Tag Archives: Alzheimer’s disease

A pile of spent bullets — take II

I can tell you after being in neurology for 50 years that back in the day every microscopic inclusion found in neurologic disease was thought to be causative.  This was certainly true for the senile plaque of Alzheimer’s disease and the Lewy body of Parkinsonism.  Interestingly, the protein inclusions in ALS weren’t noticed for decades.

However there are 3 possible explanations for any microscopic change seen in any disease.  The first is that they are causative (the initial assumption).  The second is that they are a pile of spent bullets, which the neuron uses to defend itself against the real killer.  The third is they are tombstones, the final emanations of a dying cell, a marker for the cause of death rather than the cause itself.

An earlier post concerned work that implied that the visible aggregates of alpha-synuclein in Parkinson’s disease were protective rather than destructive — https://luysii.wordpress.com/2018/01/07/are-the-inclusions-found-in-neurologic-disease-attempts-at-defense-rather-then-the-cause/.

Comes now Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 115 pp. 4661 – 4665 ’18 on Superoxide Dismutase 1 (SOD1) and ALS. Familial ALS is fortunately less common than the sporadic form (under 10% in my experience).  Mutations in SOD1 are found in the familial form.  The protein contains 153 amino acids, and as 6/16 160 different mutations in SOD1 have been found.  Since each codon can contain only 3 mutations from the wild type, this implies that, at a minimum,  53/153 codons of the protein have been mutated causing the disease.  Sadly, there is no general agreement on what the mutations actually do — impair SOD1 function, produce a new SOD1 function, cause SOD1 to bind to something else modifying that function etc. etc.  A search on Google Scholar for SOD1 and ALS produced 28,000 hits.

SOD1 exists as a soluble trimer of proteins or the fibrillar aggregate.   Knowing the structure of the trimer, the authors produced mutants which stabilized the trimer (Glycine 147 –> Proline) making aggregate formation less likely and two mutations (Asparagine 53 –> Isoleucine, and Aspartic acid 101 –> Isoleucine) which destabilized the trimer making aggregate formation more likely.  Then they threw the various mutant proteins at neuroblastoma cells and looked for toxicity.

The trimer stabilizing mutant  (Glycine 147 –> Proline) was toxic and the destabilizing mutants  (Asparagine 53 –> Isoleucine, and Aspartic acid 101 –> Isoleucine)  actually improved survival of the cells.  The trimer stabilizing mutant was actually more toxic to the cells than two naturally occurring SOD1 mutants which cause ALS in people (Alanine 4 –> Valine, Glycine 93 –> Alanine).  Clearly with these two something steric is going on.

So, in this experimental system at least, the aggregate is protective and what you can’t see (microscopically) is what kills cells.


A research idea yours for the taking

Why would the gene for a protein contain a part which could form amyloid (the major component of the senile plaque of Alzheimer’s disease) and another part to prevent its formation. Therein lies a research idea, requiring no grant money, and free for you to pursue since I’ll be 80 this month and have no academic affiliation.

Bri2 (aka Integral TransMembrane protein 2B — ITM2B) is such a protein.  It is described in [ Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 115 pp. E2752 – E2761 ’18 ] http://www.pnas.org/content/pnas/115/12/E2752.full.pdf.

As a former neurologist I was interested in the paper because two different mutations in the stop codon for Bri2 cause 2 familial forms of Alzheimer’s disease  Familial British Dementia (FBD) and Familial Danish Dementia (FDD).   So the mutated protein is longer at the carboxy terminal end.  And it is the extra amino acids which form the amyloid.

Lots of our proteins form amyloid when mutated, mutations in transthyretin cause familial amyloidotic polyneuropathy.  Amylin (Islet Amyloid Polypeptide — IAPP) is one of the most proficient amyloid formers.  Yet amylin is a protein found in the beta cell of the pancreas which releases insulin (actually in the same secretory granule containing insulin).

This is where Bri2 is thought to come in. It is also found in the pancreas.   Bri2 contains a 100 amino acid motif called BRICHOS  in its 266 amino acids which acts as a chaperone to prevent IAPP from forming amyloid (as it does in the pancreas of 90% of type II diabetics).

Even more interesting is the fact that the BRICHOS domain is found in 300 human genes, grouped into 12 distinct protein families.

Do these proteins also have segments which can form amyloid?  Are they like the amyloid in Bri2, in segments of the gene which can only be expressed if a stop codon is read through.  Nothing in the cell is perfect and how often readthrough occurs at stop codons isn’t known completely, but work is being done — Nucleic Acids Res. 2014 Aug 18; 42(14): 8928–8938.

I find it remarkable that the cause and the cure of a disease is found in the same protein.

Here’s the research proposal for you.  Look at the other 300 human genes containing the BRICHOS motif (itself just a beta sheet with alpha helices on either side) and see how many have sequences which can form amyloid.  There should be programs which predict the likelihood of an amino acid sequence forming amyloid.

