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Journal: ACS chemical neuroscience


The recent outbreak of coronavirus infectious disease 2019 (COVID-19) has gripped the world with apprehension and has evoked a scare of epic proportion regarding its potential to spread and infect humans worldwide. As we are in the midst of an ongoing pandemic of COVID-19, scientists are struggling to understand how it resembles and differs from the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) at the genomic and transcriptomic level. In a short time following the outbreak, it has been shown that, similar to SARS-CoV, COVID-19 virus exploits the angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) receptor to gain entry inside the cells. This finding raises the curiosity of investigating the expression of ACE2 in neurological tissue and determining the possible contribution of neurological tissue damage to the morbidity and mortality caused by COIVD-19. Here, we investigate the density of the expression levels of ACE2 in the CNS, the host-virus interaction and relate it to the pathogenesis and complications seen in the recent cases resulting from the COVID-19 outbreak. Also, we debate the need for a model for staging COVID-19 based on neurological tissue involvement.


Chemotherapy-induced cognitive impairment, known also as ‘chemobrain’, is a medical complication of cancer treatment that is characterized by a general decline in cognition affecting visual and verbal memory, attention, complex problem solving skills, and motor function. It is estimated that one-third of patients who undergo chemotherapy treatment will experience cognitive impairment. Alterations in the release and uptake of dopamine and serotonin, central nervous system neurotransmitters that play important roles in cognition, could potentially contribute to impaired intellectual performance in those impacted by chemobrain. To investigate how chemotherapy treatment affects these systems, fast-scan cyclic voltammetry (FSCV) at carbon-fiber microelectrodes was used to measure dopamine and serotonin release and uptake in coronal brain slices containing the striatum and dorsal raphe nucleus, respectively. Measurements were taken from rats treated weekly with selected doses of carboplatin and from control rats treated with saline. Modeling the stimulated dopamine release plots revealed an impairment of dopamine release per stimulus pulse (80% of saline control at 5 mg/kg and 58% at 20 mg/kg) after four weeks of carboplatin treatment. Moreover, Vmax, the maximum uptake rate of dopamine, was also decreased (55% of saline control at 5 mg/kg and 57% at 20 mg/kg). Nevertheless, overall dopamine content, measured in striatal brain lysates by high performance liquid chromatography, and reserve pool dopamine, measured by FSCV after pharmacological manipulation, did not significantly change, suggesting that chemotherapy treatment selectively impairs the dopamine release and uptake processes. Similarly, serotonin release upon electrical stimulation was impaired (45% of saline control at 20 mg/kg). Measurements of spatial learning discrimination were taken throughout the treatment period and carboplatin was found to alter cognition. These studies support the need for additional neurochemical and behavioral analyses to identify the underlying mechanisms of chemotherapy-induced cognitive disorders.

Concepts: Nervous system, Psychology, Brain, Chemotherapy, Serotonin, Problem solving, Dopamine, Raphe nuclei


Drugs capable of ameliorating symptoms of depression and anxiety while also improving cognitive function and sociability are highly desirable. Anecdotal reports have suggested that serotonergic psychedelics administered in low doses on a chronic, intermittent schedule, so-called “microdosing”, might produce beneficial effects on mood, anxiety, cognition, and social interaction. Here, we test this hypothesis by subjecting male and female Sprague Dawley rats to behavioral testing following the chronic, intermittent administration of low doses of the psychedelic N, N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT). The behavioral and cellular effects of this dosing regimen were distinct from those induced following a single high dose of the drug. We found that chronic, intermittent, low doses of DMT produced an antidepressant-like phenotype and enhanced fear extinction learning without impacting working memory or social interaction. Additionally, male rats treated with DMT on this schedule gained a significant amount of body weight during the course of the study. Taken together, our results suggest that psychedelic microdosing may alleviate symptoms of mood and anxiety disorders, though the potential hazards of this practice warrant further investigation.


