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60-Second Science

Prions Involved in Some Alzheimer's

A study in the journal Nature finds that prions can team up with amyloid beta, the protein that forms the big plaques in Alzheimer's, to make the condition much worse. Karen Hopkin reports

[The following is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

It’s like the molecular version of the Joker and the Riddler teaming up against Batman. Scientists at Yale University have discovered that amyloid beta, a protein involved in Alzheimer’s disease, can damage brain cells by binding to prion proteins, which are themselves infamous because, in their abnormal form, they cause things like mad cow disease.

Amyloid beta is best known as the protein that forms the giant plaques that riddle the brains of people with Alzheimer’s. Those plaques contain billions of copies of amyloid beta all stuck together in one gloppy mess. But the protein also exists in a more soluble form, either in single units or in small groups of 50 or 100. These smaller clusters don’t cause the same large-scale mayhem as plaques, but they do damage neurons, impairing their ability to learn. And the Yale researchers wanted to find out how.

They discovered that amyloid beta binds to the prion proteins normally found on neurons. What’s more, the prions ramp up amyloid beta’s neurotoxic effects. Take away the prions and amyloid-beta clusters are harmless, findings published in the journal Nature. So drugs that prevent this amyloid–prion coupling could be a potent weapon against Alzheimer’s.

—Karen Hopkin 

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