Do Zombie Mice Only Eat Head Cheese?

Oh, my poor, neglected galleons, do not fret. I am here once more, to spread the joys of science to you all.

This story is nearly a week old now, so it’s likely you’ve already seen a mention of it somewhere, but it’s really too interesting/important to not feature here.

Anyone who’s ever been subjected to any form of health questionnaire has probably been asked if they or anyone in their family has/had Creutzfeld-Jacob Disease. Creutzfeld-Jacob Disease, like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s,  is a degenerative, fatal neurological disease. At present, there is no cure for any of these diseases, and we are always working toward a breakthrough in winning the war against them.

A breakthrough we might just be on the cusp of, thanks to some intrepid scientists.

And mice.

See, humans are not the only creatures to suffer neurodegenerative disorders. We’ve all heard of mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy), a neurodegenerative disease affecting cattle, but mice have their own as well- prion disease.

Before we talk about the study, we need to talk proteins. In neurodegenerative diseases, proteins mis-fold in a variety of ways. Misshapen proteins can no longer fit into neural soft locks, and these deformed proteins build up in the brain, causing things like the plaques found in Alzheimer’s brains and the Lewy bodies found in Parkinson’s brains. However, another thing these mis-folded proteins do is block a very important switch in the brain.

And here’s where our scientists enter the picture.

Researchers at the University of Leicester studied mice with prion disease, and they found, not only a mechanism causing brain cell death, but a way of stopping it.

A way that does not result in zombie mice, for the record.

See, when these proteins start mis-folding and building up in the brain, a defense mechanism is triggered. The production of new proteins is essentially “switched off” to prevent the brain from creating more and more wonkity proteins. Unfortunately, in diseased mice, scientists found that, as existing proteins keep mis-folding and building up, the jacked up proteins prevent the switch from turning back on. Which means the brain isn’t getting the proteins it needs to survive. Which leads to brain cell death.

The cause of brain cell death has eluded us until now, so just discovering the source is a big deal. But our scientists didn’t just stop at finding the source- they found a way to correct it. By going in and manually “flipping the switch” back so that proteins were being created, essential protein levels were restored and synaptic transmission was restored. Brain cells stopped dying. And even though only a small portion of their brains received this treatment, the mice lived longer.

While this is only the beginning of lengthy research, these scientists just blew the door open to a whole new avenue of neurodegenerative research. Because what is truly incredible about this study is, not just the discovery of the source of brain cell death and a method of stopping it, but the fact that, while these neurodegenerative diseases may have different triggers, it looks like they may be acting through a common mechanism to damage cells. Which means this study is not just a potential step in the direction toward one cure, but a base for cures for a broad range of neurodegenerative diseases.

Badass, no?

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