It’s very hard to avoid teleology when thinking about cellular biochemistry and physiology.  It’s back to Aristotle where everything has a purpose and a design.  Clearly BRICHOS is being used for something or evolution/nature/natural selection/the creator would have long ago gotten rid of it.  Things that aren’t used tend to disappear in evolutionary time — witness the blind fish living in caves in Mexico that have essentially lost their eyes. The BRICHOS domain clearly hasn’t disappeared being present in over 1% of our proteins.

Suppose that many of the BRICHOS containing proteins have potential amyloid segments.  That would imply (to me at least) that the amyloid isn’t just junk that causes disease, but something with a cellular function. Finding out just what the function is would occupy several research groups for a long time.   This is also where you come in.  It may not pan out, but pathbreaking research is always a gamble when it isn’t stamp collecting.


So much work, so little progress

Two years ago, I found going to a memorial service for a friend and classmate who died of Alzheimer’s curiously uplifting  (see the link at the end). The disease is far from ignored. A monster review in Neuron vol. 97 pp. 32 – 58 ’18 — http://www.cell.com/neuron/fulltext/S0896-6273(17)31081-4  contained references to over 400 research articles half of them published since January 2013.

Still I found it quite depressing.  Tons of work and tons findings, and yet no coherent path to the cause (or causes); something absolutely necessary for a rational treatment, unless we somehow stumble into a therapy.

In a way it’s like cancer.  The cancer genome atlas intensively studied the genome of various cancers, looking for ‘the’ or ‘the set of’ causative mutations.  They found way too much.  The average colon and breast cancer had an average of 93 mutated genes, of which 11 were thought to be cancer promoting.  Not only that, but the same 11 were not consistent from tumor to tumor.

So it is with this epic review.  Which of the myriad findings described are causative of the disease and which are responses of the nervous system to the ’cause’ (or causes).

In the review the authors posit that Alzheimer’s disease is due to failure of ‘homeostatic systems’ that maintain a ‘set point’ of neuronal firing.  Unfortunately what is measured to determine the set point isn’t known. This seems to be an example of redefining a question into an answer.  Clearly if you juice up neuronal firing rates by stimulation they come back down, or if you inhibit them, they come back up.  So you can operationally define set point without defining it mechanistically.   It must be due to some sort of feedback on whatever it is that is sensing ‘the set point’ , but what is it that is being sensed?

The following is from an earlier post but is quite relevant to homeostasis and set points.

The whole notion of control in the presence of feedback is far from clear cut.  Here’s the story of the first inklings of feedback in endocrinology.  I watched it happen.

Endocrinology was pretty simple in med school back in the 60s. All the target endocrine glands (ovary, adrenal, thyroid, etc.) were controlled by the pituitary; a gland about the size of a marble sitting an inch or so directly behind the bridge of your nose. The pituitary released a variety of hormones into the blood (one or more for each target gland) telling the target glands to secrete, and secrete they did. That’s why the pituitary was called the master gland back then.  The master gland ruled.

Things became a bit more complicated when it was found that a small (4 grams or so out of 1500) part of the brain called the hypothalamus sitting just above the pituitary was really in control, telling the pituitary what and when to secrete. Subsequently it was found that the hormones secreted by the target glands (thyroid, ovary, etc.) were getting into the hypothalamus and altering its effects on the pituitary. Estrogen is one example. Any notion of simple control vanished into an ambiguous miasma of setpoints, influences and equilibria. Goodbye linearity and simple notions of causation.

As soon as feedback (or simultaneous influence) enters the picture it becomes like the three body problem in physics, where 3 objects influence each other’s motion at the same time by the gravitational force. As John Gribbin (former science writer at Natureand now prolific author) said in his book ‘Deep Simplicity’, “It’s important to appreciate, though, that the lack of solutions to the three-body problem is not caused by our human deficiencies as mathematicians; it is built into the laws of mathematics.” The physics problem is actually much easier than endocrinology, because we know the exact strength and form of the gravitational force.


Abeta raises its head again

Billions have been spent (and lost) by big Pharma on attempts to decrease Abeta peptide in the brain as a therapy for Alzheimer’s. Yet the theory that Abeta has something to do with Alzheimer’s won’t die because it is so compelling.

Here’s another example [Neuron vol. 96 pp. 355 – 372 ’17 ] Neurons in hippocampal slices stop forming new synapses when exposed to Abeta.  We think that synapse formation and elimination is going on all the time in our brains — it certainly is in mice.  For details see an excellent review [ Neuron vol. 96 pp. 43 – 55 ’17 ].  This is thought to be important in learning, something lost in Alzheimer’s as well as old memories. Two Alzheimer mouse models have shown defects in new synaptic spine formation.

Even better the authors found what Abeta is binding to — a well known brain protein — Nogo receptor 1 (Ngr1).  When it was knocked down in the slice (by bolistic short hairpin RNA infererence — shRNAi), spines started reforming.

So the work may explain some of the problems in Alzheimer’s disease but it says nothing about the neuronal loss which is also found.

