The compound, oleocanthal, alters the structures of the proteins, ADDLs, said William L. Klein of Northwestern University and Paul A.S. Breslin of Monell Chemical Senses Center.
"Binding of ADDLs is thought to be a crucial first step in the initiation of Alzheimer's disease," Klein said in a statement. "Oleocanthal alters ADDL structure in a way that deters the protein from binding to synapses that allow the nervous system to connect."
ADDLs bind within the synapses of the brains of Alzheimer's patients and are believed directly to disrupt nerve cell function, eventually leading to memory loss, cell death and global disruption of brain function, the researchers said.
Klein and colleagues identified ADDLs in 1998, leading to a major shift in thinking about the causes, progression and treatment of Alzheimer's disease. ADDLs are structurally different from the amyloid plaques that accumulate in brains of Alzheimer's patients.
Future studies are needed to identify more precisely how oleocanthal changes ADDL composition. Such insights could provide discovery pathways related to disease prevention and treatment, the researchers said.
The findings are published in the journal Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology.
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