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New Study from Pearce Lab Gives Insight into Spreading of Neurodegenerative Disease Pathology

Written by Nicole Carrera
Published on July 13, 2020

A new study from the lab of Maggie Panning Pearce, PhD, was recently published in the open-access journal eLife. The research, titled “Phagocytic glia are obligatory intermediates in transmission of mutant huntingtin aggregates across neuronal synapses”, was published in collaboration with Kirby Donnelly PhD'21 (Cell and Molecular Biology), Olivia DeLorenzo Neuro’20, Gabrielle Pisano C’20, Wint Thu BMS’20, and Pearce lab technician Aprem Zaya. 

The research group studies how protein pathology associated with neurodegenerative diseases spread from cell to cell through the brain, in this case, using brains of fruit flies to learn more about this process. In this study, the researchers were interested in how clumps of misfolded mutant huntingtin (mHtt) proteins, called mHtt aggregates, associated with Huntington’s Disease spread across synapses, or functional connections between neurons in the brain.

The group made the surprising discovery that non-neuronal cells called glia play an unexpected and critical role in the spreading of mHtt aggregates across synapses. Glial cells are responsible for removing toxic material, including protein aggregates, from the brain, but this study suggests that this beneficial process can lead to increased spread of disease. In fact, the researchers report that glia act as intermediates in transferring aggregates from presynaptic to postsynaptic neurons. These findings from the Pearce lab add significantly to a growing understanding of phagocytic glia as “double-edged players” in neurodegeneration.

The Pearce lab has also been researching similar pathways in Alzheimer's disease, made possible through a two-year grant from the National Institutes of Health.

The full eLife publication can be accessed here, and more about the Pearce Lab’s Alzheimer’s research can be found here.

Categories:  Misher College of Arts and SciencesPublicationCurrent Research ProjectFacultyBiologyNeuroscience