Neuroprotection: A solution for neurological disease?

Neuroprotection refers to the mechanisms and strategies used to protect against nerve injury or degeneration and to prevent the breakdown of the central nervous system.

Researchers are looking for ways protect the body after acute events, such as stroke or nervous system injury, and to help with chronic nervous system diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or multiple sclerosis (MS).

The development of neuroprotective agents is still underway, although there are some in use today.

Current neuroprotectors cannot reverse the damage already done, but they may protect against further nerve damage and slow down any degeneration, or breakdown, of the central nervous system (CNS).

Scientists are currently investigating a wide range of treatments. Some products can potentially be used in more than one disorder, as different disorders share many of the underlying mechanisms.

Fast facts on neuroprotection:

Here are some key points about neuroprotection. More detail is in the main article.

The field of neuroprotection research is developing rapidly.

Researchers aim to find a way to protect nerves against damage due to injury or disease.

People with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, stroke, and MS could benefit from any new drugs.

Current drugs that show promise include riluzole, phenytoin, and amiloride.

What causes neuron damage?

Scientists hope to find neuroprotective agents that will protect against nerve damage.
Scientists hope to find neuroprotective agents that will protect against nerve damage.

To understand neuroprotection, we should first look at what kills nerves and inhibits brain function.

Different diseases that relate to the CNS have different symptoms. However, the processes by which neurons, or nerve cells, die, are similar.

Currently, these processes are thought to include the following.

Oxidative stress

An imbalance occurs between the body’s production of free radicals and its ability to remove them.

Free radicals are what remain after chemical reactions occur within the body. These electrically charged particles can interact, change substances and cause cell damage.

Free radicals are the result of an oxygen-rich environment. The body needs them, but they also need to be kept in balance.

In the nervous system, oxidative stress has been connected to the progression of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s diseases, and other conditions.

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Mitochondrial dysfunction

The mitochondria are specialized structures, or organelles, within cells that generate energy.

Problems with mitochondria in neurons have been linked to autism, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and several mental health conditions.

Problems with mitochondria elsewhere in the body are thought to be linked to chronic health issues such as diabetes and asthma.

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Excitotoxicity

Nerve cells can die in the brain if they are overactivated.

Glutamate, a brain chemical, excites the interaction between nerve cells. It is an important step of neurotransmission, the passing of information from one nerve cell to the other.

However, too much glutamate can cause cell destruction.

Nerves that become over-stimulated by nerve impulses become damaged or non-functional.

Excitotoxicity is a key factor in nerve damage following a stroke.

Inflammatory changes

Inflammation anywhere in the body occurs when the immune system reacts to a foreign organism or infection. Inflammation can also occur after cell damage or injury, as the body tries to repair itself.

When inflammation occurs in the brain or CNS, this immune response can end up killing neurons as it repairs damage or fights infection.

This can often be the cause of cell death in Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s, and infections of the brain and the CNS.

Iron accumulation

The buildup of iron in the brain seems to play a role in degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

Researchers are looking for substances that may help remove excess iron from the CNS. By removing iron, these substances could potentially restore balance to the brain and CNS.

Scientists are looking into the role of iron in these diseases, in the hope of finding new treatments. Excess iron may be part of a cycle of excitotoxicity and cell death.

Brain proteins

In dementia, certain proteins build up in the brain. This appears to be part of a more complex picture, as research is starting to suggest that the proteins themselves are not the problem.

The trouble, some believe, lies with the inflammation-causing molecules they produce.

High levels of the tumor necrosis factor (TNF) protein are found in a wide variety of CNS degenerative conditions. High levels of TNF seem to be associated with excitotoxicity and high levels of glutamate.

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