We're seeing some exciting progress being made in the fight against neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, and now researchers have found what they describe as a "key mechanism" in the onset of Alzheimer's that could one day be blocked to preserve the memory function of those living with the condition.
The work builds on what we already knew about Alzheimer's: the dynamic synaptic connections (or 'synaptic plasticity') between neurons in the brain is a fundamental part of learning new information and forming memories, and when Alzheimer's takes hold, this healthy process is disrupted. A new study from researchers at the University of the Basque Country in Spain has investigated how that disruption happens.
At the centre of the discovery is the protein PTEN, already known to be a tumour suppressor. Previous studies had shown how PTEN is used by our synapses to facilitate normal, healthy plasticity, but the new study reveals that one of the pathological agents of Alzheimer's overloads the synapses with the PTEN protein, thus "unbalancing the mechanisms for synaptic plasticity and impairing memory formation", the team says.
If you prevent this from happening, you can prevent memory loss at the same time - that's the hypothesis, anyway.
The researchers experimented on groups of mice and were able to successfully stop memory loss by shielding the synapses from the normal PTEN deluge. There's still a big leap to make from mice to human beings, but these laboratory results show plenty of promise. At the very least, they should be able to teach us more about how Alzheimer's affects the brain. The results have been published in Nature Neuroscience.
Back in November, researchers from the the University of New South Wales (UNSW) made a similar breakthrough in discovering how Alzheimer's wreaks havoc with the connections in our brain: by identifying the molecular mechanism responsible for the breakdown between synapses. The scientists are hoping new treatments can be developed for keeping the disease at bay or even eradicating it completely.
And they couldn't come soon enough. Estimates suggest that there could be as much as a three-fold increase in the number of people suffering from Alzheimer's within the next 40 years - a rise which would have massive knock-on effects in health, social, and economic areas. As of today, the majority of new cases appear in patients aged between 75 and 89.