Faulty energy production in brain cells leads to learning disabilities

Faulty energy production in brain cells leads to learning disabilities

Dysfunctional mitochondria in brain cells can result in learning disabilities, according to a new study in Molecular Cell.

The association between dysfunctional mitochondria and Parkinson's disease has been known, but this new study, led by neuroscientist Patrik Verstreken of VIB (Flanders Institute for Biotechnology) and KU Leuven, has revealed that it is also present in other disorders of the brain.

Patrik Verstreken (VIB / KU Leuven) said:

"This discovery shows that energy production in brain cells is the basis of various brain disorders. We hope that a better understanding of the mechanisms used by the cell to maintain optimum energy levels will lead in the long term to medical applications that prevent or cure these diseases."

Dysfunctional mitochondria is toxic

It is critical for a healthy brain to have well-functioning mitochondria - the organelles that produce energy in cells.

The energy necessary for communication between brain cells is provided by the mitochondria. This is important for transmitting stimuli and signals and thereby for optimal functioning of the body.

Prior studies have demonstrated that in many cases, Parkinson's disease and dysfunctional mitochondria are paired together.

Additionally, the cell does not efficiently dispose of dysfunctional mitochondria, therefore complicating the functioning of other healthy mitochondria and resulting in inadequate energy production in the cell.

"They can be compared to a faulty engine that emits toxic fumes," the researchers said.

Brain cells trigger the destruction of dysfunctional mitochondria

The mechanism by which brain cells trigger the destruction of dysfunctional mitochondria was analyzed by the Leuven-based VIB scientists Patrik Verstreken, Dominik Haddad, and Vanessa Morais.

Communication between brain cells becomes established again after the mechanism is triggered, the authors explained.

This mechanism is not only faulty in Parkinson's disease, but also in particular cases of intellectual disability, the researchers said, who were surprised by their finding.

This study demonstrates the broader significance of mitochondria for optimal functioning of our brains.

The authors hope that their finding will ultimately play a part in the prevention of different brain disorders.

Brain research is essential

In Europe, one in 3 people will suffer from a brain disorder at some point in their life. Everyone knows at least one person with a brain condition, whether it be dementia, schizophrenia, or an intellectual disability.

"Each of these diseases penetrates to a person's core," the experts said, and have a significant effect on the patient as well as his/her family.

Brain disorders come with an economic toll as well - about €800 billion is spent in Europe annually to cover patients' health needs.

Bart De Strooper (VIB/KU Leuven):

"The brain is decisive in shaping who we are, but from a scientific standpoint, it is uncharted territory. This research constitutes an important piece of the complex puzzle. Brain research is vital, especially because brain disorders weigh so heavily on patients, their families and society. I am delighted that May 2013 has been designated the European Month of the Brain."

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Section Issues On Medicine: Medical practice