Research Provides New Hope for the Treatment of Patients with Neuropsychiatric Diseases
April 20, 2018
Neuropsychiatric conditions like Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s and Parkinson's diseases cause a progressive loss of brain function that ultimately leads to significant disability, loss of independence, decreased quality of life, and ultimately death.
Although there are medications and supportive treatments that alleviate symptoms, the course of some neurodegenerative conditions disease cannot be altered, stopped or reversed.
The Life and Death of Neurons
Neurons, the cellular building blocks of the brain and spinal cord, are the body’s information messengers. The average adult brain is comprised of 100 billion neurons that communicate with each other by sending chemicals, called neurotransmitters, across a tiny space, called a synapse, to other nearby neurons. This microscopic superhighway is responsible for everything we think, feel and do.
Some of the neurons with which we are born die a natural and necessary death during the early development of the nervous system. However, when neuron cell death occurs later in life due to genetic mutations, chemical imbalances or traumatic brain injury, it can lead to neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s and Parkinson’s diseases, as well other forms of dementia associated with aging. The type and degree of disability depends on the area within the brain where neuron death has occurred, and almost always severely alters the course and quality of a person’s life. Neuron cell death is irreversible – when a neuron dies, it is lost forever.
Hope Through Research
“We need to find a way to slow or even stop death of nerve cells in neurodegenerative conditions,” says physician/researcher Andrew A. Pieper, MD, PhD. Designing therapies to prevent or limit inappropriate cell death in the nervous system is a key goal for Dr. Pieper and his research team at University Hospitals.
One of the challenges is that neurons cannot repair or replace themselves after damage or death. Current research is focused on the ability of neural stem cells to develop into the different types of neurons found in the brain. If these stem cells could be manipulated in the laboratory to “grow” into the specialized type of neurons lost due to disease or injury, the new cells could replace those that have died or been damaged. Research is also being done around therapies that would take advantage of other signaling mechanisms in the brain that could foster the creation and survival of new neurons and essentially repair and renew the brain from within.
Dr. Pieper plans to continue to focus on the development of novel treatments for patients suffering from neurodegenerative and neuropsychiatric conditions.
Research to understand and treat brain disease is painstaking, complicated and highly specialized work. But with the dedication and expertise of physician scientists like Dr. Pieper, there is hope. New treatments and possibly even cures for the brain diseases that affect the lives of millions of Americans aren’t just a dream any more – they could be a reality sooner than we ever thought possible.