Researchers affiliated with the Neuroprotection Research Focus Group have broad interests in the basic biological mechanisms that underlie chronic neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrigs disease), multiple sclerosis, and Huntington's disease, as well as acute brain injury resulting from stroke, cardiac arrest, trauma, and neurotoxins. The mission of the Neuroprotection Research Focus Group is to elucidate these mechanisms and use this information to develop treatments to both prevent and cure these devastating disorders.
Advances in molecular techniques for identifying abnormal genes and altered gene expression in chronic and acute neurodegenerative disorders enable screening of potential targets for intervention that was not possible a few years ago. The extensive and diverse patient population and the many experimental models of neurotoxicity and neurodegeneration being studied at the University of Maryland provide the resources necessary for such screening. The greater challenge will be to translate the knowledge gained from molecular analyses into an understanding of the mechanisms responsible for neurodegeneration and into novel approaches for treating or preventing these disorders. Although these goals are formidable, their importance to the health, welfare, and security of our society is immeasurable.
Research by neuroprotection scientists is directed toward identifying and characterizing proteins that maintain neuron survival in the normal brain, as well as those that, when altered by mutation, result in neuron death. Although many of these proteins are found specifically in neurons, some are located in other brain cells such as astrocytes, the metabolic chaperones of neurons, oligodendrocytes, the cells that form the myelin sheath insulation of axons, and cells within the cerebrovascular system, providing fuel and oxygen to the brain. The effect of aging and neurotoxins on the levels of these proteins is also being investigated. These proteins are potential targets for drugs that could be used to prevent or treat neurodegenerative disorders. Indeed, neuroprotection researchers are engaged in a number of collaborative relationships with pharmaceutical companies interested in utilizing the discoveries made by these scientists to design novel drugs that are effective against neurological disorders and neurotoxicity.
Examples of neuroprotective interventions under development include the use of drugs, hormones, naturally occurring compounds, and environmental conditions that exhibit the following activities:
- regulation of neuronal responses to excitatory neurotransmitters
- balancing brain energy metabolism to meet demands
- inhibition of different steps in apoptosis
- regulation of ion channel activities
- stimulation of neuroprotective gene expression
- modulation of signal transduction pathways to increase resistance of brain cells to injury.
In addition to the preclinical neuroprotection research activities, many clinical trials are underway at the University of Maryland Medical Center, the Veteran's Administration Medical Center and the R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center, testing the efficacy of new drugs and treatment protocols for acute ischemic stroke, head trauma, and a variety of diseases, such as Parkinson's disease. Clinical research at these centers is greatly enhanced by the Center for Clinical Trials at the University of Maryland and by the commitment of the university to expedite the development and implementation of safe and effective therapeutic protocols.