Brainwave: Scientists stop cells dying in mouse brains – offering hope to Alzheimer's and Parkinson's sufferers
'Switching off' pathway stops mouse brain cells dyingSame pathway could operate in human diseases such as Alzheimers and Parkinsons'Major breakthrough', say scientists 18 million worldwide suffer from Alzheimer's

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UPDATED:

06:48 GMT, 8 May 2012

It's the first time scientists have understood what makes neurons 'die' - and is described as a 'major breakthrough' in the study of brain diseases, say Leicester University researchers.

It's the first time scientists have understood what makes neurons 'die' – and is described as a 'major breakthrough' in the study of brain diseases, say Leicester University researchers

A chemical command that halts brain cells dying in mice could offer hope to human sufferers of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

The command makes mice suffering an incurable brain disease live longer.

It's the first time scientists have understood what makes neurons 'die' – and is described as a 'major breakthrough'.

Having found the pathway, the scientists then worked out how to block it, and were able to prevent brain cells from dying, helping the mice live longer.

They also suspect that there is a common mechanism by which brain diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and CJD damage the nerve cells – and that it can perhaps be blocked in the same way.

Eric Karran, director of research at the
charity Alzheimer's Research UK, said while the research was still at
an early stage, the results were exciting.

‘While
neurodegenerative diseases can have many different triggers, this study
suggests that they may act through a common mechanism to damage nerve
cells. The findings present the appealing concept that one treatment
could have benefits for a range of different diseases,’ he said.

Roger
Morris, a professor of molecular neurobiology at King's College London
who was not involved in the work, said the finding was ‘a major
breakthrough in understanding what kills neurons in neurodegenerative
disease’.

‘There are good
reasons for believing this response, identified with prion disease,
applies also to Alzheimer's and other neurodegenerative diseases,’ he
said.

Human prion: 'The fact that in mice with prion disease we were able to manipulate this mechanism and protect the brain cells means we may have a way forward in how we treat other disorders, say the researchers

Human prion: 'The fact that in mice with prion disease we were able to manipulate this mechanism and protect the brain cells means we may have a way forward in how we treat other disorders, say the researchers

British researchers writing in the journal Nature said they had found a major pathway leading to brain cell death in mice with prion disease, the mouse equivalent of Creutzfeld-Jacob Disease.

In neurodegenerative diseases, proteins ‘mis-fold’ in a various ways, leading to a build up of misshapen proteins, the researchers explained in the study.

These misshapen proteins form the plaques found in the brains of patients with Alzheimer's and the Lewy bodies found in Parkinson's disease.

‘What's exciting is the emergence of a common mechanism of brain cell death, across a range of different neurodegenerative disorders, activated by the different mis-folded proteins in each disease,’ said Giovanna Mallucci, who led the research at the University of Leicester's toxicology unit.

‘The fact that in mice with prion disease we were able to manipulate this mechanism and protect the brain cells means we may have a way forward in how we treat other disorders,’ she said.

An estimated 18 million people worldwide suffer from Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's is thought to affect around one in 100 people over the age of 60.

In these diseases, neurons in the brain die, destroying the brain from the inside.

But why the neurons die has remained an unsolved mystery, presenting an obstacle to developing effective treatments and to being able to diagnose the illnesses at early stages when medicines might work better.