Hitting a Nerve
One of the major challenges of our time, alongside climate change, is demographic change. Society undergoes changes at many levels: cultural composition, age structure, immigration and emigration, birth and death rates. One significant aspect is the increasing life expectancy and the resulting consequence of growing numbers of older people. This is an issue not only requiring pension and health schemes to adapt to but also research.
For instance, scientists within the Helmholtz Association work on the improved understanding of ageing processes and the causes of an increased propensity towards disease in old age. New prevention methods and tailored treatment methods are to help to remain healthy for longer and in old age in particular.
Dementia is a typical disease of old age, often caused by Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease. The research team around Prof. Dr Dieter Edbauer from the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases (DZNE) now has discovered an important factor as regards these diseases. In the case of frontotemporal dementia, the so-called FUS protein forms deposits within the nerve cell body, although it ought to be restricted to the nucleus. The researchers have demonstrated that FUS influences the neuron's skeleton and thus its growth. Moreover, FUS causes another important protein, Tau, to be folded into structures that are too long. Altogether, this results in neuronal malfunction and in part even in nerve cell death.
A decisive step has been accomplished also on the path towards healing injuries to the brain: At the Helmholtz Zentrum München, the teams around Prof. Dr Magdalena Götz and Prof. Dr Benedikt Berninger (now University of Mainz) have been able to transform glial cells from human brains into neurons.
By using two regulatory proteins, the researchers have for the first time created functioning neurons directly, without the hitherto necessary detour involving stem cells. "We will search for active agents that will allow for the activation of glial cells in trauma patients in order to thereby activate self-healing in the injured brain", says Götz. Incidentally, this year's Nobel Prize in medicine went to Prof. Shinya Yamanaka, University of Kyoto, for the development of said "detour", the transformation of differentiated cells into stem cells.