The Covid-19 pandemic revealed that there is a loss of smell in many patients, including in infected, but otherwise asymptomatic individuals. The underlying mechanisms for the olfactory symptoms are unclear. Using a mouse model, we determined whether cells in the olfactory epithelium express the obligatory receptors for entry of the SARS-CoV-2 virus by using RNAseq, RT-PCR, in situ hybridization, Western blot, and immunocytochemistry. We show that the cell surface protein ACE2 and the protease TMPRSS2 are expressed in sustentacular cells of the olfactory epithelium, but not, or much less, in most olfactory receptor neurons. These data suggest that sustentacular cells are involved in SARS-CoV-2 virus entry and impairment of the sense of smell in COVID-19 patients. We also show that expression of the entry proteins increases in animals of old age. This may explain - if true also in humans - why individuals of older age are more susceptible to the SARS-CoV-2 infection.


The novel SARS-CoV-2 virus has very high infectivity, which allows it to spread rapidly around the world. Attempts at slowing the pandemic at this stage depend on the number and quality of diagnostic tests performed. We propose that the olfactory epithelium from the nasal cavity may be a more appropriate tissue for detection of SARS-CoV-2 virus at the earliest stages, prior to onset of symptoms or even in asymptomatic people, as compared to commonly used sputum or nasopharyngeal swabs. Here we emphasize that the nasal cavity olfactory epithelium is the likely site of enhanced binding of SARS-CoV-2. Multiple non-neuronal cell types present in the olfactory epithelium express two host receptors, ACE2 and TMPRSS2 proteases, that facilitate SARS-CoV-2 binding, replication, and accumulation. This may be the underlying mechanism for the recently reported cases of smell dysfunction in patients with COVID-19. Moreover, the possibility of subsequent brain infection should be considered which begins in olfactory neurons. In addition, we discuss the possibility that olfactory receptor neurons may initiate rapid immune responses at early stages of the disease. We emphasize the need to undertake research focused on additional aspects of SARS-CoV-2 actions in the nervous system, especially in the olfactory pathway.


We previously reported the discovery of VU0364572 and VU0357017 as M(1)-selective agonists that appear to activate M(1) through actions at an allosteric site. Previous studies have revealed that chemical scaffolds for many allosteric modulators contain molecular switches that allow discovery of allosteric antagonists and allosteric agonists or positive allosteric modulators (PAMs) based on a single chemical scaffold. Based on this, we initiated a series of studies to develop selective M(1) allosteric antagonists based on the VU0364572 scaffold. Interestingly, two lead antagonists identified in this series, VU0409774 and VU0409775, inhibited ACh-induced Ca(2+) responses at rat M(1-5) receptor subtypes, suggesting they are nonselective muscarinic antagonists. VU0409774 and VU0409775 also completely displaced binding of the nonselective radioligand [(3)H]-NMS at M(1) and M(3) mAChRs with affinities similar to their functional IC(50) values. Finally, Schild analysis revealed that these compounds inhibit M(1) responses through a fully competitive interaction at the orthosteric binding site. This surprising finding prompted further studies to determine whether agonist activity of VU0364572 and VU0357017 may also engage in previously unappreciated actions at the orthosteric site on M(1). Surprisingly, both VU0364572 and VU0357017 completely displaced [(3)H]-NMS binding to the orthosteric site of M(1)-M(5) receptors at high concentrations. Furthermore, evaluation of agonist activity in systems with varying levels of receptor reserve and Furchgott analysis using a cell line expressing M(1) under control of an inducible promotor was consistent with an action of these compounds as weak orthosteric partial agonists of M(1). However, consistent with previous studies suggesting actions at a site that is distinct from the orthosteric binding site, VU0364572 or VU0357017 slowed the rate of [(3)H]-NMS dissociation from CHO-rM(1) membranes. Together, these results suggest that VU0364572 and VU0357017 act as bitopic ligands and that novel antagonists in this series act as competitive orthosteric site antagonists.

Concepts: Allosteric regulation, Pharmacology, Ligand, Receptor antagonist, Agonist, Inverse agonist, Muscarinic acetylcholine receptor, Functional selectivity


Imaging mass spectrometry is an emerging technique of great potential for investigating the chemical architecture in biological matrices. Although the potential for studying neurobiological systems is evident, the relevance of the technique for application in neuroscience is still in its infancy. In the present review, a principal overview of the different approaches, including matrix assisted laser desorption ionization and secondary ion mass spectrometry are provided with particular focus on their strength and limitations for studying different neurochemical species in situ and in vitro. The potential of the various approaches is discussed based on both fundamental and biomedical neuroscience research. This review aims to serve as a general guide to familiarize the neuroscience community and other biomedical researchers with the technique, highlighting its great potential and suitability for comprehensive and specific chemical imaging.