Also, there is something fishy about the results.  The Abeta preparation used in the experiment was mostly oligomers of about 100 monomers (with a molecular mass of 500 kiloDaltons).  Monomers had no effect.  It is much easier to conceptualize a monomer binding to a receptor than an oligomer.  However, oligomer binding would tend to cluster receptors, something important in immune responses.

The strongest evidence for Abeta in my opinion is the fact that certain mutations PROTECT against Alzheimer’s — and given the structure just worked out we have a plausible explanation of just how this works — for details see — https://luysii.wordpress.com/2017/10/12/abeta42-at-last/


Abeta42 at last

It’s easy to see why cryoEM got the latest chemistry Nobel.  It is telling us so much.  Particularly fascinating to me as a retired neurologist is the structure of the Abeta42 fibril reported in last Friday’s Science (vol. 358 pp. 116 – 119 ’17).  

Caveats first.  The materials were prepared using an aqueous solution at low pH containing an organic cosolvent — so how physiologic could the structure actually be?  It probably is physiologic as the neurotoxicity of the fibrils to neurons in culture was the same as fibrils grown at neutral pH.  This still isn’t the same as fibrils grown in the messy concentrated chemical soup known as the cytoplasm.  Tending to confirm their findings is the fact that NMR and Xray diffraction on the crystals produced the same result.

The fibrils were unbranched and microns long (implying at least 2,000 layers of the beta sheets to be described).  The beta sheets stack in parallel and in register giving the classic crossBeta sheet structure.  They were made of two protofilaments winding around each other.  Each protofilament contains all 42 amino acids of Abeta42 and all of them form a completely flat beta sheet structure.

Feast your eyes on figure 2 p. 117.  In addition to showing the two beta sheets of the two protofilaments, it shows how they bind to each other.  Aspartic acid #1 of one sheet binds to lysine #28 of the other.  Otherwise the interface is quite hydrophobic.  Alanine2 of one sheet binds to alanine42 of the other, valine39 of one sheet binds to valine 39 of the other.  Most importantly isoLeucine 41 of one sheet binds to glycine38 of the other.

This is important since the difference between the less toxic Abeta40 and the toxic Abeta 42 are two hydrophobic amino acids Isoleucine 41 and Alanine 42.  This makes for a tighter, longer, more hydrophobic interface between the protofilaments stabilizing them.

That’s just a guess.  I can’t wait for work on Abeta40 to be reported at this resolution.

A few other points.  The beta sheet of each protomer is quite planar, but the planes of the two protomers are tilted by 10 degrees accounting for the helicity of the fibril. The fibril is a rhombus whose longest edge is about 70 Angstroms.

Even better the structure explains a mutation which is protective against Alzheimer’s.  This remains the strongest evidence (to me at least) that Abeta peptides are significantly involved in Alzheimer’s disease, therapeutic failures based on this idea notwithstanding.  The mutation is a change of alanine2 to threonine which can’t possibly snuggle up hydrophobically to isoleucine nearly as well as alanine did. This should significantly weaken the link between the two protofilaments and make fibril formation more difficult.

The Abeta structure of the paper also explains another mutation. This one increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease (like many others which have been discovered).  It involves the same amino acid (alanine2) but this time it is changed to the more hydrophobic valine, probably resulting in a stronger hydrophobic interaction with isoLeucine41 (assuming that valine’s greater bulk doesn’t get in the way sterically).

Wonderful stuff to think and speculate about, now that we actually have some solid data to chew on.

Progress has been slow but not for want of trying

Progress in the sense of therapy for Alzheimer’s disease and Glioblastoma multiforme is essentially nonexistent, and we could use better therapy for Parkinsonism. This doesn’t mean that researchers have given up. Far from it. Three papers all in last week’s issue of PNAS came up with new understanding and possibly new therapeutic approaches for all three.

You’ll need some serious molecular biological and cell physiological chops to get through the following.

l. Glioblastoma multiforme — they aren’t living much longer than they were when I started pracice 45 years ago (about 2 years — although of course there are exceptions).

The human ZBTB family of genes consists of 49 members coding for transcription factors. BCL6 is also known as ZBTB27 and is a master regulator of lymph node germinal responses. To execute its transcriptional activity, BCL6 requires homodimerization and formation of a complex with a variety of cofactors including BCL6 corerpressor (BCoR), nuclear receptor corepressor 1 (NCoR) and Silencing Mediator of Retinoic acid and Thyroid hormone receptor (SMRT). BCL6 inhibitors block the interaction between BCL6 and its friends, selectively killing BCL6 addicted cancer cells.

The present paper [ Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 114 pp. 3981 – 3986 ’17 ] shows that BCL6 is required for glioblastoma cell viability. One transcriptional target of BCL6 is AXL, a tyrosine kinase. Depletion of AXL also decreases proliferation of glioblastoma cells in vitro and in vivo (in a mouse model of course).

So here are two new lines of attack on a very bad disease.

