New Clues To ALS And Alzheimer’s Disease From Physics

The same process that causes dew drops to form on a blade of grass appears to play an important role in Alzheimer’s disease and other brain diseases. The process, known as phase transition, is what allows water vapor to condense into liquid water, or even freeze into solid ice. That same sort of process allows brain cells to constantly reorganize their inner machinery. But in degenerative diseases that include amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, frontotemporal dementia and Alzheimer’s, the phase transitions inside neurons seem to go awry, says Dr. J. Paul Taylor, a neurogeneticist at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, and an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

In this sticky environment, structures that previously could nimbly disassemble and move around become “irreversibly glommed together,” says Clifford Brangwynne, a professor of chemical and biological engineering at Princeton University and an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. “And when they’re irreversibly stuck like that, they can no longer leave to perform functions elsewhere in the cell.”

National Public Radio (NPR)