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Swine flu vaccine linked to child narcolepsy: EU watchdog

September 30, 2012 Leave a comment

 

A swine flu vaccine used in 2009-10 is linked to a higher risk of the sleeping disorder narcolepsy in children and teens in Sweden and Finland, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said Friday.

The EU agency studied the effects of the Pandemrix vaccine on children in eight European countries after Sweden and Finland reported higher incidences of narcolepsy among children who were inoculated with the vaccine during the swine flu pandemic in 2009 and 2010.

“The case-control study found an association between vaccination with Pandemrix and an increased risk of narcolepsy in children and adolescents (five to 19 years of age) in Sweden and Finland,” the ECDC said.

“The overall number of new cases of narcolepsy being reported after September 2009 was much higher in Sweden and Finland … compared with the other countries participating in the study,” it said.

In the six other countries—Britain, Denmark, France, Italy, The Netherlands and Norway—no link was found based on a strict statistical analysis, which tried to address media bias.

However, other confirmatory analyses did identify an increased risk, the report said.

The report included several recommendations for further study to try to distinguish between true vaccine effects and media attention.

An ECDC spokesman said that while the study did not quantify the increased risk compared with non-vaccination, national studies showed the risk of developing narcolepsy after taking Pandemrix, which is produced by British drug company GlaxoSmithKline, was around one in 20,000 for children and adolescents.

Narcolepsy is a chronic nervous system disorder that causes excessive drowsiness, often causing people to fall asleep uncontrollably, and in more severe cases to suffer hallucinations or paralysing physical collapses called cataplexy.

In Finland, 79 children aged four to 19 developed narcolepsy after receiving the Pandemrix vaccine in 2009 and 2010, while in Sweden the number was close to 200, according to figures in the two countries.

Both countries recommended their populations, of around five and 10 million respectively, to take part in mass vaccinations during the swine flu scare. Pandemrix was the only vaccine used in both countries.

Meanwhile, a recent study in the medical journal The Lancet said that between five and 17 people in Finland aged 0-17 are estimated to have died as a direct result of the 2009-10 swine flu pandemic, while the same number for Sweden was nine to 31.

In the past year, the Finnish and Swedish governments have both agreed to provide financial compensation for the affected children after their own national research showed a link between the inoculation and narcolepsy.

Story Source:

The above story is reprinted from MedicalXpress.

 

Source 3: Protein Essential for Ebola Virus Infection Is a Promising Antiviral Target

September 30, 2012 Leave a comment

In separate papers published online in Nature, two research teams report identifying a critical protein that Ebola virus exploits to cause deadly infections. The protein target is an essential element through which the virus enters living cells to cause disease.

The first study was led by four senior scientists: Sean Whelan, associate professor of microbiology and immunobiology at Harvard Medical School; Kartik Chandran, assistant professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine; John Dye at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) and Thijn Brummelkamp, originally at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and now at the Netherlands Cancer Institute. The second study was led by James Cunningham, a Harvard Medical School associate professor of medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and also co-authored by Chandran.

“This research identifies a critical cellular protein that the Ebola virus needs to cause infection and disease,” explained Whelan, who is also co-director of the HMS Program in Virology. “The discovery also improves chances that drugs can be developed that directly combat Ebola infections.”

Both papers are published in the August 24 online issue of Nature.

The African Ebola virus — and its cousin, Marburg virus — are known as the filoviruses. Widely considered one of the most dangerous infections known, Ebola was first identified in 1976 in Africa near the Ebola River, an area in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Infections cause severe hemorrhage, multiple organ failure and death. No one quite knows how the virus is spread, and there are no available vaccines or anti-viral drugs that can fight the infections.

Through conducting a genome-wide genetic screen in human cells aimed at identifying molecules essential for Ebola’s virulence, Whelan and his colleagues homed in on Niemann-Pick C1 (NPC1).

NPC1 has been well known in the biomedical literature. Primarily associated with cholesterol metabolism, this protein, when mutated, causes a rare genetic disorder in children, Niemann-Pick disease.

