Neurons, specialized cells of the nervous system, are generally capable of partaking in a sort of cellular waste-disposal system.
In this process, the cell is organized and the unwanted material such as toxic proteins and damaged cellular components, are effectively removed. This process is vital in keeping cells healthy, protected and functioning correctly.
Monica Driscoll, a professor at Rutgers University, and her team suggest that in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s there are defective cells that result in a faulty waste removal system. Cells, in turn, actually become more susceptible to becoming infected.
Driscoll compares the process of cells ridding waste to the familiar act of collecting trash and leaving it on the curb to be picked up. Internally, cells sort and collect the ‘garbage’, separating it from the good, healthy material. The problem is seemingly posed when the garbage is not ‘picked up’ in a successful manner.
Driscoll’s laboratory works with the transparent roundworms, C. elegans. These organisms are strikingly similar to humans in terms of their molecular form, genetics and function. With a lifespan of only three weeks, these little worms provide critical opportunities in research related to aging that cannot be as easily achieved in longer-living organisms.
These roundworms employ an external garbage removal mechanism in which toxic substances are disposed of outside of the cell. IIiya Melentijevic, the lead author of this study, observed what he described to be small, cloudy blobs that form outside of some cells.
The blobs evidently contain the cell’s waste products. Most of the time, the so-called blob disappeared soon after its formation; however, in some occurrences, the cloudy structure remained loitering outside of the cell.
For three nights, Melentijevic utilized a microscope and photographed the mysterious activity every 15 minutes in hope of gaining a clearer understanding of the process.
For the study, roundworms were manipulated so that they would produce specific proteins in order to mimic human neurological diseases like Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s.
These engineered roundworms were found to dispose of more ‘trash’, which contained the neurodegenerative toxic materials associated with the diseases. Driscoll’s team recognized that the cells in close proximity to the trash degraded some of the toxic waste, whereas distant cells foraged through the diseased proteins.
These findings provide important pathological insight into how neurodegenerative diseases may spread within the brain and how neighboring cells can become sick.
With further development, this significant information may be applied to research that is dedicated to completely understanding and unraveling the ambiguities that surround many neurological diseases.