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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.

DNA strands on teal background

NUP160 genetic mutation linked to steroid-resistant nephrotic syndrome

DNA strands on teal background

Mutations in the NUP160 gene, which encodes one protein component of the nuclear pore complex nucleoporin 160 kD, are implicated in steroid-resistant nephrotic syndrome, an international team reports March 25, 2019, in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology. Mutations in this gene have not been associated with steroid-resistant nephrotic syndrome previously.

“Our findings indicate that NUP160 should be included in the gene panel used to diagnose steroid-resistant nephrotic syndrome to identify additional patients with homozygous or compound-heterozygous NUP160 mutations,” says Zhe Han, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Center for Genetic Medicine Research at Children’s National and the study’s senior author.

The kidneys filter blood and ferry waste out of the body via urine. Nephrotic syndrome is a kidney disease caused by disruption of the glomerular filtration barrier, permitting a significant amount of protein to leak into the urine. While some types of nephrotic syndrome can be treated with steroids, the form of the disease that is triggered by genetic mutations does not respond to steroids.

The patient covered in the JASN article had experienced persistently high levels of protein in the urine (proteinuria) from the time she was 7. By age 10, she was admitted to a Shanghai hospital and underwent her first renal biopsy, which showed some kidney damage. Three years later, she had a second renal biopsy showing more pronounced kidney disease. Treatment with the steroid prednisone; cyclophosphamide, a chemotherapy drug; and tripterygium wilfordii glycoside, a traditional therapy, all failed. By age 15, the girl’s condition had worsened and she had end stage renal disease, the last of five stages of chronic kidney disease.

An older brother and older sister had steroid-resistant nephrotic syndrome as well and both died from end stage kidney disease before reaching 17. When she was 16, the girl was able to receive a kidney transplant that saved her life.

Han learned about the family while presenting research findings in China. An attendee of his session said that he suspected an unknown mutation might be responsible for steroid-resistant nephrotic syndrome in this family, and he invited Han to work in collaboration to solve the genetic mystery.

By conducting whole exome sequencing of surviving family members, the research team found that the mother and father each carry one mutated copy of NUP160 and one good copy. Their children inherited one mutated copy from either parent, the variant E803K from the father and the variant R1173X, which causes truncated proteins, from the mother. The woman (now 29) did not have any mutations in genes known to be associated with steroid-resistant nephrotic syndrome.

Some 50 different genes that serve vital roles – including encoding components of the slit diaphragm, actin cytoskeleton proteins and nucleoporins, building blocks of the nuclear pore complex – can trigger steroid-resistant nephrotic syndrome when mutated.

With dozens of possible suspects, they narrowed the list to six variant genes by analyzing minor allele frequency, mutation type, clinical characteristics and other factors.

The NUP160 gene is highly conserved from flies to humans. To prove that NUP160 was the true culprit, Dr. Han’s group silenced the Nup160 gene in nephrocytes, the filtration kidney cells in flies. Nephrocytes share molecular, cellular, structural and functional similarities with human podocytes. Without Nup160, nephrocytes had reduced nuclear volume, nuclear pore complex components were dispersed and nuclear lamin localization was irregular. Adult flies with silenced Nup160 lacked nephrocytes entirely and lived dramatically shorter lifespans.

Significantly, the dramatic structural and functional defects caused by silencing of fly Nup160 gene in nephrocytes could be completely rescued by expressing the wild-type human NUP160 gene, but not by expressing the human NUP160 gene carrying the E803K or R1173X mutation identified from the girl’s  family.

“This study identified new genetic mutations that could lead to steroid-resistant nephrotic syndrome,” Han notes. “In addition, it demonstrates a highly efficient Drosophila-based disease variant functional study system. We call it the ‘Gene Replacement’ system since it replaces a fly gene with a human gene. By comparing the function of the wild-type human gene versus mutant alleles from patients, we could determine exactly how a specific mutation affects the function of a human gene in the context of relevant tissues or cell types. Because of the low cost and high efficiency of the Drosophila system, we can quickly provide much-needed functional data for novel disease-causing genetic variants using this approach.”

In addition to Han, Children’s co-authors include Co-Lead Author Feng Zhao, Co-Lead Author Jun-yi Zhu, Adam Richman, Yulong Fu and Wen Huang, all of the Center for Genetic Medicine Research; Nan Chen and Xiaoxia Pan, Shanghai Jiaotong University School of Medicine; and Cuili Yi, Xiaohua Ding, Si Wang, Ping Wang, Xiaojing Nie, Jun Huang, Yonghui Yang and Zihua Yu, all of Fuzhou Dongfang Hospital.

Financial support for research described in this post was provided by the Nature Science Foundation of Fujian Province of China, under grant 2015J01407; National Nature Science Foundation of China, under grant 81270766; Key Project of Social Development of Fujian Province of China, under grant 2013Y0072; and the National Institutes of Health, under grants DK098410 and HL134940.