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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

New Insight Into the Cause of Common Dementia

If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?
-Albert Einstein

In a prime-time address, President Bush said he backed limited federal funding for stem cell research. That's right, the President said, this is a quote, "the research could help cure brain diseases like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and whatever it is I have."
-Conan O'Brien

The following is a relatively recent research study which has not been widely reported - at least I have not seen it anywhere. I accidentally stumbled across it when researching something for a future post on the chemical pathways of tauopathies.. Unfortunately for those afflicted with Frontotemporal Dementia, or Frontotemporal Lobar Degeneration as it is referred to in the research, this study just serves to point out how little is known. The upside of this research is that it offers a promising chemical pathway to replace the unsuccessful, and all but abandoned, attempts to ameliorate the accumulation of protein bodies. The downside is that it points out how far in the future any application for treatments may be. But, Hey! There is hope for what tomorrow may bring.

Oh! ...and another thing - about the title they used to publish this under - there is nothing in any way "common" about bvFTD! I'm just sayin'!

New Insight Into the Cause of Common Dementia, ScienceDaily (Nov. 26, 2010)

Researchers at the Mayo Clinic campus in Florida have found a clue as to how some people develop a form of dementia that affects the brain areas associated with personality, behavior, and language.

In the Nov. 17 online issue of the American Journal of Human Genetics, the scientists write that they discovered a link between two proteins -- progranulin and sortilin -- they say might open new avenues for the treatment of frontotemporal lobar degeneration (FTLD), which occurs in the frontal lobe and temporal lobe of the brain. This form of dementia, which is currently untreatable, generally occurs in younger people, compared to other common neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's disease.

"We now can look for a direct link between these two proteins and the development of FTLD," says the study's lead author, neuroscientist Rosa Rademakers, Ph.D. "The hope is that if we do find a strong association, it might be possible to manipulate levels of one or both of these proteins therapeutically."

Coincidentally, a research group from Yale University led by Stephen Strittmatter, M.D., Ph.D., has also pinpointed sortilin's association with progranulin -- thus confirming Mayo's results. Their study is being published in Neuron, also on Nov. 17.

FTLD is a family of brain diseases that are believed to share some common molecular features. One is the presence of mutations in the gene that produces tau protein in neurons. The other is mutations in the progranulin gene that Mayo Clinic researchers and their colleagues discovered in 2006. They found that 5 to 10 percent of patients with FTLD have a mutation in this gene, and that these mutations lead to a substantial loss of normal progranulin protein production, and development of FTLD.

The protein made by the progranulin gene is found throughout the body, and performs different functions according to the type of tissue (organ) it is located in. But in the brain, it is believed to support neurons and keep them healthy.

Still, researchers do not really know how normal progranulin protein functions in the brain -- what other proteins it interacts with -- and so in this study they sought to uncover clues about progranulin biology by conducting a genome-wide association study (GWAS).

Based on their previous findings that a simple blood test is able to measure progranulin levels in plasma and could be used to identify patients with progranulin mutations, they tested blood from 518 healthy individuals in a GWAS to look for genetic variants that could explain some of the normal variability of progranulin levels in plasma. They found very strong association with two genetic variants in the same region of chromosome 1 and confirmed this finding in a second group of 495 healthy individuals.

By reviewing the scientific literature, they further ascertained that the same genetic variant found to be associated with plasma progranulin levels also affects the levels of the protein sortilin. Like progranulin, sortilin is found throughout the body and is involved in different tasks. In the brain, it is known to be important for survival of brain neurons.

"So, using a genetic approach, we identified a previously unknown connection between sortilin and progranulin," Dr. Rademakers says.

The researchers then studied the two proteins in cell culture and showed that the amount of sortilin in cells determines how much progranulin is taken inside or remains outside of a cell. "Our study shows that changes in the levels of sortilin result in different levels of progranulin available to cells. Given that we found FTLD patients often have less progranulin than they should, we believe that if you can manipulate levels of progranulin and/or sortilin in the brain, you might have a way to treat this disorder," says Dr. Rademakers. (If he is on the right track, this is a huge breakthrough. If not, like all the rest of the research so far, it is just another blind alley.)

"Our study and the study led by the Yale researchers describe completely independent and unbiased screens which both identified this protein sortilin as being important in the regulation of progranulin," Dr. Rademakers says. "This obviously opens new avenues for treatment for patients with progranulin mutations and perhaps dementia patients in general."

Researchers from the National Institutes of Health, University College London, the University of British Columbia, and Mayo Clinic in Minnesota also participated in this study.

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Consortium for Frontotemporal Dementia Research.

Comments are welcome.


  1. I would like to thank you for your blog. After years of being ill with "probable MS" and then just "early dementia".. -- I am 44 it is now believed I have FTLD. It makes sense after reading the symptoms. While I hope for a different diagnosis, it is nice to see that someone else out there has gone thru the same thing and IS thriving.

    Take care--

  2. Thanks for the comment, LBJ.
    (BTW-great initials!)

    Many people who write to me have horror stories about mis-diagnosis. It frequently takes years before FTLD is suspected. We do what we can, while we can.

    Some days are better than others.