2. Alzheimer’s disease — the best we can do is slow it down, certainly not improve mental function and not keep mental function from getting worse. ErbB2 is a member of the Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor (EGFR) family. It is tightly associated with neuritic plaques in Alzheimer’s. Ras GTPase activation mediates EGF induced stimulation of gamma secretase to increase the nuclear function of the amyloid precursor protein (APP) intracellular domain (AICD). ErbB2 suppresses the autophagic destruction of AICD, physically dissociating Beclin1 vrom the VPS34/VPS15 complex independently of its kinase activity.

So the following paper [ Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 114 pp. E3129 – E3138 ’17 ] Used a compound downregulating ErbB2 function (CL-387,785) in mouse models of Alzheimer’s (which have notoriously NOT led to useful therapy). Levels of AICD declined along with beta amyloid, and the animals appeared smarter (but how smart can a mouse be?).

3.Parkinson’s disease — here we really thought we had a cure back in 1972 when L-DOPA was first released for use in the USA. Some patients looked so good that it was impossible to tell if they had the disease. Unfortunately, the basic problem (death of dopaminergic neurons) continued despite L-DOPA pills supplying what they no longer could.

Nurr1 is a protein which causes the development of dopamine neurons in the embryo. Expression of Nurr1 continues throughout life. Nurr1 appears to be a constitutively active nuclear hormone receptor. Why? Because the place where ligands (such as thyroid hormone, steroid hormones) bind to the protein is closed. A few mutations in the Nurr1 gene have been associated with familial parkinsonism.

Nurr1 functions by forming a heterodimer with the Retinoid X Receptor alpha (RXRalpha), another nuclear hormone receptor, but one which does have an open binding pocket. A compound called BRF110 was shown by the following paper [ Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 114 pp. 3795 – 3797, 3999 – 4004 ’17 ] to bind to the ligand pocked of RXRalpha increasing its activity. The net effect is to enhance expression of dopamine neuron specific genes.

More to the point MPP+ is a toxin pretty selective for dopamine neurons (it kills them). BRF110 helps survival against MPP+ (but only if given before toxin administration). This wouldn’t be so bad because something is causing dopamine neurons to die (perhaps its a toxin), so BRF110 may fight the decline in dopamine neuron numbers, rather than treating the symptoms of dopamine deficiency.

So there you have it 3 possible new approaches to therapy for 3 bad disease all in one weeks issue of PNAS. Not easy reading, perhaps, but this is where therapy is going to come from (hopefully soon).

Will flickering light treat Alzheimer’s disease ?

Big pharma has spent zillions trying to rid the brain of senile plaques, to no avail. A recent paper shows that light flickering at 40 cycles/second (40 Hertz) can do it — this is not a misprint [ Nature vol. 540 pp. 207 – 208, 230 – 235 ’16 ]. As most know the main component of the senile plaque of Alzheimer’s disease is a fragment (called the aBeta peptide) of the amyloid precursor protein (APP).

The most interesting part of the paper showed that just an hour or so of light flickering at 40 Hertz temporarily reduced the amount of Abeta peptide in visual cortex of aged mice. Nothing invasive about that.

Should we try this in people? How harmful could it be? Unfortunately the visual cortex is relatively unaffected in Alzheimer’s disease — the disease starts deep inside the head in the medial temporal lobe, particularly the hippocampus — the link shows just how deep it is -https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hippocampus#/media/File:MRI_Location_Hippocampus_up..png

You might be able to do this through the squamous portion of the temporal bone which is just in front of and above the ear. It’s very thin, and ultrasound probes placed here can ‘see’ blood flowing in arteries in this region. Another way to do it might be a light source placed in the mouth.

The technical aspects of the paper are fascinating and will be described later.

First, what could go wrong?

The work shows that the flickering light activates the scavenger cells of the brain (microglia) and then eat the extracellular plaques. However that may not be a good thing as microglia could attack normal cells. In particular they are important in the remodeling of the dendritic tree (notably dendritic spines) that occurs during experience and learning.

Second, why wouldn’t it work? So much has been spent on trying to remove abeta, that serious doubt exists as to whether excessive extracellular Abeta causes Alzheimer’s and even if it does, would removing it be helpful.

Now for some fascinating detail on the paper (for the cognoscenti)

They used a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease (the 5XFAD mouse). This poor creature has 3 different mutations associated with Alzheimer’s disease in the amyloid precursor protein (APP) — these are the Swedish (K670B), Florida (I716V) and London (V717I). If that wasn’t enough there are two Alzheimer associated mutations in one of the enzymes that processes the APP into Abeta (M146L, L286V) — using the single letter amino acid code –http://www.biochem.ucl.ac.uk/bsm/dbbrowser/c32/aacode.html.hy1. Then the whole mess is put under control of a promoter particularly active in mice (the Thy1 promoter). This results in high expression of the two mutant proteins.

So the poor mice get lots of senile plaques (particularly in the hippocampus) at an early age.

