Schizophrenia, a chronic, neurological brain disorder, affects millions of people around the world. It causes a fracture between a person’s thoughts, feelings and behavior. Symptoms include delusions, hallucinations, difficulty processing thoughts and an overall lack of motivation. Schizophrenia patients have a higher suicide rate and more health problems than the general population, and a lower life expectancy.
There is no cure for schizophrenia, but the key to treating it more effectively is to better understand how it arises. And that, according to Ryuta Mizutani, professor of applied biochemistry at Tokai University in Japan, means studying the structure of brain tissue. Specifically, it means comparing the brain tissues of schizophrenia patients with those of people in good mental health, to see the differences as clearly as possible.
“There are only a few places in the world where you can do this research. Without 3D analysis of brain tissues this work would not be possible.” — Ryuta Mizutani, professor, Tokai University
“The current treatment for schizophrenia is based on many hypotheses we don’t know how to confirm,” Mizutani said. “The first step is to analyze the brain and see how it is constituted differently.”
To do that, Mizutani and his colleagues from several international institutions collected eight small samples of brain tissue — four from healthy brains and four from those of schizophrenia patients, all collected post-mortem — and brought them to beamline 32-ID of the Advanced Photon Source (APS), a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science User Facility at DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory.
At the APS, the team used powerful X-rays and high-resolution optics to capture three-dimensional images of those tissues. (Researchers collected similar images at the Super Photon Ring 8-GeV [SPring-8] light source facility in Japan.) The resolution of the X-ray optics used at the APS can be as high as 10 nanometers. That’s about 700 times smaller than the width of the average red blood cell, and there are five million of those cells in a drop of blood.
“There are only a few places in the world where you can do this research,” Mizutani said. “Without 3D analysis of brain tissues this work would not be possible.”
According to Vincent De Andrade, physicist in Argonne’s X-ray Science Division, capturing images at high resolution presents a challenge, since the neurons being imaged can be centimeters long. The neuron is the basic working unit of the brain, a cell within the nervous system that transmits information to other cells to control body functions. The human brain has roughly 100 billion of these neurons, in various sizes and shapes.
“The sample has to move through the X-ray beam to trace the neurons through the sample,” De Andrade explained. “The field of view of our X-ray microscope is about 50 microns, about the width of a human hair, and you need to follow these neurons over several millimeters.”
What these images showed is that the structures of these neurons are uniquely different in each schizophrenia patient, which Mizutani said is evidence that the disease is associated with those structures. Images of healthy neurons were relatively similar, while neurons from schizophrenia patients showed far more deviation, both from the healthy brains and from each other.
More study is needed, Mizutani said, to figure out exactly how the structures of neurons are related to the onset of the disease and to devise a treatment that can alleviate the effects of schizophrenia. As X-ray technology continues to improve — the APS, for example, is scheduled to undergo a massive upgrade that will increase its brightness up to 500 times — so will the possibilities for neuroscientists.
“The APS upgrade will allow for better sensitivity and resolution for imaging, making the process of mapping neurons in the brain faster and more precise,” De Andrade said. “We would need resolutions of better than 10 nanometers to capture synaptic connections, which is the holy grail for a comprehensive mapping of neurons, and those should be achievable with the upgrade.”
De Andrade also noted that while electron microscopy has been used to map the brains of small animals — fruit flies, for instance — that technique would take a long time to image the brain of a larger animal, such as a mouse, let alone a full human brain. Ultrabright, high energy X-rays like those at the APS, he said, could speed up the process, and advances in technology will help scientists get a more complete picture of brain tissue.
For neuroscientists like Mizutani, the end goal is fewer people suffering with brain diseases like schizophrenia.
“The differences in brain structure between healthy and schizophrenic people must be linked to mental disorders,” he said. “We must find some way to make people healthy.”
Mizutani and his team reported their results in Translational Psychiatry.
About the Advanced Photon Source
The U. S. Department of Energy Office of Science’s Advanced Photon Source (APS) at Argonne National Laboratory is one of the world’s most productive X-ray light source facilities. The APS provides high-brightness X-ray beams to a diverse community of researchers in materials science, chemistry, condensed matter physics, the life and environmental sciences, and applied research. These X-rays are ideally suited for explorations of materials and biological structures; elemental distribution; chemical, magnetic, electronic states; and a wide range of technologically important engineering systems from batteries to fuel injector sprays, all of which are the foundations of our nation’s economic, technological, and physical well-being. Each year, more than 5,000 researchers use the APS to produce over 2,000 publications detailing impactful discoveries, and solve more vital biological protein structures than users of any other X-ray light source research facility. APS scientists and engineers innovate technology that is at the heart of advancing accelerator and light-source operations. This includes the insertion devices that produce extreme-brightness X-rays prized by researchers, lenses that focus the X-rays down to a few nanometers, instrumentation that maximizes the way the X-rays interact with samples being studied, and software that gathers and manages the massive quantity of data resulting from discovery research at the APS.
