According to the NHS, 850,000 people in the UK suffer from dementia. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, but because of the lack of understanding of the disease and its pathology, there are currently no ways of treating it. However, a recent study by researchers at the University of Eastern Finland has developed our understanding of the disease. Unlike most research on Alzheimer’s disease, which focusses on neuronal cells, this research explored the way in which astrocytes impact the pathology of the disease. Astrocytes are glial cells, which are the non-neuronal cells found in the brain and spinal cord and one of their functions is to repair this area when it is damaged. They are also responsible for supporting neurons in the nervous system and endothelial cells, as well as providing the nervous tissue with nutrients. Previous research has discovered that astrocytes also provide neurons with energy from Ca2+.
Because the study used cells from humans, and not animals, which most research does, the results are much more accurate as animal models ‘do not truly recapitulate the human disease’ (Minna Oksanen, ‘PSEN1 Mutant iPSC-Derived Model Reveals Severe Astrocyte Pathology in Alzheimer’s Disease’ http://www.cell.com/stem-cell-reports/fulltext/S2213-6711(17)30471-X [accessed 20 November 2017]). By using gene-corrected isogenic controls, the researchers discovered that the astrocyte stem cells of Alzheimer’s patients produce more beta-amyloid – a protein which has been found in high quantities in the brains of people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s – than the individuals without Alzheimer’s produced. The astrocytes from the Alzheimer’s patients also had a high production rate of reactive oxygen species, but a lower amount of Ca2+ was produced, meaning that the astrocytes can’t provide neurons with energy effectively. When comparing healthy neurons and neurons that the Alzheimer’s astrocytes had been co-cultured with, it was observed that the astrocytes have a direct impact on the neurons’ signal activity – the Alzheimer’s astrocytes caused the neurons to reduce this activity. It can therefore be assumed that astrocytes are related to the pathology of Alzheimer’s disease, which will improve the quality and increase the quantity of research focussed on these cells and their impact on the brain. This may lead to a new discovery in the research finding a treatment for this common disease.