Alzheimer’s disease has some truly impressive statistics behind it. With over five million Americans currently affected, and one in three seniors expected to die with Alzheimer’s dementia, the neurodegenerative disease affects more lives than breast and prostate cancer combined. Through the use of laser technology, a group of researchers has made an intriguing find that may offer hope for preventative medicinal treatment, potentially mitigating the risk of Alzheimer’s among older people.
Incidentally, this is also one of the few cases where “scientific wiggling” is an actual concept.
In Brief: Protein Wiggling
To heavily summarize, proteins come in long, foldable strings of amino acids that serve various integral functions throughout the body. The structure of a protein and the way it folds is essential to how it can perform its duties, and a protein relies on changing its shape in order to work properly. A “wiggle”, when talking about protein, refers to small changes in a protein’s shape. Wiggling also has a role in how proteins move throughout the body. This is probably spectacularly wrong, but I like to imagine proteins scooching along like someone playing caterpillar in a sleeping bag.
Proteins can be monitored in part by looking at how light is scattered from their movements and shapes. The use of laser technology allowed the researchers to monitor the proteins that make up Alzheimer’s plaques and observe their wiggling and behaviors prior to collecting together. There were two main findings:
- Proteins made up of strings of 42 amino acids (normal is 40) were much more likely to clump together into plaques
- The wiggle speeds of the proteins became five times slower for the longer strings in the period before they began clumping
This requires another small bit of explanation, since there are two protein activities involved here. The first is “reconfiguration”, where the protein folds into a new shape as part of its job. The second is wiggling, which in this case means something along the lines of rate of movement and likelihood of proteins bumping into each other. The slower the wiggling, the harder it is for a protein to get away before things start getting sticky.
Medicinal Treatment Explored
Since slow protein wiggling seems associated with plaque formation, it seems plausible that finding a way to speed up the wiggling could prevent or slow the development of Alzheimer’s or similar plaque-dependent diseases. The researchers found that boosting the pH levels in the environment helped keep wiggling at normal speeds, as could using curcumin (from turmeric). These findings are mostly “proof of concept” or demonstrative, since curcumin can’t cross the blood-brain barrier. It does offer possible modes of future research, however, that could be used to devise treatments. Laser technology in older people worried about contracting Alzheimer’s may also be a potential form of diagnostic tool if protein wiggling is examined, but this too will require more exploration.
“Alzheimer’s Beginnings Prove to be a Sticky Situation,” Michigan State University web site, September 12, 2016; http://msutoday.msu.edu/news/2016/alzheimers-beginnings-prove-to-be-a-sticky-situation/?utm_campaign=media-pitch&utm_medium=email, last accessed September 13, 2016.
Acharya, S., et. al., “Monomer dynamics of the Alzheimer peptides and Kinetic Control of Early Aggregation in Alzheimer’s Disease,” ChemPhysChem, 2016; 10.1002/cphc.201600706.