A molecular-level link has been found that helps explain the poorly understood association between diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. Both disorders can drive and be driven by the same pathological process, the disruption of a particular kind of post-translational modification called S-nitrosylation. Thus, the disorders can reinforce each other. [© freshidea/Fotolia]
A molecular-level link has been found that helps explain the poorly understood association between diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease. Both disorders can drive and be driven by the same pathological process, the disruption of a particular kind of post-translational modification called S-nitrosylation. Thus, the disorders can reinforce each other. [© freshidea/Fotolia]

Though they appear to be distinct, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease have much in common at the molecular level. In fact, recent findings indicate that either disease can worsen the other by disrupting the same chemical process—S-nitrosylation, a form of post-translational modification that is necessary for the proper functioning of multiple enzymes.

S-nitrosylation, it turns out, can be disrupted by excess sugar or β-amyloid protein, either of which can wreak havoc by increasing the levels of nitric oxide and other free radical species. Once S-nitrosylation is disturbed and poorly functioning enzymes are produced, the downstream effects include abnormal increases in both insulin and β-amyloid protein.

Thus, diabetes and Alzheimer’s can drive, and be driven by, the same vicious cycle. Furthermore, either can contribute to the other’s progress. These results emerged from a study completed by researchers based at the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute and the Scintillon Institute. The research team was led by Stuart A. Lipton, M.D., Ph.D., a physician-scientist affiliated with both institutions.

“This work points to a new common pathway to attack both type 2 diabetes, along with its harbinger, metabolic syndrome, and Alzheimer’s disease,” stated Dr. Lipton.

The researchers published their work January 8 in the journal Nature Communications in an article entitled, “Elevated glucose and oligomeric β-amyloid disrupt synapses via a common pathway of aberrant protein S-nitrosylation.” This article describes how the scientists used a so-called “disease-in-a-dish” model to discover molecular pathways that are in common in both diabetes and Alzheimer’s.

Specifically, the scientists genetically reprogrammed the skin of human patients to make induced pluripotent stem cells, which were then used to derive nerve cells. They also used mouse models of each disease to analyze the combined effects of high blood sugar and β-amyloid protein in living animals.

“[We] report in human and rodent tissues that elevated glucose, as found in [metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes] and oligomeric β-amyloid (Aβ) peptide, thought to be a key mediator of [Alzheimer’s disease], coordinately increase neuronal Ca2+ and nitric oxide (NO) in an NMDA receptor-dependent manner,” wrote the authors of the Nature Communications article. “The increase in NO results in S-nitrosylation of insulin-degrading enzyme (IDE) and dynamin-related protein 1 (Drp1), thus inhibiting insulin and Aβ catabolism as well as hyperactivating mitochondrial fission machinery.”

The scientists also found that the changes in enzyme activity led to damage of synapses, the region where nerve cells communicate with one another in the brain. The combination of high sugar and β-amyloid protein caused the greatest loss of synapses. Since loss of synapses correlates with cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s, high sugar and β-amyloid coordinately contribute to memory loss.

“The NMDA receptor antagonist memantine attenuates these effects,” the authors continued. “Our studies show that redox-mediated posttranslational modification of brain proteins link Aβ and hyperglyaemia to cognitive dysfunction in [metabolic syndrome/type 2 diabetes] and [Alzheimer’s disease].”

“[Our work] means that we now know these diseases are related on a molecular basis, and hence, they can be treated with new drugs on a common basis,” stated Dr. Ambasudhan, a senior author of the study and an assistant professor at Scintillon.