Phase transition allows water vapor to condense into dew drops. This process is also what allows brain cells to constantly reorganize their inner machinery. In people with ALS and Alzheimer’s, this process is interrupted. This connection between physics and disease could provide vital clues for treatment.
In neurodegenerative diseases, phase transitions in neurons appear to be interrupted, as if the environment has become sticky, preventing free movement. The result of this restricted movement is reduced cell function and a buildup of toxins which lead to diseases such as dementia.
Clifford Brangwynne, a professor of chemical and biological engineering at Princeton University, helped make the neural discovery. Brangwynne made the decision to look into genetic factors of degenerative diseases when he treated a case that appeared to be a combination of Alzheimer’s and ALS. The simultaneous symptoms indicated a genetic root of the issue.
Brangwynne’s lab demonstrated that experimental drugs and genetic tweaks can be used to unstick these molecules, pushing biotech companies to take a new approach to treatment options. He expects new therapies to be available in the coming years which address phase transition malfunctions in neurons.