Tag Archives: astrocytes

Repairing brain circuits using nanotechnology

A July 30, 2019 news item on Nanowerk announces some neuroscience research (they used animal models) that could prove helpful with neurodegenerative diseases,

Working with mouse and human tissue, Johns Hopkins Medicine researchers report new evidence that a protein pumped out of some — but not all — populations of “helper” cells in the brain, called astrocytes, plays a specific role in directing the formation of connections among neurons needed for learning and forming new memories.

Using mice genetically engineered and bred with fewer such connections, the researchers conducted proof-of-concept experiments that show they could deliver corrective proteins via nanoparticles to replace the missing protein needed for “road repairs” on the defective neural highway.

Since such connective networks are lost or damaged by neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s or certain types of intellectual disability, such as Norrie disease, the researchers say their findings advance efforts to regrow and repair the networks and potentially restore normal brain function.

A July 30, 2019 Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine news release (also on EurekAlert) provides more detail about the work (Note: A link has been removed),

“We are looking at the fundamental biology of how astrocytes function, but perhaps have discovered a new target for someday intervening in neurodegenerative diseases with novel therapeutics,” says Jeffrey Rothstein, M.D., Ph.D., the John W. Griffin Director of the Brain Science Institute and professor of neurology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

“Although astrocytes appear to all look alike in the brain, we had an inkling that they might have specialized roles in the brain due to regional differences in the brain’s function and because of observed changes in certain diseases,” says Rothstein. “The hope is that learning to harness the individual differences in these distinct populations of astrocytes may allow us to direct brain development or even reverse the effects of certain brain conditions, and our current studies have advanced that hope.”

In the brain, astrocytes are the support cells that act as guides to direct new cells, promote chemical signaling, and clean up byproducts of brain cell metabolism.

Rothstein’s team focused on a particular astrocyte protein, glutamate transporter-1, which previous studies suggested was lost from astrocytes in certain parts of brains with neurodegenerative diseases. Like a biological vacuum cleaner, the protein normally sucks up the chemical “messenger” glutamate from the spaces between neurons after a message is sent to another cell, a step required to end the transmission and prevent toxic levels of glutamate from building up.

When these glutamate transporters disappear from certain parts of the brain — such as the motor cortex and spinal cord in people with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) — glutamate hangs around much too long, sending messages that overexcite and kill the cells.

To figure out how the brain decides which cells need the glutamate transporters, Rothstein and colleagues focused on the region of DNA in front of the gene that typically controls the on-off switch needed to manufacture the protein. They genetically engineered mice to glow red in every cell where the gene is activated.

Normally, the glutamate transporter is turned on in all astrocytes. But, by using between 1,000- and 7,000-bit segments of DNA code from the on-off switch for glutamate, all the cells in the brain glowed red, including the neurons. It wasn’t until the researchers tried the largest sequence of an 8,300-bit DNA code from this location that the researchers began to see some selection in red cells. These red cells were all astrocytes but only in certain layers of the brain’s cortex in mice.

Because they could identify these “8.3 red astrocytes,” the researchers thought they might have a specific function different than other astrocytes in the brain. To find out more precisely what these 8.3 red astrocytes do in the brain, the researchers used a cell-sorting machine to separate the red astrocytes from the uncolored ones in mouse brain cortical tissue, and then identified which genes were turned on to much higher than usual levels in the red compared to the uncolored cell populations. The researchers found that the 8.3 red astrocytes turn on high levels of a gene that codes for a different protein known as Norrin.

Rothstein’s team took neurons from normal mouse brains, treated them with Norrin, and found that those neurons grew more of the “branches” — or extensions — used to transmit chemical messages among brain cells. Then, Rothstein says, the researchers looked at the brains of mice engineered to lack Norrin, and saw that these neurons had fewer branches than in healthy mice that made Norrin.

In another set of experiments, the research team took the DNA code for Norrin plus the 8,300 “location” DNA and assembled them into deliverable nanoparticles. When they injected the Norrin nanoparticles into the brains of mice engineered without Norrin, the neurons in these mice began to quickly grow many more branches, a process suggesting repair to neural networks. They repeated these experiments with human neurons too.

Rothstein notes that mutations in the Norrin protein that reduce levels of the protein in people cause Norrie disease — a rare, genetic disorder that can lead to blindness in infancy and intellectual disability. Because the researchers were able to grow new branches for communication, they believe it may one day be possible to use Norrin to treat some types of intellectual disabilities such as Norrie disease.

For their next steps, the researchers are investigating if Norrin can repair connections in the brains of animal models with neurodegenerative diseases, and in preparation for potential success, Miller [sic] and Rothstein have submitted a patent for Norrin.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Molecularly defined cortical astroglia subpopulation modulates neurons via secretion of Norrin by Sean J. Miller, Thomas Philips, Namho Kim, Raha Dastgheyb, Zhuoxun Chen, Yi-Chun Hsieh, J. Gavin Daigle, Malika Datta, Jeannie Chew, Svetlana Vidensky, Jacqueline T. Pham, Ethan G. Hughes, Michael B. Robinson, Rita Sattler, Raju Tomer, Jung Soo Suk, Dwight E. Bergles, Norman Haughey, Mikhail Pletnikov, Justin Hanes & Jeffrey D. Rothstein. Nature Neuroscience volume 22, pages741–752 (2019) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41593-019-0366-7 Published: 01 April 2019 Issue Date: May 2019

This paper is behind a paywall.

