'Black box' could be key to brain disease


BY MINING into a “black box” of proteins that allow us to transmit information from one brain cell to another, scientists have identified a set of biochemical suspects that could help us to better understand and eventually tackle brain diseases.

The study, just published online in Nature Neuroscience, looked at the postsynaptic density (PSD) – a structure that plays a role in how information moves from one brain cell to another.

By analysing the PSD in samples taken from patients undergoing brain surgery, the scientists catalogued 1,461 proteins.

They also identified that a relatively small number – just shy of 14 per cent – were linked with more than 130 brain or nervous system conditions.

“These diseases include common debilitating diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and other neurodegenerative disorders as well as epilepsies and childhood developmental diseases including forms of autism and learning disability,” said researcher Prof Seth Grant from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and Edinburgh University in a statement.

There are known links between PSD dysfunction and diseases, but this study hugely expands the knowledge, according to Dr Gavin Davey, a senior lecturer in neuroscience at Trinity College Dublin, who was not involved in this study but who works in the field.

“The PSD is largely structural, made up of many proteins, and if some of the proteins are not working properly, then brain disorders or diseases can arise,” he said.

“ really adds to our knowledge of the proteins that are involved with the PSD and will allow researchers to look at how these proteins control brain function or dysfunction,” he said.

Much work will be needed now to validate the findings and to work out whether changes in the quantities of particular proteins affect brain function, noted Dr Davey.

Prof Grant remarked that the results could help identify effective targets for therapies to tackle brain conditions.

“Since many different diseases involve the same set of proteins we might be able to develop new treatments that could be used on many diseases,” he said.