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Media Release | Jul. 31, 2008

UBC Researchers Supercharge Brain Cells to Attack Plaques that Cause Alzheimer’s Disease

Researchers at the University of British Columbia have discovered a new method for developing treatments for Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). They have shown that by stimulating a brain cell called a microglia the cells will partially engulf the senile plaques which are abundant in post mortem AD brain.

The study, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, marks the first time that this phenomenon, believed to take place in living brain, has been duplicated in the laboratory. It offers a new approach to finding an effective treatment for the disease.

The research team found that the plaques themselves are not sufficient microglial activators. But when the microglia were treated with inflammatory stimulants, they attacked the plaques.

“It is very exciting to watch under a microscope the way these microglial cells gather around and attach to the plaques just as we believe is taking place in Alzheimer brains” said Dr. Sadayuki Hashioka lead author on the paper.

Microglia are cells found in the central nervous system that act as the brain’s immune cell. The human brain has approximately 14 billion microglia that patrol different areas of the brain and migrate to a site of injury to help restore normal functioning.

“It is widely believed that AD is caused by the accumulation of the beta amyloid protein in senile plaques,” says Patrick McGeer professor emeritus in UBC’s Faculty of Medicine. “In AD patients, microglia are not coping with the plaque build-up. Therefore plaques accumulate faster than the microglia can digest them. If we can enhance microglial digestion of these plaques, we will have a fighting chance to eliminate AD.”

“This new approach is a way of screening agents against the real disease rather than mouse models of the disease. It is just a first step in finding new ways to treat AD,” says McGeer. “The next step is to find a therapeutic drug that will stimulate the microglia to devour the plaques.”

AD is a neurodegenerative disorder characterized by progressive cognitive deterioration and is the most common form of dementia.

The Alzheimer Society of Canada estimates that there are approximately 500,000 Canadians suffering from dementia and that the true direct and indirect costs of their care is $12-$15 billion per year.

The research was supported by the Pacific Alzheimer Research Foundation.

The mission of the Pacific Alzheimer Research Foundation, established in December 2004, is to eradicate AD and related dementias. For more information, visit www.parf.ca.

VCHRI is the research body of Vancouver Coastal Health Authority. In academic partnership with the University of British Columbia and philanthropic partnership with the VGH & UBC Hospital Foundation, the institute advances health research and innovation across B.C., Canada, and beyond.

The Journal of Alzheimer's Disease (www.j-alz.com), published by IOS Press, is an international multidisciplinary journal to facilitate progress in understanding the etiology, pathogenesis, epidemiology, genetics, behavior, treatment and psychology of Alzheimer's disease.

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Catherine Loiacono
UBC Public Affairs
Tel: 604.822.2644
Cell: 604.209.3048
E-mail: catherine.loiacono@ubc.ca


Last reviewed 31-Jul-2008

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