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Wellcome Trust Research Round-Up: 12.10.15

12 Oct, 2015

Our fortnightly round-up of research news from the Wellcome Trust community…

Hardwiring happiness?

Neurons in the brain - illustration Credit: Benedict Campbell. Wellcome Images

Neurons in the brain – illustration
Credit: Benedict Campbell. Wellcome Images

There is a strong relationship between positive behaviour and the wiring of your brain, according to new research published in Nature Neuroscience.

This is the first finding from the Human Connectome Project (HCP), a $40 million collaboration to scan brain networks of 1,200 adults. A connectome is a map of the brain as a network of neurons. One of HCP’s goals is to map the networks that are active when the brain is at rest. Researchers believe these networks connect different parts of the brain when they need to perform a task.

Wellcome Trust-funded scientists at Oxford University compared 461 people’s neural connections with 280 behavioural and demographic measures, including history of drug use, age and socioeconomic status. Results showed that brain connectivity for people with positively perceived lifestyles and behaviours differed to those with negative ones.

This research revealed a ‘positive-negative’ axis. The correlation shows that those with a connectome at one end of the axis have traditionally positive traits, such as better vocabulary, memory and more education. Those on the other end of the scale had typically negative traits, including anger, substance use and poor sleep quality.

Professor Stephen Smith, leading the team at Oxford University’s Centre for Functional MRI of the Brain said, “”It may be that with hundreds of different brain circuits, the tests that are used to measure cognitive ability actually make use of different sets of overlapping circuits. We hope that by looking at brain imaging data we’ll be able to relate connections in the brain to the specific measures, and work out what these kinds of test actually require the brain to do.”

Malaria research bites back

Mosquito, Anopheles stephensi in flight Credit: Hugh Sturrock. Wellcome Images.

Mosquito, Anopheles stephensi in flight. Credit: Hugh Sturrock. Wellcome Images.

Genes that protect African children from developing malaria have been identified, according to research published in Nature and largely funded by the Wellcome Trust.

Variations in DNA at a specific location (‘locus’) on the genome can reduce a child’s chance of developing malaria, in some cases by nearly 50%. This answers questions about why some children don’t develop severe malaria in communities where everyone is exposed to the disease.

MalariaGEN, an international network of scientists and clinicians in malaria-endemic regions of the world, analysed data from eight African countries: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, The Gambia and Tanzania.

Researchers undertook a genome-wide association study (GWAS) comparing the DNA of children with and without severe malaria. Initial results were on a relatively small scale sampling over 5,000 participants – which were then repeated in a further 14,000 children.

Scientists identified a new locus near a cluster of genes which codes for proteins called ‘glycophorins’. These proteins are involved in the malaria parasite’s invasion of red blood cells.

A particular allele (a single gene variant) was found among children in Kenya, which seems to be particularly protective and reduces the risk of severe malaria by about 40%. Since it had a slightly smaller effect across all other populations studied, the researched speculate that the findings may be due to genetic features of the local malaria parasite in East Africa.

Professor Ogobara K. Doumbo, one of the co-authors from the Malaria Research and Training Center at the University of Bamako in Mali, said: “This type of discovery is made possible by a strong collaboration between malaria investigators in the field and northern collaborators who have the technology platform and the capacity to analyse big data.”

Opening the door to genetic data sharing

Sharing genetic data has enabled scientists to discover four new childhood disorders, according to a study published in Nature Genetics.

ddd_logoDeciphering Developmental Disorders (DDD), a nationwide genome sequencing study on rare diseases, has developed a new approach to find genetic variants that cause disease in young children.

Although over 1,000 different genetic causes of developmental disorders have been identified, they only account for one third of all children with such conditions.

The DDD team contrasted the DNA of children with severe developmental disorders to those without such disorders. They analysed samples from over 4,000 families from across the UK and Republic of Ireland with at least one child affected by a developmental disorder. Using computer systems, they identified clusters of children with shared genetic variants. By comparing this sample to 60,000 research participants who support genetic data sharing for medical research, the team identified four previously unknown genetic disorders.

Dr Matthew Hurles, project leader at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, said: “With the contribution of many thousands of people to medical research, we have the power to uncover mutations behind some devastating conditions. Their altruism can unlock the secrets in our genomes, providing answers to families desperate to understand their child’s condition and enabling those families to access support and engage in further studies researching possible therapeutic strategies.”

In other news…

Congratulations to Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at UCL for winning the Klaus J. Jacobs Research Prize for her research into the adolescent brain, and Kevin Marsh, Professor of Tropical Medicine at the University of Oxford, for being awarded the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine’s 100th Mary Kingsley Medal.

We would also like to congratulate all those awarded 2015 Nobel Prizes. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded in half to Youyou Tu for her discoveries concerning a novel therapy against Malaria, and the other half jointly to William C. Campbell and Satoshi Ōmura for their discoveries concerning a novel therapy against infections caused by roundworm parasites. The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Tomas Lindahl (from the Francis Crick Institute), Paul Modrich and Aziz Sancar.

The Academy of Medical Sciences and the Wellcome Trust published a report this week on influenza and the use of antiviral drugs called neuraminidase inhibitors. A leading panel of experts called for UK hospitals to conduct flu trials into the effectiveness of available antiviral drugs.

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