Insights into neurodegeneration from electron microscopy studies

Biochem Soc Trans. 2021 Nov 23;BST20210719. doi: 10.1042/BST20210719. Online ahead of print.

Abstract

Neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease, pose an increasingly severe burden for individuals and society in an ageing population. The causes and mechanisms of the diseases are poorly understood and as yet there are no effective treatments. Some of the molecular complexes involved in degeneration have been identified and electron microscopy has provided an essential tool in the investigations. The focus of this review is to show how electron microscopy has contributed historically to the understanding of disease and to summarize the most striking current advances. It does not seek to cover in detail the recent technical developments in microscopy, involving better microscopes, better electron detectors and more powerful image processing techniques, which have made possible the new insights. In many instances pathological filament assemblies are associated with brain cells that die in the disease, causing the observed symptoms such as dementia or movement disorders. Using electron microscopy it is now possible to go beyond morphological descriptions to produce atomic structures of many of the filaments. This information may help to understand the seeding and assembly of the filaments, with the aim of finding small molecule inhibitors that could potentially provide a form of treatment for the diseases.

Keywords: alpha-synuclein; electron microcopy; neurodegeneration; tau protein.