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Could glial cells in the brain hold the key to curing Alzheimer’s?

Advances in genetic studies show that multiple genes are involved with the development of this devastating disease

Advances in genetic studies show that multiple genes are involved with the development of this devastating disease


Astroglia are specialised glial cells in the brain and spinal cord. Picture: Science Photo Library

Alzheimer’s disease is known to be associated with extensive damage to brain cells (neurones) with shrinkage of the brain, development of plaques of protein between the cells and tangles of fibres inside the cells.

Research looking for ways to remove protein plaques has been unsuccessful in finding a cure. Medication can help with symptoms, such as memory loss, but there is no way to reverse or delay the underlying damage in this devastating disease.

Recent advances in genetic studies have shown that multiple genes are involved with the development of late-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Many of these genes do not influence the nerve cells themselves, but programme glial cells, which support and protect nerve cells.

Provide nutritional support to the brain

Glial cells make up the white matter of the brain, which has been regarded as having limited importance. Astroglia are specialised glial cells that maintain levels of neurotransmitters and calcium, regulate the blood–brain barrier and provide nutritional support to the brain.

However, in Alzheimer’s disease their action changes and they start to be far more active causing inflammation and degeneration of neurones. This also happens in other neurological diseases, including multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease.

The knowledge that glial cells can cause brain damage suggests that they should become more central in future research.

Reference


Ruth Sander is an independent consultant in the care of older people

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