✍️ Author: Dr Eleni Christoforidou
🕒 Approximate reading time: 5 minutes
Proteins, often touted as the building blocks of life, need to fold into precise structures to function correctly. This intricate process of protein folding is much more than a simple origami at the molecular level. When things go awry, it can lead to devastating neurodegenerative diseases, with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Huntington’s being prime examples.
Every protein starts as a simple chain of amino acids. It's their unique sequence that dictates how they should fold into complex three-dimensional structures. This precise shape determines the protein's function – whether it be catalysing chemical reactions, forming structural components of cells, or playing roles in cell signalling.
Mistakes can sometimes occur during the folding process, leading to misfolded proteins. The reasons for such errors can be genetic mutations, environmental stressors, or even age-related cellular wear and tear. When misfolded, these proteins tend to aggregate, forming clumps or plaques in the brain.
Cells aren’t passive victims to these misfolded invaders. They've evolved sophisticated mechanisms to detect and degrade these faulty proteins. The ubiquitin-proteasome system and autophagy are cellular recycling systems that aim to rid the cell of these problematic proteins. However, in neurodegenerative conditions, these systems can be overwhelmed or dysfunctional, allowing aggregates to accumulate.
Understanding the dynamics of protein folding offers therapeutic potential. Strategies are being researched to:
Despite the significant advances in understanding protein misfolding in neurodegeneration, challenges remain. Individual variability in disease progression and response to therapies suggest other factors at play. However, the central role of protein folding cannot be understated, making it a promising area of research.
The intricate world of protein folding provides insights into the fundamental processes governing neuronal health and disease. As we continue to unravel its complexities, we edge closer to more effective treatments for devastating neurodegenerative diseases.