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Vol. LXVI, No. 19
September 12, 2014

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Scientists Plug into a Learning Brain

Learning is easier when it only requires nerve cells to rearrange existing patterns of activity than when the nerve cells have to generate new patterns, a study of monkeys has found. The scientists explored the brain’s capacity to learn through recordings of electrical activity of brain cell networks. NICHD partly funded the study.

“We looked into the brain and may have seen why it’s so hard to think outside the box,” said Dr. Aaron Batista of the University of Pittsburgh, a senior author of the study published in Nature, with Dr. Byron Yu at Carnegie Mellon University.

The human brain contains nearly 86 billion neurons, which communicate through intricate networks of connections. Understanding how they work together during learning can be challenging. Batista and his colleagues combined two innovative technologies, brain-computer interfaces and machine learning, to study patterns of activity among neurons in monkey brains as the animals learned to use their thoughts to move a computer cursor.

“This is a fundamental advance in understanding the neurobiological patterns that underlie the learning process,” said Dr. Theresa Cruz, a program official at the National Center for Medical Rehabilitation Research at NICHD. “The findings may eventually lead to new treatments for stroke as well as other neurological disorders.”

Scientists Looking Across Human, Fly and Worm Genomes Find Shared Biology

Researchers analyzing human, fly and worm genomes have found that these species have a number of key genomic processes in common, reflecting their shared ancestry. The findings, which appeared Aug. 28 in the journal Nature, offer insights into embryonic development, gene regulation and other biological processes vital to understanding human biology and disease.

The studies highlight the data generated by the modENCODE Project and the ENCODE Project, both supported by the National Human Genome Research Institute. Integrating data from the three species, the model organism ENCyclopedia Of DNA Elements (modENCODE) Consortium studied how gene expression patterns and regulatory proteins that help determine cell fate often share common features. Investigators also detailed the similar ways in which the three species use protein packaging to compact DNA into the cell nucleus and to regulate genome function by controlling access to DNA.

Launched in 2007, the goal of modENCODE is to create a comprehensive catalog of functional elements in the fruit fly and roundworm genomes for use by the research community. Such elements include genes that code for proteins, non-protein-coding genes and regulatory elements that control gene expression. The current work builds on initial catalogs published in 2010. The modENCODE projects complement the work being done by the ENCyclopedia Of DNA Elements (ENCODE) Project, which is building a comprehensive catalog of functional elements in the human and mouse genomes.

NIH Launches Human Safety Study of Ebola Vaccine Candidate

Ebola virus

Initial human testing of an investigational vaccine to prevent Ebola virus disease began this month at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

The early stage trial began initial human testing of a vaccine co-developed by NIAID and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and will evaluate the experimental vaccine’s safety and ability to generate an immune system response in healthy adults. Testing takes place at the Clinical Center.

The study is the first of several phase 1 clinical trials that will examine the investigational NIAID/GSK Ebola vaccine and an experimental Ebola vaccine developed by the Public Health Agency of Canada and licensed to NewLink Genetics Corp. The others are to launch in the fall. These trials are conducted in healthy adults who are not infected with Ebola virus to determine if the vaccine is safe and induces an adequate immune response.

In parallel, NIH has partnered with a British-based international consortium that includes the Wellcome Trust and Britain’s Medical Research Council and Department for International Development to test the NIAID/GSK vaccine candidate among healthy volunteers in the United Kingdom and in the West African countries of Gambia (after approval from relevant authorities) and Mali.

Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has initiated discussions with Ministry of Health officials in Nigeria about the prospects for conducting a phase 1 safety study of the vaccine among healthy adults in that country.

The pace of human safety testing for experimental Ebola vaccines has been expedited in response to the ongoing Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa. According to the World Health Organization, by Sept. 5 nearly 2,000 suspected and confirmed deaths from Ebola infection had been reported in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone; the outbreak was first reported in March 2014.

“There is an urgent need for a protective Ebola vaccine and it is important to establish that a vaccine is safe and spurs the immune system to react in a way necessary to protect against infection,” said NIAID director Dr. Anthony Fauci.

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