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A KAIST research team identifies a cause of mental diseases induced by childhood abuse
Childhood neglect and/or abuse can induce extreme stress that significantly changes neural networks and functions during growth. This can lead to mental illnesses, including depression and schizophrenia, but the exact mechanism and means to control it were yet to be discovered. On August 1, a KAIST research team led by Professor Won-Suk Chung from the Department of Biological Sciences announced the identification of excessive synapse removal mediated by astrocytes as the cause of mental diseases induced by childhood abuse trauma. Their research was published in Immunity, a top international journal in the field of immunology. The research team discovered that the excessive astrocyte-mediated removal of excitatory synapses in the brain in response to stress hormones is a cause of mental diseases induced by childhood neglect and abuse. Clinical data have previously shown that high levels of stress can lead to various mental diseases, but the exact mechanism has been unknown. The results of this research therefore are expected to be widely applied to the prevention and treatment of such diseases. The research team clinically screened an FDA-approved drug to uncover the mechanism that regulates the phagocytotic role of astrocytes, in which they capture external substances and eliminate them. As a result, the team found that synthetic glucocorticoids, namely stress hormones, enhanced astrocyte-mediated phagocytosis to an abnormal level. Glucocorticoids play essential roles in processes that maintain life, such as carbohydrate metabolism and anti-inflammation, but are also secreted in response to external stimuli such as stress, allowing the body to respond appropriately. However, excessive and long-term exposure to glucocorticoids caused by chronic stress can lead to various mental diseases including depression, cognitive disorders, and anxiety. < Figure 1. Results of screening for compounds that increase astrocyte phagocytosis (A) Discovered that synthetic glucocorticoid (stress hormone) increases the phagocytosis of astrocytes through screening of FDA-approved clinical compounds. (B-C) When treated with stress hormones, the phagocytosis of astrocytes is greatly increased, but this phenomenon is strongly suppressed by the GR antagonist (Mifepristone). CORT: corticosterone (stress hormone), Eplerenone: mineralocorticoid receptor (MR) antagonist, Mifepristone: glucocorticoid receptor (GR) antagonist > To understand the changes in astrocyte functions caused by childhood stress, the research team used mice models with early social deprivation, and discovered that stress hormones bind to the glucocorticoid receptors (GRs) of astrocytes. This significantly increased the expression of Mer tyrosine kinase (MERK), which plays an essential role in astrocyte phagocytosis. Surprisingly, out of the various neurons in the cerebral cortex, astrocytes would eliminate only the excitatory synapses of specific neurons. The team found that this builds abnormal neural networks, which can lead to complex behavioral abnormalities such as social deficiencies and depression in adulthood. The team also observed that microglia, which also play an important role in cerebral immunity, did not contribute to synapse removal in the mice models with early social deprivation. This confirms that the response to stress hormones during childhood is specifically astrocyte-mediated. To find out whether these results are also applicable in humans, the research team used a brain organoid grown from human-induced pluripotent stem cells to observe human responses to stress hormones. The team observed that the stress hormones induced astrocyte GRs and phagocyte activation in the human brain organoid as well, and confirmed that the astrocytes subsequently eliminated excessive amounts of excitatory synapses. By showing that mice and humans both showed the same synapse control mechanism in response to stress, the team suggested that this discovery is applicable to mental disorders in humans. < Figure 2. A schematic diagram of the study published in Immunity. Excessive stress hormone secretion in childhood increases the expression of the MERTK phagocytic receptor through the glucocorticoid receptor (GR) of astrocytes, resulting in excessive elimination of excitatory synapses. Excessive synaptic elimination by astrocytes during brain development causes permanent damage to brain circuits, resulting in abnormal neural activity in the adult brain and psychiatric behaviors such as depression and anti-social tendencies. > Prof. Won-Suk Chung said, “Until now, we did not know the exact mechanism for how childhood stress caused brain diseases. This research was the first to show that the excessive phagocytosis of astrocytes could be an important cause of such diseases.” He added, “In the future, controlling the immune response of astrocytes will be used as a fundamental target for understanding and treating brain diseases.” This research, written by co-first authors Youkyeong Byun (Ph.D. candidate) and Nam-Shik Kim (post-doctoral associate) from the KAIST Department of Biological Sciences, was published in the internationally renowned journal Immunity, a sister magazine of Cell and one of the best journal in the field of immunology, on July 31 under the title "Stress induces behavioral abnormalities by increasing expression of phagocytic receptor MERTK in astrocytes to promote synapse phagocytosis." This work was supported by a National Research Foundation of Korea grant, the Korea Health Industry Development Institute (KHIDI), and the Korea Dementia Research Center (KDRC).
