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Salk News


Like mountaineers, nerves need expert guidance to find their way

LA JOLLA—(March 22, 2019) Similar to the dozens of Sherpas that guide hikers up treacherous Himalayan mountains to reach a summit, the nervous system relies on elaborate timing and location of guidance cues for neuronal axons—threadlike projections—to successfully reach their destinations in the body. Now, Salk Institute researchers discover how neurons navigate a tricky cellular environment by listening for directions, while simultaneously filtering out inappropriate instructions to avoid getting lost. The findings appeared in Neuron on March 19, 2019.


How attention helps the brain perceive an object

LA JOLLA—It’s easy to miss something you’re not looking for. In a famous example, people were asked to closely observe two groups of people—one group clad in black, the other in white—pass a ball among themselves. Viewers were asked to count the number of times the ball passed from black to white. Remarkably, most observers did not notice a man in a gorilla suit, walking among the players. This ability of the brain to ignore extraneous visual information is critical to how we work and function, but the processes governing perception and attention are not fully understood. Scientists have long theorized that attention to a particular object can alter perception by amplifying certain neuronal activity and suppressing the activity of other neurons (brain “noise”).


Guardians of the synapse: scientists identify a new role for nerve-supporting cells

LA JOLLA—Salk researchers have found, for the first time, that a blood-clotting protein can, unexpectedly, degrade nerves—and how nerve-supporting glial cells, including Schwann cells, provide protection. The findings, published March 14, 2019, in the journal PLOS Genetics, show that Schwann cells protect nerves by blocking this blood-clotting protein as well as other potentially destructive enzymes released by muscle cells. The work could have implications for diseases as diverse as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease or schizophrenia.


Technology and business giants David Dolby and Mark Knickrehm join Salk’s Board

LA JOLLA—The Salk Institute Board of Trustees is pleased to announce its two newest members, David Dolby and Mark Knickrehm, both innovative leaders in business and technology.


Salk scientists uncover how high-fat diets drive colorectal cancer growth

LA JOLLA—As cancer death rates drop overall, doctors have noted a frightening anomaly: deaths from colorectal cancer in people under 55 appear to be creeping up. According to the American Cancer Society, deaths in this younger group increased by 1 percent between 2007 and 2016.


Native California medicinal plant may hold promise for treating Alzheimer’s

LA JOLLA—The medicinal powers of aspirin, digitalis, and the anti-malarial artemisinin all come from plants. A Salk Institute discovery of a potent neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory chemical in a native California shrub may lead to a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease based on a compound found in nature. The research appears in the February 2019 issue of the journal Redox Biology.


Putting the brakes on aging

LA JOLLA—Aging is a leading risk factor for a number of debilitating conditions, including heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, to name a few. This makes the need for anti-aging therapies all the more urgent. Now, Salk Institute researchers have developed a new gene therapy to help decelerate the aging process.


Uncovering the evolution of the brain

LA JOLLA—What makes us human, and where does this mysterious property of “humanness” come from? Humans are genetically similar to chimpanzees and bonobos, yet there exist obvious behavioral and cognitive differences. Now, researchers from the Salk Institute, in collaboration with researchers from the anthropology department at UC San Diego, have developed a strategy to more easily study the early development of human neurons compared with the neurons of nonhuman primates. The study, which appeared in eLife on February 7, 2019, offers scientists a novel tool for fundamental brain research.


When neurons get the blues: hyperactive brain cells may be to blame when antidepressants don’t work

LA JOLLA—The most commonly prescribed antidepressants, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), lift the fog of depression for many people. But for around a third of people with major depressive disorder, SSRIs don’t make much of a difference. Now, researchers from the Salk Institute have pinned down a possible reason why—the neurons in at least some of these patients’ brains may become hyperactive in the presence of the drugs. The study appeared in Molecular Psychiatry on January 30, 2019.


Salk promotes Nicola Allen and Julie Law to associate professor

LA JOLLA—The Salk Institute has promoted Nicola Allen and Julie Law to the rank of associate professor for their notable contributions to neurobiology and plant biology, respectively. The promotions were based on recommendations by Salk faculty and nonresident fellows, and approved by President Rusty Gage and the Institute’s Board of Trustees.


In surprising reversal, scientists find a cellular process that stops cancer before it starts

LA JOLLA—Just as plastic tips protect the ends of shoelaces and keep them from fraying when we tie them, molecular tips called telomeres protect the ends of chromosomes and keep them from fusing when cells continually divide and duplicate their DNA. But while losing the plastic tips may lead to messy laces, telomere loss may lead to cancer.


New technologies enable better-than-ever details on genetically modified plants

LA JOLLA—Salk researchers have mapped the genomes and epigenomes of genetically modified plant lines with the highest resolution ever to reveal exactly what happens at a molecular level when a piece of foreign DNA is inserted. Their findings, published in the journal PLOS Genetics on January 18, 2019, elucidate the routine methods used to modify plants, and offer new ways to more effectively minimize potential off-target effects.


Research confirms nerve cells made from skin cells are a valid lab model for studying disease

LA JOLLA—The incidence of some neurological diseases—especially those related to aging, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases—is increasing. To better understand these conditions and evaluate potential new treatments, researchers need accurate models that they can study in the lab.


Salk scientists uncover the health effects of metabolic “magic bullet” protein

LA JOLLA—The metabolic protein AMPK has been described as a kind of magic bullet for health. Studies in animal models have shown that compounds that activate the protein have health-promoting effects to reverse diabetes, improve cardiovascular health, treat mitochondrial disease—even extend life span. However, how much of the effects of these compounds can be fully attributed to AMPK versus other potential targets is unknown.


Salk Scientist Saket Navlakha Receives CAREER Award from NSF

LA JOLLA—Salk scientist Saket Navlakha has received a CAREER award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) totaling more than $1 million over the next five years. The CAREER award supports faculty who exemplify the role of teacher/scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations.


Salk team reveals clues into early development of autism spectrum disorder

LA JOLLA—Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a relatively common developmental disorder of communication and behavior that affects about 1 in 59 children in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Despite its prevalence, it is still unclear what causes the disease and what are the best ways to treat it.


Salk President Rusty Gage named to new five-year term to lead Institute

LA JOLLA—The Board of Trustees of the Salk Institute, in consultation with the faculty and a search committee comprised of Board members, voted to extend a new five-year term to Rusty Gage, who became the Institute’s President a year ago, expanding his tenure through 2024.


Thriving on teamwork: new research shows how brain cells filter information in groups

LA JOLLA—When we perceive the world around us, certain objects appear to be more noticeable than others, depending on what we do. For example, when we view a forest-covered mountain from a distance, the forest looks like a large green carpet. But as we get closer, we start noticing the individual trees, and the forest fades to the background. What happens in the brain as our experience changes so drastically?


Age is more than just a number: machine learning may be able to predict if you’re in for a healthy old age

LA JOLLA—Doctors have long observed that biological age and chronological age are not always one and the same. A 55-year-old may exhibit many signs of old age and have numerous age-related diseases, whereas an 80-year-old may be healthy and robust. While diet, physical activity and other factors play a role, there are many contributors as to why and how some people age better than others. Those contributors remain poorly understood.


Salk’s Xin Jin receives McKnight Memory and Cognitive Disorders Award

LA JOLLA—Xin Jin, an associate professor in Salk’s Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory, has been selected as one of four scientists to receive the McKnight Memory and Cognitive Disorders award from the McKnight Endowment Fund for Neuroscience to study how the brain learns, remembers and executes actions. The award, which comprises $300,000 over three years, includes participation in the annual McKnight Conference on Neuroscience.