Concepts: Spectroscopy, Mass spectrometry, Biology, In vitro, Physical chemistry, Ion source, In situ, Secondary ion mass spectrometry


The molecular chaperone, heat shock protein 70 (Hsp70), is an emerging drug target for treating multiple diseases, including cancer and neurodegenerative disorders. We recently found that one promising Hsp70 inhibitor, MKT-077, reduces tau levels in cellular models, suggesting its potential for use in treating neurodegenerative diseases that involve aberrant tau accumulation. However, MKT-077 does not penetrate the blood-brain barrier (BBB), limiting its use as either a clinical candidate or probe for exploring Hsp70 as a drug target in the central nervous system (CNS). We hypothesized that replacing the cationic pyridinium moiety in MKT-077 with a neutral pyridine might improve its clogP and enhance its BBB penetrance. To test this idea, we designed and synthesized YM-08, a neutral analog of MKT-077. Like the parent compound, YM-08 bound to Hsp70 in vitro and reduced phosphorylated tau levels in cultured brain slices. Pharmacokinetic evaluation in CD1 mice showed that YM-08 crossed the BBB and maintained a B/P value of ~0.25 for at least 18 hours. Together, these studies suggest that YM-08 is a promising scaffold for the development of Hsp70 inhibitors suitable for use in the CNS.

Concepts: Central nervous system, Nervous system, Brain, Neuroscience, Neurology, Chaperone, Proteasome, Heat shock protein


Ruthenium diimine complexes have previously been used to facilitate light-activated electron transfer in the study of redox metalloproteins. Excitation at 488 nm leads to a photoexcited state, in which the complex can either accept or donate an electron, respectively, in the presence of a soluble sacrificial reductant or oxidant. Here, we describe a novel application of these complexes in mediating light-induced changes in cellular electrical activity. We demonstrate that RubpyC17 ([Ru(bpy)(2)(bpy-C17)](2+), where bpy is 2,2'-bipyridine and bpy-C17 is 2,2'-4-heptadecyl-4'-methyl-bipyridine), readily incorporates into the plasma membrane of cells, as evidenced by membrane-confined luminescence. Excitable cells incubated in RubpyC17 and then illuminated at 488 nm in the presence of the reductant ascorbate undergo membrane depolarization leading to firing of action potentials. In contrast, the same experiment performed with the oxidant ferricyanide, instead of ascorbate, leads to hyperpolarization. These experiments suggest that illumination of membrane-associated RubpyC17 in the presence of ascorbate alters the cell membrane potential by increasing the negative charge on the outer face of the cell membrane capacitor, effectively depolarizing the cell membrane. We rule out two alternative explanations for light-induced membrane potential changes, using patch clamp experiments: (1) light-induced direct interaction of RubpyC17 with ion channels and (2) light-induced membrane perforation. We show that incorporation of RubpyC17 into the plasma membrane of neuroendocrine cells enables light-induced secretion as monitored by amperometry. While the present work is focused on ruthenium diimine complexes, the findings point more generally to broader application of other transition metal complexes to mediate light-induced biological changes.

Concepts: Cell, Electric charge, Cell membrane, Golgi apparatus, Redox, Action potential, Ion channel, Membrane potential


The light emission chemistry of firefly luciferase can be harnessed to reveal otherwise invisible biological processes occurring in the brains of live animals. Though powerful, the need for the luciferase substrate D-luciferin to traverse the blood-brain barrier poses limitations on the sensitivity and interpretation of these experiments. In this Viewpoint, we discuss bioluminescent imaging probes for the enzyme fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH) and the broader implications for optical imaging and drug delivery in the brain.

Concepts: Brain, Enzyme, Optics, Light, Hydrolysis, Firefly, Bioluminescence, Luciferase