Brain and Body

Researchers Have Finally Pinpointed the Cells that Likely Trigger Alzheimer’s, MS, and Others

January 29, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

Microscope image of neurons and microglial cells
Photo credit: GerryShaw/wikimedia (CC BY SA 3.0)

This could radically transform the way we approach treating these diseases.

Researchers from the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences have pinpointed the cells that likely trigger some of the most common brain disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and anxiety. In a first, scientists were able to identify the particular cell types that malfunction in these brain diseases, which could lead to better treatments.

Using advanced gene analysis techniques, the researchers explored which genes were switched off in specific types of brain cells. They compared these findings to the different genes that are linked to each of the most common brain conditions, like Alzheimer’s, anxiety, autism, MS, epilepsy, and schizophrenia.

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So why is it important to focus on the specific cells involved in these diseases? The researchers concluded that for some of these conditions, the support cells are likely to be affected before the neurons that transmit messages in the brain.

To put that into perspective, most previous efforts to treat Alzheimer’s disease have focused on repairing the damage to the neurons. With the new information from this study, the researchers found that a specific cell type, called microglial cells, are responsible for triggering Alzheimer’s — the neuron damage is a secondary symptom of disease progression.

Microglial cells are the primary immune cells of the central nervous system (CNS), and they play a protective role in seeking out and destroying pathogens. They also act as a major inflammatory cell type, but have previously been studied for their harmful roles in neurodegenerative brain diseases.

The researchers from the University of Edinburgh say that developing medicines to target microglial cells could offer new hope for treating brain diseases like Alzheimer’s.

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"The brain is the most complex organ made up from a tangle of many cell types and sorting out which of these cells go wrong in disease is of critical importance to developing new medicines,” Dr Nathan Skene, who carried out the study, said in a statement.

The scientists also say that by using this study approach, researchers may be able to discover new treatment targets for other diseases that have a genetic basis.

"We are in the midst of scientific revolution where advanced molecular methods are disentangling the Gordian Knot of the brain and completely unexpected new pathways to solving diseases are emerging. There is a pressing need to exploit the remarkable insights from the study,” said Professor Seth Grant, who was also involved with the study.

This is an exciting time for neuroscience — scientists are inching closer and closer to understanding the mysterious mechanisms of our brains!

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