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Early detection of brain degeneration on the horizon with innovative sensor

December 16, 2019 - by Natalie Rogers

Neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s can be devastating to patients and their families. These diseases are difficult to diagnose before symptoms show, meaning it’s often already too late to reverse the damage to the central nervous system.

Dr. Eva Chi

Early detection is key for management of symptoms and attempts to stall progression of the disease, but current knowledge is limited when it comes to tools that aid in early detection. That knowledge gap is being addressed through cutting-edge research by a team at The University of New Mexico led by Professor Eva Chi of the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering.

In order to understand complex diseases of the brain, one has to understand the complexity of human biology and the brain itself. Of particular importance is proteins—molecular structures inside a cell that can number into the tens-of-thousands—and their ability to dictate how cells function. Proteins start off with the same basic building blocks, called amino acids. The amino acids organize into a chain, and the unique function of the protein depends on how the amino acids are ordered in the chain. Once the amino acid ordering is complete, the protein chains fold themselves in various ways in order to bind to other molecules to perform certain tasks.

All proteins are made of the same building blocks; the folding of the protein into distinct shapes dictates its unique purpose inside the body. For example, digestive enzyme proteins break down our food into nutrients, and transport proteins such as hemoglobin carry substances throughout our body. Of particular interest to those who study brain degeneration are tau proteins inside neurons (brain cells) that help with cellular and nerve communication in the brain.

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