A Dietary Supplement Dampens the Brain Hyperexcitability Seen in Seizures or Epilepsy

Seizure disorders — including epilepsy — are associated with pathological hyperexcitability in brain neurons. Unfortunately, there are limited available treatments that can prevent this hyperexcitability. However, University of Alabama at Birmingham researchers have found that inducing a biochemical alteration in brain proteins via the dietary supplement glucosamine was able to rapidly dampen that pathological hyperexcitability in rat and mouse models.

These results represent a potentially novel therapeutic target for the treatment of seizure disorders, and they show the need to better understand the physiology underlying these neural and brain circuit changes.

Proteins are the workhorses of living cells, and their activities are tightly and rapidly regulated in responses to changing conditions. Adding or removing a phosphoryl group to proteins is a well-known regulator for many proteins, and it is estimated that human proteins may have as many as 230,000 sites for phosphorylation.

A lesser-known regulation comes from the addition or removal of N-acetylglucosamine to proteins, which is usually controlled by glucose, the primary fuel for neurons. Several years ago, neuroscientist Lori McMahon, Ph.D., professor of cell, developmental and integrative biology at UAB, found out from her colleague John Chatham, D.Phil., a UAB professor of pathology and a cardiac physiologist, that brain cells had the second-highest amounts of proteins with N-acetylglucosamine, or O-GlcNAcylation, in the body.

At the time, very little was known about how O-GlcNAcylation might affect brain function, so McMahon and Chatham started working together. In 2014, McMahon and Chatham, in a study led by graduate student Erica Taylor and colleagues, reported that acute increases in protein O-GlcNAcylation caused long-term synaptic depression, a reduction in neuronal synaptic strength, in the hippocampus of the brain. This was the first time acute changes in O-GlcNAcylation of neuronal proteins were shown to directly change synaptic function.

Since neural excitability in the hippocampus is a key feature of seizures and epilepsy, they hypothesized that acutely increasing protein O-GlcNAcylation might dampen the pathological hyperexcitability associated with these brain disorders.

That turned out to be the case, as reported in the Journal of Neuroscience study, “Acute increases in protein O-GlcNAcylation dampen epileptiform activity in hippocampus.” The study was led by corresponding author McMahon and first author Luke Stewart, a doctoral student in the Neuroscience Theme of the Graduate Biomedical Sciences Program. Stewart is co-mentored by McMahon and Chatham.

“Our findings support the conclusion that protein O-GlcNAcylation is a regulator of neuronal excitability, and it represents a promising target for further research on seizure disorder therapeutics,” they wrote in their research significance statement. The researchers caution that the mechanism underlying the dampening is likely to be complex.

Research details
Glucose, the major fuel for neurons, also controls the levels of protein O-GlcNAcylation on proteins. However, high levels of the dietary supplement glucosamine, or an inhibitor of the enzyme that removes O-GlcNAcylation, leads to rapid increases in O-GlcNAc levels.

In experiments with hippocampal brain slices treated to induce a stable and ongoing hyperexcitability, UAB researchers found that an acute increase in protein O-GlcNAcylation significantly decreased the sudden bursts of electrical activity known as epileptiform activity in area CA1 of the hippocampus. An increased protein O-GlcNAcylation in normal cells also protected against a later induction of drug-induced hyperexcitability.

The effects were seen in slices treated with both glucosamine and an inhibitor of the enzyme that removes O-GlcNAc groups. They also found that treatment with glucosamine alone for as short a time as 10 minutes was able to dampen ongoing drug-induced hyperexcitability.

In common with the long-term synaptic depression provoked by increased O-GlcNAcylation, the dampening of hyperexcitability required the GluA2 subunit of the AMPA receptor, which is a glutamate-gated ion channel responsible for fast synaptic transmission in the brain. This finding suggested a conserved mechanism for the two changes provoked by increased O-GlcNAcylation — synaptic depression and dampening of hyperexcitability.

The researchers also found that the spontaneous firing of pyramidal neurons in another region of hippocampus, area CA3, was reduced by increased O-GlcNAcylation in normal brain slices and in slices with drug-induced hyperexcitability. This reduction in spontaneous firing of CA3 pyramidal neurons likely contributes to decreased hyperexcitability in area CA1 since the CA3 neurons directly excite those in CA1.

Similar to the findings for brain slices, mice that were treated to increase O-GlcNAcylation before getting drug-induced hyperexcitability had fewer of the brain activity spikes associated with epilepsy that are called interictal spikes. Several drug-induced hyperexcitable mice had convulsive seizures during the experiments — this occurred in both the increased O-GlcNAcylation mice and the control mice. Brain activity during the seizures differed between these two groups: The peak power of the brain activity for the mice with increased O-GlcNAcylation occurred at a lower frequency, as compared with the control mice.

