Studies offer leads for new approaches to treat neurological problems

Technological advances have ushered in a new era of discovery in neuroscience. The Experimental Biology 2018 meeting (EB 2018) will feature an array of research findings on the brain and nervous system. The studies shed new light on the intricate circuitry behind our thought processes, feelings and behaviors and offer leads for both high-tech and low-tech treatment approaches.

Innovative nanocapsules could improve delivery of drug for Autism Spectrum Disorder

The hormone oxytocin has been shown to be helpful for improving social interactions in people with Autism Spectrum Disorder and other neurological conditions. However, its effects are very short term because the hormone breaks down quickly in the bloodstream and cannot cross the blood-brain barrier to enter the brain. A team of scientists at Mercer University have developed tiny capsules to shuttle oxytocin across the blood-brain barrier and slow its degradation. In experiments conducted in cells and mice, the nanocapsules appear to last longer and engender stronger prosocial effects than oxytocin alone. If successful in humans, the technology could improve autism treatment and potentially be applied to other drugs aimed at treating seizures, inflammation and other neurological problems.

Kevin Murnane will present this research at the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics annual meeting at EB on Tuesday, April 24, from 12:30–2:30 p.m. in the Exhibit Hall (poster C121) (abstract).

Rabies and herpes viruses harnessed for new brain circuit mapping

Researchers from the University of California, Irvine are using a surprising technique to make new discoveries about the layout of the brain's center for learning, memory and spatial navigation. Although the hippocampus has been well studied, traditional mapping techniques do not provide information about specific cell types or the relative strengths of the connections between neurons. To take a closer look at how different areas of the hippocampus interact, the researchers injected the brains of live mice with viruses including rabies and herpes simplex virus. The scientists then traced the viruses as they replicated within neurons and spread from cell to cell, typically by jumping across the synapses that link neurons to each other. The researchers also induced specific neurons to fire and analyzed behavioral changes in the mice. Taken together, the experiments provide new insights about the hippocampus and, in particular, how two segments of it interact to regulate learning and memory.

Xiangmin Xu will present this research at the American Association of Anatomists annual meeting at EB on Sunday, April 22, from 4–4:30 p.m. in Room 11A (abstract). Images available.

Fighting pain by tracking it back to its place of origin

There is still much scientists do not understand about how the body transmits and regulates pain signals. Researchers at Texas A&M are taking a detailed look at the thalamus, a part of the brain where most pain signals are processed, in hopes of finding new treatments for chronic pain that do not have the side effects or addiction potential of existing therapies like opioids and other drugs. The team has engineered mice that produce glowing proteins when pain-activated neurons fire and used genetically modified rabies virus as a tracer to mark how pain signals travel from neuron to neuron. By combining these techniques, the team has been able to create a brain-wide map of the neurons that feed pain signals into the thalamus, illuminating specific areas that might be targeted with new therapeutics.

Mikhail Umorin will present this research at the American Association of Anatomists annual meeting at EB on Sunday, April 22, from 5–5:30 p.m. in Room 11A (abstract).

Exercise after concussion appears to aid recovery

Doctors generally recommend refraining from exercise after a concussion (a type of brain injury typically caused by a blow to the head) in order to let the brain heal. However, a new study from the University of Western Ontario suggests that moderate aerobic exercise can be helpful for patient recovery and "return-to-sport" decisions. Among other symptoms, concussions can have effects on the heart rate, including increased heart rate and reduced heart rate variability, meaning that the heart rate stays high and doesn't rise and fall as it normally would in response to exertion. In the study, researchers randomly assigned seven teenage participants to three sessions of moderate exercise over the course of a week following a concussion, stopping short of a level of exertion that would exacerbate their headache or other symptoms. Eight other concussed teens were assigned to refrain from exercise for the week. Before-and-after tests revealed those who had exercised showed significant improvements in measures of heart rate and variability, indicating a quicker recovery, compared to those who had simply rested.

Alexandra Harriss will present this research at the American Physiological Society annual meeting at EB on Tuesday, April 24, from 10 a.m.–noon in the Exhibit Hall (poster A505) (abstract).

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