Unless new treatments are found, it is predicted that more than 100 million people worldwide will be affected by Alzheimer’s disease by 2050. With very few new drugs in the pipeline, researchers are exploring every possible avenue to treat the disease.
One such researcher who is exploring new pathways is Riqiang Yan, PhD, Department of Neurosciences, holder of the Morris R. and Ruth V. Graham Endowed Chair in Biomedical Research. Dr. Yan is investigating how to stop the formation of dystrophic neurites (DN), which are irregularly formed bundles of nerve components prominent in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.
Dr. Yan and his team recently discovered for the first time that DNs are formed when a problem occurs in the endoplasmic reticulum (ER)--the protein factory and distribution center of the cell. They found that DNs contain an overabundance of proteins that, when functioning normally, help give the ER its shape and structure. When these proteins start to accumulate, however, ER organization and important cellular functions—including mitochondrial integrity—become impaired. This link was confirmed in brain samples from Alzheimer’s patients.
One of the ER proteins (RTN3) was not readily detectable in brain samples in patients under the age of 60, but was readily found in samples from patients over 65. In addition, when the team removed RTN3, the presence of DNs decreased in aging and Alzheimer’s brains in a rodent model. This exciting finding suggests that targeting these proteins might be a viable approach to preserving cognitive function in elderly patients as well as patients with AD. The results are published online in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.