This research used resources of the Advanced Photon Source, a U.S. DOE Office of Science User Facility operated for the DOE Office of Science by Argonne National Laboratory under Contract No. DE-AC02-06CH11357.
Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https:/
USC Stem Cell study identifies molecular ‘switch’ that turns precursors into kidney cells
Kidney development is a balancing act between the self-renewal of stem and progenitor cells to maintain and expand their numbers, and the differentiation of these cells into more specialized cell types. In a new study in the journal eLife from Andy McMahon’s laboratory in the Department of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, former graduate student Alex Quiyu Guo and a team of scientists demonstrate the importance of a molecule called β-catenin in striking this balance.
β-catenin is a key driver at the end of a complex signaling cascade known as the Wnt pathway. Wnt signaling plays critical roles in the embryonic development of multiple organs including the kidneys. By partnering with other Wnt pathway molecules, β-catenin controls the activity of hundreds to thousands of genes within the cell.
The new study builds on the McMahon Lab’s previous discovery that Wnt/β-catenin can initiate progenitor cells to execute a lengthy and highly orchestrated program of forming structures in the kidney called nephrons. A healthy human kidney contains a million nephrons that balance body fluids and remove soluble waste products. Too few nephrons results in kidney disease.
Previous studies from the UT Southwestern Medical Center laboratory of Thomas Carroll, a former postdoctoral trainee in the McMahon Lab, suggested that Wnt/β-catenin signaling plays opposing roles in ensuring the proper number of nephrons: promoting progenitor maintenance and self-renewal, and stimulating progenitor cell differentiation.
“It sounded like Wnt/β-catenin is doing two things–both maintenance and differentiation–that seem to be opposite operations,” said Guo. “Therefore, the hypothesis was that different levels of Wnt/β-catenin can dictate different fates of the nephron progenitors: when it’s low, it works on maintenance; when it’s high, it directs differentiation.”
In 2015, it became more possible to test this hypothesis when Leif Oxburgh, a scientist at the Rogosin Institute in New York and a co-author of the eLife study, developed a system for growing large numbers of nephron progenitor cells, or NPCs, in a Petri dish.
Relying on this game-changing new system, Guo and his collaborators grew NPCs, added different levels of a chemical that activates β-catenin, and saw their hypothesis play out in the Petri dishes.
They observed that high levels of β-catenin triggered a “switch” in part of the Wnt pathway that relies on another family of transcription factors known as TCF/LEF. There are two types of TCF/LEF transcription factors: one type inhibits genes related to differentiation, and the other activates these genes. In response to high levels of β-catenin, the “activating” members of TCF/LEF switched places with the “inhibiting” members, effectively taking charge. This “switch” triggered NPCs to differentiate into more specialized types of kidney cells.
When they looked at low levels of β-catenin, they saw NPCs self-renewing and maintaining their populations, as expected. However, they were surprised to learn that β-catenin was not engaged with any of the known genes related to self-renewal and maintenance.
“β-catenin does something,” said Guo. “That is for sure. But how it does it is kind of mysterious right now.”
After publishing these results in eLife, Guo earned his PhD from USC, and began his postdoctoral training at UCLA. Helena Bugacov, a current PhD student in the McMahon Lab and a co-author of the eLife study, is now taking the lead in continuing the project–which has implications far beyond the kidney field, due to the broad role of Wnt throughout the body.
“Understanding how Wnt regulates these two very distinct cell outcomes of self-renewal and differentiation, which is very important for kidney development, is also important for understanding the development of other organs and adult stem cells, as Wnt signaling plays important roles in almost all developmental systems,” said Bugacov. “There is also a lot of attention from cancer researchers, as this process can go awry in cancer. Many therapeutics are trying to target this process.”
She added, “The more we know about things, the better we can inform work on developing human kidney organoid cultures, which can be more readily used to understand problems in human health, regeneration and development.”
Additional co-authors of the eLife study include: Albert Kim, Andrew Ransick, Xi Chen, and Nils Lindstrom from USC; Aaron Brown from the Maine Medical Center Research Institute; and Bin Li and Bing Ren from the University of California, San Diego. The research was supported by federal funding from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (grant number R01 DK054364).
Evidence of Antarctic glacier’s tipping point confirmed for first time
Researchers have confirmed for the first time that Pine Island Glacier in West Antarctica could cross tipping points, leading to a rapid and irreversible retreat which would have significant consequences for global sea level
Researchers have confirmed for the first time that Pine Island Glacier in West Antarctica could cross tipping points, leading to a rapid and irreversible retreat which would have significant consequences for global sea level.
