University of Rochester Receives $1.3 Million To Study Cause of Alzheimer's Disease and Parkinson's Disease

August 03, 1999

A possible cause of both Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease is being explored at the University of Rochester, thanks to a National Institutes of Health grant totaling $1.3 million. Shey-Shing Sheu, Ph.D., and Robert A. Gross, M.D., Ph.D., are studying how a part of a brain cell may fail in older people, initiating a cascade of events that kill the cell by choking off its vital energy supply. Diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's are characterized by the premature death of numerous brain cells.

"We're taking a new approach to understanding diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, which slowly kill brain cells," explains Sheu. "We want to explore how and why particular parts of a brain cell called mitochondria malfunction in the elderly. The long-term goal is to develop treatments that might prevent this malfunction in ways we may never have thought of before."

In order for a person to think or retain memories, each cell in their brain needs the energy supplied to it by its mitochondria. Like little power stations, the mitochondria absorb certain chemicals and pump them to the rest of the cell in the form of useable energy. The other parts of the cell utilize the energy to conduct their chores and keep the whole cell running smoothly.

Often in elderly patients, however, the mitochondria don't produce quite enough energy, so the outer wall of the cell can't keep up the proper balance of chemicals inside. Now floating in a bath of harmful chemicals, the mitochondria produce even less energy, causing the cell wall to weaken further until the cycle spirals out of control and the brain cell dies. Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases may result if this occurs in a crucial number of brain cells. Sheu and Gross hope to detect a way to arrest the cycle before it begins, ultimately applying this knowledge to patients to keep their brain cells healthy, longer.

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