Using cells derived from these patients, the group found that this mutant form of NPC1 also completely blocks infection by the Ebola virus. They also demonstrated that mice carrying a mutation in the NPC1 gene resisted Ebola infection. Similar resistance was found in cultured cells in which the normal molecular structure of the Niemann-Pick protein has been altered.

In other words, targeting NPC1 has real therapeutic potential. While such a treatment may also block the cholesterol transport pathway, short-term treatment would likely be tolerated.

Indeed in the accompanying paper, Cunningham’s group describes such a potential inhibitor.

Cunningham and his group at Brigham and Women’s Hospital investigated Ebola by using a robotic method developed by their colleagues at the National Small Molecule Screening Laboratory at Harvard Medical School to screen tens of thousands of compounds. The team identified a novel small molecule that inhibits Ebola virus entry into cells by more than 99 percent.

The team then used the inhibitor as a probe to investigate the Ebola infection pathway and found that the inhibitor targeted NPC1.

For Cunningham and Chandran, this finding builds on a 2005 paper of theirs for which Whelan was also a collaborator. In that study, he and his group discovered how Ebola exploits a protein called cathepsin B. This new study completes the puzzle. It now seems that cathepsin B interacts with Ebola in a way that preps it to subsequently bind with NPC1.

“It is interesting that NPC1 is critical for the uptake of cholesterol into cells, which is an indication of how the virus exploits normal cell processes to grow and spread,” said Cunningham. “Small molecules that target NPC1 and inhibit Ebola virus infection have the potential to be developed into anti-viral drugs.”

The paper coauthored by Whelan was funded by the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the National Human Genome Research Institute, the U.S. Army, and the Burroughs Wellcome Foundation. Cunningham’s work was funded by the New England Regional Center of Excellence for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases at Harvard Medical School.

Story Source:

The above story is reprinted from materials provided by Harvard Medical School, via ScienceDaily. The original article was written by Robert Cooke and Lori Shanks.

Journal References:

  • Jan E. Carette, Matthijs Raaben, Anthony C. Wong, Andrew S. Herbert, Gregor Obernosterer, Nirupama Mulherkar, Ana I. Kuehne, Philip J. Kranzusch, April M. Griffin, Gordon Ruthel, Paola Dal Cin, John M. Dye, Sean P. Whelan, Kartik Chandran, Thijn R. Brummelkamp. Ebola virus entry requires the cholesterol transporter Niemann–Pick C1. Nature, 2011; DOI: 10.1038/nature10348
  • Marceline Côté, John Misasi, Tao Ren, Anna Bruchez, Kyungae Lee, Claire Marie Filone, Lisa Hensley, Qi Li, Daniel Ory, Kartik Chandran, James Cunningham. Small molecule inhibitors reveal Niemann–Pick C1 is essential for Ebola virus infection. Nature, 2011; DOI: 10.1038/nature10380

Source 2: Scientists Identify Point of Entry for Deadly Ebola Virus

September 30, 2012 Leave a comment

Ebola virus, the cause of Ebola hemorrhagic fever (EHF), is one of the deadliest known viruses affecting humans. Like anthrax and smallpox virus, Ebola virus is classified by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as a category A bioterrorism agent. Currently, there is no vaccine to prevent EHF, and patients are treated only for their symptoms.Although outbreaks are rare, Ebola virus, the cause of Ebola hemorrhagic fever (EHF), is one of the deadliest known viruses affecting humans. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 1,850 EHF cases with more than 1,200 deaths have been documented since the virus was identified in 1976.

This negatively-stained transmission electron micrograph (TEM) revealed some of the ultrastructural curvilinear morphologic features displayed by the Ebola virus discovered from the Ivory Coast of Africa. (Credit: Charles Humphrey). (up)

EHF’s clinical presentation can be devastating: fever, intense weakness, and joint and muscle aches progress to diarrhea, vomiting, and in some cases, internal and external bleeding caused by disintegrating blood vessels. Currently, there is no approved vaccine and patients are treated only for their symptoms. Like anthrax and smallpox virus, Ebola virus is classified as a category A bioterrorism agent by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Until now, however, researchers had only a limited understanding of how Ebola virus gains entry to a host cell.

