Mugdha Deshpande named Blazeman Postdoctoral Fellow

Assistant Professor of Biology Avital Rodal has received a grant from the Blazeman Foundation to study the traffic of growth signals in neurons in the animal models of ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis).  ALS, commonly known as ‘Lou Gehrig’s disease’, is a neurodegenerative disease that causes the loss of motor neurons. The Blazeman Foundation is a non-profit organization working to increase the awareness about this terminal disease and to support research towards finding treatments. Funding to the Rodal lab has enabled creation of the Blazeman Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship for ALS Research, awarded to Mugdha Deshpande, Ph.D., who will use live imaging to examine and manipulate membrane traffic in fruit fly models of ALS, and who will also work with Dr. Suzanne Paradis to translate her findings to mammalian ALS models.

You can read more at BrandeisNOW.

Marder lab researchers win best paper contest

Alex Williams and Timothy O’Leary from the Marder Lab have won first place in the 2012  Brain Corporation Prize Competition in Computational Neuroscience  for their Scholarpedia article Homeostatic Regulation of Neuronal Excitability.  Williams, a Bowdoin College graduate currently working as post-baccalaureate research technician at Brandeis, and O’Leary, a postdoctoral fellow, won the worldwide competition to write the most popular review in the area of computational neuroscience, and gained a $5,000 prize, a feat that required not only superb writing but also mobilizing the audience to vote for paper. The award ceremony is today at the Computational Neuroscience (CNS’13) meeting in Paris.

Check out the winning entry online.

How does the brain decide whether you like what you eat?

When we encounter a taste, we appreciate both its chemosensory properties and its palatability—the degree to which the taste is pleasurable or aversive. Recent work suggests that the processing of this complex taste experience may involve coordination between multiple brain areas. Dissecting these interactions help understand the organization and working of the taste system.

F4.largeThe lateral hypothalamus (LH) is a region of the brain important for feeding. In a rodent, damage the LH, and the rodent may starve itself to death; stimulate it, and you get a curious mix of voracious eating and expressions of disgust over what is being eaten. Such data suggest that LH plays a complex game of balancing escape and avoidance, palatability and aversion, during the evaluation of a taste stimulus. Little is known, however, about how neurons in LH actually respond to tastes of different valences.

Brandeis postdocs Jennifer Li and Takashi Yoshida. undergraduate Kevin Monk ’13, and Associate Professor of Psychology Don Katz have recently published a study of neuronal reponses in LH in the Journal of Neuroscience. They have shown that taste-responsive neurons in LH break neatly down into two groups–one that responds preferentially to palatable tastes and one to aversive tastes. Virtually every taste neuron in LH could be identified as a palatable- or aversive-preferring neuron. In addition, even without considering the specific tastes to which a particular neuron responded, these two groups of neurons could be differentiated according to their baseline firing rate, shape of response, and tuning width. While these neurons were spatially intermingled, several pieces of data (functional connectivity analysis, relationship to responses in amygdala and cortex) suggest that they are parts of distinct neural circuits. These results offer insights into the multiple feeding-related processes that LH manages, and how the hypothalamus’ role in these processes might be related to its connection to other parts of the taste system.

Li JX, Yoshida T, Monk KJ, Katz DB. Lateral Hypothalamus Contains Two Types of Palatability-Related Taste Responses with Distinct Dynamics. J Neurosci. 2013;33(22):9462-73.

Making new synapses with Sema4D

There are two main types of synaptic connections in the mammalian brain: excitatory glutamatergic synapses and inhibitory GABAergic synapses. The balance between excitatory and inhibitory inputs a neuron receives regulates the overall activity of neuronal networks; disruptions to this balance can cause epilepsy.

