Hope for millions of patients with dementia and Parkinson’s as scientists find likely culprit behind nearly all neurological diseases
- ‘Toxic’ acid system to remove damaged cells in the brain could be going wrong
- Scientists say this is the likely suspect of a number of brain diseases and aging
- Blocking the fat from working helped to save 75% of brain cells in study on mice
- While promising, experts warn that treatment is not ready to be used on humans
Scientists believe they’ve found the culprit behind nearly all neurological diseases, in a breakthrough that could offer hope to millions.
Dementia, Parkinson’s and many other brain disorders are caused by key cells called neurons dying over time.
Researchers have now found other brain cells – known as astrocytes – play a ‘critical role’ in their death.
The star-shaped cells usually help clear away toxic particles that build up in the brain naturally or after head trauma, and are supposed to nourish neurons.
But laboratory tests on mice show astrocytes also release toxic fatty acids to kill off damaged neurons, confirming a suspicion many neurologists have had for years.
Lead researcher Professor Shane Liddelow, of New York University, said: ‘Our findings show the toxic fatty acids produced by astrocytes play a critical role in brain cell death.’
He added that the results ‘provide a promising new target for treating, and perhaps even preventing, many neurodegenerative diseases’.
Scientists say neuron killing toxic fatty acids produced by a type cell called an astrocyte could be driving force behind nearly all diseases affecting brain function, such as dementia
Dementia is the leading cause of death in UK and the developed world, with modern habits and increasing life expectancy to blame. It kills just over 66,000 Britons every year — the equivalent of one every 10 minutes.
Neurologists are racing to develop treatments but still don’t fully understand some key aspects of the disease, such as what triggers the disease in some cases.
Astrocytes — which take the shape of a star — were known to keep neurons in the brain nourished and healthy and regulate bloodflow.
But the NYU scientists say they are also responsible for killing decaying neurons.
After coming up with the theory that two fatty acids were to blame, the NYU researchers tested it in mice with brain injuries.
They genetically engineered half of the rodents to shut down the production of long-chain saturated free fatty acids and phosphatidylcholines, and compared them to a control group.
In engineered mice 75 per cent of neurons survived, while in normal mice only 10 per cent of the neurons survived.
The findings back up widely-held beliefs that astrocytes produced a neuron-killing molecule to ‘clear up’ the damaged cells.
But the exact nature of the removal process was not understood.
It is not clear why astrocytes produce the toxins, but Professor Liddelow and colleagues said it was possible they evolved to destroy damaged neurons before they could harm their neighbours.
Writing in the journal Nature, he theorised that this normally-helpful process could be going rogue in diseases like dementia.
He said their discovery could prove groundbreaking in future research to treat brain diseases.
But Professor Liddelow cautioned that the technique used in mice is not ready to use on humans.
However, he added that researchers’ next plan is to develop ways to use this treatment in people.
Professor Liddelow declared a financial interest in this study as he has a stake in AstronauTx a company targeting astrocytes as potential treatment for Alzheimer’s.
WHAT IS DEMENTIA? THE KILLER DISEASE THAT ROBS SUFFERERS OF THEIR MEMORIES
Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe a range of neurological disorders
A GLOBAL CONCERN
Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe a range of progressive neurological disorders (those affecting the brain) which impact memory, thinking and behaviour.
There are many different types of dementia, of which Alzheimer’s disease is the most common.
Some people may have a combination of types of dementia.
Regardless of which type is diagnosed, each person will experience their dementia in their own unique way.
Dementia is a global concern but it is most often seen in wealthier countries, where people are likely to live into very old age.
HOW MANY PEOPLE ARE AFFECTED?
The Alzheimer’s Society reports there are more than 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK today, of which more than 500,000 have Alzheimer’s.
It is estimated that the number of people living with dementia in the UK by 2025 will rise to over 1 million.
In the US, it’s estimated there are 5.5 million Alzheimer’s sufferers. A similar percentage rise is expected in the coming years.
As a person’s age increases, so does the risk of them developing dementia.
Rates of diagnosis are improving but many people with dementia are thought to still be undiagnosed.
IS THERE A CURE?
Currently there is no cure for dementia.
But new drugs can slow down its progression and the earlier it is spotted the more effective treatments are.
Source: Alzheimer’s Society