dystonia Therapy

New Target For Dystonia Therapy—Dystonia—when someone’s muscles contract uncontrollably—is the third most common movement disorder (after Parkinson’s and essential tremor), affecting about 250,000 Americans. Research and treatment for the most common inherited form of dystonia, called DYT1, has focused mainly on the basal ganglia region of the brain. But new animal research by Einstein scientists implicates a different part of the brainthe cerebellumas the site of the problem. The study, published in the February 15 online issue of eLife, was led by Kamran Khodakhah, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Dominick P. Purpura Department of Neuroscience and the Harold and Muriel Block Chair in Neuroscience. He and his colleagues made their discovery after generating the first mouse model of DYT1 to exhibit the overt symptoms of dystonia seen in patients. Previous research in Dr. Khodakhah’s lab has shown that severing the link between the cerebellum and the basal ganglia might be an effective way to treat cerebellar-induced dystonias.

Monday, March 20, 2017
Focusing on RNA-protein Interactions

Focusing on RNA-protein Interactions—Gene expression relies on interactions between messenger RNA molecules and RNA-binding proteins.  Insufficient resolution means that today’s microscopes tend to “see” molecular interactions that actually don’t occur. In a paper published on February 21 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Robert Singer, Ph.D., along with Carolina Eliscovich, Ph.D., and Shailesh Shenoy, B.S., describe their high-resolution methodology for detecting whether two molecules are physically interacting or are close to each other merely due to chance. Surprisingly, the methodology showed that certain proteins thought to bind mRNAs actually don’t. The new methodology could reveal dysfunctional RNA-protein interactions that can cause genetic disorders including neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative diseases and cancer. Dr. Singer is professor and co-chair of anatomy & structural biology, as well as co-director of the Gruss-Lipper Biophotonics Center and of the Integrated Imaging Program. He also is professor in the Dominick P. Purpura Department of Neuroscience and of cell biology and the Harold and Muriel Block Chair in anatomy & structural biology.

Monday, March 06, 2017
Gender Differences in Walking Among Seniors

Gender Differences in Walking Among Seniors—Albert Einstein College of Medicine scientists had previously shown that older people who do poorly on dual-task walking tests (walking while talking) face an increased risk for falls, disability and death. But it wasn’t known whether gender and stress influence how the brain responds to the demands of dual-task walking. A study by Roee Holtzer, Ph.D., and colleagues assessed older men and women during both walking and dual-task walking. When confronted with the demands of dual-task walking, older men were more vulnerable than older women to the effect that perceived stress has on their walking velocity and the oxygenation levels in their pre-frontal cortex (which controls executive functions). The study, published online on December 28, 2016, in the European Journal of Neuroscience, suggests that tests for assessing whether people prone are to mobility impairments should include measures of stress. Dr. Holtzer is a professor in the Saul R. Korey Department of Neurology.

Thursday, January 19, 2017
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