The first experiment was even more complicated, as a way was found to put channelrhodopsin into a set of hippocampal interneurons (this is optogenetics and hardly simple). Exposing the channel to light causes it to open the membrane to depolarize and the neuron to fire. Then fiberoptics were used to stimulate these neurons at 40 Hertz and the effects on the plaques were noted. Clearly a lot of work and the authors (and grad students) deserve our thanks.

Light at 8 Hertz did nothing to the plaques. I couldn’t find what other stimulation frequencies were used (assuming they were tried).

It would be wonderful if something so simple could help these people.

For other ideas about Alzheimer’s using physics rather than chemistry please see — https://luysii.wordpress.com/2014/11/30/could-alzheimers-disease-be-a-problem-in-physics-rather-than-chemistry/

Very sad

The failure of Lilly’s antibody against the aBeta protein is very sad on several levels. My year started out going to a memorial service for a college classmate, fellow doc and friend who died of Alzheimer’s disease. He had some 50 papers to his credit mostly involving clinical evaluation of drugs such as captopril. Even so it was an uplifting experience — here’s a link –https://luysii.wordpress.com/2016/01/05/an-uplifting-way-to-start-the-new-year/

There is a large body of theory that says it should have worked. Derek Lowe’s blog “In the Pipeline” has much more — and the 80 or so comments on his post will expose you to many different points of view on Abeta — here’s the link. http://blogs.sciencemag.org/pipeline/archives/2016/11/23/eli-lillys-alzheimers-antibody-does-not-work.

It’s time to ‘let 100 flowers bloom’ in Alzheimer’s research — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hundred_Flowers_Campaign. E. g. it’s time to look at some far out possibilities — we know that most will be wrong that they will be crushed, as Mao did to all the flowers. Even so it’s worth doing.

So to buck up your spirits, here’s an old post (not a link) raising the possibility that Alzheimer’s might be a problem in physics rather than chemistry. If that isn’t enough another post follows that one on Lopid (Gemfibrozil).

Could Alzheimer’s disease be a problem in physics rather than chemistry?

Two seemingly unrelated recent papers could turn our attention away from chemistry and toward physics as the basic problem in Alzheimer’s disease. God knows we could use better therapy for Alzheimer’s disease than we have now. Any new way of looking at Alzheimer’s, no matter how bizarre,should be welcome. The approaches via the aBeta peptide, and the enzymes producing it just haven’t worked, and they’ve really been tried — hard.

The first paper [ Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 111 pp. 16124 – 16129 ’14 ] made surfaces with arbitrary degrees of roughness, using the microfabrication technology for making computer chips. We’re talking roughness that’s almost smooth — bumps ranging from 320 Angstroms to 800. Surfaces could be made quite regular (as in a diffraction grating) or irregular. Scanning electron microscopic pictures were given of the various degrees of roughness.

Then they plated cultured primitive neuronal cells (PC12 cells) on surfaces of varying degrees of roughness. The optimal roughness for PC12 to act more like neurons was an Rq of 320 Angstroms.. Interestingly, this degree of roughness is identical to that found on healthy astrocytes (assuming that culturing them or getting them out of the brain doesn’t radically change them). Hippocampal neurons in contact with astrocytes of this degree of roughness also began extending neurites. It’s important to note that the roughness was made with something neurons and astrocytes never see — silica colloids of varying sizes and shapes.

Now is when it gets interesting. The plaques of Alzheimer’s disease have surface roughness of around 800 Angstroms. Roughness of the artificial surface of this degree was toxic to hippocampal neurons (lower degrees of roughness were not). Normal brain has a roughness with a median at 340 Angstroms.

So in some way neurons and astrocytes can sense the amount of roughness in surfaces they are in contact with. How do they do this — chemically it comes down to Piezo1 ion channels, a story in themselves [ Science vol. 330 pp. 55 – 60 ’10 ] These are membrane proteins with between 24 and 36 transmembrane segments. Then they form tetramers with a huge molecular mass (1.2 megaDaltons) and 120 or more transmembrane segments. They are huge (2,100 – 4,700 amino acids). They can sense mechanical stress, and are used by endothelial cells to sense how fast blood is flowing (or not flowing) past them. Expression of these genes in mechanically insensitive cells makes them sensitive to mechanical stimuli.

The paper is somewhat ambiguous on whether expressing piezo1 is a function of neuronal health or sickness. The last paragraph appears to have it both ways.

So as we leave paper #1, we note that that neurons can sense the physical characteristics of their environment, even when it’s something as un-natural as a silica colloid. Inhibiting Piezo1 activity by a spider venom toxin (GsMTx4) destroys this ability. The right degree of roughness is healthy for neurons, the wrong degree kills them. Clearly the work should be repeated with other colloids of a different chemical composition.

The next paper [ Science vol. 342 pp. 301, 316 – 317, 373 – 377 ’13 ] Talks about the plumbing system of the brain, which is far more active than I’d ever imaged. The glymphatic system is a network of microscopic fluid filled channels. Cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) bathes the brain. It flows into the substance of the brain (the parenchyma) along arteries, and the fluid between the cellular elements (interstitial fluid) it exchanges with flows out of the brain along the draining veins.

