"Too much CD33 activity appears to promote late-onset Alzheimer's by preventing support cells from clearing out toxic plaques, key risk factors for the disease," explained Rudolph Tanzi, Ph.D., of Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University, a grantee of the NIH's National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and National Institute on Aging (NIA). "Future medications that impede CD33 activity in the brain might help prevent or treat the disorder."
Tanzi and colleagues report on their findings April 25, 2013 in the journal Neuron
"These results reveal a previously unknown, potentially powerful mechanism for protecting neurons from damaging toxicity and inflammation," said NIMH Director Thomas R. Insel, M.D. "Given increasing evidence of overlap between brain disorders at the molecular level, understanding such workings in Alzheimer's disease may also provide insights into other mental disorders."
Variation in the CD33 gene turned up as one of four prime suspects in the largest genome-wide dragnet of Alzheimer's-affected families, reported by Tanzi and colleagues in 2008. The gene was known to make a protein that regulates the immune system, but its function in the brain remained elusive. To discover how it might contribute to Alzheimer's, the researchers brought to bear human genetics, biochemistry and human brain tissue, mouse and cell-based experiments.