Alzheimer’s disease affects a reported five million people in the US alone, and a new person is diagnosed with the neurodegenerative condition every 67 seconds. However, help may soon be on the way from the unlikeliest of sources: the International Space Station.
According to Space.com, research currently being conducted on the orbiting laboratory could help scientists better understand the origins of the disease. Experts believe that Alzheimer’s is the result of specific proteins assembling themselves into long fibers that eventually grow and strangle nerve cells in the brain, but research has thus far been unable to prove that.
Microgravity could be the answer
In terrestrial laboratories, the fibers collapse under their own weight before they are able to grow large enough to be studied, the website explained. However, the microgravity environment at the ISS prevents this from happening. So in January, NASA officials sent a new experiment known as the Self-Assembly in Biology and the Origin of Life (SABOL) to the space station.
As NASA explained back in December 2014, SABOL will look to decipher how those proteins construct themselves into the long, linear fibers that choke off nerve and brain cells, causing the onset of brain and nervous system disorders such as Alzheimer’s. The goal is to understand more about neurodegenerative diseases and ultimately find a way to stop them from progressing.
“Everybody wants a cure, but without knowing the actual cause of the disease, you’re basically shooting in the dark,” explained Dan Woodard, a research consultant from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, said in a statement. “We don’t understand the true mechanism of the disease.”
“If we’re lucky, then we’ll find out whether proteins will aggregate in space,” he added. “Only in weightlessness can you produce an environment free of convection so you can see whether they form on their own. We expect to learn incrementally from this.”
Typically, these protein fibers take decades to form in the human body, but scientists believe that they will form far more quickly in the weightless conditions on the space station. Additionally, with no gravity to pull them to the bottom of a container, they are expected to grow in a way that simulates how they grow and wrap around one another to form the offending long fibers.
“We want to see if maybe we can get the proteins to form larger structures in weightlessness. It’s not going to find the cure for Alzheimer’s, but it’s one of many areas that are under study to try to advance our knowledge toward that cure,” Woodward said.
Scientists won’t get a look at the samples until they return to Earth and are scanned using an atomic force microscope capable of detecting fine detail in the protein fiber. Once they analyze the experiment, the NASA researchers hope to conduct a series of follow-up studies that will further refine their knowledge of fiber growth, and then find a way to stop it from happening.
“We’ve got to understand why some people get these conditions and others don’t,” Woodard said. “There have to be chemicals or processes that hinder or encourage the growth of protein fibers. It may be something as simple as temperature or salt concentration of the fluid in the brain.”