Of the mice that received the treatment, 75 percent got their memory functions back.
Australian researchers have come up with a non-invasive ultrasound technology that clears the brain of neurotoxic amyloid plaques – structures that are responsible for memory loss and a decline in cognitive function in Alzheimer’s patients.
If a person has Alzheimer’s disease, it’s usually the result of a build-up of two types of lesions – amyloid plaques, and neurofibrillary tangles. Amyloid plaques sit between the neurons and end up as dense clusters of beta-amyloid molecules, a sticky type of protein that clumps together and forms plaques.
Neurofibrillary tangles are found inside the neurons of the brain, and they’re caused by defective tau proteins that clump up into a thick, insoluble mass. This causes tiny filaments called microtubules to get all twisted, which disrupts the transportation of essential materials such as nutrients and organelles along them, just like when you twist up the vacuum cleaner tube.
As we don’t have any kind of vaccine or preventative measure for Alzheimer’s – a disease that affects 343,000 people in Australia, and 50 million worldwide – it’s been a race to figure out how best to treat it, starting with how to clear the build-up of defective beta-amyloid and tau proteins from a patient’s brain. Now a team from the Queensland Brain Institute (QBI) at the University of Queensland have come up with a pretty promising solution for removing the former.
Publishing in Science Translational Medicine, the team describes the technique as using a particular type of ultrasound called a focused therapeutic ultrasound, which non-invasively beams sound waves into the brain tissue. By oscillating super-fast, these sound waves are able to gently open up the blood-brain barrier, which is a layer that protects the brain against bacteria, and stimulate the brain’s microglial cells to activate. Microglila cells are basically waste-removal cells, so they’re able to clear out the toxic beta-amyloid clumps that are responsible for the worst symptoms of Alzheimer’s.
The team reports fully restoring the memory function of 75 percent of the mice they tested it on, with zero damage to the surrounding brain tissue. They found that the treated mice displayed improved performance in three memory tasks – a maze, a test to get them to recognise new objects, and one to get them to remember the places they should avoid.
“We’re extremely excited by this innovation of treating Alzheimer’s without using drug therapeutics,” one of the team, Jürgen Götz, said in a press release. “The word ‘breakthrough’ is often misused, but in this case I think this really does fundamentally change our understanding of how to treat this disease, and I foresee a great future for this approach.”
The team says they’re planning on starting trials with higher animal models, such as sheep, and hope to get their human trials underway in 2017.
You can hear an ABC radio interview with the team here.
(left) Drosophila Orb2 plays an important role in the persistence of memory. Upon stimulation, Orb2 (shown in yellow) forms amyloid-like oligomers (shown in red), which are an essential ingredient for the formation of long-term memory. Credit: Illustration: Nicolle Rager Fuller, Sayo-Art
Memories in our brains are maintained by connections between neurons called “synapses”. But how do these synapses stay strong and keep memories alive for decades? Neuroscientists at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research have discovered a major clue from a study in fruit flies: Hardy, self-copying clusters or oligomers of a synapse protein are an essential ingredient for the formation of long-term memory.
The finding supports a surprising new theory about memory, and may have a profound impact on explaining other oligomer-linked functions and diseases in the brain, including Alzheimer’s disease and prion diseases.
“Self-sustaining populations of oligomers located at synapses may be the key to the long-term synaptic changes that underlie memory; in fact, our finding hints that oligomers play a wider role in the brain than has been thought,” says Kausik Si, Ph.D., an associate investigator at the Stowers Institute, and senior author of the new study, which is published in the January 27, 2012 online issue of the journal Cell.
Si’s investigations in this area began nearly a decade ago during his doctoral research in the Columbia University laboratory of Nobel-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel. He found that in the sea slug Aplysia californica, which has long been favored by neuroscientists for memory experiments because of its large, easily-studied neurons, a synapse-maintenance protein known as CPEB (Cytoplasmic Polyadenylation Element Binding protein) has an unexpected property.
