Scientists Develop New Technique To Revolutionize Alzheimer’s Research

A cure for Alzheimer’s is every scientist’s dream. Now, researchers at the University of California at Irvine Institute for Memory Impairments and Neurological Disorders (UCI MIND) have developed a groundbreaking method to study individual cells and understand gene changes in Alzheimer’s disease. The new technique, known as the “meta-cell,” overcomes the limitations of studying single cells and has the potential to revolutionize disease research.

The new approach could open new avenues for understanding and treating neurological disorders. In particular, researchers are looking at immune cells called microglia that are implicated in Alzheimer’s disease. Typically, studying cells’ genetic activity, known as transcriptomics, relies on analyzing many cells together. This makes it difficult to pinpoint subtle differences among individual cells that relate to disease.

The UC Irvine team overcame this hurdle using a computational technique named hdWGCNA. It allows them to group together cells with similar genetic profiles into “meta-cells,” gaining key insights into individual cell behavior while avoiding technical limitations. Imagine creating a super-cell representing single cells. This gives scientists the resolution to identify new subtypes of cells and study how their genes drive health or disease.

Study authors first applied hdWGCNA to study microglia cells in brain tissue samples from Alzheimer’s patients compared to healthy controls. Previous research suggests certain microglia genes increase Alzheimer’s risk, but their specific roles remained unclear.
By distinguishing subtypes of microglia cells based on genetic signatures, the team uncovered activation of these genes causes inflammatory responses implicated in Alzheimer’s plaque formation and progression. This expands scientific understanding of factors underlying the disease.

“If we know that a gene process is degrading cells, we can potentially intervene,” said lead author Vivek Swarup, UCI assistant professor of neurobiology and behavior, in a university release. “We can devise therapeutics and target hundreds of genes to stop disease from developing.”

Beyond neuroscience applications, the researchers emphasize hdWGCNA’s versatility for studying any human disease in diverse organs and tissues, from cancer to diabetes. By revealing detailed properties of disease-associated cells, this meta-cell approach paves the way for breakthrough therapies.

The study is published in the journal Cell Press.

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