Major New Brain Discovery By Scientists At Trinity College Dublin

Posted on: 04 April 2002

Trinity College scientists, in collaboration with colleagues at Harvard Medical School, have made a major scientific breakthrough in our fundamental understanding of Alzheimer’s disease. The discovery is published 4 April 2002 in the top internationally renowned scientific journal Nature. The researchers have discovered that one of the earliest changes in the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s disease is likely to involve a toxic weakening of brain cell connectivity required for memory. The persistence of human memories depends on the ability of our brain nerve cells to make long-lasting connections between each other. The researchers have shown that a rogue version of a natural protein, amyloid beta protein, inhibits this process. This helps explain the vulnerability of memory mechanisms in Alzheimer’s disease and points to new ways of targeting the early damage.

Trans-Atlantic Collaboration
Trinity College’s team led by Professors Roger Anwyl and Michael Rowan formed an international collaboration with Harvard Medical School’s team led by Professor Dennis Selkoe over 2 years ago. Samples of different forms of the beta protein were sent across the Atlantic from Boston to Dublin where their biological activity was determined.

Potential Therapeutic Target
It seems that in Alzheimer’s patients, and to some extent in all of us, our brains produce this amyloid beta protein continuously. In the case of Alzheimer’s disease, either too much of the protein may be produced or it may not be cleared quickly enough. One way the researchers have found of preventing the rogue version of the protein reaching critical levels is to target the activity of key brain enzymes that are involved in its production. It is hoped that by partly inhibiting these enzymes, called secretases, the onset of the earliest symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease will be delayed.

Researchers and Research Support
The work at Trinity College Dublin would not have been possible without the funding of the Health Research Board (HRB) and Enterprise Ireland (Basic Research Scheme) and the Higher Education Authority.

The Trinity team included Dr Igor Klyubin, Research Fellow and Dr Liam Cullen, Senior Experimental Officer, in the Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics, TCD. Professors Anwyl and Rowan are lecturers in the Department of Physiology and Department of Pharmacology and Therapeutics, respectively, at TCD.