If the brain damage seen in Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s stems from over-pruning that might begin early in life, why don’t symptoms of those diseases show up until later? Barres thinks he knows. He notes that the brain can normally compensate for injury by rewiring itself and generating new synapses. It also contains a lot of redundancy. That would explain why patients with Parkinson’s disease don’t show discernible symptoms until they have lost 90 percent of the neurons that produce dopamine.
It also might mean that subtle symptoms could in fact be detected much earlier. Barres points to a study of nuns published in 2000. When researchers analyzed essays the nuns had written upon entering their convents decades before, they found that women who went on to develop Alzheimer’s had shown less “idea density” even in their 20s. “I think the implication of that is they could be lifelong diseases,” Barres says. “The disease process could be going on for decades and the brain is just compensating, rewiring, making new synapses.” At some point, the microglia are triggered to remove too many cells, Barres argues, and the symptoms of the disease begin to manifest fully.
Turning this insight into a treatment is far from straightforward, because much remains unclear. Perhaps an overly aggressive response from microglia is determined by some combination of genetic variants not shared by everyone. Stevens also notes that diseases like schizophrenia are not caused by one mutation; rather, a wide array of mutations with small effects cause problems when they act in concert. The genes that control the production of C4 and other immune-system proteins may be only part of the story. That may explain why not everyone who has a C4 mutation will go on to develop schizophrenia.
Nonetheless, if Barres and Stevens are right that the immune system is a common mechanism behind devastating brain disorders, that in itself is a fundamental breakthrough. Because we have not known the mechanisms that trigger such diseases, medical researchers have been able only to alleviate the symptoms rather than attack the causes. There are no drugs available to halt or even slow neurodegeneration in diseases like Alzheimer’s. Some drugs elevate neurotransmitters in ways that briefly make it easier for individuals with dementia to form new synaptic connections, but they don’t reduce the rate at which existing synapses are destroyed. Similarly, there are no treatments that tackle the causes of autism or schizophrenia. Even slowing the progress of these disorders would be a major advance. We might finally go after diseases that have run unchecked for generations.
“We’re a ways away from a cure,” Stevens says. “But we definitely have a path forward.”