AANS Neurosurgeon | Volume 26, Number 2, 2017

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Researchers Identify Link Between Birth Defect and Neurodegenerative Diseases

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Scientists also identify medicine that could treat these diseases

A new study has found a link between neurological birth defects in infants commonly found in pregnant women with diabetes and several neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases. This is the first time this link has been identified; it may indicate a new way to understand, and perhaps treat, both neural tube defects and these neurodegenerative diseases. “These results were really surprising,” said the study’s lead author, Zhiyong Zhao, PhD, a researcher at the University of Maryland School of Medicine (UM SOM). “The association suggests that these disparate diseases may have more in common than we previously realized.” The researchers on the article also include UM SOM Dean E. Albert Reece. Neural tube defects occur when misfolded proteins accumulate in the cells of the developing nervous system. The misfolded proteins form insoluble clumps and cause widespread cell death, eventually leading to birth defects. Protein clumps also play a major role in Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease. In Alzheimer’s, for instance, this leads to the accumulation of plaques in the brain, reducing the ability of that organ to function.

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