A portion of the structure is self-complementary and—much like empty egg cartons—can easily stack up with other copies of itself. CPEB thus exists in neurons partly in the form of oligomers, which increase in number when neuronal synapses strengthen. These oligomers have a hardy resistance to ordinary solvents, and within neurons may be much more stable than single-copy “monomers” of CPEB. They also seem to actively sustain their population by serving as templates for the formation of new oligomers from free monomers in the vicinity.
CPEB-like proteins exist in all animals, and in brain cells they play a key role in maintaining the production of other synapse-strengthening proteins. Studies by Si and others in the past few years have hinted that CPEB’s tendency to oligomerize is not merely incidental, but is indeed essential to its ability to stabilize longer-term memory. “What we’ve lacked till now are experiments showing this conclusively,” Si says.
In the new study, Si and his colleagues examined a Drosophila fruit fly CPEB protein known as Orb2. Like its counterpart in Aplysia, it forms oligomers within neurons. “We found that these Orb2 oligomers become more numerous in neurons whose synapses are stimulated, and that this increase in oligomers happens near synapses,” says lead author Amitabha Majumdar, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher in Si’s lab.
The key was to show that the disruption of Orb2 oligomerization on its own impairs Orb2’s function in stabilizing memory. Majumdar was able to do this by generating an Orb2 mutant that lacks the normal ability to oligomerize yet maintains a near-normal concentration in neurons. Fruit flies carrying this mutant form of Orb2 lost their ability to form long-term memories. “For the first 24 hours after a memory-forming stimulus, the memory was there, but by 48 hours it was gone, whereas in flies with normal Orb2 the memory persisted,” Majumdar says.
Si and his team are now following up with experiments to determine for how long Orb2 oligomers are needed to keep a memory alive. “We suspect that they need to be continuously present, because they are self-sustaining in a way that Orb2 monomers are not,” says Si.
The team’s research also suggests some intriguing possibilities for other areas of neuroscience. This study revealed that Orb2 proteins in the Drosophila nervous system come in a rare, highly oligomerization-prone form (Orb2A) and a much more common, much less oligomerization-prone form (Orb2B). “The rare form seems to be the one that is regulated, and it seems to act like a seed for the initial oligomerization, which pulls in copies of the more abundant form,” Si says. “This may turn out to be a basic pattern for functional oligomers.”
The findings may help scientists understand disease-causing oligomers too. Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease, as well as prion diseases such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, all involve the spread in the brain of apparently toxic oligomers of various proteins. One such protein, strongly implicated in Alzheimer’s disease, is amyloid beta; like Orb2 it comes in two forms, the highly oligomerizing amyloid-beta-42 and the relatively inert amyloid-beta-40. Si’s work hints at the possibility that oligomer-linked diseases are relatively common in the brain because the brain evolved to be relatively hospitable to CPEB proteins and other functional oligomers, and thus has fewer mechanisms for keeping rogue oligomers under control.
The above story is reprinted (with editorial adaptations by ScienceDaily staff) from materials provided by Stowers Institute for Medical Research press release
Original Research: Abstract for “Critical Role of Amyloid-like Oligomers of Drosophila Orb2 in the Persistence of Memory” by Amitabha Majumdar, Wanda Colón Cesario, Erica White-Grindley, Huoqing Jiang, Fengzhen Ren, Mohammed “Repon” Khan, Liying Li, Edward Man-Lik Choi, Kasthuri Kannan, Fengli Guo, Jay Unruh, Brian Slaughter, and Kausik Si in Cell
Science is bringing some understanding of the heritability, prevalence, and inner workings of one of the most devastating diseases.(left) A PET scan’s bright areas reveal the concentration of amyloid beta, a protein that forms a plaque in Alzheimer’s patients. The scan compares the brains of a healthy patient (left) and a patient suffering from Alzheimer’s (right). Image: Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral Center, NIH
This has been a big week in Alzheimer’s news as scientists put together a clearer picture than ever before of how the disease affects the brain. Three recently published studies have detected the disease with new technologies, hinted at its prevalence, and described at last how it makes its lethal progress through the brain.
