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Brain's 'garbage disposal units' could impact on progression of Alzheimer's disease


New research looking at whether the brain’s “garbage disposal units” - microglia - play an active role in the progression of Alzheimer’s disease has received a funding boost.

Research into Alzheimer’s disease has focused on amyloid beta plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. These “hallmarks” of the disease are known to disrupt brain function and are associated with symptom onset.

To date, most drug targets for Alzheimer’s disease have focussed on reducing plaque load with limited success.

Dr Jenna Ziebell from the University of Tasmania’s Wicking Dementia Research and Education Centre will investigate whether microglia impact on plaque formation.

“Microglia are the garbage disposal units of the central nervous system,” Dr Ziebell said, who received $265,000 from the National Foundation for Medical Research and Innovation, to conduct the study.

“Their role is to remove debris and protect the brain. What we want to know is, during the process of removing debris, does that impact on plaque formation in the brain?”

“This hasn’t been looked at before and there’s growing evidence that suggests plaque pathology, when the disease starts to form, might just be an innocent by-product and that microglia play a major role in the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.”

Dr Ziebell will lead a team using already established innovative techniques to isolate microglial, developed by Dr Ziebell, to shed new light on the role of microglia in disease onset and progression.

Dr Ziebell said evidence also shows microglia have innate differences dependent on biological sex.

“This research project will also allow us to investigate how innate differences in microglia could partially explain why females are twice as likely than males to develop Alzheimer’s disease,” she said.

“A greater understanding of the role of microglia in the development and progression of Alzheimer's disease also opens up new avenues for therapies to combat the disease.”

Professor James Vickers, Director of the Wicking Dementia Research and Education Centre, said dementia is estimated to cost the Australian economy over $15 billion per year, doubling to over $36 billion by 2056.

“This new research represents a potentially exciting novel perspective on the cause of brain degeneration in Alzheimer’s disease,” he said.

“The results of this research may suggest potential new pathways for the development of therapeutic interventions.”

Image: Dr Jenna Ziebell (left) is joined by fellow Wicking Dementia Research and Education Centre researcher Dr Yasmine Doust.