Investigators from the Cleveland Clinic believe they have discovered a protein in the brain that plays a critical role in the memory loss seen in Alzheimer’s patients.
The finding is important as the race is on to develop a cure or treatment for Alzheimer’s, a disease that affects about 5 million people in the United States.
Investigators say the protein — neuroligin-1 (NLGN1) — is known to be involved in memory formation, although this is the first time it’s been linked to amyloid-associated memory loss.
In Alzheimer’s disease, amyloid beta proteins accumulate in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients and produce inflammation. This inflammation leads to certain gene modifications that interrupt the functioning of synapses in the brain, leading to memory loss.
In the study, published online in the journal Nature Neuroscience, researchers studied rats to show that during the neuroinflammatory process, a modification of NLGN1 disrupts the synaptic network in the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for developing and maintaining memories.
Destroying this network can lead to the type of memory loss seen in Alzheimer’s patients.
“Alzheimer’s is a challenging disease that researchers have been approaching from all angles,” said Mohamed Naguib, M.D., the Cleveland Clinic physician who lead the study.
“This discovery could provide us with a new approach for preventing and treating Alzheimer’s disease.”
Previous studies from this group of researchers have also identified a novel compound called MDA7, which can potentially stop the neuroinflammatory process that leads to the modification of NLGN1.
Treatment with the compound restored cognition, memory and synaptic plasticity – a key neurological foundation of learning and memory – in an animal model.
Significant preliminary work for the first-in-man study has been completed for MDA7 including in-vitro studies and preliminary clinical toxicology and pharmacokinetic work.
A cure is urgent as without successful treatment experts predict there will be 16 million Americans and 106 million people worldwide with Alzheimer’s by 2050.
The Cleveland Clinic plans to initiate Phase I human studies on the safety of this class of compounds in the near future.