Study Reveals How Alzheimer’s Spreads in the Brain

Neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s progress as toxic proteins spread throughout the brain. Synapses, which our brain cells use to communicate, play a pivotal role in this process. That is the conclusion of a study led by Professor Patrik Verstreken (VIB/KU Leuven). The new insights into the spreading mechanism could contribute to the development of treatments to slow down this process.

The synapses serve as the gateway for toxic proteins to move from one brain cell to the next.

“You can compare the spread of toxic proteins in the brain with a drop of ink that falls into a glass of water: the proteins gradually diffuse,” says Professor Patrik Verstreken. “As the disease progresses, more and more brain areas are affected by these proteins. We already knew that the disease follows existing brain paths, but the processes underlying the spread itself weren’t clear yet.”

The researchers now offer proof that synapses play a critical role: toxic proteins move from one brain cell to the next, with synapses as their gateway.

“We’ve also shown that familial history has an impact on this process,” Verstreken continues. “There are known genetic factors in the human population that increase the risk to develop Alzheimer’s. One of them, commonly dubbed ‘BIN1’, facilitates the smooth transmission of toxic proteins at the synapses and therefore contributes to the spread of Alzheimer’s.”

The findings open up new perspectives for the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases. Understanding how toxic proteins spread throughout the brain may help researchers to develop treatments to block this process.

“Our work is based on in vitro experiments, so testing in living organisms is the next step. Now that we understand the spreading mechanism, we have to find clever ways to interfere with it,” says Dr Dieder Moechars, Scientific Director at Janssen Research & Development (Johnson & Johnson), who collaborated in the study.

Click here to read the study in Cell Reports