Two new brain studies hit science labs at UTSC

Medical researchers at the University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC) have been working around the clock to get brains ticking. Two new studies hit the science labs early last week.

Prof. Kagan Kerman and chemistry student Anthony Veloso applied a new approach to examine amyloid plaque formation in Alzheimer’s disease. In the second study, which was published in the journal Neuron, UTSC chemistry professor Xiao-an Zhang, examines how zinc governs the formation of memories in the brain.

With UTSC scientists working around the clock, the question remains: is a cure for Alzheimer’s within reach?

Not quite, but the search continues.

A new supplement in the current issue of the journal Analyst shows Kerman and Veloso’s approach to a laser technique that allows a detailed view of the early minutes of amyloid aggregate formation in Alzheimer’s.

“A laser focuses into a very thin beam and is aimed at solutions that contain amyloid-beta particles within the brain,” Veloso explained.

Kerman explained that the amyloid plaque are protein deposits that “form around the brain and interfere with its function,” a process known to play a huge role in Alzheimer’s disease.

They’ve also found the major component of protein deposits are in fact amyloid-beta: amino acids that link together to form harmful plaques in Alzheimer’s patients but are otherwise harmless to normal individuals.

The news release on eurekaalert.org that reports their implication on the new drug discovery clearly shows an imaging system would help understand, diagnose and treat the disease.

“The technique will help examine the early phase of plaque formation, explore how the aggregates are formed, and eventually discover its role in Alzheimer’s disease,” Kerman said.

He and Veloso are also looking to use the technique as a novel strategy to test therapeutic compounds that could completely halt the formation of plaques.

Today, half a million Canadians suffer through Alzheimer’s disease and approximately one in 11 of them are under the age of 65.

For 2011 alone, it has been estimated that 103,000 Canadians have developed Alzheimer’s. If you do the math, it is equivalent to one person every five minutes being affected.

If no changes are to be found, the number of people living with Alzheimer’s is expected to double, reaching approximately 1.1 million Canadians within the next 25 years.

UTSC chemistry instructor Prof. Zhang’s study gives insight into a 50-year-old mystery of the brain. In a published report on eurekaalert.org, he said that zinc is important for learning and memory.

For over 50 years, researchers have been trying to pinpoint the role of zinc ever since scientists found high concentrations of the chemical in synaptic vesicles, but it was hard for them to determine the function of zinc.

“Zinc has been found to play a critical role in regulating how neurons communicate with one another in the brain, and could affect how memories form and how we learn,” he said.

According to webmd.com, reports suggest that having too little zinc is a problem for those affected by Alzheimer’s and other say too much zinc is at fault.

On average, two-to-three grams of zinc exists in the entire human body.

According to J. Constantinidis’ article Treatment of Alzheimer’s disease by Zinc Compounds in the Drug Development Research book, Alzheimer’s disease may respond to zinc supplementation.

In a small study, the article said that elderly patients with Alzheimer’s were given 27 milligrams of zinc daily and found their memory, understanding, communication and social contact improved.

Zhang and his team of researchers at MIT and Duke University have studied neurons in the brain region called the hippocampus, which is linked with learning and memory formation.

“We found that removing zinc interfered with a process called long-term poteneiation, which strengthens the connection between two neurons that are important for our memory and for our learning,” he said.

As the body of research into Alzheimer’s grows, it will continue to produce a variety of treatment options.

Within their own research, Kerman, Veloso and Zhang are currently working on developing new contrast agents that could be used in medical imaging.

“As a chemist, I’m proud that I can make a contribution to neuroscience,” Zhang said.