Using an unusual human cell line, Whitehead Institute scientists and collaborators from Harvard Medical School, Albert Einstein College of Medicine and U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, have identified the Niemann-Pick C1 (NPC1) protein as crucial for Ebola virus to enter cells and begin replicating. The discovery may offer a new and better approach for the development of antiviral therapeutics, as it would target a structure in the host cell rather than a viral component.

The findings are reported online in Nature this week.

Where all of us inherit one copy of each chromosome from each of our two parents, cell lines exist with only a single set, and thus with a single copy of each individual gene, instead of the usual two. Using an unusual human cell line of this type, Whitehead Institute researchers and their collaborators performed a genetic screen and identified a protein used by Ebola virus to gain entry into cells and begin replicating. The discovery may offer a new approach for the development of antiviral therapeutics.

“Right now, people make therapeutics to inactivate the pathogen itself. But the problem is that pathogens can quickly change and escape detection and elimination by the immune system,” says former Whitehead Fellow Thijn Brummelkamp, now a group leader at the Netherlands Cancer Institute (NKI). “Here we get a good idea of the host genes that are needed for the pathogen to enter the cell for replication. Perhaps by generating therapeutics against those host factors, we would have a more stable target for antiviral drugs.”

The method developed by the Brummelkamp lab to identify host factors relies on gene disruption — knocking out gene function in the host cells, one gene at a time — and documenting which cells survive due to mutations that afford protection from viral entry.

But human cells are diploid with two copies of each chromosome and its genes. Researchers can reliably target and knock out one copy of a gene, but doing so for both copies is far more difficult and time-consuming. If only a single copy is silenced, the other continues to function normally and masks any effect of the knockout.

To sidestep this obstacle, Jan Carette, a first co-author on the Nature paper and a former postdoctoral researcher in the Brummelkamp lab, employed a technique he had previously applied to study the cytolethal distending toxin (CDT) family that is secreted by multiple pathogenic bacteria, including Escherichia coli, Shigella dysenteriae, and Haemophilus ducreyi. Each bacterial species has developed its own twists on the CDT structure, which may link to the target tissues of the toxin’s bacterium.

In his CDT work published in Nature Biotechnology, Carette together with co-lead authors of Whitehead Member Hidde Ploegh’s lab, used a line of haploid cells isolated from a chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) patient. Because these cells, called KBM7 cells, have only one copy of each chromosome except chromosome 8, the researchers could disrupt the expression of each gene and screen for mutants with the desired properties, in this case survival of a lethal dose of toxin.

After knocking out individual genes by disrupting the normal structure of the gene, the resulting mutant KBM7 cells were exposed to various CDTs. In the cells that survived, Carette and coauthors knew that genes that had been disrupted were somehow crucial to CDT intoxication. By analyzing the surviving cell’s genomes, Carette and coauthors identified ten human proteins that are used by CDTs during intoxication, and those host factors seem to be tailored to each CDT’s targeted cell.

“I found it surprising that there is quite some specificity in the entry routes for each toxin,” says Carette. “If you take CDTs that are very similar to each other in structure, you could still see significant differences in the host factors they require to do their job. So it seems that every pathogen evolved a specific and unique way of its toxin entering the cells.”

To study Ebola virus, Carette and co-lead authors from Harvard Medical School and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine made use of an otherwise harmless virus cloaked in the Ebola virus glycoprotein coat. Using this virus and by altering the haploid cells somewhat, Carette and coauthors were able to pinpoint the cellular genes that Ebola virus relies on to enter the cell.

Carette and coauthors identified as necessary for Ebola virus entry several genes involved in organelles that transport and recycle proteins. One gene in particular stood out, NPC1, which codes for a cholesterol transport protein, and is necessary for the virus to enter the cell’s cytoplasm for replication. Mutations in this gene cause a form of Niemann-Pick disease, an ultimately fatal neurological disorder diagnosed mainly in children.

Collaborators at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) tested the effects of active Ebola virus on mice that had one copy of the NPC1 gene knocked out. Control mice, with two functioning copies of the NPC1 gene, quickly succumbed to infection, while the NPC1 knockout mice were largely protected from the virus.

