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illustration of brain showing cerebellum

Focusing on the “little brain” to rescue cognition

illustration of brain showing cerebellum

Research faculty at Children’s National in Washington, D.C., with colleagues recently published a review article in Nature Reviews Neuroscience that covers the latest research about how abnormal development of the cerebellum leads to a variety of neurodevelopmental disorders.

Cerebellum translates as “little brain” in Latin. This piece of anatomy – that appears almost separate from the rest of the brain, tucked under the two cerebral hemispheres – long has been known to play a pivotal role in voluntary motor functions, such as walking or reaching for objects, as well as involuntary ones, such as maintaining posture.

But more recently, says Aaron Sathyanesan, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research fellow at the Children’s Research Institute, the research arm of Children’s National  in Washington, D.C., researchers have discovered that the cerebellum is also critically important for a variety of non-motor functions, including cognition and emotion.

Sathyanesan, who studies this brain region in the laboratory of Vittorio Gallo, Ph.D., Chief Research Officer at Children’s National and scientific director of the Children’s Research Institute, recently published a review article with colleagues in Nature Reviews Neuroscience covering the latest research about how altered development of the cerebellum contributes to a variety of neurodevelopmental disorders.

These disorders, he explains, are marked by problems in the nervous system that arise while it’s maturing, leading to effects on emotion, learning ability, self-control, or memory, or any combination of these. They include diagnoses as diverse as intellectual disability, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and Down syndrome.

“One reason why the cerebellum might be critically involved in each of these disorders,” Sathyanesan says, “is because its developmental trajectory takes so long.”

Unlike other brain structures, which have relatively short windows of development spanning weeks or months, the principal cells of the cerebellum – known as Purkinje cells – start to differentiate from stem cell precursors at the beginning of the seventh gestational week, with new cells continuing to appear until babies are nearly one year old.  In contrast, cells in the neocortex, a part of the brain involved in higher-order brain functions such as cognition, sensory perception and language is mostly finished forming while fetuses are still gestating in the womb.

This long window for maturation allows the cerebellum to make connections with other regions throughout the brain, such as extensive connections with the cerebral cortex, the outer layer of the cerebrum that plays a key role in perception, attention, awareness, thought, memory, language and consciousness. It also allows ample time for things to go wrong.

“Together,” Sathyanesan says, “these two characteristics are at the root of the cerebellum’s involvement in a host of neurodevelopmental disorders.”

For example, the review article notes, researchers have discovered both structural and functional abnormalities in the cerebellums of patients with ASD. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), an imaging technique that measures activity in different parts of the brain, suggests that significant differences exist between connectivity between the cerebellum and cortex in people with ASD compared with neurotypical individuals. Differences in cerebellar connectivity are also evident in resting-state functional connectivity MRI, an imaging technique that measures brain activity in subjects when they are not performing a specific task. Some of these differences appear to involve patterns of overconnectivity to different brain regions, explains Sathyanesan; other differences suggest that the cerebellums of patients with ASD don’t have enough connections to other brain regions.

These findings could clarify research from Children’s National and elsewhere that has shown that babies born prematurely often sustain cerebellar injuries due to multiple hits, including a lack of oxygen supplied by infants’ immature lungs, he adds. Besides having a sibling with ASD, premature birth is the most prevalent risk factor for an ASD diagnosis.

The review also notes that researchers have discovered structural changes in the cerebellums of patients with Down syndrome, who tend to have smaller cerebellar volumes than neurotypical individuals. Experimental models of this trisomy recapitulate this difference, along with abnormal connectivity to the cerebral cortex and other brain regions.

Although the cerebellum is a pivotal contributor toward these conditions, Sathyanesan says, learning more about this brain region helps make it an important target for treating these neurodevelopmental disorders. For example, he says, researchers are investigating whether problems with the cerebellum and abnormal connectivity could be lessened through a non-invasive form of brain stimulation called transcranial direct current stimulation or an invasive one known as deep brain stimulation. Similarly, a variety of existing pharmaceuticals or new ones in development could modify the cerebellum’s biochemistry and, consequently, its function.

“If we can rescue the cerebellum’s normal activity in these disorders, we may be able to alleviate the problems with cognition that pervade them all,” he says.

In addition to Sathyanesan and Senior Author Gallo, Children’s National study co-authors include Joseph Scafidi, D.O., neonatal neurologist; Joy Zhou and Roy V. Sillitoe, Baylor College of Medicine; and Detlef H. Heck, of University of Tennessee Health Science Center.