The existence of two forms of Alzheimer’s—early- and late-onset—has long baffled scientists. Of the estimated five million Americans who suffer from Alzheimer’s, only a few thousand are diagnosed with an early-onset form of the affliction, which affects people before the age of 65. This rare early-onset form is thought to be hereditary and scientists have associated multiple genetic mutations contributing to its occurrence. Late-onset Alzheimer’s, although more common, has been the bigger mystery. One variant of the APOE gene-—sometimes known as the Alzheimer’s gene—is linked to the late-onset disease. But the APOE gene, unlike dominant early-onset genes, does not determine whether a person will ultimately have dementia.
Now there’s evidence that late-onset Alzheimer’s has a genetic basis similar to that of early-onset Alzheimer’s. By sequencing select genes associated with the latter, along with frontotemporal dementia, researchers at Washington University in Saint Louis and other institutions found that patients with late-onset Alzheimer’s carry some of the same genetic mutations as those with the early-onset form. The evidence, published on Wednesday in PLoS ONE, bolsters the argument that the forms of Alzheimer’s that appear at different life stages should be classified as the same disease. As to why the disease appears earlier in some cases, the scientists speculated that those patients diagnosed relatively early in life carry more genetic risk factors for the disease.
This study’s use of rapid genetic sequencing, the authors noted, may provide a model for more precise identification of dementias. Within the study, the researchers identified patients who may have been misdiagnosed as having Alzheimer’s; the genes of these patients suggested that they had another type of dementia. Given the heritable component, patients with a family history could be screened to detect and diagnose Alzheimer’s early.
Other genetic research unveiled in the past week or so has shed light on the biological processes that underlie how Alzheimer’s affects the brain. Certain mutations may lead to an increased production of a protein called amyloid beta in the region of the brain that creates memory. This excess amyloid beta, naturally secreted by brain cells, then becomes a complex called an oligomer. These oligomers may interrupt the signals transmitted between neurons. As in other neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s or Huntington’s, the spread of oligomers appears to be driving the disease process.
Oligomer-linked diseases are relatively common, in part because oligomers can also play an essential biological role in the brain. A recent investigation using fruit flies reveals that the presence of a specific oligomer is actually required for the flies to form long-term memories.
In an early stage of Alzheimer’s, the naturally secreted amyloid beta protein builds up as oligomers in the brain, which then go on to form larger aggregates called plaques. Later in the disease, another aberrant form of a protein called tau starts to build up, in the entorhinal cortex. Normally, tau helps provide structure crucial to neuron functioning. The buildup of tau, however, causes the protein to tangle and eventually kill brain cells. What was unknown until recently, however, was how the tau protein spreads through different brain regions.
Two studies—one to be published in Neuron and the other published in PLoS ONE on Wednesday—have answered this question using brain samples from mice genetically engineered to express tau as it occurs in the human brain. Using a staining technique to highlight tau’s distribution in the brain, they compared samples from mice of different ages to analyze how tau moved through brain cells over time. They found the protein spread from neuron to neighboring neuron, traveling along synapses.
Understanding how this protein moves may allow scientists to stop tau in its tracks. “This opens up a whole new world of biology,” says Columbia University’s Karen Duff, an author on the study published in PLoS ONE. Tau is implicated in 30 different forms of dementia. In addition, the movement of tau may be similar to the spread of oligomers associated with Parkinson’s and Huntington’s. Nonetheless, we are still a long way from a therapeutic solution and stopping tau, which comes at a relatively late stage of Alzheimer’s, might be a very limited therapy.
As the world’s population continues to age, Alzheimer’s becomes a threat to more of us with every passing day. Although we may not yet have new treatments from this work, the take-away on these findings is clear: If we really are going to win the war, or even a battle, against Alzheimer’s, we need basic research that can delve into the complex biology that contorts proteins and kills brain cells to find treatments for this disease.