Identification of a dihydropyridine scaffold that blocks ryanodine receptors

Gihan S. Gunaratne, Robyn T. Rebbeck, Lindsey M. McGurran, Yasheng Yan, Thiago Arzua, Talia Frolkis, Daniel J. Sprague, Xiaowen Bai, Razvan L. Cornea, Timothy F. Walseth, Jonathan S. Marchant

iScience, 103706, 2021


Ryanodine receptors (RyRs) are large, intracellular ion channels that control Ca2+ release from the sarco/endoplasmic reticulum. Dysregulation of RyRs in skeletal muscle, heart and brain has been implicated in various muscle pathologies, arrhythmia, heart failure, and Alzheimer’s disease. Therefore, there is considerable interest in therapeutically targeting RyRs to normalize Ca2+ homeostasis in scenarios involving RyR dysfunction. Here, a simple invertebrate screening platform was used to discover new chemotypes targeting RyRs. The approach measured Ca2+ signals evoked by cyclic adenosine 5′-diphosphate ribose (cADPR), a second messenger that sensitizes RyRs. From a 1,534-compound screen, FLI-06 (currently described as a Notch ‘inhibitor’) was identified as a potent blocker of RyR activity. Two closely-related tyrosine kinase inhibitors that stimulate and inhibit Ca2+ release through RyRs were also resolved. Therefore, this simple screen yielded RyR scaffolds tractable for development and revealed an unexpected linkage between RyRs and trafficking events in the early secretory pathway.

The importance of non-coding RNAs in environmental stress-related developmental brain disorders: A systematic review of evidence associated with exposure to alcohol, anesthetic drugs, nicotine, and viral infections

Thiago Arzua, Congshan Jiang, Yasheng Yan, Xiaowen Bai

Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews Volume 128, September 2021, Pages 633-647


Brain development is a dynamic and lengthy process that includes cell proliferation, migration, neurogenesis, gliogenesis, synaptogenesis, and pruning. Disruption of any of these developmental events can result in long-term outcomes ranging from brain structural changes, to cognitive and behavioral abnormality, with the mechanisms largely unknown. Emerging evidence suggests non-coding RNAs (ncRNAs) as pivotal molecules that participate in normal brain development and neurodevelopmental disorders. NcRNAs such as long non-coding RNAs (lncRNAs) and microRNAs (miRNAs) are transcribed from the genome but not translated into proteins. Many ncRNAs have been implicated as tuners of cell fate. In this review, we started with an introduction of the current knowledge of lncRNAs and miRNAs, and their potential roles in brain development in health and disorders. We then reviewed and discussed the evidence of ncRNA involvement in abnormal brain development resulted from alcohol, anesthetic drugs, nicotine, and viral infections. The complex connections among these ncRNAs were also discussed, along with potential overlapping ncRNA mechanisms, possible pharmacological targets for therapeutic/neuroprotective interventions, and potential biomarkers for brain developmental disorders.

Investing in International Graduate Students for the Scientific Endeavour Keeps the United States Competitive

Nuri Jeong, Esra Sefik, Fu Hung Shiu, Thiago Arzua

Journal of Science Policy & Governance 18 (03)


As the global scientific and engineering powerhouse, the United States has pioneered numerous inventions such as the telephone, alternating current, radio broadcasting, and controlled nuclear chain reactions. Some may be surprised to find that these were products of immigrants, who pushed the boundaries of science and technology. In the past years, however, the U.S. has been losing its competitive advantage in the global labor market. A key reason for this is that the U.S. is failing to attract and retain international graduate students in STEM fields. Historically, a large portion of these students stayed after graduation and drove innovations that fueled the nation’s trillion-dollar economy. That trend is changing, with many now opting to go elsewhere for their graduate education. Critical flaws in U.S. visa and immigration policy and a lack of federal funding mechanisms for international graduate students are exacerbating this trend. As a result, the U.S. is losing promising junior scientists to other countries with more aggressive foreign recruitment strategies. To counter this trend, we outline in detail the areas with room for growth and propose policy solutions to be implemented by the federal government. These solutions will help the U.S. excel in STEM research workforce diversity, equality, cultural competence, and ultimately, retain its global leadership

Expression Signature of lncRNAs and mRNAs in Sevoflurane-Induced Mouse Brain Injury: Implication of Involvement of Wide Molecular Networks and Pathways

