Every person carries around a 3-pound universe filled with billions of cells that communicate and orchestrate everything we do — from thinking to moving to sensing.
It makes sense that such a busy planet of activity can get stressed or damaged as we age.
For some, this can potentially lead to neurodegenerative diseases of the brain, such as Alzheimer’s, a type of dementia that slowly destroys memory skills, thinking skills and, eventually, the ability to carry out daily activities.
In 2018, Nevada saw 874 people die from Alzheimer’s disease, making it the sixth-leading cause of death in the state, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. All told, that year the total number of Nevadans aged 65 and older with Alzheimer’s was 45,000, a number projected to jump to 64,000 by 2025.
Yet, despite decades of neuroscience research, scientists don’t yet fully understand what causes neurodegenerative diseases of the brain — like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s — and how to treat them.
One researcher at the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine, with the help of a federal grant, is on a mission to help change that.
Dr. Robert Renden, assistant professor in the department of physiology and cell biology at UNR Med and the UNR Neuroscience Institute, this summer was awarded a five-year, $1.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).
Specifically, Renden will explore how brain cells maintain the energy needed to communicate at contact sites — synapses — which play a critical role in a variety of cognitive processes, learning and memory. Moreover, synapses play a crucial role in many brain diseases and disorders.
“This project answers the NSF mission of really understanding the most basic biology of how synapses function,” Renden said in a video interview with Peak NV. “And also provide a component to help educate the next generation of researchers, which is part of the NSF mission. This will help UNR Med by providing research opportunities for med school students, physician assistants, postdocs … that’s the immediate payoff.
“The longer-term payoff will be having the basic knowledge of how these synapses function. And then that will inform us what could probably be going wrong when we have disease states.”
To that end, Renden said that his study aims to advance new approaches in the study of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and dementia, among others. These neurodegenerative diseases, he said, result from a loss of energy production, homeostasis and reduced mitochondria function.
“That delivery of energy and utilization of energy is fundamentally and acutely important,” Renden said. “One of the goals of this research is to try to tie that together at a really fundamental level. And so the hope is that we can make really basic observations about how energy is utilized, generated and distributed at synapses.”
Renden is collaborating with Dr. Ruben Dagda, associate professor in pharmacology at UNR Med, who is looking at brain disease models. Dagda said Alzheimer’s research is lagging behind “severely” in Nevada due to a lack of state funding, making Renden’s research grant all the more important.
“Our hope is that whatever we publish, our observations can lead us to a better understanding of Alzheimer's,” Dagda told Peak NV. “It’s very important because in Nevada, 15% of its population is over 65. And by 2025, it’s going to be over 20%.”
And people over 65 have a two-fold increase — or 200% — for developing Alzheimer’s, according to Dagda. In addition, they have an 80% increase in developing Parkinson’s, he added.
“Why?” Dagda continued. “We don’t really know … but the destruction and energy production and the utilization of energy and the brain makes the neurons very sensitive to dying. We know in those two diseases, there's an increase in stress and inflammation in the brain.”
With that in mind, Renden said if research can lead to identifying the potential for these neurodegenerative problems early — before clinical symptoms surface — they could then be treated early with self-care, proper nutrition and exercise.
After all, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s symptoms do now show up until significant damage in the brain has already been done, according to Renden.
“You don't see Parkinson's disease motor symptoms until something like 80% of your dopaminergic neurons are dead,” he explained. “And for Alzheimer's disease, you've got to see profound structural loss — literally chunks of the brain dying off — before you see the clinical manifestation.”
Simply put, Renden and Dagda are using techniques to identify changes in synaptic function or cellular function far in advance of cellular death.
“In the (petri) dish, we can see the cells as they're starting to get stressed or just starting to get damaged,” Renden said. “And then the idea is that at that point you'd want to go in and do some of these really early, noninvasive nutritional-type interventions, which have been shown to be really effective.”
Go to unr.edu/neuroscience to learn more about the Institute for Neuroscience at the University of Nevada, Reno.