Unraveling the mysteries of the mitochondria in Huntington’s disease – and getting fast, clear, and useful results from research studies

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In the collaborative quest for Huntington’s disease treatments, deepening affected families’ understanding of the key scientific challenges is vital. It can demystify the process of research, inspire involvement in investigative studies and clinical trials, and ultimately bolster the chances of defeating this horrible malady.

Noting the global nature of HD research, last month I highlighted key work on the West Coast of the United States. Andrew F. Leuchter, M.D., and Michael Levine, Ph.D., plan to measure brain energy waves to decipher the signals emitting from HD-affected individuals. Their work could ultimately lead to new drugs (click here to read more).

On the East Coast, at the Magnetic Resonance Research Center (MRRC) of the Yale School of Medicine, Doug Rothman, Ph.D., and his collaborators will conduct two unique studies that seek to unravel long-standing mysteries about Huntington’s and the mitochondria, the complex powerhouses of most of our cells.

“All the brain cells depend on them very heavily,” Dr. Rothman said during an interview at the MRRC on April 12.

Mitochondria came onto the evolutionary path about a billion years ago, he noted. They use oxygen to burn fuels (such as glucose, or common sugar) to provide energy for brain cells. In focusing on the mitochondria, Dr. Rothman’s studies aim to shed light on the serious energy deficits caused in HD and to provide tools for improving clinical trials.

As the Huntington’s community ramps up to a growing number of those trials, the paramount work of these scientists can help insure clear and useful results.

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A mitochondrian (Wikipedia diagram by Mariana Ruiz Villarreal)

Novel and unique human studies

In people carrying the HD genetic abnormality, why do so many brain cells become damaged and eventually die, leading to HD symptoms? For decades, scientists researching this question mainly in animals and cell cultures have found much evidence implicating the mitochondria in the cells’ problems. However, they still don’t know exactly what the problem is.

Using the latest brain-scan technology, Dr. Rothman’s studies will involvehuman participants. They will focus on the mitochondria and the decline in cellular energy production, one of the main characteristics of HD.

“Anything that impairs the energy supply will severely impact brain function and will eventually impact cellular health,” Dr. Rothman said, adding that researchers suspect that mitochondrial dysfunction plays a part in many other neurological disorders.

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Source: At Risk for Huntington’s Disease

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