A new study by UK scientists has revealed clues to a common mechanism underlying nerve cell death in neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and prion diseases – paving the way for potential new treatments. The study is published on 6 May in the journal Nature.
While neurodegenerative diseases have different underlying causes, many are characterised by a build up of abnormal proteins which can kill nerve cells. Researchers from the Universities of Leicester, Cambridge and Nottingham joined forces to study the damaging effects of these proteins using mice with neurodegenerative disease caused by the prion protein.
Normally, cells of the body respond to abnormal proteins by triggering a protective response - temporarily shutting down the production of new proteins until the abnormal ones can be repaired or cleared. However, the scientists found that in mice with a build up of prion protein, this protective response was found to backfire with dramatic effect – permanently blocking the production of proteins required to keep nerve cells alive.
The study found that blocking the response could protect nerve cells in the brains of mice with prion disease, keeping the mice healthier for longer. When the researchers used a drug to make the response stronger, shutting down the production of vital proteins for longer, more nerve cells died and the disease progressed more quickly.
While the study focused on the harmful effects of the prion protein, a similar response has also been observed in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, suggesting a common mechanism in these neurodegenerative diseases.
Dr Eric Karran, Director of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:
“While neurodegenerative diseases can have many different triggers, this study suggests that they may act through a common mechanism to damage nerve cells. The findings present the appealing concept that one treatment could have benefits for a range of different diseases; however the idea is in its early stages. The research focuses on the effects of the prion protein and we would need to see the same results confirmed in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s to really strengthen the evidence.
“Understanding more about what goes so wrong in neurodegenerative diseases is vital for the development of effective new treatments. With diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s affecting huge numbers of people across the world, we must invest in research now.”