Targeting brain protein could halt progression of Alzheimer's

A protein that stimulates the brain to wake up could hold the key to preventative Alzheimer's treatments, an animal study suggests.

Alzheimer's: brain cell showing signs of disease (Photo: Science Photo Library)
Alzheimer's: brain cell showing signs of disease (Photo: Science Photo Library)

A mouse-model study conducted by US researchers suggests that targeting orexin, a neurotransmitter that helps rouse the brain from sleep, could help prevent Alzheimer’s disease in patients who have problems sleeping.

Sleep loss is known to contribute to the growth of brain plaques, early signs of Alzheimer’s disease.

They accumulate in the brain ahead of the onset of the more severe symptoms, such as memory loss. Scientists hope that by slowing or stopping this build-up, they can put a halt on the disease.

In the latest study, published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine, researchers bred genetically-modified mice lacking the gene for producing orexin with those predisposed to developing brain plaques.

Brain plaques halved

The offspring slept for longer and developed only half as many brain plaques as their predisposed parents who had the orexin protein, suggesting that higher levels of the neurotransmitter contribute to producing more brain plaques.

When the scientists reversed the experiment, and looked at mice with artificially increased orexin levels, the mice stayed awake longer and developed more Alzheimer's-like plaques.

Lead author Dr David Holtzman said: ‘This indicates we should be looking hard at orexin as a potential target for preventing Alzheimer’s disease.

‘Blocking orexin to increase sleep in patients with sleep abnormalities, or perhaps even to improve sleep efficiency in healthy people, may be a way to reduce the risk of Alzheimer's. This is important to explore further.’

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