“This is pretty unexpected,” says Carette, who is currently an Acting Assistant Professor in Microbiology & Immunology at Stanford School of Medicine. “This might imply that genetic mutations in the NPC1 gene in humans could make some people resistant to this very deadly virus. And now that we know that NPC1 is an Ebola virus host factor, it provides a strong platform from which to start developing new antivirals.”

This research was supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the U.S. Army, Boehringer Ingelheim Fonds and a Burroughs Wellcome Award.

Story Source:

The above story is reprinted from materials provided by Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, via ScienceDaily. The original article was written by Nicole Giese.

Journal References:

  • Jan E. Carette, Matthijs Raaben, Anthony C. Wong, Andrew S. Herbert, Gregor Obernosterer, Nirupama Mulherkar, Ana I. Kuehne, Philip J. Kranzusch, April M. Griffin, Gordon Ruthel, Paola Dal Cin, John M. Dye, Sean P. Whelan, Kartik Chandran, Thijn R. Brummelkamp. Ebola virus entry requires the cholesterol transporter Niemann–Pick C1. Nature, 2011; DOI: 10.1038/nature10348
  • Jan E Carette, Carla P Guimaraes, Irene Wuethrich, Vincent A Blomen, Malini Varadarajan, Chong Sun, George Bell, Bingbing Yuan, Markus K Muellner, Sebastian M Nijman, Hidde L Ploegh, Thijn R Brummelkamp. Global gene disruption in human cells to assign genes to phenotypes by deep sequencing. Nature Biotechnology, 2011; 29 (6): 542 DOI: 10.1038/nbt.1857

Source 1: Researchers Find ‘Key’ Used by Ebola Virus to Unlock Cells and Spread Deadly Infection

September 30, 2012 Leave a comment

Researchers at Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University have helped identify a cellular protein that is critical for infection by the deadly Ebola virus. The findings, published in the August 24 online edition of Nature, suggest a possible strategy for blocking infection due to Ebola virus, one of the world’s most lethal viruses and a potential bioterrorism agent.

The study was a collaborative effort involving scientists from Einstein, the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, Harvard Medical School, and the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases

Ebola virus is notorious for killing up to 90 percent of the people it infects. Ebola hemorrhagic fever — the severe, usually fatal disease that Ebola virus causes in humans and in nonhuman primates — first emerged in 1976 in villages along the Ebola River in the Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Africa. Since then, about two dozen outbreaks have occurred.

This drawing illustrates the sequence of events from the time the Ebola virus first enters the host cell (top) until the virus gains its release into the cytoplasm, where it can multiply (bottom). Researchers have shown that Ebola exists in the lysosome and enters the cytoplasm by interacting with NPC1 protein molecules (orange) embedded in the lysosomal membrane. (Credit: Image courtesy of Albert Einstein College of Medicine) (right)

Though Ebola and Marburg hemorrhagic fevers are fortunately rare diseases, “even small outbreaks of Ebola or Marburg virus can cause fear and panic,” said co-senior author Kartik Chandran, Ph.D., assistant professor of microbiology & immunology at Einstein “And then there’s the worry that these viruses could be used for bioterrorism.”

Ebola virus’s ability to enter cells is reminiscent of the Trojan Horse used by the ancient Greeks to defeat their archenemies. Ebola virus binds to the host cell’s outer membrane, and a portion of host cell membrane then surrounds the virus and pinches off, creating an endosome — a membrane-bound bubble inside the cell (see image). Endosomes carry their viral stowaways deep within the cell and eventually mature into lysosomes — tiny enzyme-filled structures that digest and recycle cellular debris.

The viruses captive in the lysosome manage to escape destruction by exploiting components of the cell to gain entry to the cytoplasm, the substance between the cell membrane and the nucleus where the virus can replicate. But the identities of many of these components have remained unknown.

In seeking the answer, Einstein researchers and colleagues searched for proteins that Ebola virus might exploit to enter the cell’s cytoplasm. One such cellular protein, known as Niemann-Pick C1 (NPC1), stood out.

