A new article published in Nature reports that British researchers have discovered a process that results in brain cell death and may have the drug that can treat a range of related diseases.
According to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), researchers at the University of Leicester have discovered how the “build-up of proteins in mice with prion disease resulted in brain cells dying.” Prion diseases are progressive neurodegenerative disorders that result in the impairment of brain function, memory problems, personality changes, intellectual function decline, and increased movement problems.
Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s disease are all conditions that result from the build-up of these proteins. A Reuters Report explains it is these misshapen proteins that form the plaques that characterize Alzheimer’s disease and the Lewy bodies in Parkinson’s disease patients.
According to the BBC, researchers have found that as misfolded protein levels rise in the brain, “cells respond by trying to shut down the production of all new proteins.”
This protein production shutdown is the same process that cells use to stop the spread of viruses. “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,” the article explains.
The research team found that when they prevented brain cells from dying, it helped mice in the testing live longer. It is this brain cell death that explains how diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s damage the nerve cells.
Reuters explains that although researchers have known that neuron death in the brain causes the effects seen in these neurological disorders, they now know why the neurons are dying in the first place. Understanding why neurons die has been the major barrier in developing treatments and diagnosing illnesses at earlier stages when treatments may be more effective.
Now researchers have discovered that by injecting a protein to block the “off” switch that led to the shutting down process of all new protein production, they are able to “restore the production of the survival proteins and halt the neurodegeneration.”
After injecting this protein, researchers found that “brain cells were protected, protein levels were restored and synaptic transmission – the way brain cells signal to each other – was re-established.”
Researchers noted that although these scientific findings are still in their early stages, the results show great promise. Furthermore, the variety of diseases that this research helps us understand means that this breakthrough has the potential to change the lives of many millions of patients worldwide who previously had little hope for treatment.