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Catarina AmorimRSS Feed of this column.

After many years as a scientist (immunology) at Oxford University I moved into scientific journalism and public understanding of science. I am still at Oxford Uni but now I write about any bio... Read More »

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Researchers have moved a step closer to find a treatment for the fatal neurodegenerative disorder Machado-Joseph disease (MJD) after a Portuguese team from the Centre for Neurosciences at the University of Coimbra was able to halt the brain degeneration in mice, by blocking a molecule called calpain. Calpain are known to cut ataxin-3 (the mutant protein behind MJD) into fragments, and the study proves that these fragments are crucial to trigger the neurodegeneration. 

Badly controlled diabetes are known to affect the brain, causing memory and learning problems and even increased incidence of dementia. How this occurs is not clear but a study in mice with type 2 diabetes has discovered how diabetes affects the hippocampus, causing memory loss, and also how caffeine can prevent this. 

Curiously, the neurodegeneration that Rodrigo Cunha,  from the Centre for Neuroscience and Cell Biology of the University of Coimbra in Portugal, sees as result of  diabetes is the same that occurs at the first stages of several neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, suggesting that caffeine (or drugs with similar mechanisms) could help them too.

Despite much research, the genetic causes why animals have such different longevities remain largely unknown, much because so many factors act on ageing that isolating the effect of a single gene is  almost  impossible.

But now, a study just published in the journal AGE might help to change that as researchers Pedro Magalhães and Yang Li from the Institute of Integrative Biology, at the UK University of Liverpool,  unveil a new method that has already help them to identify several  proteins involved in DNA-repair and in the recycling of abnormal molecules as being linked to longevity. 

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The most abundant and important molecules in all living organisms are proteins; after all they manage to participate in every single one of life’s essential reactions. So it is easy to see why scientists have been making such a fuss trying to learn how to synthesise them in laboratory as this would provide them with a tool of extraordinary potential. Unfortunately, this has not proved easy.

Researchers from the University of Minho in Portugal have discovered that rats exposed before birth to glucocorticoids (GC) not only show several brain abnormalities similar to those found in addicts, but become themselves susceptible to addiction (the glucorticoids, which are stress hormones, were used to mimic pre-natal stress).  But even more remarkable, Ana João Rodrigues, Nuno Sousa and colleagues were able to reverse all the abnormalities  (including the addictive behavior) by giving the animals dopamine (a neurotransmitter/ brain chemical).