KAIST Offers Hope to Musicians with Dystonia
< Photo 1. Conductor and Pianist João Carlos Martins before the Recital at the Carnegie Hall preparing with his bionic gloves > KAIST’s neuroscientist and professor, Dr. Daesoo Kim attended the “Conference for Musicians with Dystonia” supported by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Carnegie Hall concert of legendary pianist João Carlos Martins, who is also a dystonia patient, to announce his team’s recent advancements toward finding a cure for dystonia. On November 19, 2022, a “miracle concert” was held in Carnegie Hall. João Carlos Martins was a renowned world-class pianist in the 70s and 80s, but he had to put an end to his musical career due to focal dystonia in his fingers. But in 2020, he began using a bionic glove developed by industrial designer Ubiratã Bizarro Costa and after years of hard work he was back in Carnegie Hall as an 82-year-old man. During the concert, he conducted the NOVUS NY orchestra in a performance of Bach, and later even played the piano himself. In particular, between his performances, he gave shout-outs to scientists studying dystonia including KAIST Professor Daesoo Kim, asking them to continue working towards curing rare diseases for musicians. < Photo 2. Professor Daesoo Kim with Conductor and Pianist João Carlos Martins > Musician’s dystonia affects 1-3% of musicians around the world and musicians make up approximately 5% of the total number of dystonia patients. Musicians who are no longer able to practice music due to the disease often experience stress and depression, which may even lead to suicide in extreme cases. Musicians are known to be particularly prone to such diseases due to excessive practice regimens, perfectionism, and even genetics. Currently, botulinum toxin (Botox) is used to suppress abnormal muscles, but muscle function suppression ultimately means that the musician is no longer able to play the instrument. João Carlos Martins himself underwent several Botox procedures and three brain surgeries, but saw no therapeutic results. This is why a new treatment was necessary. Professor Daesoo Kim’s research team at KAIST took note of the fact that abnormal muscle tension is caused by excessive stress, and developed NT-1, a treatment that blocks the development of the symptoms of dystonia from the brain, allowing patients to use their muscles as they normally would. The research team published their findings in Science Advances in 2021, and João Carlos Martins invited Professor Daesoo Kim to the UN conference and his concert after reading this paper. < Photo 3. Professor Daesoo Kim (3rd from the left) photographed with other guests at the recital including Dr. Dévora Kestel, the Director of the Mental Health and Substance Use at WHO, sharing the center with Conductor and Pianist João Carlos Martins > During the UN conference held the day prior to the Carnegie Hall concert, Dr. Dévora Kestel, Director of the Mental Health and Substance Use at WHO, said, “Although dystonia is not as well-known, it is a common disease around the world, and needs our society’s attention and the devotion of many researchers.” Professor Daesoo Kim said, “NT-1 is a drug that blocks the cause of dystonia in the brain, and will allow musicians to continue practicing music. We aim to attain clinical approval in Korea by 2024.” NT-1 is currently under development by NeuroTobe, a faculty-led start-up company at KAIST, headed by Professor Daesoo Kim as the CEO. The synthesis of the drug for clinical testing has been successfully completed, and it has shown excellent efficacy and safety through various rounds of animal testing. Unlike Botox, which takes a few days to show its therapeutic effects after receiving the procedure from a hospital, NT-1 shows its therapeutic effects within an hour after taking it. As a so-called “edible Botox”, it is expected to help treat various muscular diseases and ailments.
Stress-Relief Substrate Helps OLED Stretch Two-Dimensionally
Highly functional and free-form displays are critical components to complete the technological prowess of wearable electronics, robotics, and human-machine interfaces. A KAIST team created stretchable OLEDs (Organic Light-Emitting Diodes) that are compliant and maintain their performance under high-strain deformation. Their stress-relief substrates have a unique structure and utilize pillar arrays to reduce the stress on the active areas of devices when strain is applied. Traditional intrinsically stretchable OLEDs have commercial limitations due to their low efficiency in the electrical conductivity of the electrodes. In addition, previous geometrically stretchable OLEDs laminated to the elastic substrates with thin film devices lead to different pixel emissions of the devices from different peak sizes of the buckles. To solve these problems, a research team led by Professor Kyung Cheol Choi designed a stretchable substrate system with surface relief island structures that relieve the stress at the locations of bridges in the devices. Their stretchable OLED devices contained an elastic substrate structure comprising bonded elastic pillars and bridges. A patterned upper substrate with bridges makes the rigid substrate stretchable, while the pillars decentralize the stress on the device. Although various applications using micropillar arrays have been reported, it has not yet been reported how elastic pillar arrays can affect substrates by relieving the stress applied to those substrates upon stretching. Compared to results using similar layouts with conventional free-standing, flat substrates or island structures, their results with elastic pillar arrays show relatively low stress levels at both the bridges and plates when stretching the devices. They achieved stretchable RGB (red, green, blue) OLEDs and had no difficulties with material selection as practical processes were conducted with stress-relief substrates. Their stretchable OLEDs were mechanically stable and have two-dimensional stretchability, which is superior to only one-direction stretchable electronics, opening the way for practical applications like wearable electronics and health monitoring systems. Professor Choi said, “Our substrate design will impart flexibility into electronics technology development including semiconductor and circuit technologies. We look forward this new stretchable OLED lowering the barrier for entering the stretchable display market.” This research was published in Nano Letters titled Two-Dimensionally Stretchable Organic Light-Emitting Diode with Elastic Pillar Arrays for Stress Relief. (https://dx.doi.org/10.1021/acs.nanolett.9b03657). This work was supported by the Engineering Research Center of Excellence Program supported by the National Research Foundation of Korea. -Profile Professor Kyung Cheol Choi firstname.lastname@example.org http://adnc.kaist.ac.kr/ School of Electrical Engineering KAIST
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