Congshan Jiang, Thiago Arzua, Yasheng Yan, Xiaowen Bai

International Journal of Molecular Sciences 22 (3), 1389


Sevoflurane, one of the most commonly used pediatric anesthetics, was found to cause developmental neurotoxicity. To understand specific risk groups and develop countermeasures, a better understanding of its mechanisms is needed. We hypothesize that, as in many other brain degeneration pathways, long non-coding RNAs (lncRNAs) are involved in the sevoflurane-induced neurotoxicity. Postnatal day 7 (PD7) mice were exposed to 3% sevoflurane for 6 h. To quantify neurotoxicity in these mice, we (1) detected neural apoptosis through analysis of caspase 3 expression level and activity and (2) assessed long-term learning ability via the Morris water maze at PD60. To elucidate specific mechanisms, profiles of 27,427 lncRNAs and 18,855 messenger RNAs (mRNAs) in mouse hippocampi were analyzed using microarray assays. Sevoflurane-induced abnormal lncRNA and mRNA expression-associated function pathways were predicted by bioinformatic analysis. We found that sevoflurane induced significant neurotoxicity, causing acute neuroapoptosis and abnormal expression of 148 mRNAs and 301 lncRNAs on PD7 in mouse hippocampus. Additionally, exposed mice exhibited impaired memory on PD60. Bioinformatic analysis predicted that the dysregulated mRNAs, which are highly correlated with their co-expressed dysregulated lncRNAs, might be involved in 34 neurodegenerative signaling pathways (e.g., brain cell apoptosis and intellectual developmental disorder). Our study reveals for the first time that neonatal exposure to 3% sevoflurane induces abnormal lncRNA and mRNA expression profiles. These dysregulated lncRNAs/mRNAs form wide molecular networks that might contribute to various functional neurological disease pathways in the hippocampus, resulting in the observed acute apoptosis and impaired long-term memory.

Isolation and Culture of Human-Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell-Derived Cerebral Organoid Cells

Yasheng Yan, Thiago Arzua, Sarah Logan, Xiaowen Bai

Methods in Molecular Biology. Springer, New York, NY


The advent of human-induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC)-derived three-dimensional (3D) cerebral organoids provides unprecedented opportunities of modeling human brains in states of health and disorder. Emerging data supports that cerebral organoids allow for more relevant in vitro systems for studying the human brain system and diseases than the current widely used 2D monolayer cell culture. Thus, the ability to isolate, culture, and maintain human brain cells from cerebral organoids is highly needed, particularly for studies on organoid-derived cell-type-specific signaling and their electrophysiological properties. Here we present a protocol to isolate and culture brain cells from 2-month human iPSC-derived cerebral organoids. The dissociation and plating of cells from organoids takes 3–4 h. The dissociated cells can be maintained in culture for up to at least 3 weeks. Some cells expressed the neuron-specific marker microtubule-associated protein 2 and exhibited spontaneous action potentials.

Modeling alcohol-induced neurotoxicity using human induced pluripotent stem cell-derived three-dimensional cerebral organoids

Thiago Arzua, Yasheng Yan, Congshan Jiang, Sarah Logan, Reilly L Allison, Clive Wells, Suresh N Kumar, Richard Schäfer, Xiaowen Bai

Translational Psychiatry 10 (1), 1-21


Maternal alcohol exposure during pregnancy can substantially impact the development of the fetus, causing a range of symptoms, known as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs), such as cognitive dysfunction and psychiatric disorders, with the pathophysiology and mechanisms largely unknown. Recently developed human cerebral organoids from induced pluripotent stem cells are similar to fetal brains in the aspects of development and structure. These models allow more relevant in vitro systems to be developed for studying FASDs than animal models. Modeling binge drinking using human cerebral organoids, we sought to quantify the downstream toxic effects of alcohol (ethanol) on neural pathology phenotypes and signaling pathways within the organoids. The results revealed that alcohol exposure resulted in unhealthy organoids at cellular, subcellular, bioenergetic metabolism, and gene expression levels. Alcohol induced apoptosis on organoids. The apoptotic effects of alcohol on the organoids depended on the alcohol concentration and varied between cell types. Specifically, neurons were more vulnerable to alcohol-induced apoptosis than astrocytes. The alcohol-treated organoids exhibit ultrastructural changes such as disruption of mitochondria cristae, decreased intensity of mitochondrial matrix, and disorganized cytoskeleton. Alcohol exposure also resulted in mitochondrial dysfunction and metabolic stress in the organoids as evidenced by (1) decreased mitochondrial oxygen consumption rates being linked to basal respiration, ATP production, proton leak, maximal respiration and spare respiratory capacity, and (2) increase of non-mitochondrial respiration in alcohol-treated organoids compared with control groups. Furthermore, we found that alcohol treatment affected the expression of 199 genes out of 17,195 genes analyzed. Bioinformatic analyses showed the association of these dysregulated genes with 37 pathways related to clinically relevant pathologies such as psychiatric disorders, behavior, nervous system development and function, organismal injury and abnormalities, and cellular development. Notably, 187 of these genes are critically involved in neurodevelopment, and/or implicated in nervous system physiology and neurodegeneration. Furthermore, the identified genes are key regulators of multiple pathways linked in networks. This study extends for the first time animal models of binge drinking-related FASDs to a human model, allowing in-depth analyses of neurotoxicity at tissue, cellular, subcellular, metabolism, and gene levels. Hereby, we provide novel insights into alcohol-induced pathologic phenotypes, cell type-specific vulnerability, and affected signaling pathways and molecular networks, that can contribute to a better understanding of the developmental neurotoxic effects of binge drinking during pregnancy.

