Researchers Find Promising Molecule to Fight Neurological Diseases

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Researchers have found a molecule in the brain that may allow doctors to boost the body’s ability to fight neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and multiple sclerosis.

According to a release, the researchers at the University of Virginia Health System found a molecule responsible for orchestrating how the immune system responds to these kinds of diseases.

This molecule, which is called spleen tyrosine kinase or SYK, plays an important role in removing plaque buildup associated with Alzheimer’s and preventing debris buildup associated with MS.

The researchers say it directs the activity of brain cleaners they call microglia, a type of immune cell that has been found to be vital in brain health in recent years.

The release says this finding could one day let doctors augment the activity of microglia to treat or protect against Alzheimer’s, MS and other neurodegenerative diseases.

“Unfortunately, medical doctors do not currently possess effective treatments to target the root causes of most neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or ALS [amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly called Lou Gehrig’s disease]. In our studies, we have discovered a master controller of the cell type and processes that are required to protect the brain from these disorders,” said senior researcher John Lukens, PhD, of the UVA School of Medicine and the UVA Brain Institute. “Our work further shows that targeting this novel pathway provides a potent strategy to eliminate the toxic culprits that cause memory loss and impaired motor control in neurodegenerative disease.”

Researchers say neurodegenerative diseases are thought to be caused by the brain’s inability to clean up toxic buildup.

Recently, neuroscience research advances have found microglia are important to removing such debris, and this new discovery may offer insight into the way the cleaning process occurs as well as the consequences of when it doesn’t.

The researchers found that when the spleen tyrosine kinase is not present, plaque buildup was triggered in the brain, resulting in memory loss in mouse models, similar to Alzheimer’s in humans.

They are also able to reduce the buildup by activating the molecule and the microglia in the brain, which could lead to a treatment for human patients, though a lot more research is needed first.

“Our work has described a critical element of microglial function during Alzheimer’s disease and MS,” said researcher Hannah Ennerfelt. “Understanding the underlying biology of these cells during neurodegeneration may allow for scientists and doctors to develop increasingly informed and effective therapeutic interventions.”

The release says that the lack of the molecule in MS cases led to a buildup of damaged myelin, a protective coating that forms on nerve cells.

When the myelin is damaged, the cells are unable to transmit messages properly, leading to mobility issues and muscle spasms seen in MS.

The researchers, who have published these findings in the scientific journal Cell, determined that the kinase molecule is “critically involved” in the removal of myelin debris.

They believe it may be possible to target the molecule and stop the progression of MS. It may even be possible to reverse the damage.

“These findings are especially exciting because they point to a treatment avenue in which we could alter the behavior of these native brain cells, microglia, to behave in a more neuroprotective way,” said researcher Coco Holliday, a UVA undergraduate working in the Lukens lab. “It could potentially be applied to a variety of different neurological diseases that all share the problem of a buildup of toxic waste in the brain. It’s been a very exciting project to be a part of.” 

Based on their findings, the researchers say targeting the molecule could offer a way to treat a variety of neurodegenerative diseases.

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