Validation of connexins and pannexins as a target for Alzheimer’s disease

Dr. Christian Naus is one of five BC researchers leading teams supported through the British Columbia Alzheimer’s Research Award. Established in 2013 by the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research (MSFHR), Genome British Columbia (Genome BC), The Pacific Alzheimer Research Foundation (PARF) and Brain Canada, the goal of the $7.5 million fund is to discover the causes of and seek innovative treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.

Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is the most common form of dementia, accounting for almost two thirds of total cases. There are currently no successful treatments, making the discovery of effective therapeutic interventions critical.

The brain contains billions of neurons (nerve cells), and substantially more non-neuronal cells called glia. Astrocytes, the most abundant type of glial cells, closely interact with neurons to control the transmission of electrical impulses within the brain. The major disease hallmark of AD is cognitive decline linked to neuronal wasting, impairment and finally, death.

Dr. Christian Naus, a professor in the Department of Cellular and Physiological Sciences at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and Canada Research Chair in Gap Junctions and Neurological Disease, studies the molecular and cellular mechanisms by which astrocytes lose their ability to support neurons that are vulnerable to destruction in Alzheimer’s disease, with the aim to identify new drugs to aid in treatment.

Naus’ team examines a unique set of cellular channels in astrocytes and neurons formed by special proteins, called connexins and pannexins. These channels help control the environment in which the cells of the brain must function by allowing a variety of small molecules to pass freely from one cell to another, and allowing them to coordinate cellular responses to various signals. However, when these channels stop working properly, they can become damaging to the environment thus compromising the normal functions of neurons. Naus’ research explores the role of these channels in neurons and astrocytes in order to identify how to manipulate these channels to provide protection for neurons in cases of disease, such as AD.

The outcome of these studies will contribute to the potential identification and development of new drugs that will not only target neurons, but also enhance the ability of astrocytes to protect neurons that are vulnerable to cell death in AD.