Mathias Jucker, research professor at Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University, and Lary Walker, head of the Department of Cellular Neurology at the Hertie Institute for Clinical Brain Research at the University of Tubingen and the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases, outline the emerging concept that many of the brain diseases associated with aging, like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, are caused by specific proteins that misfold and aggregate into harmful seeds.
These seeds behave very much like the pathogenic agents known as prions, which cause mad cow disease, chronic wasting disease in deer, scrapie in sheep, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans.
Unlike prion diseases, which can be infectious, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and other neurodegenerative diseases can not be passed from person to person under normal circumstances.
Once all of these diseases take hold in the brain, however, it is increasingly apparent that the clumps of misfolded proteins spread throughout the nervous system and disrupt its function.
A growing number of laboratories worldwide have discovered that proteins linked to other neurodegenerative disorders also share key features with prions.
Jucker and Walker propose that the concept of pathogenic protein seeding not only could focus research strategies for these seemingly unrelated diseases, but it also suggests that therapeutic approaches designed to thwart prion-like seeds early in the disease process could eventually delay or even prevent the diseases.
The findings of the study have been published in the journal Nature.