Amyloids are insoluble fibrous protein aggregates sharing specific structural traits. Abnormal accumulation of amyloid in organs may lead to amyloidosis, and may play a role in various neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and others.
Alzheimer's Disease (AD) is the most common form of dementia. This incurable, degenerative, and terminal disease was first described by German psychiatrist and neuropathologist Alois Alzheimer in 1906 and was named after him. Most often, it is diagnosed in people over 65 years of age, although the less-prevalent early-onset Alzheimer's can occur much earlier. In 2006, there were 26.6 million sufferers worldwide. Alzheimer's is predicted to affect 1 in 85 people globally by 2050.
The cause and progression of Alzheimer's disease are not well understood. Research indicates that the disease is associated with plaques (extracellular deposits of amyloid in the gray matter of the brain) and tangles (defective tau proteins that no longer stabilize microtubules properly) in the brain.
The Amyloid Hypothesis
In 1991, the amyloid hypothesis postulated that amyloid beta (Aβ) deposits are the fundamental cause of the Alzheimer's Disease. Support for this postulate comes from the location of the gene for the amyloid beta precursor protein (APP) on chromosome 21, together with the fact that people with trisomy 21 (Down Syndrome) who have an extra gene copy almost universally exhibit AD by 40 years of age. Also APOE4, the major genetic risk factor for AD, leads to excess amyloid buildup in the brain before AD symptoms arise. Thus, Aβ deposition precedes clinical AD. Further evidence comes from the finding that transgenic mice that express a mutant form of the human APP gene develop fibrillar amyloid plaques and Alzheimer's-like brain pathology with spatial learning deficits.
An experimental vaccine was found to clear the amyloid plaques in early human trials, but it did not have any significant effect on dementia. Researchers have been led to suspect non-plaque Aβ oligomers (aggregates of many monomers) as the primary pathogenic form of Aβ. These toxic oligomers, also referred to as amyloid-derived diffusible ligands (ADDLs), bind to a surface receptor on neurons and change the structure of the synapse, thereby disrupting neuronal communication. One receptor for Aβ oligomers may be the prion protein, the same protein that has been linked to mad cow disease and the related human condition, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, thus potentially linking the underlying mechanism of these neurodegenerative disorders with that of Alzheimer's disease.
In 2009, this theory was updated, suggesting that a close relative of the beta-amyloid protein, and not necessarily the beta-amyloid itself, may be a major culprit in the disease. The theory holds that an amyloid-related mechanism that prunes neuronal connections in the brain in the fast-growth phase of early life may be triggered by aging-related processes in later life to cause the neuronal withering of Alzheimer's disease. N-APP, a fragment of APP from the peptide's N-terminus, is adjacent to beta-amyloid and is cleaved from APP by one of the same enzymes. N-APP triggers the self-destruct pathway by binding to a neuronal receptor called death receptor 6 (DR6, also known as TNFRSF21). DR6 is highly expressed in the human brain regions most affected by Alzheimer's, so it is possible that the N-APP/DR6 pathway might be hijacked in the aging brain to cause damage. In this model, beta-amyloid plays a complementary role, by depressing synaptic function.
A 2004 study found that deposition of amyloid plaques does not correlate well with neuron loss. This observation supports the tau hypothesis, the idea that tau protein abnormalities initiate the disease cascade. In this model, hyperphosphorylated tau begins to pair with other threads of tau. Eventually, they form neurofibrillary tangles inside nerve cell bodies. When this occurs, the microtubules disintegrate, collapsing the neuron's transport system. This may result first in malfunctions in biochemical communication between neurons and later in the death of the cells. Herpes simplex virus type 1 has also been proposed to play a causative role in people carrying the susceptible versions of the apoE gene.
Another hypothesis asserts that the disease may be caused by age-related myelin breakdown in the brain. Demyelination leads to axonal transport disruptions, leading to loss of neurons that become stale. Iron released during myelin breakdown is hypothesized to cause further damage. Homeostatic myelin repair processes contribute to the development of proteinaceous deposits such as amyloid-beta and tau.
Alzheimer's disease has been identified as a protein misfolding disease (proteopathy), caused by accumulation of abnormally folded A-beta and tau proteins in the brain. Plaques are made up of small peptides, 39–43 amino acids in length, called beta-amyloid (also written as A-beta or Aβ). Beta-amyloid is a fragment from a larger protein called amyloid precursor protein (APP), a transmembrane protein that penetrates through the neuron's membrane. APP is critical to neuron growth, survival and post-injury repair. In Alzheimer's disease, an unknown process causes APP to be divided into smaller fragments by enzymes through proteolysis. One of these fragments gives rise to fibrils of beta-amyloid, which form clumps that deposit outside neurons in dense formations known as senile plaques.
AD is also considered a tauopathy due to abnormal aggregation of the tau protein. Every neuron has a cytoskeleton, an internal support structure partly made up of structures called microtubules. These microtubules act like tracks, guiding nutrients and molecules from the body of the cell to the ends of the axon and back. A protein called tau stabilizes the microtubules when phosphorylated, and is therefore called a microtubule-associated protein. In AD, tau undergoes chemical changes, becoming hyperphosphorylated; it then begins to pair with other threads, creating neurofibrillary tangles and disintegrating the neuron's transport system.
Exactly how disturbances of production and aggregation of the beta amyloid peptide gives rise to the pathology of AD is not known. The amyloid hypothesis traditionally points to the accumulation of beta amyloid peptides as the central event triggering neuron degeneration. Accumulation of aggregated amyloid fibrils, which are believed to be the toxic form of the protein responsible for disrupting the cell's calcium ion homeostasis, induces programmed cell death (apoptosis). It is also known that Aβ selectively builds up in the mitochondria in the cells of Alzheimer's-affected brains, and it also inhibits certain enzyme functions and the utilisation of glucose by neurons.
Most of autosomal dominant familial AD can be attributed to mutations in one of three genes: amyloid precursor protein (APP) and presenilins 1 and 2. Most mutations in the APP and presenilin genes increase the production of a small protein called Aβ42, which is the main component of senile plaques. Some of the mutations merely alter the ratio between Aβ42 and the other major forms—e.g., Aβ40—without increasing Aβ42 levels. This suggests that presenilin mutations can cause disease even if they lower the total amount of Aβ produced and may point to other roles of presenilin or a role for alterations in the function of APP and/or its fragments other than Aβ.
One area of clinical research is focused on treating the underlying disease pathology. Reduction of amyloid beta levels is a common target of compounds (such as apomorphine) under investigation. Immunotherapy or vaccination for the amyloid protein is one treatment modality under study. Unlike preventative vaccination, the putative therapy would be used to treat people already diagnosed. It is based upon the concept of training the immune system to recognise, attack, and reverse deposition of amyloid, thereby altering the course of the disease. An example of such a vaccine under investigation was ACC-001, although the trials were suspended in 2008. Another similar agent is bapineuzumab, an antibody designed as identical to the naturally induced anti-amyloid antibody. Other approaches are neuroprotective agents, such as AL-108, and metal-protein interaction attenuation agents, such as PBT2. A TNFα receptor fusion protein, etanercept has showed encouraging results.
The hypothesis that Alzheimer’s is caused by plaques and tangles in the brain is not accepted by all scientists. In a 2009 article in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, a group of researchers stated that the popular hypothesis that beta amyloid causes dementia is mistaken and because this flawed hypothesis Alzheimer’s drugs continue to fail in clinical trials. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2907530/?tool=pubmed
For more information and reference:
Source: Wikipedia (All text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License and Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.)