“We found that if your cells don’t make this protein, they cannot be infected by Ebola virus,” said Dr. Chandran. “Obviously it’s very early days, but we think our discovery has created a real therapeutic opportunity.” At present, there are no drugs available to treat people who have been infected with Ebola virus or approved vaccines to prevent illness.”

The NPC1 protein is embedded within cell membranes, where it helps transport cholesterol within the cell. However, the absence of NPC1 due to gene mutations causes a rare degenerative disorder called Niemann-Pick disease, in which cells become clogged up with cholesterol and eventually die.

To confirm their finding that NPC1 is crucial for Ebola virus infection, the researchers challenged mice carrying a mutation in NPC1 with Ebola virus. Remarkably, most of these mutant mice survived the challenge with this normally deadly virus. Similarly, fibroblast cells (found in connective tissue) from people with Niemann-Pick disease were resistant to Ebola virus infection, as were human cells from other organs that were manipulated to reduce the amount of NPC1 they contained.

The researchers also tested whether other major viruses need NPC1 to infect human cells. Only Ebola virus and its close relative, Marburg virus, were found to require the presence of NPC1 protein for infection. Like Ebola virus, Marburg virus also needs NPC1 to kill mice.

“Our work suggests that these viruses need NPC1, which is embedded in the lysosomal membrane, to escape from the lysosome into the cytoplasm,” said Dr. Chandran. “We are now testing that hypothesis in the laboratory.”

The discovery of NPC1’s crucial role in Ebola infection raises the possibility that Ebola and Marburg virus outbreaks could be thwarted by a drug that blocks the action of NPC1. “Even though such a treatment would also block the cholesterol transport pathway, we think it would be tolerable,” said Dr. Chandran. “Most outbreaks are short-lived, so treatment would be needed for only a short time.” Einstein, in conjunction with the Whitehead Institute of Biomedical Research and Harvard Medical School, has filed a patent application related to this research that is available for licensing to partners interested in further developing and commercializing this technology.

Remarkably, an anti-Ebola virus inhibitor Dr. Chandran found as a postdoctoral fellow at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, MA turns out to be just such an NPC1 blocker, as described in a separate manuscript by Côté and co-workers to be published in the same issue of Nature.

Story Source:

The above story is reprinted from materials provided by Albert Einstein College of Medicine, via ScienceDaily.

Note: Materials may be edited for content and length. For further information, please contact the source cited above.

Journal Reference:

Jan E. Carette, Matthijs Raaben, Anthony C. Wong, Andrew S. Herbert, Gregor Obernosterer, Nirupama Mulherkar, Ana I. Kuehne, Philip J. Kranzusch, April M. Griffin, Gordon Ruthel, Paola Dal Cin, John M. Dye, Sean P. Whelan, Kartik Chandran, Thijn R. Brummelkamp. Ebola virus entry requires the cholesterol transporter Niemann–Pick C1. Nature, 2011; DOI: 10.1038/nature10348

How Deadly Marburg Virus Silences Immune System: Breakthrough Findings Point to Targets for Drugs and Vaccines

September 30, 2012 Leave a comment

Scientists at The Scripps Research Institute have determined the structure of a critical protein from the Marburg virus, a close cousin of Ebola virus. These viruses cause similar diseases and are some of the deadliest pathogens on the planet, each killing up to 90 percent of those infected.

The Marburg virus VP35 protein (beige) surrounds the virus’s double-stranded RNA (blue), masking it from immune system detection. (Credit: Image by Christina Corbaci, The Scripps Research Institute) (up)

Described in the Sept. 13, 2012 publication of the journal PLoS Pathogens, the new research reveals how a key protein component of the Marburg virus, called VP35, blocks the human immune system, allowing the virus to grow unchecked. The structure provides a major step forward in understanding how the deadly virus works, and may be useful in the development of potential treatments for those infected.

“The immune system is designed to recognize certain hallmarks of virus infection,” said Erica Ollmann Saphire, the Scripps Research scientist who led the effort. “When these are sensed, an immediate antiviral defense is launched. However, the Marburg and Ebola viruses mask the evidence of their own infection. By doing so, the viruses are able to replicate rapidly and overwhelm the patient’s ability to launch an effective defense.”