Titanium dioxide nanoparticles and the brain

This research into titanium dioxide nanoparticles and possible effects on your brain should they pass the blood-brain barrier comes from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (US) according to a Dec. 15, 2015 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Even moderate concentrations of a nanoparticle used to whiten certain foods, milk and toothpaste could potentially compromise the brain’s most numerous cells, according to a new study from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (Nanoscale, “Mitochondrial dysfunction and loss of glutamate uptake in primary astrocytes exposed to titanium dioxide nanoparticles”).

A Dec. 14, 2015 University of Nebraska-Lincoln news release, which originated the news item, provides more detail (Note: Links have been removed),

The researchers examined how three types of titanium dioxide nanoparticles [rutile, anatase, and commercially available P25 TiO2 nanoparticles], the world’s second-most abundant nanomaterial, affected the functioning of astrocyte cells. Astrocytes help regulate the exchange of signal-carrying neurotransmitters in the brain while also supplying energy to the neurons that process those signals, among many other functions.

The team exposed rat-derived astrocyte cells to nanoparticle concentrations well below the extreme levels that have been shown to kill brain cells but are rarely encountered by humans. At the study’s highest concentration of 100 parts per million, or PPM, two of the nanoparticle types still killed nearly two-thirds of the astrocytes within a day. That mortality rate fell to between half and one-third of cells at 50 PPM, settling to about one-quarter at 25 PPM.

Yet the researchers found evidence that even surviving cells are severely impaired by exposure to titanium dioxide nanoparticles. Astrocytes normally take in and process a neurotransmitter called glutamate that plays wide-ranging roles in cognition, memory and learning, along with the formation, migration and maintenance of other cells.

When allowed to accumulate outside cells, however, glutamate becomes a potent toxin that kills neurons and may increase the risk of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. The study reported that one of the nanoparticle types reduced the astrocytes’ uptake of glutamate by 31 percent at concentrations of just 25 PPM. Another type decreased that uptake by 45 percent at 50 PPM.

The team further discovered that the nanoparticles upset the intricate balance of protein dynamics occurring within astrocytes’ mitochondria, the cellular organelles that help regulate energy production and contribute to signaling among cells. Titanium dioxide exposure also led to other signs of mitochondrial distress, breaking apart a significant proportion of the mitochondrial network at 100 PPM.

“These events are oftentimes predecessors of cell death,” said Oleh Khalimonchuk, a UNL assistant professor of biochemistry who co-authored the study. “Usually, people are looking at those ultimate consequences, but what happens before matters just as much. Those little damages add up over time. Ultimately, they’re going to cause a major problem.”

Khalimonchuk and fellow author Srivatsan Kidambi, assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, cautioned that more research is needed to determine whether titanium dioxide nanoparticles can avoid digestion and cross the blood-brain barrier that blocks the passage of many substances. [emphasis mine]

However, the researchers cited previous studies that have discovered these nanoparticles in the brain tissue of animals with similar blood-brain barriers. [emphasis mine] The concentrations of nanoparticles found in those specimens served as a reference point for the levels examined in the new study.

“There’s evidence building up now that some of these particles can actually cross the (blood-brain) barrier,” Khalimonchuk said. “Few molecules seem to be able to do so, but it turns out that there are certain sites in the brain where you can get this exposure.”

Kidambi said the team hopes the study will help facilitate further research on the presence of nanoparticles in consumer and industrial products.

“We’re hoping that this study will get some discussion going, because these nanoparticles have not been regulated,” said Kidambi, who also holds a courtesy appointment with the University of Nebraska Medical Center. “If you think about anything white – milk, chewing gum, toothpaste, powdered sugar – all these have nanoparticles in them.

“We’ve found that some nanoparticles are safe and some are not, so we are not saying that all of them are bad. Our reasoning is that … we need to have a classification of ‘safe’ versus ‘not safe,’ along with concentration thresholds (for each type). It’s about figuring out how the different forms affect the biology of cells.

I notice the researchers are being careful about alarming anyone unduly while emphasizing the importance of this research. For anyone curious enough to read the paper, here’s a link to and a citation for it,

Mitochondrial dysfunction and loss of glutamate uptake in primary astrocytes exposed to titanium dioxide nanoparticles by Christina L. Wilson, Vaishaali Natarajan, Stephen L. Hayward, Oleh Khalimonchuk and   Srivatsan Kidambi. Nanoscale, 2015,7, 18477-18488 DOI: 10.1039/C5NR03646A First published online 31 Jul 2015

This is paper is open access although you may need to register on the site.

Final comment, I note this was published online way back in July 2015. Either the paper version of the journal was just published and that’s what’s being promoted or the media people thought they’d try to get some attention for this work by reissuing the publicity. Good on them! It’s hard work getting people to notice things when there is so much information floating around.