Mexican 'brain bank' furthers Alzheimer's research

MEXICO CITY -- Scientists researching Alzheimer's disease have helped change the culture of organ donation in Mexico with a "brain bank."

MEXICO CITY – Mexican scientists are making inroads in Alzheimer's research thanks to the creation of one of the primary "brain banks" in Latin America.

The brain bank, housed in a laboratory of the National Polytechnic Institute's Center for Investigation and Advanced Studies (CINVESTAV), has given scientists here an opportunity contribute more fully to international research into Alzheimer’s and dementia.

A CINVESTAV team led by Dr. Raul Mena y Dr. José Luna-Muñoz has been studying the early stages of certain protein changes in neurons – with the goal of providing evidence of the changes, first, and, second, to eventually provide the basis for developing drugs that could stop insidious changes at the cellular level that lead to Alzheimer's.

Mexico's brain bank supplies the physical matter for research that is otherwise largely unavailable in Latin America. To study the inner working of brain cells, scientists need to study a brain that has been retrieved between two and six hours postmortem, otherwise proteins begin to break down and the research does not retain the same integrity, according to Dr. José Luna-Muñoz, CINVESTAV professor and researcher.

The concept of a brain bank in Mexico – or Latin America for that matter – was taboo until recently. The cultural belief that a body should be buried in tact prevented many families from considering donating the brain.

"That ideology has been changing," said Luna-Muñoz. "People want to prove and know why their family members have died, whether it was Alzheimer’s or dementia. It’s been a cultural shift."

Eighteen brains have been donated since a scientist named Dr. Raul Mena founded the bank in 1992. Previously, Mexican scientists had to request brain fragments from France, England, Canada or the United States in order to perform research. Now Mexico sends fragments abroad to labs in need, including recently to Chile.

The brain bank is also furthering research into the factors that may be environmental or specific to Mexicans. Right now the scientists are looking at the early stages of "tau" protein processing in Alzheimer's disease. Among their contributions, the scientists have determined a morphological model and the underlying molecular mechanism involved in early stages of the abnormal processing of the tau protein. They have also suggested that the "neurofibrillary tangle formation," as that abnormal processing of the tau protein is known, may be a protective mechanism of the neuron to prolong cell life.

"Between 5 percent and 10 percent (of Alzheimer's cases) are associated with a genetic factor," said Luna-Muñoz. "The rest are know as sporadic Alzheimer's and the cause is unknown. Is there some environment that could be favoring the expression of this disease?"

That's what the CINVESTAV researchers (and their counterparts around the world) are working to find out.

The image, taken from an Alzheimer's affected brain, characterizes the initial stage of degeneration in the neuron known as the "pre-tangle" stage. Photo taken with a confocal microscope by Dr. José Luna-Muñoz.

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