Financial support for research described in this post was provided by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke under grant numbers 5R01NS099461, R01NS089664, R01NS100874, R01NS105138 and R37NS109478; the Hamill Foundation; the Baylor College of Medicine Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center under grant number U54HD083092; the University of Tennessee Health Science Center (UTHSC) Neuroscience Institute; the UTHSC Cornet Award; the National Institute of Mental Health under grant number R01MH112143; and the District of Columbia Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center under grant number U54 HD090257.

sketch of muscle cells

Losing muscle to fat: misdirected fate of a multipotent stem cell drives LGMD2B

Fibro/adipogenic precursors (FAPs) control the onset and severity of disease in limb-girdle muscular dystrophy type 2 (LGMD2B)

Fibro/adipogenic precursors (FAPs) control the onset and severity of disease in limb-girdle muscular dystrophy type 2 (LGMD2B). a) Healthy and/or pre-symptomatic LGMD2B muscle contains resident FAPs. b) After myofiber injury, inflammatory cells invade and trigger FAP proliferation. c) In symptomatic LGMD2B muscle, there is a gradual accumulation of extracellular AnxA2, which prolongs the pro-inflammatory environment, causing excessive FAP proliferation. d) Blocking aberrant signaling due to AnxA2 buildup blocks FAP accumulation and thus preventing adipogenic loss of dysferlinopathic muscle. Credit: “Fibroadipogenic progenitors are responsible for muscle loss in limb girdle muscular dystrophy 2B.” Published online June 3, 2019, in Nature Communications. Marshall W. Hogarth, Aurelia Defour, Christopher Lazarski, Eduard Gallardo, Jordi Diaz Manera, Terence A. Partridge, Kanneboyina Nagaraju and Jyoti K. Jaiswal. https://rdcu.be/bFu9U.

Research led by faculty at Children’s National published online June 3, 2019, in Nature Communications shows that the sudden appearance of symptoms in limb-girdle muscular dystrophy type 2 (LGMD2B) is a result of impaired communication between different cell types that facilitate repair in healthy muscle. Of particular interest are the fibro/adipogenic precursors (FAPs), cells that typically play a helpful role in regenerating muscle after injury by removing debris and enhancing the fusion of muscle cells into new myofibers.

LGMD2B is caused by mutations in the DYSF gene that impair the function of dysferlin, a protein essential for repairing injured muscle fibers. Symptoms, like difficulty climbing or running, do not appear in patients until young adulthood. This late onset has long puzzled researchers, as the cellular consequences of dysferlin’s absence are present from birth and continue through development, but do not impact patients until later in life.

The study found that in the absence of dysferlin, muscle gradually increases the expression of the protein Annexin A2 which, like dysferlin, facilitates repair of injured muscle fiber. However, increasing Annexin A2 accumulates outside the muscle fiber and drives an increase in FAPs within the muscle as well as encourages these FAPs to differentiate into adipocytes, forming fatty deposits. Shutting down Annexin A2 or blocking the adipocyte fate of FAPs using an off-the-shelf medicine arrests the fatty replacement of dysferlinopathic muscle.

“We propose a feed-forward loop in which repeated myofiber injury triggers chronic inflammation which, over time, creates an environment that promotes FAPs to accumulate and differentiate into fat. This, in turn, contributes to more myofiber damage,” says Jyoti K. Jaiswal, MSc, Ph.D., a principal investigator in the Center for Genetic Medicine Research at Children’s National and the study’s senior author.

“Adipogenic accumulation becomes the nucleating event that results in an abrupt decline in muscle function in patients. This new view of LGMD2B disease opens previously unrealized avenues to intervene,” adds Marshall Hogarth, Ph.D., the study’s lead author.

Joyti Jaiswal

“We propose a feed-forward loop in which repeated myofiber injury triggers chronic inflammation which, over time, creates an environment that promotes FAPs to accumulate and differentiate into fat. This, in turn, contributes to more myofiber damage,” says Jyoti K. Jaiswal, MSc, Ph.D.

A research team led by Jaiswal collaborated with Eduard Gallardo and Jordi Diaz Manera, of Hospital de la Santa Creu in Barcelona, Spain, to examine muscle biopsies from people with LGMD2B who had mild to severe symptoms. They found that adipogenic deposits originate in the extracellular matrix space between muscle fibers, with the degree of accumulation tied to disease severity. They found a similar progressive increase in lipid accumulation between myofibers predicted disease severity in dysferlin-deficient experimental models. What’s more, this process can be accelerated by muscle injury, triggering increased adipogenic replacement in areas that otherwise would be occupied by muscle cells.

“Accumulation and adipogenic differentiation of FAPs is responsible for the decline in function for dysferlinopathic muscle. Reversing this could provide a therapy for LGMD2B, a devastating disease with no effective treatment,” predicts Jaiswal as the team continues research in this field.

Promising off-the-shelf drugs include batimastat, an anti-cancer drug that inhibits the extracellular matrix enzyme matrix metalloproteinase. This drug reduces FAP adipogenesis in vitro and lessens injury-triggered lipid formation in vivo. In experimental models, batimastat also increases muscle function.

In addition to Jaiswal, Hogarth, Gallardo and Diaz Manera, other study co-authors include Aurelia Defour, Christopher Lazarski, Terence A. Partridge and Kanneboyina Nagaraju, all of Children’s National.

Financial support for research described in this post was provided by the Muscular Dystrophy Association under awards MDA477331 and MDA277389, the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases under award R01AR055686 and the National Institutes of Health under awards K26OD011171, R24HD050846 and P50AR060836.