The Next Medical Breakthrough for Treating Alzheimer's Could Come From Roundworms

Roundworms aren’t much fun for dogs, but they have their uses. For one thing, their ability to smell danger may have a surprising connection to preventing and treating Alzheimer's disease in humans.  

Like any other nematode or other living organism, sniffing out dangerous situations enables roundworms to prepare for them. When roundworms anticipate danger, they have time to activate cellular defenses, and are more likely to survive the upcoming trauma, according to new research.

Scientists at the University of Iowa obtained two groups of roundworms: one experimental group and one control. They exposed one group to the smell of lethal bacteria, which led to a stress response and defenses. Then the scientists put the lethal bacteria in with both groups of roundworms and studied the results.

Roundworms that had been exposed to the smell of the bacteria had prepared “molecular chaperones,” proteins that find and remove or repair toxic proteins in the cell. These roundworms were better able to survive the interaction with the toxic bacteria. The worms that hadn’t been warned via scent had a worse chance of fighting it off. The research was published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

Old_woman_hands Roundworms's ability to smell danger may have a surprising connection to preventing and treating Alzheimer's disease in people. Ann Gordon on Flickr

As interesting as it is to understand the roundworm sense of smell, the work also has a compelling connection to humans. Alzheimer's disease and Huntington’s disease affect the human brain in a similar way as lethal bacteria. Nerve cells in the brain become damaged by toxic proteins and die, ultimately affecting brain function, memories, and thoughts. For that reason, this research could help inform future research into treating and preventing these types of neurodegenerative diseases. The question is, if sensations like smells can trigger roundworms to protect themselves from damage, can human brain cells do the same?

One particular “molecular chaperone” in humans is HSF1, or “heat shock transcription factor,” which guards against protein damage and protects against neurodegenerative diseases. This new knowledge of roundworm behavior could help scientists find a trigger to inspire the advanced production of HSF1—which would, in turn, protect the human brain against degeneration.

Roundworms are tiny, tubular creatures that live in damp soil. For this study, the researchers focused on Caenorhabditis elegans, one of many species and among the most plentiful group of animals on earth. Although some species of roundworms are dangerous parasites to dogs and people, C. elegans is non-parasitic. They also have a longstanding history of helping advance medical science and have even been the subject of several research projects that won a Nobel Prize in 2002, 2006, and 2008. You may one day find yourself thanking these tiny, slimy creatures.