A new paper in J. Neuroscience from the Paradis lab shows that treatment of cultured neurons with the extracellular domain of the protein Sema4D causes a rapid increase (i.e. within 30 minutes) in the density of functional GABAergic synapses. Further, addition of Sema4D to neurons drives GABAergic synapse formation through a previously unappreciated mechanism: the splitting of pre-existing assemblies of the Gephyrin scaffolding protein. To our knowledge this is the fastest demonstration of synapse formation reported thus far and has significant implications for our understanding of the mechanisms of GABAergic synapse formation.

Screen Shot 2013-05-26 at 5.03.05 PMWhile the underlying mechanism of epileptogenesis is largely unknown, recurrent seizures emerge when there is an increase in network activity. One possible therapeutic treatment would be to restore normal network activity by increasing network inhibition. In an in vitro model of epilepsy, acute treatment with the protein Sema4D rapidly silences neuronal hyperexcitability, suggesting a possible use of Sema4D as a disease-modifying treatment for epilepsy.

Lead authors on the paper were Marissa Kuzirian, a grad student in the Neuroscience Ph.D. program, and Anna Moore, a Brandeis Neuroscience postdoctoral fellow.

How does a hard-wired simple circuit generate multiple behaviors?

In a paper appearing in last week’s issue of Neuron, members of the Sengupta Lab and their collaborators from the Bargmann Lab describe how a fixed neural circuit produces multiple behaviors in a context-dependent manner.  The study was led by former Brandeis post-doctoral fellow Kyuhyung Kim in the Sengupta Lab (currently Assistant Professor at DGIST, Korea) and Rockefeller student Heeun Jang in the Bargmann Lab. Also involved in the study were current Brandeis MCB students Scott Neal and Danna Zeiger, and Dongshin Kim, the head of the Brandeis Microfluidics Facility.

For this study the researchers used the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans. The nervous system of C. elegans consists of only 302 neurons (in the adult hermaphrodite) whose anatomical connectivities are well-mapped. Despite its relatively small nervous system, C. elegans exhibits a wide range of behaviors in response to environmental stimuli. For instance, C. elegans exhibits varied responses to pheromones – small chemical substances used for intra-specific communication. Some pheromones are repulsive to adult hermaphrodite C. elegans but neutral to male C. elegans. However, reducing the function of the neuropeptide Y-like receptor NPR-1 results in hermaphrodites now exhibiting neutral pheromone responses and males becoming strongly attracted. The researchers asked how the sex and neuromodulatory state of the animal allows it to interpret the pheromone stimulus differently to generate distinct behavioral responses.

To answer this question, the researchers used behavioral assays, genetic manipulations of neuronal output, and in vivo measurements of pheromone-induced neuronal activity (using genetically encoded calcium sensors and customized microfluidics devices designed by the Brandeis Microfluidics Facility). They found that flexible output of a neuronal ‘hub-and-spoke’ circuit motif was responsible for generating these distinct pheromone responses under different conditions.

In this circuit, pheromone-sensing neurons ASK and ADL are connected to the central RMG motor/interneuron by gap junctions (see Figure). Jang et al. showed that in hermaphrodites with high levels of NPR-1 activity, the ADL sensory neurons respond strongly to a specific pheromone component and drive avoidance behavior via their chemical synapses to command interneurons for locomotion. However, sexual dimorphism in the circuit results in males having reduced ADL pheromone responses.  Moreover, Jang et al. showed that ADL synaptic output in males is further decreased via RMG and ASK-mediated antagonism (see Figure). As a result, males are indifferent to this pheromone.

The next issue the authors addressed is the role of NPR-1 activity in regulating pheromone responses. The Bargmann Lab had previously shown that high NPR-1 activity inhibits RMG, and under these conditions, pheromone responses of the ASK sensory neurons are low. Conversely, when NPR-1 activity is reduced or absent, ASK pheromone responses are enhanced. Jang et al. found that in the absence of NPR-1 activity, ADL chemical synaptic output in response to pheromones is antagonized by the RMG-ASK gap junction circuit. In other words, avoidance mediated by ADL chemical synaptic output is balanced by attraction mediated by the RMG-ASK gap junction circuit, resulting in hermaphrodites being neither attracted to nor avoiding this pheromone. In males with reduced NPR-1 activity the same effects are observed, however, since the ADL pheromone response is already lower in males, the RMG-ASK attraction-mediating arm “wins” resulting in attraction to pheromones.  The authors refer to these as overlapping ‘push-pull’ circuits in analogy with electronic circuits.

