Tuesday, May 8, 2018
Most people experience anxiety at some point in their lives, whether it’s pre-speech jitters or sweaty palms when their plane takes off. While mild feelings of nervousness are completely normal and can even be beneficial, anxiety can also have negative repercussions if it causes somebody to completely avoid situations like social encounters or taking a flight to visit distant family.
In a series of experiments, IRP researchers identified a specific set of neurons that appear to underlie certain fear-related avoidance behaviors in mice, potentially representing a useful target for treating human anxiety disorders.1
Although mice enjoy surveying their surroundings, their position as the lowest link on the food chain makes them averse to brightly lit, open spaces where they might be snatched up by a hungry hawk. The way mice balance the risks and rewards of exploration mirrors many situations that can make humans anxious, says IRP investigator Alexxai V. Kravitz, Ph.D., the study’s senior author.
“If you’re buying a house, you’re going to have a lot of excitement, but once the time to sign the contract comes, you’re going to think about the risks you’re taking and whether this is the right decision,” Dr. Kravitz explains. In other words, if signing makes you too nervous, you might just scrap the whole deal.
Monday, May 7, 2018
On Wednesday, May 2, hundreds of researchers gathered at NIH’s Natcher Conference Center to show off their recent discoveries. But unlike a typical scientific conference, the letters “M.D.” and “Ph.D.” were noticeably absent from these scientists’ credentials. Instead, the event — NIH’s annual Postbac Poster Day — celebrated the accomplishments of individuals participating in the NIH Postbaccalaureate Intramural Research Training Award (IRTA) Program.
Typically called ‘IRTAs’ (pronounced ‘er-tahs’) by the NIH community, all of the programs’ participants recently completed their undergraduate studies and have spent the past year performing research in IRP laboratories all across the NIH. Read on to get to know a handful of these promising future scientists and clinicians.
Sarah Ahmed: Pursuing Parkinson’s Genes
Sarah’s research group is trying to unravel how genes contribute to the development of neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis. Because her work mixes genetics and neuroscience, she collaborates with a large number of researchers specializing in different disciplines.
Wednesday, April 25, 2018
Ever since the Human Genome Project (HGP) launched in 1990, patients and members of the public have been inundated with predictions about how unraveling the mysteries of genetics will revolutionize healthcare. Today, many of these promises remain unrealized, prompting some to become skeptical of the true utility of this research for improving human health. But, while more work is needed to fully realize the potential of genome-focused medicine, it remains true that patients are benefiting from our knowledge of the human genome in numerous, sometimes under-appreciated ways.
As a physician and genetics researcher who played a central role in the HGP, NIH Director Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., is one of the world’s leading experts in the relationship between our DNA and our health. What’s more, his position at the NIH gives him a front-row seat to the innovative ways in which this work is making its way into the clinic.
On Friday, April 20, in anticipation of National DNA Day on April 25, Dr. Collins participated in a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) to answer questions from the public about how our increasing knowledge of the human genome is affecting their lives, as well as what might lie in store for this important work in the future. Read on for some of the most interesting exchanges that took place or check out the full AMA on Reddit.
Tuesday, April 24, 2018
In the midst of the 1957 Asian flu pandemic, doctors and researchers were understandably focused on treating patients and developing ways to contain the outbreak. It wasn’t until 30 years later that scientists began reporting that women who were pregnant when they caught the virus were more likely to have children who would later be diagnosed with schizophrenia.1 While that relationship remains controversial,2 numerous studies have since linked activation of a pregnant woman’s immune system with an increased risk that her child will develop certain psychiatric disorders, including not just schizophrenia but also autism spectrum disorder and major depressive disorder.3 A new IRP study has now expanded on this work by showing that exposure to higher levels of two immune system molecules in utero can noticeably alter the neurological and cognitive development of young children.4
Factors from infections to stress to genetics all play a role in how active a person’s immune system is, and a more vigorous immune system releases greater amounts of chemicals called cytokines that can ramp up or tamp down inflammation. When a woman is pregnant, these molecules affect not just her own body but also that of her unborn child. Some cytokines can even pass through the blood-brain barrier and exert direct effects on the developing brain, which may explain the link between a mother’s immune response and her child’s future risk of developing a psychiatric illness.
“That link is very concerning because psychiatric disorders can have a substantial impact on functioning as well as longevity,” says IRP investigator Stephen E. Gilman, Sc.D., the study’s senior author. “Therefore, we wanted to know if the activity of a mother’s immune system can also affect cognitive development more generally before a major psychiatric disorder emerges.”
