Neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer disease, Parkinson disease, and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), affect an increasing proportion of our population as the median age increases. There are no cures for any of these disorders. One reason for the absence of cures has been the absence of good models to understand how neurodegeneration happens.
Genetic studies have identified many of the genes involved in neurodegeneration. To understand how these mutations lead to motor neuron degeneration in ALS, we have creased embryonic stem cells (ESCs) that contain the human ALS-associated mutations. We have also created mice that express these human ALS-associated mutations. We are studying motor neurons derived from the ESCs and the mutant mice to understand how motor neurons die in ALS. We are defining the proteins and RNAs that interact with normal and disease-associated proteins, and following the mutant neurons over time to examine how they die. Currently, we are testing the hypothesis that disease mutations alter the gene product’s normal interactions, leading to a tonic increase in cell death rate. After several decades of life, the loss of neurons surpasses compensatory mechanisms, leading to the emergence of symptoms.