Dynamic Characterization of Structural, Molecular, and Electrophysiological Phenotypes of Human-Induced Pluripotent Stem Cell-Derived Cerebral Organoids, and Comparison with Fetal and Adult Gene Profiles

Sarah Logan, Thiago Arzua, Yasheng Yan, Congshan Jiang, Xiaojie Liu, Lai-Kang Yu, Qing-Song Liu, Xiaowen Bai

Cells 9 (5), 1301


The development of 3D cerebral organoid technology using human-induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) provides a promising platform to study how brain diseases are appropriately modeled and treated. So far, understanding of the characteristics of organoids is still in its infancy. The current study profiled, for the first time, the electrophysiological properties of organoids at molecular and cellular levels and dissected the potential age equivalency of 2-month-old organoids to human ones by a comparison of gene expression profiles among cerebral organoids, human fetal and adult brains. Cerebral organoids exhibit heterogeneous gene and protein markers of various brain cells, such as neurons, astrocytes, and vascular cells (endothelial cells and smooth muscle cells) at 2 months, and increases in neural, glial, vascular, and channel-related gene expression over a 2-month differentiation course. Two-month organoids exhibited action potentials, multiple channel activities, and functional electrophysiological responses to the anesthetic agent propofol. A bioinformatics analysis of 20,723 gene expression profiles showed the similar distance of gene profiles in cerebral organoids to fetal and adult brain tissues. The subsequent Ingenuity Pathway Analysis (IPA) of select canonical pathways related to neural development, network formation, and electrophysiological signaling, revealed that only calcium signaling, cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP) response element-binding protein (CREB) signaling in neurons, glutamate receptor signaling, and synaptogenesis signaling were predicted to be downregulated in cerebral organoids relative to fetal samples. Nearly all cerebral organoid and fetal pathway phenotypes were predicted to be downregulated compared with adult tissue. This novel study highlights dynamic development, cellular heterogeneity and electrophysiological activity. In particular, for the first time, electrophysiological drug response recapitulates what occurs in vivo, and neural characteristics are predicted to be highly similar to the human brain, further supporting the promising application of the cerebral organoid system for the modeling of the human brain in health and disease. Additionally, the studies from these characterizations of cerebral organoids in multiple levels and the findings from gene comparisons between cerebral organoids and humans (fetuses and adults) help us better understand this cerebral organoid-based cutting-edge platform and its wide uses in modeling human brain in terms of health and disease, development, and testing drug efficacy and toxicity.

Studying Human Neurological Disorders Using Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells: From 2D Monolayer to 3D Organoid and Blood Brain Barrier Models

Sarah Logan, Thiago Arzua, Scott G Canfield, Emily R Seminary, Samantha L Sison, Allison D Ebert, Xiaowen Bai

Comprehensive Physiology 9 (2), 565-611


Neurological disorders have emerged as a predominant healthcare concern in recent years due to their severe consequences on quality of life and prevalence throughout the world. Understanding the underlying mechanisms of these diseases and the interactions between different brain cell types is essential for the development of new therapeutics. Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) are invaluable tools for neurological disease modeling, as they have unlimited self‐renewal and differentiation capacity. Mounting evidence shows: (i) various brain cells can be generated from iPSCs in two‐dimensional (2D) monolayer cultures; and (ii) further advances in 3D culture systems have led to the differentiation of iPSCs into organoids with multiple brain cell types and specific brain regions. These 3D organoids have gained widespread attention as in vitro tools to recapitulate complex features of the brain, and (iii) complex interactions between iPSC‐derived brain cell types can recapitulate physiological and pathological conditions of blood‐brain barrier (BBB). As iPSCs can be generated from diverse patient populations, researchers have effectively applied 2D, 3D, and BBB models to recapitulate genetically complex neurological disorders and reveal novel insights into molecular and genetic mechanisms of neurological disorders. In this review, we describe recent progress in the generation of 2D, 3D, and BBB models from iPSCs and further discuss their limitations, advantages, and future ventures. This review also covers the current status of applications of 2D, 3D, and BBB models in drug screening, precision medicine, and modeling a wide range of neurological diseases (e.g., neurodegenerative diseases, neurodevelopmental disorders, brain injury, and neuropsychiatric disorders).