Tuesday, April 10, 2018
Every forty seconds, someone in the United States suffers a stroke, and researchers across the country are hunting for a way to help brain cells survive these traumatic events. A group of IRP researchers recently discovered a promising new tool to aid in this effort. By blocking the action of a brain chemical called monoacylglycerol lipase (MAGL), the scientists markedly reduced stroke-related brain damage and disability in rats.1
Nearly nine in ten strokes are classified as ‘ischemic,’ meaning they occur when blood flow is cut off to part of the brain. Deprived of oxygen and nutrients, the brain cells in the affected area quickly die off, and soon afterwards inflammation destroys additional cells nearby. Previous research has shown that stroke-induced oxygen deprivation activates MAGL in order to kick off the chain of events that triggers inflammation.
“Inflammation exacerbates the way that the tissue reacts to the lack of blood flow, so if you contain it then you can salvage a significant portion of the affected area,” says IRP Senior Investigator Afonso C. Silva, Ph.D., the new study’s senior author.
Thursday, March 29, 2018
Alex Fuksenko, a senior at the University of Maryland in College Park, spent his summer in the lab of NIH IRP Investigator Kevin Briggman, Ph.D.
Fuksenko helped to create a website called Labrainth that “gamifies” the identification and tracing of neurons in 2D images produced by electron microscopes. By visiting the website and completing those activities, members of the public can earn points and move up leaderboards while producing data that machine learning algorithms can use to learn how to trace neurons in these images themselves, a necessary step towards producing an accurate 3D model of the human brain.
Tuesday, March 27, 2018
Like a bear leaves its ominous footprints in the snow, diseases and other biological processes often leave traces throughout our bodies. Recent technological and scientific advances have enabled clinicians to use measurements of these ‘biomarkers’ in their attempts to improve our health. A new study by IRP researchers revealed that patients with a sleep disorder called obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) have higher blood concentrations of certain biomarkers that may foreshadow poor brain health later in life.1
When people with OSA sleep, their throat muscles relax and block their windpipes, preventing proper breathing and often waking them up. As a result, these individuals get lower-quality sleep and their brains receive less oxygen at night.
“The overall idea is that those two conditions are not good for brain health, but nobody had really looked to see if some of the biomarkers we see in brain injury are also common in younger individuals with this type of disordered breathing,” says IRP Lasker Clinical Research Scholar Jessica Gill, Ph.D., R.N., the study’s senior author.
Tuesday, March 13, 2018
Food companies have long marketed carbohydrate-rich drinks and energy bars to athletes with the message that the energy those snacks provide is key to lifting heavier and running farther. A new mouse study by IRP researchers, however, suggests that skipping a meal (or several) might be far more effective for increasing athletic prowess1.
Unlike modern Americans used to three square meals a day, our ancient ancestors couldn’t exactly throw a TV dinner in the microwave whenever they felt a bit peckish. As a result, they probably found themselves hunting wooly mammoths and fending off saber-toothed tigers on an empty stomach.
“From an evolutionary perspective, animals in the wild – particularly predators – need to be able to function at a high level when they’re in a food-deprived state,” says IRP Senior Investigator Mark P. Mattson, Ph.D., the study’s senior author. “Individuals who were able to perform at a high level in a fasted state had a survival advantage.”
Wednesday, March 7, 2018
Once confined to the realms of science fiction, virtual reality (VR) has crossed over into the real world in a wide array of fields, including scientific research and clinical medicine. In the IRP, several researchers are utilizing the cutting-edge technology in their efforts to improve human health.
Susan Persky, Ph.D., for instance, runs the Immersive Virtual Environment Test Unit, where she uses VR to simulate how genetic information might affect doctor-patient interactions and influence patients’ emotions, beliefs, and decisions. She has also put the technology to use studying the food choices of overweight and obese individuals by presenting them with a simulated buffet. Meanwhile, John Ostuni, Ph.D., explores how VR might help doctors diagnose or treat patients, such as by providing access to physical therapy without going to the hospital. And Victor Cid, M.S., creates virtual reality scenarios for the Disaster Information Management Research Center that can train emergency personnel how to more effectively respond to major crises.
On Friday, February 23, they joined several NIH colleagues for a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) to answer questions from the public about how virtual reality might change the way medicine and research are practiced and ultimately make people’s lives better. Read on for some of the most interesting exchanges that took place or check out the full AMA on Reddit.
Monday, March 5, 2018
Carly Kaplan, a junior at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, spent her summer working in the lab of NIH IRP Investigator Dr. Kareem Zaghloul. As a member of Dr. Zaghloul’s team, Carly examined how the human brain creates and recalls memories. An aspiring doctor, she believes that this sort of research is “the backbone of the medical profession” and that “doctors can’t do what they do without the research behind it.” While at NIH, she was particularly intrigued by the opportunity to watch Dr. Zaghloul perform neurosurgery on the epilepsy patients who were part of in his lab’s studies.