Tag Archives: ucsf

Sushi Meets Science: The Wasabi Receptor

Researchers at UCSF have pulled aside the curtain on a protein informally known as the “wasabi receptor,” revealing at near-atomic resolution structures that could be targeted with anti-inflammatory pain drugs.

The newly visualized protein resides in the cellular membrane of sensory nerve cells. It detects certain chemical agents originating outside our bodies — pungent irritants found in substances ranging from wasabi to tear gas — but is also triggered by pain-inducing signals originating within, especially those that arise in response to tissue damage and inflammation.

With many copies of the proteins suspended in this glassy ice, like insects trapped in amber, the researchers capture as many as 100,000 images, then computationally combine these thousands of two-dimensional views to generate the three-dimensional structure of the protein.

“The pain system is there to warn us when we need to avoid things that can cause injury, but also to enhance protective mechanisms,” said David Julius, Ph.D., professor and chair of UCSF’s Department of Physiology. “We’ve known that the protein is very important in sensing environmental irritants, inflammatory pain, and itch, and so knowing more about how it works is important for understanding basic pain mechanisms.”

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Do gut bacteria rule our minds?

Gut Bacteria

It sounds like science fiction, but it seems that bacteria within us — which outnumber our own cells about 100-fold — may very well be affecting both our cravings and moods to get us to eat what they want, and often are driving us toward obesity.

In an article published this week in the journal BioEssays, researchers from UC San Francisco, Arizona State University and University of New Mexico concluded from a review of the recent scientific literature that microbes influence human eating behavior and dietary choices to favor consumption of the particular nutrients they grow best on, rather than simply passively living off whatever nutrients we choose to send their way.

Bacterial species vary in the nutrients they need. Some prefer fat, and others sugar, for instance. But they not only vie with each other for food and to retain a niche within their ecosystem — our digestive tracts — they also often have different aims than we do when it comes to our own actions

Read more about the manipulative bacteria in our gut

The Next Frontier of Medicine


Following your gut takes on a whole new meaning as scientists find relationships between the brain and gut bacteria.

The next frontier of medicine isn’t in the depths of an Amazon jungle or in an air-conditioned lab; it’s in the rich and mysterious bacterial swamp of your gut. Long viewed as an enemy within, bacteria in the body have been subjected to a century-long war in which antibiotics have been the medical weapon of choice. But today, the scientific consensus about our body’s relationship with the trillions of microbes that call it home—collectively known as the microbiome—is changing dramatically. From potentially shaping our personalities to fighting obesity, the bacteria in our bellies play a much stronger role in our overall health than we once thought.

Developments in sequencing technology in the last decade have allowed scientists to better understand gut bacteria, and recent studies have shed light on how our digestive systems may mold brain structure when we’re young and influence our moods, feelings, and behavior when we’re adults. Scientists experimenting on mice have found links between gut bacteria and conditions similar to autism and anxiety in humans.

While it’s still early, the implications of better understanding how gut bacteria impacts our minds and bodies could change the way doctors treat myriad conditions, says Michael A. Fischbach, a microbiologist at UC San Francisco (UCSF). “If we use history as a guide, a lot of ideas probably won’t work out,” Fischbach says. “But even if one of them does, it’s a huge deal.”

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Neuroscape Lab puts brain activity on vivid display

In Adam Gazzaley’s new lab, the brain is a kaleidoscope of colors, bursting and pulsing in real time to the rhythm of electronic music.

The mesmerizing visual on the screen is a digital masterpiece — but the UC San Francisco neuroscientist has a much bigger aspiration than just creating art. He wants this to lead to treatments for a variety of brain diseases, including Alzheimer’s, autism and multiple sclerosis.

Gazzaley, M.D., Ph.D., opened the Neuroscape Lab in March at UCSF’s Mission Bay campus, where he’s developed a way to display a person’s brain activity while it’s thinking, sensing and processing information, allowing researchers to see what areas of the person’s brain are being triggered — or, in the case of certain diseases, not triggered.

Until recently, it was impossible to study brain activity without immobilizing the person inside a big, noisy machine or tethering him or her to computers. At the Neuroscape Lab, subjects can move freely to simulate real-world conditions.

One of its first projects was the creation of new imaging technology called GlassBrain, in collaboration with the Swartz Center at UC San Diego and Nvidia, which makes high-end computational computer chips. Brain waves are recorded through electroencephalography (EEG), which measures electrical potentials on the scalp, and projected onto the structures and connecting fibers of a brain image created with Magnetic Resonance Imaging and Diffusion Tensor Imaging.

To demonstrate the technology at the lab’s opening, Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart donned an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset and played a drumming video game designed to enhance brain function, while colorful images of his brain in action showed on the screen. Video games like NeuroDrummer are an entertaining and accessible way that Gazzaley is developing to train the brain.

“I want us to have a platform that enables us to be more creative and aggressive in thinking how software and hardware can be a new medicine to improve brain health,” said Gazzaley, an associate professor of neurology, physiology and psychiatry and director of the UCSF Neuroscience Imaging Center. “Often, high-tech innovations take a decade to move beyond the entertainment industry and reach science and medicine. That needs to change.”

A (super cute) defender against asthma and allergies

UCSF-led study found that a child’s risk for developing allergies and asthma is reduced when they are exposed in early infancy to a dog in the household. It has to do with the type of dust indoor/outdoor dogs carry in.

The results were obtained in studies of mice challenged with allergens after earlier exposure to dust from homes with dogs, but the results also are likely to explain the reduced allergy risk among children raised with dogs from birth.

The scientists also identified a specific bacterial species (Lactobacillus johnsonii) within the gut that is critical to protecting the airways against both allergens and viral respiratory infection. When they fed this bacteria alone to mice, they found it could prevent airway inflammation due to allergens or even respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infection. Severe RSV infection in infancy is associated with elevated asthma risk.

[Image: Tasuku and his BFF, a french bulldog named Muu.]