Editorial Feature

Using Quantum Dots to Treat Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s Disease

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There is currently no cure for Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease. There are medications to treat the symptoms of both conditions, and a great deal of research is being done into new and more effective treatments, including those drawing on quantum physics.

What are Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s Disease?

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurological condition that causes extensive damage to brain cells resulting in involuntary shaking and tremors, slow movement, and stiff muscles. There are also associated memory problems, balance problems, and anosmia and insomnia, as well as psychological conditions including depression and anxiety.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia. The exact cause of Alzheimer’s disease is not yet fully understood but there are a number of risk factors that contribute to a person’s chances of developing the neurological condition. These include increased age and lifestyle factors associated with cardiovascular disease and a family history of the condition.

Treatment for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s with Quantum Dots

Research into using quantum dots to treat Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s is an emerging science. A paper published in Nature Nanotechnology in 2018 reported that graphene quantum dots (GQDs) were able to inhibit fibrillization of α-synuclein and prevent their aggregation.

GQDs represent layers of graphene sized less than 30 nm, from one single layer of graphene to tens of layers. Studies have shown that GQDs, in particular, are not just single layers but multi-layered formations made up of 10 layers of reduced graphene oxide from a size of 10 to 60 nm.

Α-synuclein (a protein found in large amounts in the human brain) accumulation has been attributed to the development of Parkinson’s disease.

Also found in the heart, muscles, and gut, α-synuclein is found near the ends of the neurons that are used to release chemicals between neurons.

The exact function of α-synuclein is not fully understood, but it has been associated with the regulation of the release of dopamine. Dopamine is a critical element in Parkinson’s disease as it controls voluntary and involuntary movements.

In Parkinson’s, α-synuclein misfolds and forms aggregates (called Lewy bodies), which, as they grow in size, contribute to brain cell death. It is not understood what triggers this process but it is perhaps problems in the process of protein regulation and recycling that leads to aggregation. As such, being able to halt the accumulation of α-synuclein is thought to improve disease outcome in Parkinson’s.

GQDs have been found to limit neuronal death and synaptic loss, reduce Lewy bodies and the formation of Lewy neurites, improve mitochondrial dysfunction and prevent α-synuclein from transmitting between neurons. After penetrating the blood-brain barrier (that they can achieve due to their miniature size, unlike most medicine), GQDs are also able to protect against dopamine neuron loss.

The study found that quantum dots made from graphene bound to α-synuclein and stopped it from accumulating, and also caused any existing toxic clumps to break down into individual molecules.

This particular study was carried out on mice and has yet to be tested in humans. As such, the specific effects on humans are difficult to quantify, as human bodies are far more complex and past innovations for the treatment of both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s have not always produced the same benefits in humans as they have in mouse models. However, in these mice tests conducted in 2018, Parkinson’s symptoms were shown to significantly improve.

A separate study has also found promise in quantum dot treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, which works by a similar mechanism to the GQD treatment for Parkinson’s. The quantum dots bind to a protein called amyloid, and as is seen in Parkinson’s, prevent the protein from aggregating.

Future Focuses

In the future, drugs based on graphene quantum dots may provide valuable information for the development of new therapeutic drugs or abnormal protein aggregation-related neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, but more research needs to be done to determine whether benefits seen in mice studies will translate to humans.

Sources and Further Reading

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Lois Zoppi

Written by

Lois Zoppi

Lois is a freelance copywriter based in the UK. She graduated from the University of Sussex with a BA in Media Practice, having specialized in screenwriting. She maintains a focus on anxiety disorders and depression and aims to explore other areas of mental health including dissociative disorders such as maladaptive daydreaming.

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