Neurodegenerative diseases

Neuro-degenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington disease and the Amiotrofic lateral sclerosis (SLA), are  characterised by the slow and progressive loss of one or more  functions of the nervous system. These are forms debilitating, until now treated with poor results through the administration of purely symptomatic drugs.

The number of people suffering from neurodegeneration is dramatically high. Alzheimer disease affects about 600,000 persons only in Italy (and over 5 million in the world) and this number is expected, in the absence of effective treatments, to drastically increase because of the raising of the average age therefore of the increasing the share of the population at risk.

Parkinson´s patients exceeds in Italy the 250,000 unit and, as happens for Alzheimer’s, over 65 years of age the incidence increases notably.

The social impact is devastating: diseases such as Alzheimer’s are progressive, have an average life of 10 years, during which autonomy of the patient decreases requesting commitment and increasing costs by the family. These sicks are not, in fact, almost never hospitalized and more than 75% of the treatments and the care is provided by families, who live the daily drama of an healthy emergency still unresolved.

In a scenario of lack of viable therapeutic solutions the key for the improvement of the epidemiology is the basic research to understand the causes and mechanisms at the base of neurological and neurodegenerative diseases, only possible way to get to clinical and diagnostic benefits.

The onset of neuro-degenerative diseases is to identify, at ´molecular signature´ of the “sick” nervous cells.

The deficit in the memory and the gradual impairment of brain functions, typical of Alzheimer´s disease, are due to particular degeneration of a population of neurons, called cholinergic because they issue acetylcholine and through this neurotransmitter communicate with other neurons and oversee complex functions as the memory and reasoning. From the neuropathological point of view, the brains of Alzheimer patients are characterized by plaques formed by a storage of beta-amyloid protein and by the production of undergrowth (heaps tangles of Tau protein).

Therefore, the triad formed by the destruction of the cholinergic neurons, the storage of beta-amyloid and the undergrowth represent the real alterations which characterize the disease.

In this context, the group of EBRI and CNR researchers, inspiring by the basic research and giving continuity to the discovery of Prof. Rita Levi Montalcini, focused its activitiy on the study of the function of growth factor of nerve cells, NGF to prevent and treat the degeneration of cholinergic cells (Programme NGF). A large number of preclinical and clinical studies are the basis of a potential therapeutic approach for Alzheimer disease, based on the administration of NGF, around which the researchers in EBRI are working.

Using a combination of different techniques that include cellular and molecular biology, electrophysiology, genomics and proteomics, other groups of researchers in EBRI follow different lines of research which seek answers on the role of the neurons in circuits of the cerebral cortex and the molecular mechanisms governing learning and memory, vital issues to clarify the molecular defects responsible for human diseases of extreme social importance as the neurodegenerative disease.