Possible Way To Prevent Brain Cell Death Discovered
May 7, 2012

Possible Way To Prevent Brain Cell Death Discovered

In a new study, a team of UK researchers have reportedly found a way to prevent brain cell death in mice -- a discovery which could ultimately lead to improved treatments for Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and other neurodegenerative ailments in humans.

According to BBC News Health and Science Reporter James Gallagher, scientists at the University of Leicester studied prion disease, which affects mice in much the same way as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, Huntington's and Creutzfeld-Jacob Disease (CJD). Through their observations, they learned how the build-up of incorrectly assembled or "misfolded" proteins in infected mice resulted in the death of the brain cells.

Those misfolded proteins are responsible for forming the plaque that is found in the brains of Alzheimer's patients, as well as the Lewy bodies of those with Parkinson's disease, Kate Kelland of Reuters added in a Sunday article. The reasons why neurons in the brain die is still not known, she said, but the scientists believe they may have found a way to prevent it from happening.

"They showed that as misfolded protein levels rise in the brain, cells respond by trying to shut down the production of all new proteins," he wrote. "It is the same trick cells use when infected with a virus. Stopping production of proteins stops the virus spreading. However, shutting down the factory for a long period of time ends up killing the brain cells as they do not produce the proteins they actually need to function."

Gallagher said that the research team then attempted to "manipulate the switch" which had caused the production of protein to be ceased. When they were able to keep those cells from shutting down, they prevented the brain from dying off and allowed the mice to live "significantly" longer lives as a result.

While each individual disease is linked to the production of different sets of misfolded proteins, Gallagher said that it is possible that the technique they used could be adapted to treat different but similar conditions that target and destroy brain cells.

"The fact that in mice with prion disease we were able to manipulate this mechanism and protect the brain cells means we may have a way forward in how we treat other disorders," lead researcher Giovanna Mallucci said in a statement, according to Kelland.

Roger Morris, a Professor of Molecular Neurobiology at King's College London, told the BBC that it was a "breakthrough in understanding what kills neurons," and that there were "good reasons" to believe that the findings could be applied to the treatment of other neurodegenerative conditions.

Likewise, University of Bristol Professor Andy Randall called it "a fascinating piece of work," adding that it would be "interesting to see if similar processes occur in some of the common diseases with such deposits, for example Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease."

The results of the study, which have been published in the journal Nature, raise the possibility that researchers could one day develop a single medication that could be used to treat a wide range of neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, Gallagher said.