UK scientists have uncovered the building blocks of what could become a novel approach to treating degenerative brain illnesses such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

Researchers from the University of Leicester have, by tackling a new pathway, managed to stop brain cell death in mice with prion disease, a progressive condition that affects the nervous system in humans (Creutzfeld-Jakob disease) and animals and impairs brain function.

Prion disease and other neurodegenerative illnesses are characterised by an accumulation of 'misfolded' proteins, each specific to the particular condition.

What the research - published in the journal Nature and funded by the Medical Research Council - showed, is that the build up of such mis-shapen proteins caused cells to stop making new proteins altogether, which lead to synaptic death and neuronal loss in the brains of mice studied.

And crucially, the study found that preventing this transient shut-down of protein production helped to protect the brain from cellular death, a finding that could potentially have huge implications in the treatment of brain diseases as it has revealed a common target underlying different clinical conditions.

Despite being in the very early stages, the data have sparked much excitement, as it has given researchers a new foundation to develop a therapy that could treat all diseases in which protein misfolding leads to brain cell death.

Common mechanism

"What's exciting is the emergence of a common mechanism of brain cell death, across a range of different neurodegenerative disorders, activated by the different mis-folded proteins in each disease," commented lead researcher Giovanna Mallucci.

"Instead of targeting individual mis-folded proteins in different neurodegenerative diseases, we may be able to target the shared pathways and rescue brain cell degeneration irrespective of the underlying disease," she said.

Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders already affect over seven million people in Europe, but this figure is expected to double every 20 years with the ageing population, highlighting the huge challenge facing healthcare systems around the globe.