Sugar-Burning in the Adult Human Brain is Associated with Continued Growth and Remodeling
January 7, 2014 | Download PDF
Although brain growth slows as individuals age, some regions of the brain continue to develop for longer than others, creating new connections and remodeling existing circuitry. How this happens is a key question in neuroscience, with implications for brain health and neurodegenerative diseases. New research published today shows that those areas of the adult brain that consume more fuel than scientists might expect also share key characteristics with the developing brain. Two Allen Brain Atlas resources – the Allen Human Brain Atlas and the BrainSpan Atlas of the Developing Human Brain – were crucial to uncovering the significance of these sugar-hungry regions. The results are published this month in the journal Cell Metabolism.
"These experiments and analysis represent the first union of its kind between functional imaging data and a biological mechanism, with the Allen Brain Atlas resources helping to bridge that gap," comments Michael Hawrylycz, Ph.D., Investigator with the Allen Institute for Brain Science and co-author of the study. Data from PET scans provides structural insight into the brain, but until now, has not been able to elucidate function. "Now we can make the comparison between the functional data and the gene expression data," says Hawrylycz, "so instead of just the 'where,' we now also have the 'what' and 'how.'"
The brain needs to constantly metabolize fuel in order to keep running, most often in the form of glycolysis: the breaking down of stored sugar into useable energy. PET scans of the brain, which illuminate regions consuming sugar, show that some select areas of the brain seemed to exhibit fuel consumption above and beyond what was needed for basic functioning. In cancer biology, this same well-known phenomenon of consuming extra fuel—called "aerobic glycolysis"—is thought to provide support pathways for cell proliferation. In the brain, aerobic glycolysis is dramatically increased during childhood and accounts for as much as one third of total brain glucose consumption at its peak around 5 years of age, which is also the peak of synapse development.
Since aerobic glycolysis varies by region of the brain, Hawrylycz and co-author Marcus Raichle, Ph.D., at Washington University in St. Louis, wondered whether regions of the brain with higher levels of aerobic glycolysis might be associated with equivalent growth processes, like synapse formation. If so, this would point to aerobic glycolysis as a reflection of "neoteny," or persistent brain development like the kind that takes place during early childhood.
In order to delve into the significance of aerobic glycolysis, researchers examined the genes expressed at high levels in those regions where aerobic glycolysis was taking place. The team identified 16 regions of the brain with elevated levels of aerobic glycolysis and ranked their neotenous characteristics. True to prediction, they found that gene expression data from those 16 regions suggested highly neotenous behavior.
The next phase was to identify which genes were specifically correlated with aerobic glycolysis in those regions. The Allen Brain Atlas resources proved crucial in this task, helping to pinpoint gene expression in different regions at various points in development. The Allen Human Brain Atlas was used to investigate the adult human brain, while the BrainSpan Atlas of the Developing Human Brain, developed by a consortium of partners and funded by the National Institutes of Health, provided a window into how gene expression changes as the brain ages. Analysis of the roles of those genes pointed clearly towards their roles in growth and development; top genes included those responsible for axon guidance, potassium ion channel development, synaptic transmission and plasticity, and many more. The consistent theme was development, pointing to aerobic glycolysis as a hallmark for neotenous, continually developing regions of the brain.
"Using both the adult and developmental data, we were able to study gene expression at each point in time," describes Hawrylycz. "From there, we were able to see the roles of those genes that were highly expressed in regions with aerobic glycolysis. As it turns out, those genes are consistently involved in the remodeling and maturation process, synaptic growth and neurogenesis—all factors in neoteny." "The regions we identified as being neotenous are areas of the cortex particularly associated with development of intelligence and learning," explains Hawrylycz. "Our results suggest that aerobic glycolysis, or extra fuel consumption, is a marker for regions of the brain that continue to grow and develop in similar ways to the early human brain."
About the Allen Institute for Brain Science
The Allen Institute for Brain Science (www.alleninstitute.org) is an independent, 501(c)(3) nonprofit medical research organization dedicated to accelerating the understanding of how the human brain works in health and disease. Using a big science approach, the Allen Institute generates useful public resources used by researchers and organizations around the globe, drives technological and analytical advances, and discovers fundamental brain properties through integration of experiments, modeling and theory. Launched in 2003 with a seed contribution from founder and philanthropist Paul G. Allen, the Allen Institute is supported by a diversity of government, foundation and private funds to enable its projects. Given the Institute's achievements, Mr. Allen committed an additional $300 million in 2012 for the first four years of a ten-year plan to further propel and expand the Institute's scientific programs, bringing his total commitment to date to $500 million. The Allen Institute's data and tools are publicly available online at www.brain-map.org.
About Washington University in Saint Louis
Washington University School of Medicine's 2,100 employed and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children's hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient-care institutions in the nation, currently ranked sixth in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children's hospitals, the School Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.
About the BrainSpan Atlas of the Developing Human Brain
This project was supported by Award Numbers RC2MH089921 (PIs Ed Lein & Michael Hawrylycz, Allen Institute for Brain Science), RC2MH090047 (PI James A. Knowles, University of Southern California) and RC2MH089929 (PI Nenad Sestan, Yale University), totaling $16.2M, $8.9M and $9.9M, respectively, from the National Institute of Mental Health. This project is funded with 100% federal funds. No non-government funds support the project. The content is solely the responsibility of the respective authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institute of Mental Health or the National Institutes of Health.
About the Allen Human Brain Atlas
The project described was supported in part by award numbers 1C76HF15069-01-00 and 1C76HF19619-01-00 from the Department of Health and Human Services Health Resources and Services Administration. These awards for $471,240 and $274,000, respectively, fund approximately 1.5% of the Allen Human Brain Atlas project. The remaining 98.5% of the approximately $50M project is supported by nongovernmental sources. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the Department of Health and Human Services.