Researchers have discovered a new class of proteins that protect synapses from being destroyed. Synapses are the structures where electrical impulses pass from one neuron to another.
The discovery, published July 13 in the journal Nature Neuroscience, has implications for Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia. If proven, increasing the number of these protective proteins could be a novel therapy for the management of those diseases, researchers said.
In Alzheimer’s disease, loss of synapses leads to memory problems and other clinical symptoms. In schizophrenia, synapse losses during development predispose an individual to the disorder.
“We are studying an immune system pathway in the brain that is responsible for eliminating excess synapses; this is called the complement system,” said Gek-Ming Sia, PhD, assistant professor of pharmacology in the Long School of Medicine and senior author of the research.
“Complement system proteins are deposited onto synapses,” Dr. Sia explained. “They act as signals that invite immune cells called macrophages to come and eat excess synapses during development. We discovered proteins that inhibit this function and essentially act as ‘don’t eat me’ signals to protect synapses from elimination.”