This work was able to measure the amount of flow through the lymphatics by injected tracer into the CSF and/or the brain parenchyma. The important point about this is that during sleep these channels expand by 60%, and beta amyloid is cleared twice as quickly. Arousal of a sleeping mouse decreases the influx of tracer by 95%. So this amazing paper finally comes up with an explanation of why we spend 1/3 of our lives asleep — to flush toxins from the brain.

If you wish to read (a lot) more about this system — see an older post from when this paper first came out — https://luysii.wordpress.com/2013/10/21/is-sleep-deprivation-like-alzheimers-and-why-we-need-sleep-in-the-first-place/

So what is the implication of these two papers for Alzheimer’s disease?

The surface roughness of the plaques (800 Angstroms roughness) may physically hurt neurons. The plaques are much larger or Alzheimer would never have seen them with the light microscopy at his disposal.

The size of the plaques themselves may gum up the brain’s plumbing system.

The tracer work should certainly be repeated with mouse models of Alzheimer’s, far removed from human pathology though they may be.

I find this extremely appealing because it gives us a new way of thinking about this terrible disorder. In addition it might explain why cognitive decline almost invariably accompanies aging, and why Alzheimer’s disease is a disorder of the elderly.

Next, assume this is true? What would be the therapy? Getting rid of the senile plaques in and of itself might be therapeutic. It is nearly impossible for me to imagine a way that this could be done without harming the surrounding brain.

Before we all get too excited it should be noted that the correlation between senile plaque burden and cognitive function is far from perfect. Some people have a lot of plaque (there are ways to detect them antemortem) and normal cognitive function. The work also leaves out the second pathologic change seen in Alzheimer’s disease, the neurofibrillary tangle which is intracellular, not extracellular. I suppose if it caused the parts of the cell containing them to swell, it too could gum up the plumbing.

As far as I can tell, putting the two papers together conceptually might even be original. Prasad Shastri, the author of the first paper, was very helpful discussing some points about his paper by Email, but had not heard of the second and is looking at it this weekend.

Also a trial of Lopid (Gemfibrozil) as something which might be beneficial is in progress — there is some interesting theory behind this. The trial has about another year to go. Here’s that post and happy hunting

Takes me right back to grad school

How many times in grad school did you or your friends come up with a good idea, only to see it appear in the literature a few months later by someone who’d been working on it for much longer. We’d console ourselves with the knowledge that at least we were thinking well and move on.

Exactly that happened to what I thought was an original idea in my last post — e.g. that Gemfibrozil (Lopid) might slow down (or even treat) Alzheimer’s disease. I considered the post the most significant one I’d ever written, and didn’t post anything else for a week or two, so anyone coming to the blog for any reason would see it first.

A commenter on the first post gave me a name to contact to try out the idea, but I’ve been unable to reach her. Derek Lowe was quite helpful in letting me link to the post, so presently the post has had over 200 hits. Today I wrote an Alzheimer’s researcher at Yale about it. He responded nearly immediately with a link to an ongoing clinical study in progress in Kentucky

On Aug 3, 2015, at 3:04 PM, Christopher van Dyck wrote:

Dear Dr. xxxxx

Thanks for your email. I agree that this is a promising mechanism.
My colleague Greg Jicha at U.Kentucky is already working on this:

Our current efforts at Yale are on other mechanisms:

We can’t all test every mechanism, but hopefully we can collectively test the important ones.

-best regards,
Christopher H. van Dyck, MD
Professor of Psychiatry, Neurology, and Neurobiology
Director, Alzheimers Disease Research Unit

Am I unhappy about losing fame and glory being the first to think of it? Not in the slightest. Alzheimer’s is a terrible disease and it’s great to see the idea being tested.

Even more interestingly, a look at the website for the study shows, that somehow they got to Gemfibrozil by a different mechanism — microRNAs rather than PPARalpha.

I plan to get in touch with Dr. Jicha to see how he found his way to Gemfibrozil. The study is only 1 year in duration, and hopefully is well enough powered to find an effect. These studies are incredibly expensive (and an excellent use of my taxes). I never been involved in anything like this, but data mining existing HMO data simply has to be cheaper. How much cheaper I don’t know.

Here’s the previous post —

Could Gemfibrozil (Lopid) be used to slow down (or even treat) Alzheimer’s disease?

Is a treatment of Alzheimer’s disease at hand with a drug in clinical use for nearly 40 years? A paper in this week’s PNAS implies that it might (vol. 112 pp. 8445 – 8450 ’15 7 July ’15). First a lot more background than I usually provide, because some family members of the afflicted read everything they can get their hands on, and few of them have medical or biochemical training. The cognoscenti can skip past this to the text marked ***

One of the two pathologic hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease is the senile plaque (the other is the neurofibrillary tangle). The major component of the plaque is a fragment of a protein called APP (Amyloid Precursor Protein). Normally it sits in the cellular membrane of nerve cells (neurons) with part sticking outside the cell and another part sticking inside. The protein as made by the cell contains anywhere from 563 to 770 amino acids linked together in a long chain. The fragment destined to make up the senile plaque (called the Abeta peptide) is much smaller (39 to 42 amino acids) and is found in the parts of APP embedded in the membrane and sticking outside the cell.