Pine Island Glacier is a region of fast-flowing ice draining an area of West Antarctica approximately two thirds the size of the UK. The glacier is a particular cause for concern as it is losing more ice than any other glacier in Antarctica.
Currently, Pine Island Glacier together with its neighbouring Thwaites glacier are responsible for about 10% of the ongoing increase in global sea level.
Scientists have argued for some time that this region of Antarctica could reach a tipping point and undergo an irreversible retreat from which it could not recover. Such a retreat, once started, could lead to the collapse of the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which contains enough ice to raise global sea level by over three metres.
While the general possibility of such a tipping point within ice sheets has been raised before, showing that Pine Island Glacier has the potential to enter unstable retreat is a very different question.
Now, researchers from Northumbria University have shown, for the first time, that this is indeed the case.
Their findings are published in leading journal, The Cryosphere.
Using a state-of-the-art ice flow model developed by Northumbria’s glaciology research group, the team have developed methods that allow tipping points within ice sheets to be identified.
For Pine Island Glacier, their study shows that the glacier has at least three distinct tipping points. The third and final event, triggered by ocean temperatures increasing by 1.2C, leads to an irreversible retreat of the entire glacier.
The researchers say that long-term warming and shoaling trends in Circumpolar Deep Water, in combination with changing wind patterns in the Amundsen Sea, could expose Pine Island Glacier’s ice shelf to warmer waters for longer periods of time, making temperature changes of this magnitude increasingly likely.
The lead author of the study, Dr Sebastian Rosier, is a Vice-Chancellor’s Research Fellow in Northumbria’s Department of Geography and Environmental Sciences. He specialises in the modelling processes controlling ice flow in Antarctica with the goal of understanding how the continent will contribute to future sea level rise.
Dr Rosier is a member of the University’s glaciology research group, led by Professor Hilmar Gudmundsson, which is currently working on a major £4million study to investigate if climate change will drive the Antarctic Ice Sheet towards a tipping point.
Dr Rosier explained: “The potential for this region to cross a tipping point has been raised in the past, but our study is the first to confirm that Pine Island Glacier does indeed cross these critical thresholds.
“Many different computer simulations around the world are attempting to quantify how a changing climate could affect the West Antarctic Ice Sheet but identifying whether a period of retreat in these models is a tipping point is challenging.
“However, it is a crucial question and the methodology we use in this new study makes it much easier to identify potential future tipping points.”
Hilmar Gudmundsson, Professor of Glaciology and Extreme Environments worked with Dr Rosier on the study. He added: “The possibility of Pine Island Glacier entering an unstable retreat has been raised before but this is the first time that this possibility is rigorously established and quantified.
“This is a major forward step in our understanding of the dynamics of this area and I’m thrilled that we have now been able to finally provide firm answers to this important question.
“But the findings of this study also concern me. Should the glacier enter unstable irreversible retreat, the impact on sea level could be measured in metres, and as this study shows, once the retreat starts it might be impossible to halt it.”
The paper, The tipping points and early warning indicators for Pine island Glacier, West Antarctica, is now available to view in The Cryosphere.
Northumbria is fast becoming the UK’s leading university for research into Antarctic and extreme environments.
As well as the £4m tipping points study, known as TiPPACCs, Northumbria is also the only UK university to play a part in two projects in the £20m International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration – the largest joint project undertaken by the UK and USA in Antarctica for more than 70 years – where Northumbria is leading the PROPHET and GHC projects. This particular study was funded through both TiPPACCs and PROPHET.
Diversity can prevent failures in large power grids
Integrated power grids offer benefits, but also pose challenges best addressed by leveraging differences
The recent power outages in Texas brought attention to its power grid being separated from the rest of the country. While it is not immediately clear whether integration with other parts of the national grid would have completely eliminated the need for rolling outages, the state’s inability to import significant amounts of electricity was decisive in the blackout.
A larger power grid has perks, but also has perils that researchers at Northwestern University are hoping to address to expedite integration and improvements to the system.
An obvious challenge in larger grids is that failures can propagate further — in the case of Texas, across state lines. Another is that all power generators need to be kept synchronized to a common frequency in order to transmit energy. The U.S. is served by three “separate” grids: The Eastern interconnection, the Western interconnection and the Texas interconnection, interlinked only by direct-current power lines. Any persistent deviation in frequencies within a region can lead to an outage.
As a result, researchers are searching for ways to stabilize the grid by looking for methods to mitigate deviations in the power generators’ frequencies.
The new Northwestern research shows that counter to assumptions held by some, there are stability benefits to heterogeneity in the power grid. Examining several power grids across the U.S. and Europe, a team led by Northwestern physicist Adilson Motter recently reported that generators operating on different frequencies return to their normal state more quickly when they are damped by “breakers” at different rates than generators around them.
