A new study has found a link between neurological birth defects in infants commonly found in pregnant women with diabetes and several neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases.

The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Neural tube defects occur when misfolded proteins accumulate in the cells of the developing nervous system. The misfolded proteins form insoluble clumps and cause widespread cell death, eventually leading to birth defects. Protein clumps also play a major role in Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease. In Alzheimer’s, for instance, this leads to the accumulation of plaques in the brain, reducing the ability of that organ to function.

The researchers studied pregnant mice with diabetes, and found that their embryos contained clumps of at least three misfolded proteins that are also associated with the three neurodegenerative diseases: α-Synuclein, Parkin, and Huntingtin.

This latest research also underscores the links between diabetes and some neurodegenerative diseases. People with diabetes have a higher risk of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, and some research suggests that there are molecular links between Huntington’s and diabetes as well.

The scientists also examined whether it is possible to reduce levels of the misfolded proteins, and in so doing reduce neural tube defects. They gave diabetic pregnant animals sodium 4-phenylbutyrate (PBA), a compound that can reduce mistakes in molecular structure by aiding the molecules that ensure proper protein folding. In the animals that received PBA, there was significantly less protein misfolding, and fewer neural tube defects in the embryos. PBA has already been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for other uses, and if it proves safe and effective in humans for this purpose, it could potentially reach patients much more quickly than an entirely new drug.

Paper: “Formation of neurodegenerative aggresome and death-inducing signaling complex in maternal diabetes-induced neural tube defects”
Reprinted from materials provided by the University of Maryland School of Medicine.