Molecular Trigger for Alzheimer’s Disease Identified

Researchers have pinpointed a catalytic trigger for the onset of Alzheimer’s disease – when the fundamental structure of a protein molecule changes to cause a chain reaction that leads to the death of neurons in the brain.

For the first time, scientists at Cambridge’s Department of Chemistry have been able to map in detail the pathway that generates “aberrant” forms of proteins which are at the root of neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s.

They believe the breakthrough is a vital step closer to increased capabilities for earlier diagnosis of neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and opens up possibilities for a new generation of targeted drugs, as scientists say they have uncovered the earliest stages of the development of Alzheimer’s that drugs could possibly target.

The new work, in large part carried out by researcher Samuel Cohen, shows that once a small but critical level of malfunctioning protein ‘clumps’ have formed, a runaway chain reaction is triggered that multiplies exponentially the number of these protein composites, activating new focal points through ‘nucleation’.

It is this secondary nucleation process that forges juvenile tendrils, initially consisting of clusters that contain just a few protein molecules. Small and highly diffusible, these are the ‘toxic oligomers’ that careen dangerously around the brain cells, killing neurons and ultimately causing loss of memory and other symptoms of dementia.

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