Alzheimer’s memory loss reversed in mice and fruit flies
Parallel studies have found that blocking the activation of a receptor on the surface of neurons can reverse the memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s disease. A range of anti-cancer therapies already exist that could be adapted to be the next generation of drugs to combat the devastating disease.
Alzheimer’s disease is defined by the build-up of amyloid plaques – clumps of protein in neurons in the brain. Through a process that is not clearly understood, these plaques cause neuron death and memory loss.
Experiments using fruit flies genetically engineered to express the human amyloid protein (and suffer memory loss) showed that over-activation of the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) increased memory loss, suggesting its involvement. EGFR also has a role in the uncontrolled rapid growth of tumours. This led the researcher to try a range of anti-cancer drugs that block the receptor. Memory loss tests on the flies showed significant improvements after treatment with some anti-cancer drugs. Subsequent experiments showed the treatments had the same effect in mice.
Further evidence of the role of EGFR in memory loss came from another study by a different team of scientists. They were testing thousands of new molecules in the genetically engineered fruit flies in the hope of finding one that would reduce memory loss. The candidates that they found to be effective targeted EGFR, just like the anti-cancer drugs. These results were also confirmed in mice.
In both studies the use of fruit flies allowed the scientists to identify the receptor responsible for memory loss. They were then able to test their findings in mice – a more complex animal, with greater similarity to humans.
This is the first time EGFR has been shown to be involved in memory loss for Alzheimer’s and the target of treatments that can improve memory. Based on these findings, scientists can now investigate whether the anti-cancer drugs could be used to treat people with Alzheimer’s.