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Protein Pile-up: Common Cause of Brain Disease

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Two images, one dark, one bright, resembling a finger.

Caption: Left: High levels of the toxic ataxin-1 protein have destroyed nerve cells in the cerebellum of a mouse, causing a severe disease. Right: Here researchers have genetically blocked the genes that normally produce high levels of ataxin-1. This prevents the disease from developing and keeps the brain healthy.
Credit: Harry Orr, Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology, University of Minnesota

With our aging population, more people are developing neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. We currently don’t know how to prevent or cure these conditions, and their increasing prevalence not only represents a tragedy for affected individuals and their families, but also a looming public health and economic crisis.

Even though neurodegenerative diseases have varied roots—and affect distinct cell types in different brain regions—they do share something in common. In most of these disorders, we see some type of toxic protein accumulating in the brain. It’s as if the brain’s garbage disposal system is blocked, letting the waste pile up. In Huntington’s disease, huntingtin is the disease-causing protein. In spinocerebellar ataxia, it’s the ataxins. In Alzheimer’s, it’s beta-amyloid; in Parkinson’s, it’s α-synuclein. When garbage builds up in your kitchen, it’s a bad situation. When it’s in your brain, the consequences are deadly.

Last week, a team of NIH-funded researchers based at the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas and at the University of Minnesota revealed a clever way to identify genes that normally increase the levels of these rogue disease-causing proteins.


New Insight into Parkinson’s Disease

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Photos of a healthy brain cell and a brain cell affected by Parkinson's

Caption: (LEFT) A healthy neuron with the alpha-synuclein (green) protein diffusely spread in the cell. The bright reddish dots are the garbage disposal lysosomes with alpha-synuclein entering, which gives them an orange hue. (RIGHT) This is a sick neuron from a LRRK2 brain. The lysosomes are enlarged and puffy because the alpha-synuclein is stuck outside and unable to enter the trash.
Credit: Samantha Orenstein and Dr. Esperanza Arias, Department of Developmental and Molecular Biology, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Bronx, New York

I’m blogging today to tell you about a new NIH funded report [1] describing a possible cause of Parkinson’s disease: a clog in the protein disposal system.

You probably already know something about Parkinson’s disease. Many of us know individuals who have been stricken, and actor Michael J. Fox, who suffers from it, has done a great job talking about and spreading awareness of it. Parkinson’s is a progressive neurodegenerative condition in which the dopamine-producing cells in the brain region called the substantia nigra begin to sicken and die. These cells are critical for controlling movement; their death causes shaking, difficulty moving, and the characteristic slow gait. Patients can have trouble swallowing, chewing, and speaking. As the disease progresses, cognitive and behavioral problems take hold—depression, personality shifts, sleep disturbances.