Scientists mobilize to fight Zika virus | Study solidifies link between toxin, degenerative brain disease | Primate autism models may lead to new treatments for humans
January 27, 2016
FBR Smartbrief

Top Story
Scientists mobilize to fight Zika virus
Pregnant woman
(Claudio Santana/AFP/Getty Images)
Zika virus is an often-asymptomatic mosquito-borne disease that has been implicated in thousands of cases of microcephaly in infants born to infected Brazilian mothers. President Barack Obama issued a call to action, and NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins has called for animal and epidemiological studies to explore the nature of the link between the virus and microcephaly, but the correlation has already sparked travel warnings and other measures. Scientists in the US and abroad are working with animal tissue, studying mosquitoes and pushing forward on other research to develop a rapid test for the virus and a potential vaccine. CNN (1/26), Reuters (1/27)
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Research Breakthroughs
Study solidifies link between toxin, degenerative brain disease
Researchers working with vervet monkey models have unraveled a health mystery and demonstrated how the neurotoxin BMAA appears to be causing neurodegenerative disease similar to Alzheimer's among the Chamorro people who live in Guam. The study marks the first time researchers have been able to induce neurofibrillary tangles and amyloid deposits, changes that were nearly identical to those seen in the brains of Chamorro people with the illness. The issue is believed to stem from consumption of BMAA, found in seeds and flying foxes eaten by islanders. BMAA is also found in cyanobacteria, present worldwide in algal blooms and up the food chain. CBS News (1/21)
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Primate autism models may lead to new treatments for humans
An autistic teenager hugs his mother.
An autistic teenager hugs his mother. (Loic Venance/AFP/Getty Images)
Researchers in China are working with monkeys to study autism. The disorder is not well understood, but scientists were able to inject monkey eggs with a virus carrying the MECP2 gene before fertilization and implantation in surrogate primate mothers. The offspring exhibited markers of autistic behavior and can serve as a model for testing treatments such as deep brain stimulation, gene therapy or medications. Such studies in nonhuman primates are valuable because of the animals' similarity to humans. The New York Times (free-article access for SmartBrief readers) (1/25)
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Animal studies show MS drug might treat other autoimmune diseases
Ozanimod is a promising drug believed to block inflammatory cell attacks on the myelin of multiple sclerosis patients, but new research suggests ozanimod and similar agents have additional effects that could be harnessed to treat other autoimmune diseases. Functions including blockage of cytokine storms that are hallmarks of systemic lupus and refractory rheumatoid arthritis could help patients while preserving normal immune function. The findings, which were demonstrated in mice, could help researchers develop new treatment options for patients with autoimmune diseases. The San Diego Union-Tribune (1/24)
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Synaptic plasticity research sheds light on human brain capacity
(Johannes Simon/Getty Images)
After evaluating and analyzing rat hippocampus tissue, Salk Institute researchers found that synapse distances vary much more than previously thought. The research, which indicates substantial synaptic plasticity, means the memory capacity of the human brain has been seriously underestimated. Scientists found evidence of up to 26 different synapse size categories, 10 times more than once believed, giving the human brain a petabyte of memory capacity. The findings could ultimately be harnessed for development of faster, more powerful computers. Gizmodo (1/21)
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Hardy ants don't show signs of aging
Scientists have been studying Pheidole dentata, an ant native to the Southeast, in an effort to learn more about aging. The ants don't seem to deteriorate with age the way other species including humans do. Research reported in Proceedings of the Royal Society B found that older ants performed various activities just as well or better than younger ants; serotonin and dopamine levels don't decline with age as they do in humans; and ant brains don't show age-related changes. The findings might have something to do with the insects' social nature, making them a good model for studying human aging, said researcher Ysabel Giraldo. (1/21)
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Mouse study shows why habits are hard to break
People know that old habits die hard, and now research involving mice explains why. Duke University researchers found that mice accustomed to eating sweet treats developed stronger signaling in the basal ganglia of the brain, and their drive to obtain more sweets overpowered signals to stop seeking sweets. In mice on a normal diet, the basal ganglia signaling remained more measured and balanced. The study, published in Neuron, could lead to new interventions for people who want to break behavior patterns. Forbes (1/24)
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What Do You Think?
President Barack Obama has called for urgent action on the development of vaccines and treatments to fight the Zika virus. What role will lab animal models play in stopping the spread of Zika? 
VoteAnimal models will play an integral role in developing vaccines and treatments to stop the spread of Zika.
VoteAnimal models will play some role in stopping the spread of Zika.
VoteAnimal models will not be necessary to stop the spread of Zika.
Animal Health
Genetic study enrolls thousands of pets to learn about human, canine health
The team behind the Darwin's Dogs project is amassing anecdotal and genetic information from thousands of dogs and their owners in an attempt to better understand a variety of disorders and diseases. Among those is canine compulsive disorder, which is similar to human obsessive–compulsive disorder and causes dogs to obsessively lick, chew or chase. Some 3,000 dogs are enrolled already, and DNA processing will begin in March. Nature (free content) (1/26)
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