No protein lives forever in the cell, and APP is no exception. There are a variety of ways to chop it up, so its amino acids can be used for other things. One such chopper is called ADAM10 (aka Kuzbanian). ADAM10breaks down APP in such a way that Abeta isn’t formed. The paper essentially found that Gemfibrozil (commercial name Lopid) increases the amount of ADAM10 around. If you take a mouse genetically modified so that it will get senile plaques and decrease ADAM10 you get a lot more plaques.

The authors didn’t artificially increase the amount of ADAM10 to see if the animals got fewer plaques (that’s probably their next paper).

So there you have it. Should your loved one get Gemfibrozil? It’s a very long shot and the drug has significant side effects. For just how long a shot and the chain of inferences why this is so look at the text marked @@@@


How does Gemfibrozil increase the amount of ADAM10 around? It binds to a protein called PPARalpha which is a type of nuclear hormone receptor. PPARalpha binds to another protein called RXR, and together they turn on the transcription of a variety of genes, most of which are related to lipid metabolism. One of the genes turned on is ADAM10, which really has never been mentioned in the context of lipid metabolism. In any event Gemfibrozil binds to PPARalpha which binds more effectively to RAR which binds more effectively to the promoter of the ADAM10 gene which makes more ADAM10 which chops of APP in such fashion that Abeta isn’t made.

How in the world the authors got to PPARalpha from ADAM10 is unknown — but I’ve written the following to the lead author just before writing this post.

Dr. Pahan;

Great paper. People have been focused on ADAM10 for years. It isn’t clear to me how you were led to PPARgamma from reading your paper. I’m not sure how many people are still on Gemfibrozil. Probably most of them have some form of vascular disease, which increases the risk of dementia of all sorts (including Alzheimer’s). Nonetheless large HMOs have prescription data which can be mined to see if the incidence of Alzheimer’s is less on Gemfibrozil than those taking other lipid lowering agents, or the population at large. One such example (involving another class of drugs) is JAMA Intern Med. 2015;175(3):401-407, where the prescriptions of 3,434 individuals 65 years or older in Group Health, an integrated health care delivery system in Seattle, Washington. I thought the conclusions were totally unwarranted, but it shows what can be done with data already out there. Did you look at other fibrates (such as Atromid)?

Update: 22 July ’15

I received the following back from the author

Dear Dr.

Wonderful suggestion. However, here, we have focused on the basic science part because the NIH supports basic science discovery. It is very difficult to compete for NIH R01 grants using data mining approach.

It is PPARα, but not PPARγ, that is involved in the regulation of ADAM10. We searched ADAM10 gene promoter and found a site where PPAR can bind. Then using knockout cells and ChIP assay, we confirmed the participation of PPARα, the protein that controls fatty acid metabolism in the liver, suggesting that plaque formation is controlled by a lipid-lowering protein. Therefore, many colleagues are sending kudos for this publication.

Thank you.

Kalipada Pahan, Ph.D.

The Floyd A. Davis, M.D., Endowed Chair of Neurology


Departments of Neurological Sciences, Biochemistry and Pharmacology

So there you have it. An idea worth pursuing according to Dr. Pahan, but one which he can’t (or won’t). So, dear reader, take it upon yourself (if you can) to mine the data on people given Gemfibrozil to see if their risk of Alzheimer’s is lower. I won’t stand in your way or compete with you as I’m a retired clinical neurologist with no academic affiliation. The data is certainly out there, just as it was for the JAMA Intern Med. 2015;175(3):401-407 study. Bon voyage.


There are side effects, one of which is a severe muscle disease, and as a neurologist I saw someone so severely weakened by drugs of this class that they were on a respirator being too weak to breathe (they recovered). The use of Gemfibrozil rests on the assumption that the senile plaque and Abeta peptide are causative of Alzheimer’s. A huge amount of money has been spent and lost on drugs (antibodies mostly) trying to get rid of the plaques. None have helped clinically. It is possible that the plaque is the last gasp of a neuron dying of something else (e.g. a tombstone rather than a smoking gun). It is also possible that the plaque is actually a way the neuron was defending itself against what was trying to kill it (e.g. the plaque as a pile of spent bullets).

Baudelaire comes to Chemistry

Could an evil molecule be beautiful? In Les Fleurs du Mal, a collection of poems, Baudelaire argued that there was a certain beauty in evil. Well, if there ever was an evil molecule, it’s the Abeta42 peptide, the main component of the senile plaque of Alzheimer’s disease, a molecule whose effects I spent my entire professional career as a neurologist ineffectually fighting. And yet, in a recent paper on the way it forms the fibrils constituting the plaque I found the structure compellingly beautiful.

