Nav: Home

Beneficial role clarified for brain protein associated with mad cow disease

August 08, 2016

Scientists have clarified details in understanding the beneficial function of a type of protein normally associated with prion diseases of the brain, such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (commonly known as mad cow disease) and its human counterpart, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

Studying mice and zebrafish, researchers from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and the University of Zurich have shown that the proteins -- when properly folded -- play a vital role in nerve cell function by maintaining the insulation around axons, the nervous system's electrical "wiring."

The study appears August 8 in the journal Nature.

Improperly formed prion proteins that cause disease are infectious because they hijack their neighbors, resulting in misfolded proteins and setting off a domino effect that spreads through the brain destroying tissue. Although the role of prion proteins in these fatal brain diseases is well-known, scientists have long puzzled over the normal function of the protein, called PrPC.

"Previous studies have suggested a role for prion proteins in maintaining neurons, but until now, no one knew how the properly folded versions of the proteins function," said co-author Kelly R. Monk, PhD, an associate professor of developmental biology at Washington University. "It's surprising to see that the protein has a role in maintaining the structure of nerve cells, considering that a misfolded version of PrPC is known to cause fatal brain diseases."

Past work by the researchers at the University of Zurich demonstrated that mice lacking PrPC had disruptions in the insulation surrounding axons, but the reasons for the disruptions were unclear. The new study demonstrates that PrPC binds to Schwann cells, which are cells that provide support for the brain's neurons. Schwann cells produce the nerve-insulating protein called myelin and then wrap this insulation around the long, thin axons. Properly insulated axons enable the rapid propagation of nerve signals. Specifically, PrPC binds to a docking site on Schwann cells called Gpr126.

In past work, Monk and her Washington University colleagues demonstrated that the docking site on cells played an important role in nerve formation during embryonic development in zebrafish and in mice. But the new study identifies roles for both Gpr126 and PrPC in maintaining the integrity of neurons through adulthood.

When either of these components is missing, Monk said mice experience a gradual loss of interactions between Schwann cells and axons, with a resulting loss of of myelin. Without this important insulation, walking progressively becomes more difficult for mice, and they eventually reach a state of paralysis.

"We have identified a definitive function for the normal prion protein and clarified how it works on a molecular level," said senior author Adriano Aguzzi, MD, PhD, of the University of Zurich. "Our study answers a question that has been intensely researched since the prion gene's discovery in 1985."

The researchers said the findings may have implications for understanding and eventually treating nerve disorders that result from the loss of the insulating myelin sheaths, such as Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease and other devastating peripheral neuropathies.
-end-
This work was supported by the European Research Council; a European Union Framework 7 Grant (NEURINOX); the Swiss National Foundation; the Clinical Research Priority Programs "Small RNAs" and "Human Hemato-Lymphatic Diseases;" SystemsX.ch; the Novartis Research Foundation; the Swiss National Science Foundation; the Synapsis Foundation; and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), grant numbers F32 NS087786 and NS079445.

Kuffer A, Lakkaraju AKK, Mogha A, Petersen SC, Airich K, Doucerain C, Marpakwar R, Bakirci P, Senatore A, Monnard A, Schiavi C, Nuvolone M, Grosshans B, Hornemann S, Bassilana F, Monk KR, Aguzzi A. The prion protein is an agonistic ligand for the G protein-coupled receptor Gpr126/Adgrg6. Nature. August 8, 2016.

Washington University School of Medicine's 2,100 employed and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children's hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient-care institutions in the nation, currently ranked sixth in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children's hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.

Washington University School of Medicine

Related Neurons Articles:

The first 3D map of the heart's neurons
An interdisciplinary research team establishes a new technological pipeline to build a 3D map of the neurons in the heart, revealing foundational insight into their role in heart attacks and other cardiac conditions.
Mapping the neurons of the rat heart in 3D
A team of researchers has developed a virtual 3D heart, digitally showcasing the heart's unique network of neurons for the first time.
How to put neurons into cages
Football-shaped microscale cages have been created using special laser technologies.
A molecule that directs neurons
A research team coordinated by the University of Trento studied a mass of brain cells, the habenula, linked to disorders like autism, schizophrenia and depression.
Shaping the social networks of neurons
Identification of a protein complex that attracts or repels nerve cells during development.
With these neurons, extinguishing fear is its own reward
The same neurons responsible for encoding reward also form new memories to suppress fearful ones, according to new research by scientists at The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT.
How do we get so many different types of neurons in our brain?
SMU (Southern Methodist University) researchers have discovered another layer of complexity in gene expression, which could help explain how we're able to have so many billions of neurons in our brain.
These neurons affect how much you do, or don't, want to eat
University of Arizona researchers have identified a network of neurons that coordinate with other brain regions to influence eating behaviors.
Mood neurons mature during adolescence
Researchers have discovered a mysterious group of neurons in the amygdala -- a key center for emotional processing in the brain -- that stay in an immature, prenatal developmental state throughout childhood.
Connecting neurons in the brain
Leuven researchers uncover new mechanisms of brain development that determine when, where and how strongly distinct brain cells interconnect.
More Neurons News and Neurons Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: Meditations on Loneliness
Original broadcast date: April 24, 2020. We're a social species now living in isolation. But loneliness was a problem well before this era of social distancing. This hour, TED speakers explore how we can live and make peace with loneliness. Guests on the show include author and illustrator Jonny Sun, psychologist Susan Pinker, architect Grace Kim, and writer Suleika Jaouad.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#565 The Great Wide Indoors
We're all spending a bit more time indoors this summer than we probably figured. But did you ever stop to think about why the places we live and work as designed the way they are? And how they could be designed better? We're talking with Emily Anthes about her new book "The Great Indoors: The Surprising Science of how Buildings Shape our Behavior, Health and Happiness".
Now Playing: Radiolab

The Third. A TED Talk.
Jad gives a TED talk about his life as a journalist and how Radiolab has evolved over the years. Here's how TED described it:How do you end a story? Host of Radiolab Jad Abumrad tells how his search for an answer led him home to the mountains of Tennessee, where he met an unexpected teacher: Dolly Parton.Jad Nicholas Abumrad is a Lebanese-American radio host, composer and producer. He is the founder of the syndicated public radio program Radiolab, which is broadcast on over 600 radio stations nationwide and is downloaded more than 120 million times a year as a podcast. He also created More Perfect, a podcast that tells the stories behind the Supreme Court's most famous decisions. And most recently, Dolly Parton's America, a nine-episode podcast exploring the life and times of the iconic country music star. Abumrad has received three Peabody Awards and was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2011.