Link between brain immune cells and Alzheimer’s disease development identified
UCI study finds absence of microglia prevents plaque formation
Credit: Kim Green lab / UCI
Irvine, Calif. — Scientists from the University of California, Irvine School of Biological Sciences have discovered how to forestall Alzheimer’s disease in a laboratory setting, a finding that could one day help in devising targeted drugs that prevent it.
The researchers found that by removing brain immune cells known as microglia from rodent models of Alzheimer’s disease, beta-amyloid plaques – the hallmark pathology of AD – never formed. Their study will appear Aug. 21 in the journal Nature Communications.
Previous research has shown most Alzheimer’s risk genes are turned on in microglia, suggesting these cells play a role in the disease. “However, we hadn’t understood exactly what the microglia are doing and whether they are significant in the initial Alzheimer’s process,” said Kim Green, associate professor of neurobiology & behavior. “We decided to examine this issue by looking at what would happen in their absence.”
The researchers used a drug that blocks microglia signaling that is necessary for their survival. Green and his lab have previously shown that blocking this signaling effectively eliminates these immune cells from the brain. “What was striking about these studies is we found that in areas without microglia, plaques didn’t form,” Green said. “However, in places where microglia survived, plaques did develop. You don’t have Alzheimer’s without plaques, and we now know microglia are a necessary component in the development of Alzheimer’s.”
The scientists also discovered that when plaques are present, microglia perceive them as harmful and attack them. However, the attack also switches off genes in neurons needed for normal brain functioning. “This finding underlines the crucial role of these brain immune cells in the development and progression of Alzheimer’s,” said Green.
Professor Green and colleagues say their discovery holds promise for creating future drugs that prevent the disease. “We are not proposing to remove all microglia from the brain,” Professor Green said, noting the importance of microglia in regulating other brain functions. “What could be possible is devising therapeutics that affect microglia in targeted ways.”
He also believes the project’s research approach offers an avenue for better understanding other brain disorders.
“These immune cells are involved in every neurological disease and even in brain injury,” Professor Green said. “Removing microglia could enable researchers working in those areas to determine the cells’ role and whether targeting microglia could be a potential treatment.”
The National Institutes for Health provided support for the research, which was performed in collaboration with Plexxikon Inc.
About the University of California, Irvine: Founded in 1965, UCI is the youngest member of the prestigious Association of American Universities. The campus has produced three Nobel laureates and is known for its academic achievement, premier research, innovation and anteater mascot. Led by Chancellor Howard Gillman, UCI has more than 36,000 students and offers 222 degree programs. It’s located in one of the world’s safest and most economically vibrant communities and is Orange County’s second-largest employer, contributing $5 billion annually to the local economy. For more on UCI, visit http://www.
Media access: Radio programs/stations may, for a fee, use an on-campus ISDN line to interview UCI faculty and experts, subject to availability and university approval. For more UCI news, visit news.uci.edu. Additional resources for journalists may be found at communications.uci.edu/for-journalists.
Related Journal Article