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How prions kill neurons: new culture system shows early toxicity to dendritic spines

Prion diseases are fatal and incurable neurodegenerative conditions of humans and animals. Yet, how prions kill nerve cells (or neurons) remains unclear. A study published in PLOS Pathogens describes a system in which to study the early assault by prions on brain cells of the infected host.

Some of the earliest and potentially most critical changes in prion-infected brains occur at the connections (synapses) between neurons, and specifically at so-called dendritic spines. Dendritic spines are protrusions on the post-synaptic branches of a neuron that receive signals from other neurons. However, to date there has been no experimentally tractable model system in which the early degenerative changes caused by prions can be studied in cell culture.

Image of a hippocampal neuron showing dendritic spines and axons/dendrites
Image of a hippocampal neuron showing dendritic spines (green), and axons/dendrites (red)
Image Credit: Cheng Fang