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In defence of pathogenic proteins: Do our aging cells get smarter, not sicker?

Protein deposits in cells, such as those associated with diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, can also be beneficial – at least for yeast cells, as biochemists at ETH Zurich have discovered. The researchers found a new form of age-associated deposits in these cells, and they are now asking us to rethink our views on ageing and dementia.

We age because the cells in our bodies begin to malfunction over the years. This is the general view that scientists hold of the ageing process. For example, in older people the cells’ internal quality control breaks down. This control function usually eliminates proteins that have become unstable and lost their normal three-dimensional structure. These deformed proteins accumulate in the cells in a number of diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

For Yves Barral, Professor of Biochemistry at ETH Zurich, the view of the ageing process as a consequence of flawed cell function and disease is too narrow. It ignores the fact that the mentioned so-called prion-like protein accumulations could have a positive effect, too, and therefore should not be referred to as cellular malfunction, he says.

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