Scientists find a rat’s funny bone, a lung cancer tool moves to the front line, three ways we can defeat dementia. 

A Dementia Toolbox

(Nature, 11/9/16, Elie Dolgin)

With the Society for Neuroscience meeting opening tomorrow (Nov. 12), it’s worth pondering what many believe are the three things needed to defeat dementia:  more money for research, better diagnostics and drugs, and a victory—even a small one—to boost the morale of a field that has tried but thus far failed to find an effective treatment. “After so many failures, one clinical win “would galvanize people’s interest that this isn’t a hopeless disorder,” says Ronald Petersen, a neurologist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) only spends around $700 million a year on dementia, compared with $2 billion for cardiovascular disease and more than $5 billion for cancer. This is partly due to poor visibility; victims and caregivers can’t or don’t want to speak out. And more than 200 clinical trials have been terminated because the drug candidates are ineffective or too toxic. But all eyes are on an antibody-based developed by Eli Lilly, now in later-stage clinical trials, to see if it slows cognitive decline in people with Alzheimer’s.

Immunotherapy for Lung Cancer

(Washington Post, 11/10/16, Laurie McGinley)

Lung cancer is still the leading cancer killer in men and women, but immunotherapies are proving to be highly successfully in controlling a small percentage of these tumors. Last month, the US Food and Drug Administration approved the drug Keytruda as a first-line treatment for advanced patients carrying a high concentration of a specific protein on their tumors. This was the first time that immunotherapy was given the green light as an initial treatment for lung cancer. Most new patients will be tested for the protein, called PD-L1. If they have a high level on their cancer cells, they will receive Keytruda rather than chemo, which is much more debilitating, oncologists say. “We don’t want to over-sell this, but for someone like me who has worked in the trenches for years, this is a big deal,” said Julie Brahmer, who led the clinical trial and is an oncologist at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins.

Ticklish Rats

(Science, 11/10/16, Emily Underwood)

Who knew rats had a funny bone? In a study published this week in Science, researchers from Humboldt University in Berlin showed that stimulating neurons in the “tickle center” of the mammalian brain can elicit a paroxysm of ultrasonic squeaks, the rat version of human laughter. Other studies suggest that the ultrasonic squeaks they make are expressions of pleasure. Not only do rats return over and over again to the place they were tickled, the handling triggers the neurotransmitter dopamine in key reward-related brain circuits in the rodents, says Shimpei Ishiyama, the neuroscientist who conducted the study. Rats also display a classic expression of positive emotion, found across many species, called “joy jumps,” Ishiyama says. This involves leaping into the air with both legs together, he explains.

 

—Compiled by Senior Scientific Writer Regina McEnery