Propofol Alters Long Non-Coding RNA Profiles in the Neonatal Mouse Hippocampus: Implication of Novel Mechanisms in Anesthetic-Induced Developmental Neurotoxicity

Sarah Logan, Congshan Jiang, Yasheng Yan, Yasuyoshi Inagaki, Thiago Arzua, Xiaowen Bai

Cellular Physiology and Biochemistry 49 (6), 2496-2510


Propofol induces acute neurotoxicity (e.g., neuroapoptosis) followed by impairment of long-term memory and learning in animals. However, underlying mechanisms remain largely unknown. Long non-coding RNAs (lncRNAs) are found to participate in various pathological processes. We hypothesized that lncRNA profile and the associated signaling pathways were altered, and these changes might be related to the neurotoxicity observed in the neonatal mouse hippocampus following propofol exposure. In this laboratory experiment, 7-day-old mice were exposed to a subanesthetic dose of propofol for 3 hours, with 4 animals per group. Hippocampal tissues were harvested 3 hours after propofol administration. Neuroapoptosis was analyzed based on caspase 3 activity using a colorimetric assay. A microarray was performed to investigate the profiles of 35,923 lncRNAs and 24,881 messenger RNAs (mRNAs). Representative differentially expressed lncRNAs and mRNAs were validated using reverse transcription quantitative polymerase chain reaction. All mRNAs dysregulated by propofol and the 50 top-ranked, significantly dysregulated lncRNAs were subject to bioinformatics analysis for exploring the potential mechanisms and signaling network of propofol-induced neurotoxicity. Propofol induced neuroapoptosis in the hippocampus, with differential expression of 159 lncRNAs and 100 mRNAs (fold change ± 2.0, P< 0.05). Bioinformatics analysis demonstrated that these lncRNAs and their associated mRNAs might participate in neurodegenerative pathways (e.g., calcium handling, apoptosis, autophagy, and synaptogenesis). This novel report emphasizes that propofol alters profiles of lncRNAs, mRNAs, and their cooperative signaling network, which provides novel insights into molecular mechanisms of anesthetic-induced developmental neurodegeneration and preventive targets against the neurotoxicity.

Signaling network between the dysregulated expression of microRNAs and mRNAs in propofol-induced developmental neurotoxicity in mice

Congshan Jiang, Sarah Logan, Yasheng Yan, Yasuyoshi Inagaki, Thiago Arzua, Peizhong Ma, Shemin Lu, Zeljko J Bosnjak, Xiaowen Bai

Scientific Reports 8 (1), 1-13


Mounting evidence has demonstrated that general anesthetics could induce acute neuroapoptosis in developing animals followed by long-term cognitive dysfunction, with the mechanisms remaining largely unknown. The aim of this study was to investigate the effect of the intravenous anesthetic propofol on the profiles of microRNAs (miRNAs) and messenger RNAs (mRNAs), and their interactive signaling networks in the developing mouse hippocampus. Postnatal day 7 (P7) mice were exposed to propofol for 3 hours. Hippocampi were harvested from both P7 (3 hours after exposure) and P60 mice for the analysis of the expression of 726 miRNAs and 24,881 mRNAs, and apoptosis. Long-term memory ability of P60 mice was analyzed using the Morris Water Maze. Propofol induced acute apoptosis in the hippocampus, and impaired memory function of mice. There were 100 altered mRNAs and 18 dysregulated miRNAs in the propofol-treated hippocampi compared with the intralipid-treated control tissues on P7. Bioinformatics analysis of these abnormally expressed genes on P7 indicated that 34 dysregulated miRNA-mRNA target pairs were related to pathological neurological and developmental disorder processes such as cell viability, cell morphology and migration, neural stem cell proliferation and neurogenesis, oligodendrocyte myelination, reactive oxygen species, and calcium signaling. Neonatal propofol exposure also resulted in the abnormal expression of 49 mRNAs and 4 miRNAs in P60 mouse hippocampi. Specifically, bioinformatics analysis indicates that among these dysregulated mRNAs and miRNAs, there were 2 dysregulated miRNA-mRNA targets pairs (Fam46a/miR-363-3p and Rgs3/miR-363-3p) that might be related to the effect of propofol on long-term cognitive function. Collectively, our novel investigation indicates that acute and long-term dysregulated miRNA-mRNA signaling networks potentially participate in propofol-induced developmental neurotoxicity.

