Scientists investigating the driving factors behind certain neurological diseases have uncovered a new class of proteins that could help us intervene in some of the destructive processes that take place in the brain. The findings throw up new possibilities when it comes to treating Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia, with the team hopeful they can also shed light on why some are more susceptible to these types of diseases than others.
As the critical junctures for communications between neurons, synapses play a vital role in a healthy brain, but there a few ways their performance can become compromised. A lot of research into Alzheimer’s and similar neurological conditions focuses on toxic plaques called amyloid beta and tau, which build up at synapse points to disrupt thought and memory, and are seen as a key driving force behind these forms of neurological decline.
The new study, conducted at the University of Texas (UT) Health Science Center at San Antonio, focuses on another mechanism called complement-mediated synapse elimination. This refers to an immune system pathway that the brain relies on to clear away excess synapses, through the deployment of proteins that tag them for elimination.
While synapses are a necessary part of a healthy brain, we can have too much of a good thing. The amount of synapses in our brains is thought to peak between the ages of 12 and 16, but then the complement system kicks in to bring the numbers down, leading to a net synapse elimination between that point and the age of around 20.