Deadly Outbreaks

Ebola virus outbreaks have occurred in the last month in both Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, while Marburg virus broke out in Angola in 2005 to 2006 and again in Uganda in 2007. The Angolan Marburg virus outbreak began in a pediatric ward and killed 88 percent of those it infected. The virus has since been imported into the United States (Colorado) and the Netherlands by tourists who had visited Africa.

There is currently no cure for Marburg hemorrhagic fever. The virus is spread when people come into contact with the bodily fluids of a person or animal who is already infected. The best treatment consists of administering fluids and taking protective measures to ensure containment, like isolating the patient and washing sheets with bleach.

Most people, however, die within two weeks of exposure from a combination of dehydration, massive bleeding, and shock. A smaller number of people have stronger and immediate immune responses against the virus and survive.

A New Roadmap for Defense

The breakthrough described in the PLoS Pathogens article explains a key reason why the viruses are so deadly and provides the necessary templates to develop drugs to treat the infection.

The study’s lead author, Research Associate Shridhar Bale, explains that a key signature of Marburg virus infection is the double-stranded RNA that results from its replication inside cells. When human immune system proteins detect this virus-specific RNA, they sound an alarm to signal the rest of the immune system to respond. The new research describes how the VP35 protein of the Marburg virus binds to the viral double-stranded RNA and hides it to prevent the alarm from being sounded.

The new research also revealed a surprise. Images from the Marburg virus reveal the VP35 protein spirals around the double-stranded RNA, enveloping it completely. This is in contrast to previous images of the similar VP35 protein from Ebola virus that showed it only capping the ends of the RNA, leaving the center of the RNA helix exposed for possible recognition.

In addition to Ollmann Saphire and Bale, the article, “Marburg virus VP35 can both fully coat the backbone and cap the ends of dsRNA for interferon antagonism,” was authored by Jean-Philippe Julien, Zachary A. Bornholdt, Michelle A. Zandonatti, Gerard J.A. Kroon, Christopher R. Kimberlin, Ian J. MacRae, and Ian A. Wilson of The Scripps Research Institute, and Peter Halfmann, John Kunert, and Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin.

Support for the research was provided by grants from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and The Skaggs Institute for Chemical Biology at Scripps Research.

Source:

The above story is reprinted from materials provided by Scripps Research Institute, via ScienceDaily

Note: Materials may be edited for content and length. For further information, please contact the source cited above.

Journal Reference:

Bale S, Julien J-P, Bornholdt ZA, Kimberlin CR, Halfmann P, et al. Marburg Virus VP35 Can Both Fully Coat the Backbone and Cap the Ends of dsRNA for Interferon Antagonism. PLoS Pathog. PLoS Pathogens, 2012; 8(9): e1002916 DOI: 10.1371/journal.ppat.1002916

Math ability requires crosstalk in the brain

September 9, 2012 Leave a comment

 

Examples of the simple numerical and arithmetic tasks used in the study. Participants were asked to judge whether the numerical operation was correct or not. Credit: Center for Vital Longevity, University of Texas at Dallas. (up)

A new study by researchers at UT Dallas’ Center for Vital Longevity, Duke University, and the University of Michigan has found that the strength of communication between the left and right hemispheres of the brain predicts performance on basic arithmetic problems. The findings shed light on the neural basis of human math abilities and suggest a possible route to aiding those who suffer from dyscalculia— an inability to understand and manipulate numbers.

It has been known for some time that the parietal cortex, the top/middle region of the brain, plays a central role in so-called numerical cognition—our ability to process numerical information. Previous brain imaging studies have shown that the right parietal region is primarily involved in basic quantity processing (like gauging relative amounts of fruit in baskets), while the left parietal region is involved in more precise numerical operations like addition and subtraction. What has not been known is whether the two hemispheres can work together to improve math performance. The new study demonstrates that they can. The findings were recently published online in Cerebral Cortex.

