Dementia research: Combating memory loss

Tracking down the causes of dementia: researchers at the DZNE

Dementia is a widespread disease. In Germany alone, around 300,000 people each year fall victim to the condition, which brings about such an extreme decline in memory, language ability and orientation that they can no longer cope with even the most ordinary everyday activities. Alzheimer’s, a brain disease for which no cure is yet available, accounts for most of the 1.5 million dementia sufferers in Germany – there are nearly 47 million worldwide. Medication can merely alleviate individual symptoms.

neurological research at the DZNE

Thanks to the research team led by Professor Christian Haass from the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases (DZNE) in Munich, the search for the causes is one step further. The scientists recently discovered a small protein fragment named aeta-amyloid. Alongside the previously known beta-amyloid, it is thought to trigger the formation of what are known as plaques – clumps of protein in the brain that are typical of Alzheimer’s disease – which damage the nerve cells.

This means that another of the factors responsible for causing Alzheimer’s has been identified, which will also have an impact on the search for treatments. “The processing pathway that produces aeta-amyloid has been overlooked for 30 years. This is because investigators including myself have focused their attention on elucidating the origins of the beta-amyloid and on attempts to cure Alzheimer’s by inhibiting production of this peptide,” Professor Haass explains.

Focusing on all forms of the disease

What is known about the causes and treatment of Alzheimer’s does not necessarily apply to other forms of dementia, however, which is why the DZNE is exploring the similarities and differences between a whole host of brain diseases. Its goal is to improve treatment and prevention.

Measuring nerve cells

Researchers at the DZNE in Bonn have made a new and generally applicable discovery. They used high-performance microscopes to measure nerve cells, studied their electrical activity and identified a correlation between the atrophied condition of diseased nerve cells and their failure to transmit signals properly. “We have now found that if the form changes, this has a direct impact on the cell’s electrical properties”, explains research group head Professor Stefan Remy. “It’s just like in an electrical power cord. A thin cord that is also short has different electrical properties to one that’s thick and longer.” If drugs could be used to protect the structure of the cells, their function could be preserved at the same time – which in future might prove to be a promising approach to treatment.

German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases (DZNE)

A non-university research institute, the DZNE is dedicated to dementia and all its facets. It is a member of the Helmholtz Association and the first of six German Centres for Health Research  (DZG) to be established by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) to combat the most important widespread diseases. In over 70 research groups, the DZNE’s more than 800 employees explore the similarities and differences between different brain diseases with the aim of developing new preventive and therapeutic approaches.