New results from research study

The results of an exciting new study from researchers, funded partly by MND Scotland, have been published today.

Posted : 29/06/2017


The results of an exciting new study from researchers at the University of Zurich have been published today in the journal Neuron.

In collaboration with researchers at Edinburgh University, work funded partly by MND Scotland, they have discovered that a specific type of brain cell called ‘microglia’ can become overactive in neurodegenerative diseases and destroy the small points of contact between brain cells, called synapses.

Microglia cells in the brain are intended to help maintain synapses, which transmit signals quickly and effectively through the neurons in the brain. But researchers have discovered that, in MND, these cells are actually damaging the synapses.

We already know that synapse loss is an early feature in MND, but as yet we have not known what causes this loss. Researchers believe that these findings may shed some light on this.

The team in Zurich used a new mouse model, in which a known MND-associated gene called TDP-43, was removed only in microglial cells. Surprisingly, the absence of this TDP-43 gene caused the microglia to become overactive and destroy synapses.

In Edinburgh, the team then examined donated brain tissue from MND patients and discovered that people who had changes in their TDP-43 protein also had lots of overactive microglia in their brain.

This finding in the human brain appears to match the result from the mouse model, namely that overactive microglia most likely play an important role in the disease.

This is an important finding because researchers may now be able to target microglia cells with drugs in the future, to prevent or even slow down their effects on the synapses and possibly preserve brain function.

Read more about the findings here.

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“This international collaborative study, which was partly funded by MND Scotland, is important for a number of reasons. Firstly, it reveals that the known ALS-linked protein TDP-43 can regulate the function of microglia in the brain. This is important as most studies only focus on the role of this protein in neurons. Secondly, it identifies rogue microglia as a potential source of synapse loss in the ALS brain. This is a new finding in ALS and fits very well with studies in other neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s that have shown overactive microglia destroying synapses. Thirdly it unveils microglial cells as a potential therapeutic target that could be exploited pharmaceutically. This is very important given the current lack of effective medications available for ALS.”

Chris Henstridge | University of Edinburgh

Chris Henstridge | University of Edinburgh