A new understanding of what happens on the cellular level during the development of neurodegenerative diseases – such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and Huntington’s diseases – offers promise toward possible new strategies for combating such diseases, according Hebrew University researchers. Neurodegenerative conditions result from an impairment of motor function or cognitive function or both. The impairment results from degeneration in the particular area of the brain responsible for those functions.

Although these diseases have been functionally linked to toxic protein deposits, there is much that is unknown about the mechanism through which aggregation causes toxicity and death at the cellular level. Inclusion bodies – structures comprised of pathogenic protein aggregates – have long been seen as a hallmark of disease, but the relationship between inclusions and disease has remained somewhat mysterious.

In a study published in PNAS (Proceedings of the [US] National Academy of Sciences), the Jerusalem researchers – working in the lab of Dr. Daniel Kaganovich in the cell and developmental biology department – present evidence suggesting that these inclusion bodies, which have traditionally been thought to accompany disease onset, actually have a cellbiological function that is not necessarily related to the disease conditions.

Further, the researchers suggest that some of those inclusion bodies are not only not toxic, but actually are part of a natural protective process. The researchers have identified two inclusion bodies, which they call JUNQ and IPOD.

Aggregation in the JUNQ can lead to toxicity, whereas aggregation in the IPOD is protective.

These findings, say the HU researchers, point to a new potential strategy for designing therapeutics for neurodegenerative disease. Instead of preventing proteins from aggregating, which can be very difficult, it may be possible to enhance the cellular ability to actively enclose harmful aggregates within protective inclusions, thereby neutralizing the toxic proteins that bring on further neurodegenerative damage and even death.

TEDDY BEARS IN HOSPITAL

During Hanukka, Bar-Ilan University’s School of Medicine in the Galilee opened a “teddy bear hospital” designed to reduce anxiety about health care among young children. Some 150 preschoolers living in Safed, accompanied by their teddy bears and dolls, parents and older siblings, took part in the educational event, whose goal was to reduce stress related to medical care in general and hospitals in particular.

A virtual hospital with a variety of stations – including an emergency room, a reception area, operating rooms and an x-ray unit – created the atmosphere of a real-life medical facility within the School of Medicine complex. Through simulation, the teddy bears and dolls received the appropriate “treatment” according to the health problem defined by the children in their “admission forms.” Medical students acted as doctors – explaining procedures to the children, helping them care for the “patients” and answering their questions.

At the makeshift pharmacy, the children received “medicine” (sweet, tasty and healthy candy) and other surprises. Medical clowns entertained the children and helped reduce anxiety. Children’s songs served as background music and colorful lighting added to the happy atmosphere.

The teddy bear hospital, initiated by medical students with the cooperation of the medical school’s administration, demonstrated the new faculty’s commitment to strengthening the northern region of Israel through community involvement.

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