Keratinocytes mediate innocuous and noxious touch via ATP-P2X4 signaling

Francie Moehring, Ashley M Cowie, Anthony D Menzel, Andy D Weyer, Michael Grzybowski, Thiago Arzua, Aron M Geurts, Oleg Palygin, Cheryl L Stucky

Elife 7, e31684


The first point of our body’s contact with tactile stimuli (innocuous and noxious) is the epidermis, the outermost layer of skin that is largely composed of keratinocytes. Here, we sought to define the role that keratinocytes play in touch sensation in vivo and ex vivo. We show that optogenetic inhibition of keratinocytes decreases behavioral and cellular mechanosensitivity. These processes are inherently mediated by ATP signaling, as demonstrated by complementary cutaneous ATP release and degradation experiments. Specific deletion of P2X4 receptors in sensory neurons markedly decreases behavioral and primary afferent mechanical sensitivity, thus positioning keratinocyte-released ATP to sensory neuron P2X4 signaling as a critical component of baseline mammalian tactile sensation. These experiments lay a vital foundation for subsequent studies into the dysfunctional signaling that occurs in cutaneous pain and itch disorders, and ultimately, the development of novel topical therapeutics for these conditions.

Propofol Induces Apoptosis of Neurons but Not Astrocytes, Oligodendrocytes, or Neural Stem Cells in the Neonatal Mouse Hippocampus

Yasheng Yan, Shigang Qiao, Chika Kikuchi, Ivan Zaja, Sarah Logan, Congshan Jiang, Thiago Arzua, Xiaowen Bai

Brain Sciences 7 (10), 130


It has been shown that propofol can induce widespread apoptosis in neonatal mouse brains followed by long-term cognitive dysfunction. However, selective brain area and cell vulnerability to propofol remains unknown. This study was aimed to dissect toxic effect of propofol on multiple brain cells, including neurons, astrocytes, oligodendrocytes, and neural stem cells (NSCs). Seven-day-old mice were intraperitoneally administrated propofol or intralipid as a vehicle control for 6 hours. To identify vulnerable cells undergoing apoptosis following propofol exposure, brain sagittal sections were co-stained with antibodies against an apoptosis marker along with neuron, astrocyte, oligodendrocyte, or NSC markers using immunofluorescence staining. The results showed widespread apoptosis in propofol-treated brains (apoptotic cells: 1.55 ± 0.04% and 0.06 ± 0.01% in propofol group and intralipid-treated control group, respectively). Apoptotic cell distribution exhibits region- and cell-specific patterns. Several brain regions (e.g., cerebral cortex and hippocampus) were more vulnerable to propofol than other brain regions. Most apoptotic cells in the hippocampus were located in the cornus ammonis 1 (CA1) subfield. These apoptotic cells were only detected in neurons and not astrocytes, oligodendrocytes, or NSCs. These data demonstrate that different brain regions, subfields, and different types of neuronal cells in mice exhibit various vulnerabilities to propofol. Understanding region- and cell-specific susceptibility to propofol will help to better understand cellular contribution to developmental neurotoxicity and further develop novel therapeutic targets.

Selective radical amination of aldehydic C(sp2)–H bonds with fluoroaryl azides via Co(ii)-based metalloradical catalysis: synthesis of N-fluoroaryl amides from aldehydes under neutral and nonoxidative conditions

Li-Mei Jin, Hongjian Lu, Yuan Cui, Christopher L Lizardi, Thiago N Arzua, Lukasz Wojtas, Xin Cui, X Peter Zhang

Chemical Science 5 (6), 2422-2427


The Co(II) complex of the D2h-symmetric amidoporphyrin 3,5-DitBu-IbuPhyrin, [Co(P1)], has proven to be an effective metalloradical catalyst for intermolecular amination of C(sp2)–H bonds of aldehydes with fluoroaryl azides. The [Co(P1)]-catalyzed process can employ aldehydes as the limiting reagents and operate under neutral and nonoxidative conditions, generating nitrogen gas as the only byproduct. The metalloradical aldehydic C–H amination is suitable for different combinations of aldehydes and fluoroaryl azides, producing the corresponding N-fluoroaryl amides in good to excellent yields. A series of mechanistic studies support a stepwise radical mechanism for the Co(II)-catalyzed intermolecular C–H amination.