A new study published in Brain shows that a genetic mutation which causes blindness in humans also increases intelligence, possibly through an increase in synaptic activity between the very same neurons damaged by the mutation.
The present study came about when Professors Tobias Langenhan and Manfred Heckmann, came across a paper on a mutation that damages a synaptic protein. The mutation caused patients to go blind, but then doctors noticed that the patients were also of above-average intelligence, something which piqued the two neurobiologists’ interest. “It’s very rare for a mutation to lead to improvement rather than loss of function,” said Prof Langenhan.
The two neurobiologists have been using fruit flies to analyse synaptic functions for many years. “Our research project was designed to insert the patients’ mutation into the corresponding gene in the fly and use techniques such as electrophysiology to test what then happens to the synapses. It was our assumption that the mutation makes patients so clever because it improves communication between the neurons which involve the injured protein,” explained Prof Langenhan. “Of course, you can’t conduct these measurements on the synapses in the brains of human patients. You have to use animal models for that.”
“75 per cent of genes that cause diseases in humans also exist in fruit flies”Professor Tobias Langenhan
First, in collaboration with Oxford researchers, the scientists showed that the fly protein called RIM looks molecularly identical to that of humans. This was essential in order to be able to study the changes in the human brain in the fly. In the next step, the neurobiologists inserted the genetic mutation into flies. They then took electrophysiological measurements of synaptic activity. “We actually observed that the animals with the mutation showed a much increased transmission of information at the synapses. This amazing effect on the fly synapses is probably found in the same or a similar way in human patients, and could explain their increased cognitive performance, but also their blindness,” concludes Professor Langenhan.
The scientists also found out how the increased transmission at the synapses occurs: the molecular components in the transmitting nerve cell that trigger the synaptic impulses move closer together as a result of the mutation effect and lead to increased release of neurotransmitters. A novel method, super-resolution microscopy, was one of the techniques used in the study. “This gives us a tool to look at and even count individual molecules and confirms that the molecules in the firing cell are closer together than they normally are,” said Prof Langenhan.
“The project beautifully demonstrates how an extraordinary model animal like the fruit fly can be used to gain a very deep understanding of human brain disease. The animals are genetically highly similar to humans. It is estimated that 75% of the genes involving disease in humans are also found in the fruit fly,” explained Professor Langenhan, pointing to further research on the topic: “We have started several joint projects with human geneticists, pathologists and the team of the Integrated Research and Treatment Center (IFB) Adiposity Diseases; based at Leipzig University Hospital, they are studying developmental brain disorders, the development of malignant tumours and obesity. Here, too, we will insert disease-causing mutations into the fruit fly to replicate and better understand human disease.”
Source: Universität Leipzig