The paper was published March 5 in the journal Nature Communications.
Motter is the Charles E. and Emma H. Morrison Professor in the department of physics and astronomy in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. His research focuses on nonlinear phenomena in complex systems and networks.
Motter compares power grids to a choir: “It’s a little bit like a choir without a conductor. The generators have to listen to others and speak in sync. They react and respond to each other’s frequencies.”
Listen to an out-of-whack frequency, and the result can be a failure. Given the interconnected makeup of the system, a failure can propagate across the network. Historically, these malfunctions have been prevented by using active controllers. However, failures are often caused precisely by control and equipment errors. This points to a need to build additional stability within the design of the system. To achieve that, the team looked into leveraging the natural heterogeneities of the grid.
When the frequencies of the power generators are moved away from the synchronous state, they can swing around for a long time and even become more erratic. To mitigate these fluctuations, they came up with something akin to a door mechanism used to close a door the fastest, but without slamming.
“Mathematically, the problem of damping frequency deviations in a power generator is analogous to the problem of optimally damping a door to get it to close the fastest, which has a known solution in the case of a single door,” Motter said. “But it’s not a single door in this analogy. It’s a network of many doors that are coupled with each other, if you can imagine the doors as power generators.”
When creating an “optimal damping” effect, they discovered that rather than making each damper identical, damping the power generators in a way that is suitably different from each other can further optimize their ability to synchronize to the same frequency as quickly as possible. That is, suitably heterogenous damping across the network can lead to improved stability in the power grids studied by the team.
This discovery could have implications for future grid design as developers work to optimize technology and in considerations to further integrate now separated networks.
The paper is titled “Asymmetry underlies stability in power grids.” Additional co-authors include former postdoctoral researcher Ferenc Molnar and research professor Takashi Nishikawa.
The study was supported by Northwestern University’s Finite Earth Initiative (supported by Leslie and Mac McQuown) and ARPA-E Award No. DE-AR0000702 and also benefited from logistical support from the Northwestern Institute for Sustainability and Energy.
How Fortnite and Zelda can up your surgical game (no joke!)
Scalpel? Check. Gaming console? Check. Study finds video games can be a new tool on surgical tray for medical students
Video games offer students obvious respite from the stresses of studies and, now, a study from a University of Ottawa medical student has found they could benefit surgical skills training.
Arnav Gupta carries a heavy course load as a third-year student in the Faculty of Medicine, so winding down with a game of Legend of Zelda always provides relief from the rigorous of study. But Zelda may be helping improve his surgical education, too, as Gupta and a team of researchers from the University of Toronto found in a paper they recently published in the medical journal Surgery.
“Given the limited availability of simulators and the high accessibility of video games, medical students interested in surgical specialties should know that video games may be a valuable adjunct training for enhancing their medical education, especially in surgical specialties where it can be critical,” says Gupta, whose findings were deciphered from a systematic review of 16 studies involving 575 participants.
“Particularly, in robotic surgery, being a video gamer was associated with improvements in time to completion, economy of motion, and overall performance. In laparoscopic surgery, video games-based training was associated with improvement in duration on certain tasks, economy of motion, accuracy, and overall performance,” explains Gupta, who has been a gamer since age 8.
This study builds on past reviews and is the first to focus on a specific medical student population where this style of training could be feasibly implemented. Their timely study found some of the most beneficial games for students of robotic surgery and laparoscopy were: Super Monkey Ball, Half Life, Rocket League and Underground. Underground is purposely designed to assist medical students with their robotic surgery training via a video game console.
“While video games can never replace the value of first-hand experience, they do have merit as an adjunctive tool, especially when attempting to replicate important movements to surgery. For example, first-person shooting games require you to translate three dimensional motions onto a two-dimensional screen, which is like the concept of laparoscopic surgery,” says Gupta, whose studies are focused on surgery in ophthalmology, which makes games like Resident Evil 4 or Trauma Center: New Blood fitted for his own ambitions.
“I’m not joking when I say that games such as Fortnite have the potential to enhance those necessary movements, providing stronger motivational components and in a low stakes environment.”
Reports suggest 55 percent of university students are gamers and enjoy proficiency with video consoles. Yet, many medical students don’t admit to owning and using a gaming console.
“I think there definitely is some ambivalence towards video games in medicine,” says Gupta, who is also a fan of Witcher 3. “Given how accessible games have become and how video game technology is advancing, video games definitely are an easy go-to for the students who do love them in some capacity. The hope is that maybe this study can inspire someone to take advantage of video games’ unique capabilities, reduce the general ambivalence towards it, and develop some fun ways to let students engage with surgical education.”
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