Better ‘Mini Brains’ Could Help Scientists Identify Treatments for Zika-Related Brain Damage

UCLA researchers develop improved technique for creating brain tissue from stem cells

UCLA researchers have developed an improved technique for creating simplified human brain tissue from stem cells. Because these so-called “mini brain organoids” mimic human brains in how they grow and develop, they’re vital to studying complex neurological diseases.

In a study published in the journal Cell Reports, the researchers used the organoids to better understand how Zika infects and damages fetal brain tissue, which enabled them to identify drugs that could prevent the virus’s damaging effects.

The research, led by senior author Ben Novitch, could lead to new ways to study human neurological and neurodevelopmental disorders, such as epilepsy, autism and schizophrenia.

“Diseases that affect the brain and nervous system are among the most debilitating medical conditions,” said Novitch, UCLA’s Ethel Scheibel Professor of Neurobiology and a member of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA. “Mini brain organoids provide us with opportunities to examine features of the human brain that are not present in other models, and we anticipate that their similarity to the real human brain will enable us to test how various drugs impact abnormal or diseased brain tissue in far greater detail.”

For about five years, scientists have been using human pluripotent stem cells, which can create any cell type in the body, to develop mini brain organoids. But the organoids they produced have generally been difficult to use for research because they had highly variable structures and inconsistent cellular composition, and because they didn’t correctly mimic the layered structure of the brain and were too small — often no bigger than the head of a pin. They also didn’t survive very long in the laboratory and contained neural tissue that was difficult to classify in relation to real human brain tissue.

The organoids developed by Novitch’s group have a stratified structure that accurately mimics the human brain’s onion-like layers, they survive longer and have a larger and more uniform shape.

To create the brain organoids, Novitch and his team made several modifications to the methods that other scientists used previously: The UCLA investigators used a specific number of stem cells and specialized petri dishes with a modified chemical environment; previous methods used varying amounts of cells and a different type of dish. And they added a growth factor called LIF, which stimulated a cell-signaling pathway that is critical for human brain growth.

The researchers found critical similarities between the organoids they developed and real human brain tissue. Among them: The organoids’ anatomy closely resembled that of the human cortex, the region of the brain associated with thought, speech and decision making; and a diverse array of neural cell types commonly found in the cortex were all present in the organoids, and they exhibited electrical activities and network function, meaning they were capable of communicating with one another much like the neural networks in the human brain do.

The UCLA scientists also found that they could modify their methodology to make other parts of the brain including the basal ganglia, which are involved in the control of movement and are affected by neurodegenerative conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease.

“While our organoids are in no way close to being fully functional human brains, they mimic the human brain structure much more consistently than other models,” said Momoko Watanabe, a UCLA postdoctoral fellow and the study’s first author. “Other scientists can use our methods to improve brain research because the data will be more accurate and consistent from experiment to experiment and more comparable to the real human brain.”

When the team exposed the organoids to Zika, they discovered specifically how the virus destroys neural stem cells, the cells from which the brain grows during fetal development. Novitch’s team found that there are four specific molecules, called receptors, on the outer surface of neural stem cells; previous studies have indicated that the Zika virus could bind to these receptors and infect the cells. The researchers then mapped the changes that occur in the neural stem cells after Zika infection, presenting a clearer picture of how the virus infiltrates and harms fetal brain tissue.

Zika is associated with an unusually high incidence of fetal brain damage, so understanding how neural stem cells are affected by the virus could be an important new step toward a treatment.

The researchers tested several drugs on the Zika-infected organoids. They found three that are effective at blocking the virus’s entry into the brain tissue, including two that protected neural stem cells by preventing the interaction between the virus and entry receptors on the neural stem cells. In previous studies by Novitch and other UCLA colleagues, one of those drugs reduced brain damage in fetal mice infected with Zika.

“Many neurological diseases or conditions arise from defects in the way one neuron communicates with another or from the way an external factor, such as a virus, interacts with neural cells,” Novitch said. “If we can focus in at the level of cellular communication, we should be able to model those undesirable cellular interactions and counteract them with drugs or other therapies.”

The team plans to continue using its improved organoids to better understand human brain development and to learn more about autism spectrum disorders, epilepsy and other neurological conditions.

The experimental drugs used in the preclinical study have not been tested in humans or approved by the Food and Drug Administration for treating Zika in humans.