A study published in the journal Science Signaling has revealed that teaching roundworms to sniff out a certain type of bacterium has led them to develop a defense mechanism to preserve their brain cells. The findings show potential as a drug-free intervention against neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia and Huntington’s disease, the researchers have stated.
The scientists have noted that roundworms only have 302 neurons compared with the billions seen in humans, making the animals the perfect specimen to examine. As part of the study, the research team divided the roundworms into two groups. One group was exposed to the scent of a lethal bacterium, while the other was exposed to an otherwise benign bacterium. The experts observed that the worms exposed to the lethal bacterium exhibited a faster response to the pathogen. The research team also found that these worms had a 17 percent higher neuron survival rate after 18 hours compared to those exposed to the benign bacterium.
The researchers also examined the animals’ heat shock response, a defense mechanism that all plants and animals share, to determine how the neurons survived. The experts had observed that the worms were able to learn the scent of the bacterium. Bacterial exposure triggered the animals to increase the production of molecular chaperones, which repaired or eliminated damaged proteins that had turned toxic to the cell.
According to the research team, the heat shock transcription factor (HSF1) gene appears to play a central role in the synthesis of these molecular chaperones in both roundworms and humans. The scientists added that the gene may mitigate protein damage that can trigger the onset of neurodegenerative diseases.
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“We show the HSF1 response is not a reaction. The animal turns it on in anticipation, and it does that by learning about the threat in its environment. Theoretically, it should be possible to treat these types of diseases if we can figure out how to stimulate that defense mechanism in people and have it activated more consistently to fix damaged cells. We would need to find the same sensory triggers in humans as we have demonstrated… in worms,” researcher Professor Veena Prahlad told Daily Mail online.
The study shows potential implications in the management of neurodegenerative diseases, which has now become the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. Data from the Alzheimer’s Association has shown that more than five million Americans are currently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. The figures have also revealed that Alzheimer’s disease rates are expected to increase to 16 million by 2050. (Related: Alzheimer’s and dementia rates rise as nations adopt the westernized diet of burgers, fries, steaks and fried chicken.)
Project set to use worms to identify Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s treatment
Researchers at the Canterbury Christ Church University in the U.K. are set to examine the potential of using worms in order to identify potential treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. As part of the two-year project, the worms will be given human genes associated with the neurodegenerative diseases. The researchers will then assess the animals’ life cycle to take note of disease progression in several key stages.
“Preliminary data has shown that some of the worms with the human Parkinson’s gene, but with different genetic backgrounds, differ in how much protein is produced and in how it sticks together. We hope that this part of the project will help us to understand why these differences occur; why some worms are better able to tolerate the misfolding of proteins and why they vary in the overall impact Parkinson’s has upon their lives,” lead researcher Dr. Simon Harvey stated in a Daily Express report.