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CALGARY - Research out of the University of Calgary has endeavoured to further explain why brain cells in Alzheimer's disease patients die.
The study by scientists at the U of C's Hotchkiss Brain Institute shows the cells are being killed off as the result of a malfunctioning neurotransmitter receptor called NMDA, which is responsible for memory and learning.
It had previously been shown a malformed protein exists in Alzheimer's disease patients' brains. The recent study used animal models to show a new mechanism of how the protein kills cells.
Dr. Gerald Zamponi and Dr. Peter Stys found the NMDA receptor is strongly regulated by copper, and if copper is prevented from regulating it — as it is in Alzheimer's disease— the cells are over-stimulated and eventually die.
The malformed protein is believed to steal copper from the NMDA receptor, causing the cell deaths.
Zamponi said the discovery may open doors for the development of treatments for the neurodegenerative disease.
"We think we can design drugs that restore the normal function of the receptor, therefore protecting brain cells," he said. "It really gives you a new insight into a mechanism and really lays out a road map for developing new therapeutics."
"Ultimately, we are seeing an underlying deficiency in copper, but at a sub-cellular level,” added Stys. "Unfortunately, because of the way that the body regulates copper, we can't simply eat more of a certain kind of food or take a copper supplement to compensate.
"What we are looking at now is the development of a drug that acts on the NMDA receptor to mimic the effect of copper in the brain."
Bill Gaudette, CEO of the Alzheimer Society of Alberta and the Northwest Territories, said the results of the study are very promising.
"Finding a cure for Alzheimer's disease and dementia is really like a puzzle and this is one of the pieces in that jigsaw puzzle," he said.
There are over 5.4 million Americans with Alzheimer’s disease or related dementia, according to the Alzheimer's Association.