The papers are Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 113 pp. 9398 – 9400, E4976 – E4984 ’16. People have been working on the structure of the amyloid fibril of Alzheimer’s for decades, consistently stymied by its insolubility. The authors solved it not by Xray crystallography, not by cryoEM, but by solid state NMR. They basically looked at the distance constraints between pairs of isotopically labeled atoms, and built their model that way. Actually they built a bouquet of models using computer aided energy minimization of the peptide backbone. Another independent study produced nearly the same set.

The root mean square deviation of backbone atoms of the 10 lowest energy models of the bouquets in the two studies was small (.89 and .71 Angstroms). Even better the model bouquets of the two papers resemble each other.

There are two chains of Abeta42, EACH shaped like a double horseshoe (similar to the letter S). The two S’s meet around a twofold axis. The interface between the two S’s is form by two noncontiguous areas on each monomer (#15 – #17) and (#34 – #37).

The hydrophilic amino terminal residues (#1 – #14) are poorly ordered, but amino acids #15 – #42 are arranged into 4 short beta strands (I only see 3 obvious ones) that stack up and down the fibril into parallel in register beta-sheets. Each stack of double horseshoes forms a thread and the two threads twist around each other to form a two stranded protofilament.

Glycines allow sharp turns at the corners of the horseshoes. Hydrogen bonds between amides link the two layers of the fibrils. Asparagine side chains form ladders of hydrogen bonds up and down the fibrils. Water isn’t present between the layers because the beta sheets are so close together (counterintuitively this decreases the entropy, because water molecules don’t have to align themselves just so to solvate the side chains).

Each of the horseshoes is stabilized by hydrophobic interactions among the hydrophobic side chains buried in the core. Charged residues are solvent exposed. The interface between the two horsehoes is a hydrophobic interface.

Many of the famlial mutations are on the outer edges of double S structure — they are K16N, A21G, D23N, E22A, E22K, E22G, E22Q.

The surface hydrophobic patch formed by V40 and A42 may explain the greater rate of secondary nucleation by Abeta42 vs. Abeta40.

The cryoEM structures we have of Abeta42 are different showing the phenomenon of amyloid polymorphism.

The PNAS paper used reombinant Abeta and prepared homogenous fibrils by repeated seeding of dissolved Abeta42 with preformed fibrils. The other study used chemically synthesized Abeta and got fibrils without seeding. Details of pH, peptide concentration, salt concentration differed, and yet the results are the same, making both structures more secure.

The new structure doesn’t immediately suggest the toxic mechanism of Abeta.

To indulge in a bit of teleology — the structure is so beautiful and so intricately designed, that the aBeta42 peptide has probably been evolutionarily optimized to perform an (as yet unknown) function in our bodies. Animals lacking Abeta42’s parent (the amyloid precursor protein) don’t form neuromuscular synapses correctly, but they are viable.

Nicastrin the gatekeeper of gamma secretase

Once a year some hapless trucker from out of town gets stuck trying to drive under a nearby railroad bridge with a low clearance. This is exactly the function of nicastrin in the gamma secretase complex which produces the main component of the senile plaque, the aBeta peptide.

Gamma secretase is a 4 protein complex which functions as an enzyme which can cut the transmembrane segment of proteins embedded in the cell membrane. This was not understood for years, as cutting a protein here means hydrolyzing the amide bond of the protein, (e.g. adding water) and there is precious little water in the cell membrane which is nearly all lipid.

Big pharma has been attacking gamma secretase for years, as inhibiting it should stop production of the Abeta peptide and (hopefully) help Alzheimer’s disease. However the paper to be discussed [ Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 113 p.n E509 – E518 ’16 ] notes that gamma secretase processes ‘scores’ of cell membrane proteins, so blanket inhibition might be dangerous.

The idea that Nicastrin is the gatekeeper for gamma secretase is at least a decade old [ Cell vol. 122 pp. 318 – 320 ’05 ], but back then people were looking for specific binding of nicastrin to gamma secretase targets.

The new paper provides a much simpler explanation. It won’t let any transmembrane segment of a protein near the active site of gamma secretase unless the extracellular part is lopped off. The answer is simple mechanics. Nicastrin is large (709 amino acids) but with just one transmembrane domain. Most of it is extracellular forming a blob extending out 25 Angstroms from the membrane, directly over the substrate binding pocket of gamma secretase. Only substrates with small portions outside the membrane (ectodomains) can pass through it. It’s the railroad bridge mentioned above. Take a look at the picture — https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicastrin

This is why a preliminary cleavage of the Amyloid Precursor Peptide (APP) is required for gamma secretase to work.

So all you had to do was write down the wavefunction for Nicastrin (all 709 amino acids) and solve it (assuming you even write it down) and you’d have the same answer — NOT. Only the totally macroscopic world explanation (railroad bridge) is of any use. What keeps proteins from moving through each other? Van der Waals forces. What help explain them. The Pauli exclusion principle, as pure quantum mechanics as it gets.