Scientists at Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry have been able to construct a detailed map that shows how the formation of proteins in the brain can lead to a build-up so massive that it can lead to the development of numerous brain-damaging diseases, chief among them is Alzheimer’s. In 2010, the Alzheimer’s Research Trust found that with dementia alone, it cost the UK economy E23 billion, way more than cancer and heart disease combined cost.
    Normally, proteins are made up of chemical building blocks known as amino acids, which are joined together in a code ordered by our DNA. New proteins appear as long, thin strips, which are then intricately folded to properly carry out their designated biological function. However, there are points at which the protein can ‘misfold,’ or unfold and get tangled together with other newly-made proteins. The tangles stick to one another until they number in the millions, known as amyloid fibrils, and they start the huge deposits of proteins known as plaque, which are so huge that they are insoluble.  
    When the level of plaque in the brain reaches a critical level, a chain reaction is set off, and new focal points of tendrils form. From these tendrils, a smaller number of proteins, known as toxic oligomers, can easily diffuse through membranes, effectively killing neurons, causing memory loss, and other dementia symptoms.
    This new groundbreaking information required scientists to come together, using kinetic experiments with a framework of theory. Master equations, more commonly used in the fields of chemistry and physics, aided researchers in their efforts to better understand a disease such as Alzheimer’s, and how better to fight it.

By Lauren Horne

Sources:
    University of Cambridge (2013, May 20). Molecular trigger for Alzheimer's disease identified. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 22, 2013,
    Samuel I. A. Cohen, Sara Linse, Leila M. Luheshi, Erik Hellstrand, Duncan A. White, Luke Rajah, Daniel E. Otzen, Michele Vendruscolo, Christopher M. Dobson, and Tuomas P. J. Knowles. Proliferation of amyloid-β42 aggregates occurs through a secondary nucleation mechanism. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2013; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1218402110
 


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