In the study, conducted in Dallas and led by Dr. Joonkoo Park, now a postdoctoral fellow at Duke University, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to measure the brain activity of 27 healthy young adults while they performed simple numerical and arithmetic tasks. In one task, participants were asked to judge whether two groups of shapes contained the same or different numbers of items. In two other tasks, participants were asked to solve simple addition and subtraction problems.

Consistent with previous studies, the researchers found that the basic number-matching task activated the right parietal cortex, while the addition and subtraction tasks produced additional activity in the left parietal cortex. But they also found something new: During the arithmetic tasks, communication between the left and right hemispheres increased significantly compared with the number-matching task. Moreover, people who exhibited the strongest connection between hemispheres were the fastest at solving the subtraction problems.

“Our results suggest that subtraction performance is optimal when there is high coherence in the neural activity in these two brain regions. Two brain areas working together rather than either region alone appears to be key” said co-author Dr. Denise C. Park, co-director of the UT Dallas Center for Vital Longevity and Distinguished University Chair in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences. Park (no relation to the lead author) helped direct the study along with Dr. Thad Polk, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

Lead author Dr. Joonkoo Park points out that the findings suggest that disrupted or inefficient neural communication between the hemispheres may contribute to the impaired math abilities seen in dyscalculia, the numerical equivalent of dyslexia. “If such a causal link exists,” he said, “one very interesting avenue of research would be to develop training tasks to enhance parietal connectivity and to test whether they improve numerical competence.”

Such a training program might help develop math ability in children and could also help older adults whose arithmetic skills begin to falter as a normal part of age-related cognitive decline.

 

Reference:

The above story is reprinted from materials provided by University of Texas at Dallas, via MedicalXpress.

Journal: Cerebral Cortex

 

Mathematics or memory? Posterior Medial Cortex Study Charts Collision Course in Brain

September 8, 2012 Leave a comment

You already know it’s hard to balance your checkbook while simultaneously reflecting on your past. Now, investigators at the Stanford University School of Medicine—having done the equivalent of wire-tapping a hard-to-reach region of the brain—can tell us how this impasse arises.

The researchers showed that groups of nerve cells in a structure called the posterior medial cortex, or PMC, are strongly activated during a recall task such as trying to remember whether you had coffee yesterday, but just as strongly suppressed when you’re engaged in solving a math problem.

The PMC, situated roughly where the brain’s two hemispheres meet, is of great interest to neuroscientists because of its central role in introspective activities.

“This brain region is famously well-connected with many other regions that are important for higher cognitive functions,” said Josef Parvizi, MD, PhD, associate professor of neurology and neurological sciences and director of Stanford’s Human Intracranial Cognitive Electrophysiology Program. “But it’s very hard to reach. It’s so deep in the brain that the most commonly used electrophysiological methods can’t access it.”

In a study to be published online Sept. 3 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Parvizi and his Stanford colleagues found a way to directly and sensitively record the output from this ordinarily anatomically inaccessible site in human subjects. By doing so, the researchers learned that particular clusters of nerve cells in the PMC that are most active when you are recalling details of your own past are strongly suppressed when you are performing mathematical calculations. Parvizi is the study’s senior author. The first and second authors, respectively, are postdoctoral scholars Brett Foster, PhD, and Mohammed Dastjerdi, PhD.

Much of our understanding of what roles different parts of the brain play has been obtained by techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging, which measures the amount of blood flowing through various brain regions as a proxy for activity in those regions. But changes in blood flow are relatively slow, making fMRI a poor medium for listening in on the high-frequency electrical bursts (approximately 200 times per second) that best reflect nerve-cell firing. Moreover, fMRI typically requires pooling images from several subjects into one composite image. Each person’s brain physiognomy is somewhat different, so the blending blurs the observable anatomical coordinates of a region of interest.

Nonetheless, fMRI imaging has shown that the PMC is quite active in introspective processes such as autobiographical memory processing (“I ate breakfast this morning”) or daydreaming, and less so in external sensory processing (“How far away is that pedestrian?”). “Whenever you pay attention to the outside world, its activity decreases,” said Parvizi.

To learn what specific parts of this region are doing during, say, recall versus arithmetic requires more-individualized anatomical resolution than an fMRI provides. Otherwise, Parvizi said, “if some nerve-cell populations become less active and others more active, it all washes out, and you see no net change.” So you miss what’s really going on.

