(photo caption) – Spinal cord neurons (purple) in mice with ALS suffer degeneration and glia infiltration (yellow) twice as fast when a synaptic repair mechanism is removed (right-hand image), compared to when it is intact (left-hand image) (Photo courtesy of Davis Lab / UCSF)

A self-corrective mechanism at synapse doubles the lifespan of mice with ALS and suggests a new approach to therapy for human brain diseases, researchers from University of California – San Francisco note, in Neuron.

A common feature of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and ALS is the progressive loss of synapses throughout the brain and spinal cord. Typically, synapse loss becomes pervasive before the outward appearance of symptoms of disease, such as memory loss or paralysis. The fact that there must be extensive synapse loss before brain function begins to seriously decline suggests that the nervous system maintains a deep functional reserve that keeps everything working normally until the damage passes a tipping point and the brain’s resilience begins to break down.

But how exactly does this functional reserve confer resilience in the face of ongoing brain degeneration? Could differences in this reserve explain why some individuals with ALS decline and die within months, while others — like astrophysicist Steven Hawking — live for decades? And could a treatment that boosts this functional reserve help more patients survive and prosper as long as Hawking?

In the study, UC San Francisco neuroscientist Graeme Davis, PhD, and his team have identified a powerful self-corrective mechanism within synapses that is activated by neurodegeneration and acts to slow down disease progression in animal models of ALS. Selectively eliminating this self-corrective mechanism dramatically accelerated progression of ALS in mice, shortening their lifespan by 50%, a media release from UC San Francisco explains.

“Our data provide the first evidence that neurodegeneration kick-starts a self-corrective response that can keep the synapse between nerve and muscle working correctly, even though the disease process has already begun to nibble away at the synapse bit by bit, day by day. We also show for the first time that this self-corrective mechanism is amazingly potent — keeping mice with ALS alive twice as long as they would otherwise survive,” says Davis, the Morris Hertzstein Distinguished Professor of Medicine in the UCSF Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics and member of the UCSF Weill Institute for Neurosciences and UCSF Kavli Institute for Fundamental Neuroscience.

Davis’s group is now translating their initial gene discovery efforts in mouse models of human diseases that include ALS, Alzheimer’s and epilepsy. Their goal is to leverage their most recent discoveries into a drug that boosts the brain’s self-corrective capacity, creating a greater functional reserve for people with ALS and other neurodegenerative diseases, the release continues.

“Self-corrective plasticity could confer resilience to neurodegeneration of any kind and any cause, rather than being specific a single disease such as ALS,” Davis adds. “I believe that we can improve the brain’s functional reserve, bringing everyone up to peak capacity and potentially extending lifespan across neurodegenerative diseases.”

[Source(s): University of California – San Francisco, EurekAlert]