Sanford-Burnham research on Alzheimer's disease
Professor Stuart Lipton and his team in the Del E. Webb Center for Neuroscience, Aging, and Stem Cell Research are examining the role of molecular gates called ion channels, in both normal brain function and disease states. These pores in the membranes surrounding nerve cells regulate transit of ions—charged forms of calcium, sodium and potassium—in and out of nerve cells. A balanced flow is essential to normal learning and memory formation, but a flood of ions can be harmful, even lethal, to brain cells.
Lipton's laboratory recently showed that a drug called Memantine can help protect brain cells against excess ion flow by partially blocking channels. Because ion flow is critical to normal brain activity, complete blockage causes severe side effects such as hallucinations or seizures. Memantine has been shown to slow progression of Alzheimer's and was approved in 2002 for this purpose in Europe; FDA approval is pending.
More than one path to brain cell death
Mutations in a family of genes called presenilins are the most common cause of familial Alzheimer's and have been implicated in the formation of plaques that riddle the brains of patients with the disease. Associate Professor Zhuohua Zhang and his colleagues have intriguing evidence that partially inhibiting one member of the presenilin family can help brain cells survive.