For this study, the Stanford scientists employed a highly sensitive technique to demonstrate that introspective and externally focused cognitive tasks directly interfere with one another, because they impose opposite requirements on the same brain circuitry.

The researchers took advantage of a procedure performed on patients who were being evaluated for brain surgery at the Stanford Epilepsy Monitoring Unit, associated with Stanford University Medical Center. These patients were unresponsive to drug therapy and, as a result, suffered continuing seizures. The procedure involves temporarily removing small sections of a patient’s skull, placing a thin plastic film containing electrodes onto the surface of the brain near the suspected point of origin of that patient’s seizure (the location is unique to each patient), and then monitoring electrical activity in that region for five to seven days—all of it spent in a hospital bed. Once the epilepsy team identifies the point of origin of any seizures that occurred during that time, surgeons can precisely excise a small piece of tissue at that position, effectively breaking the vicious cycle of brain-wave amplification that is a seizure.

Implanting these electrode packets doesn’t mean piercing the brain or individual cells within it. “Each electrode picks up activity from about a half-million nerve cells,” Parvizi said. “It’s more like dotting the ceiling of a big room, filled with a lot of people talking, with multiple microphones. We’re listening to the buzz in the room, not individual conversations. Each microphone picks up the buzz from a different bunch of partiers. Some groups are more excited and talking more loudly than others.”

The experimenters found eight patients whose seizures were believed to be originating somewhere near the brain’s midline and who, therefore, had had electrode packets placed in the crevasse dividing the hemispheres. (The brain’s two hemispheres are spaced far enough apart to slip an electrode packet between them without incurring damage.)

The researchers got permission from these eight patients to bring in laptop computers and put the volunteers through a battery of simple tasks requiring modest intellectual effort. “It can be boring to lie in bed waiting seven days for a seizure to come,” said Foster. “Our studies helped them pass the time.” The sessions lasted about an hour.

On the laptop would appear a series of true/false statements falling into one of four categories. Three categories were self-referential, albeit with varying degrees of specificity. Most specific was so-called “autobiographical episodic memory,” an example of which might be: “I drank coffee yesterday.” The next category of statements was more generic: “I eat a lot of fruit.” The most abstract category, “self-judgment,” comprised sentences along the lines of: “I am honest.”

A fourth category differed from the first three in that it consisted of arithmetical equations such as: 67 + 6 = 75. Evaluating such a statement’s truth required no introspection but, instead, an outward, more sensory orientation.

For each item, patients were instructed to press “1” if a statement was true, “2” if it was false.

Significant portions of the PMC that were “tapped” by electrodes became activated during self-episodic memory processing, confirming the PMC’s strong role in recall of one’s past experiences. Interestingly, true/false statements involving less specifically narrative recall—such as, “I eat a lot of fruit”—induced relatively little activity. “Self-judgment” statements—such as, “I am attractive”—elicited none at all. Moreover, whether a volunteer judged a statement to be true or false made no difference with respect to the intensity, location or duration of electrical activity in activated PMC circuits.

This suggests, both Parvizi and Foster said, that the PMC is not the brain’s “center of self-consciousness” as some have proposed, but is more specifically engaged in constructing autobiographical narrative scenes, as occurs in recall or imagination.

Foster, Dastjerdi and Parvizi also found that the PMC circuitry activated by a recall task took close to a half-second to fire up, ruling out the possibility that this circuitry’s true role was in reading or making sense of the sentence on the screen. (These two activities are typically completed within the first one-fifth of a second or so.) Once activated, these circuits remained active for a full second.

Yet all the electrodes that lit up during the self-episodic condition were conspicuously deactivated during arithmetic calculation. In fact, the circuits being monitored by these electrodes were not merely passively silent, but actively suppressed, said Parvizi. “The more a circuit is activated during autobiographical recall, the more it is suppressed during math. It’s essentially impossible to do both at once.”

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The above story is reprinted from materials provided by Stanford University Medical Center, via MedicalXpress.

Journal: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences