University of South Carolina

Neuroscience research

Designer genes target serious diseases


The chemistry of anxiety 

Anxiety disorders such as panic attacks and post-traumatic stress disorder often involve an imbalance of brain chemicals, which often is corrected with precise dosages of medication.

Marlene Wilson is exploring another approach that could be used to treat anxiety or depression, which sometimes won't respond to medication.

"We were one of the first groups to look at how specific proteins affect anxiety and identify brain circuits that are responsible for stress disorders."

"My lab is using selected virus vectors that target certain cell types in the brain," she said. "We were one of the first groups to look at how specific proteins affect anxiety and identify brain circuits that are responsible for stress disorders. We think receptors in the brain's endogenous opioid system play a role in disorders such as social phobias and generalized anxiety."

Studies suggest that people and animals with high levels of a certain brain protein -- called neuropeptide Y -- can cope better with stress, appearing less anxious, less emotional, and more resilient to traumatic events.

"We're interested not only in the role of this peptide in anxiety disorders but also in knowing its relationship to alcohol because there appears to be a strong relationship between anxiety disorders and alcohol abuse," Wilson said.

Diabetes-related disorders

Scientists have long understood the biochemistry of insulin deficiency and diabetes, but the effects of insulin on the central nervous system are far less understood.

Larry Reagan is using a modified virus as a tool to study those effects and the larger relationship between diabetes and development of other neurological disorders.

"Depressive illnesses and Alzheimer's disease are just a couple of the comorbidities associated with diabetes," Reagan said. "Using our specialized virus, we're looking at how decreasing insulin receptors in the brain affects the structure and function of neurons.

"We already know that with fewer insulin receptors, you start to see indications of accelerated brain aging. Diabetics' brains appear to be older, which is perhaps why they develop age-related diseases such as Alzheimer's."

Could boosting insulin receptors in the brain have a positive effect? "One of the newest things from a clinical perspective is administering insulin intranasally to increase cognitive function in Alzheimer's patients," Reagan said. "No one really knows how the insulin has that effect on the brain -- that's the big unknown, and that's why we're using the virus to try to map it out."

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Posted: 11/11/09 @ 12:00 AM | Updated: 08/09/11 @ 9:12 AM | Permalink



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