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Throttling up tiny power plants may protect nerve cells

Posted: Thursday, July 26, 2007 · Volume: XL · Issue: 15

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Contact: Will Sansom
Phone: 210-567-2579
E-mail: sansom@uthscsa.edu

James Lechleiter, Ph.D., is the lead author on the study examining the workings behind age-related neurodegenerative disorders.
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James Lechleiter, Ph.D., is the lead author on the study examining the workings behind age-related neurodegenerative disorders.clear graphic

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Revving up the “mini-energy factories” in central nervous system cells appears to help insulate them from damage caused by reactive oxygen species, which are believed to be prime culprits in aging. That is one of the findings from a new study conducted at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

The energy boost confers nearly as much protection to older cells as it does to younger cells, fostering hope that one day a medication for aging-related neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s disease or improved recovery from strokes could be based on this information.

Possible new cell-protection strategy
The study evaluated effects on one type of cell, called astrocytes, which are the primary caretakers for the more widely recognized brain cell, neurons. Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Lou Gehrig’s and other diseases are marked by the death of neurons, and improving astrocyte caretaking promises to be an exciting new strategy to combat these diseases.

Aging diminishes effectiveness of astrocytes
“Astrocytes require large amounts of energy to exert their protective influence, which we have shown diminishes with age,” said the study’s lead author, James Lechleiter, Ph.D. He is a professor in the department of cellular and structural biology in the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, and a member of the Health Science Center’s Sam and Ann Barshop Institute for Longevity and Aging Studies.

This lowered effectiveness with age may be caused by a drop in energy production in the cellular factories, which are called mitochondria.

Stimulation of energy-generating mitochondria (pictured here in red) increases the ability of astrocytes to help protect the brain from injury.
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Stimulation of energy-generating mitochondria (pictured here in red) increases the ability of astrocytes to help protect the brain from injury.clear graphic

 

Pathway to a healthy brain
The scientists increased energy production acutely in astrocytes by activating a receptor-signaling pathway linked to intracellular calcium release. “I think we have essentially found an important protective pathway that can be rapidly turned on and revved up,” Dr. Lechleiter said. “There is no question that older cells are not as strong as younger cells, but activating this pathway can make them almost as good. This could be the mechanism by which an active brain remains a healthy brain.”

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The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio is the leading research institution in South Texas and one of the major health sciences universities in the world. With an operating budget of $536 million, the Health Science Center is the chief catalyst for the $14.3 billion biosciences and health care sector in San Antonio’s economy. The Health Science Center has had an estimated $35 billion impact on the region since inception and has expanded to six campuses in San Antonio, Laredo, Harlingen and Edinburg. More than 22,000 graduates (physicians, dentists, nurses, scientists and allied health professionals) serve in their fields, including many in Texas. Health Science Center faculty are international leaders in cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, aging, stroke prevention, kidney disease, orthopaedics, research imaging, transplant surgery, psychiatry and clinical neurosciences, pain management, genetics, nursing, allied health, dentistry and many other fields.

 
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