These results begin to explain how a small fixed circuit can generate a remarkable range of behaviors via alteration of sensory response properties as well as choice of specific synaptic output pathway as a function of neuromodulatory state and sex. The general theme of a circuit functioning differently under different neuromodulatory conditions has been extensively studied in the Marder Lab in the crustacean nervous system, and is an important principle to be kept in mind when interpreting functionality from structurally described connectomes.

Jang H(*), Kim K(*), Neal SJ, Macosko E, Kim D, Butcher RA, Zeiger DM, Bargmann CI, Sengupta P. Neuromodulatory State and Sex Specify Alternative Behaviors through Antagonistic Synaptic Pathways in C. elegans. Neuron. 2012;75(4):585-92.

To sleep, perchance to learn?

Sleep deprivation is ubiquitous in today’s society, and we have all felt the effects of sleep loss on our ability to function optimally, physically and especially mentally. In particular, it has become clear that the brain requires sleep to efficiently establish many forms of long-term memory. However, it is still unknown what sleep deprivation actually does to the brain to impair its function. In a recently published review in the journal Cellular Signalling, authors Christopher G. Vecsey from Brandeis University and Robbert Havekes and Ted Abel from the University of Pennsylvania have tried to capture the current state of our knowledge about the molecular and cellular effects of sleep deprivation that could explain why sleep loss is so detrimental for memory formation. The review focuses primarily on memories for events and places, which are thought to be formed and stored in the area of the brain called the hippocampus.

A key approach to learn about the nitty-gritty effects of sleep deprivation has been research in rodents. Therefore, the authors begin by summarizing how sleep deprivation studies are carried out in rodents, and how sleep deprivation affects memory and several signaling pathways in the brain. Notably, they review the effects of sleep loss on neurotransmitter systems such as acetylcholine, glutamate, and GABA, all of which could potentially modulate learning and memory. The authors also discuss some of the newest and most exciting studies on the topic of sleep loss, including a handful of experiments in which researchers have been able to reverse the effects of sleep deprivation through pharmacological treatments. For example, the authors describe one of their own studies in which sleep deprivation in mice caused memory deficits and reduced signaling through the cAMP pathway, which is known to be crucial for long-term memory. This molecular effect was likely caused by accelerated breakdown of cAMP by phosphodiesterase 4 (PDE4). When mice were treated with a PDE4 inhibitor during the period of sleep deprivation, memory formation remained unaffected. Rescue of memory defects were also obtained in separate studies in which rodents were treated either with nicotine, caffeine, or CPT, an antagonist of the adenosine A1 receptor. Two related studies also found that the effects of sleep deprivation on memory could be ameliorated by prevention of transmitter release from cells in the brain called glia. This was the first indication that brain cells other than neurons are impacted by sleep deprivation and that they contribute to the effects of sleep loss on the ability to remember new information.

As the authors mention, goals for studies in the immediate future will be to identify additional ways that sleep deprivation affects the brain, determine why sleep deprivation targets these molecules, and discover how these targets interact with each other to impair the normal function of the brain. Finally, hopefully our growing knowledge can be used to develop treatments for the cognitive deficits produced by sleep loss in people, especially those who have impaired sleep due to a medical condition, such as insomnia, chronic pain, sleep apnea, or one of the many neurodegenerative or psychiatric disorders associated with disturbed sleep patterns.

Christopher G. Vecsey is a postdoctoral fellow in the Griffith Lab at Brandeis, where he continues to work on interactions between sleep and learning. Chris is supported by a postdoctoral fellowship from the National Institute of Mental Health.

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