Research Roundup: postnatal Zika exposure leads to brain damage, first pig model of Huntington’s disease developed and more!

Welcome to this week’s Research Roundup. These Friday posts aim to inform our readers about the many stories that relate to animal research each week. Do you have an animal research story we should include in next week’s Research Roundup? You can send it to us via our Facebook page or through the contact form on the website.

  • Brain growth continues throughout late adulthood. For decades scientists have been convinced that the brain stops generating new neurons after adolescence. But this is false. Humans actually continue to produce new neurons in parts of their brain linked to learning, memory, and emotion throughout late adulthood. Scientists from Columbia University in New York studied the brains of men and women aged between 14 to 79 years of age. They looked for indicators of new neuronal growth in the brain’s center for learning, memory, and emotion — the hippocampus. They found that neuronal growth does not stop in older adults, but rather slows with less plasticity as adults get older. This exciting finding opens up new possible avenues in animal research to understand how we may facilitate neuronal growth in patients with signs of cognitive impairment, neuropsychiatric disease, or alzheimer’s. Published in Cell Stem Cell.  
  • Scientists develop the world’s first pig model of Huntington’s disease. Scientists from Emory and Jinan University used the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing methods to add the segment of the human gene responsible for Huntington’s, to the genetic code of pigs. The pigs showed both movement problems and respiratory difficulties common to human patients, and it is hoped that this model will assist in the creation of new treatments for Huntington’s – a genetically inherited and fatal disease which affects tens of thousands of people. In the past, genetically altered mice have been used to model Huntington’s, but it is believed the pigs will better model the neuronal loss seen in the brains of human patients. Published in Cell.

  • Wild Japanese Macaques use thermal baths to ease the stress of cold winters. Since the early 60s, many have known that japanese macaques use human-made thermal baths or hot springs during colder winter months — it’s even a tourist attraction. Scientists from Kyoto University have now measured stress-related hormones left behind in the monkeys’ feces to understand stress levels in monkeys that bathed and did not bath during the winter months. They found that stress levels increase during cold winter months, but bathing monkeys have lower stress levels. They even found that the alpha ranked monkeys spend more time in the baths, suggesting that the baths are a valuable resource. This interesting research on wild populations of macaques shows how animals, beyond humans, can be flexible in their behavior to adapt to cold climate stress, and likely has implications for their reproduction and survival. Published in Primates.
  • Zika exposure after birth may lead to brain damage. We know that prenatal exposure to the Zika virus can lead to a host of developmental complications. A new study in monkeys, now suggests that exposure to the virus after birth can damage the newborn infant’s brain. In a controlled, albeit small, study researchers at Emory school of Medicine, found that certain brain regions important for vision and for regulating emotion and behavior developed in an an abnormal manner. While these defects are not as severe as prenatal exposure to the virus, “….it does make us more concerned about what the long-term behavioral or cognitive issues may be in human infants that might have been similarly exposed,” says Ann Chahroudi, lead author of the study. Published in Science Translational Medicine.

  • Impaired brain coordination linked to ADHD and Schizophrenia. The brain heavily depends on coordination between multiple brain areas to maintain daily focus, however discordance between regions can lead to attention deficit disorders, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression. Research on mutant mice show that a gene called ErbB4 is essential for attention and might be a possible contributor for attentional deficit if it is turned off in one or multiple regions of the brain. ErbB4 has been studied for quite some time, and is a known risk factor for psychiatric disorders and is required to maintain a healthy brain. This the first time a direct function associated with attention has been linked to ErbB4. Future research will explore how ErbB4 may coordinate brain activities in efforts to generate therapies for symptoms of psychiatric dysfunction. This research was published in the journal Neuron.

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