Discussion series examines brain diseases

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Café Scientifique kicked off the first instalment of its discussion series last Wednesday, Sept. 18, at the Surrey City Centre Library, where Dr. Gordon Rintoul spoke on the relationship between mitochondrial deterioration and age-related brain diseases.

The series, sponsored by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, features leading Science experts from SFU on topics related to health and popular science. Meant to be a more informal than a lecture, the evenings include discussions with the audience, supporting SFU’s goal to be an engaged university.

Rintoul spoke on Wednesday about his work on mitochondrial dynamics. Mitochondria are tiny structures within the cells that have traditionally been known as the “powerhouses” of the cell. Their job is essentially to produce energy in a form that the cells can use to do all sorts of things.

Nevertheless, these organelles may be responsible for age-related brain diseases, such as stroke and Parkinson’s, if they are not fulfilling their proper functions. Rintoul compared their volatility to that of a power plant:

“If a nuclear power plant is functioning fine and producing energy that’s great, but things can go wrong with a nuclear power plant that can have really disastrous consequences,” explained Rintoul. “Nasty things can actually leak out of them, and that’s exactly what happens with mitochondria. They can release things that are very harmful to the cells.”

During a stroke, a blocked blood vessel results in a lack of energy delivered to cells in a small region of the brain. The mitochondria respond by malfunctioning, and producing things that are harmful to the cells.

 

Mitochondria are structures within cells that have traditionally been known as the “powerhouses” of the cell.

 

Rintoul’s lab is investigating mitochondrial dynamics: the basic mechanisms that are regulating mitochondrial trafficking and mitochondrial fission and fusion. Mitochondria are able to change their shapes through fission and fusion, and while the purpose of that change is not clear, fragmented mitochondria have been associated with a lot of different disease states, and potentially the aging process as well.

“Our guiding hypothesis is that in some of these neurodegenerative diseases, we’re having malfunctions of mitochondrial dynamics, and that may be a contributing or may be a causative factor in these diseases,” said Rintoul.

In pursuit of this hypothesis, Rintoul and his lab are hoping to decipher how mitochondria are participating in the injury mechanisms that harm cells in Parkinson’s and stroke. Said Rintoul, “If we can find out the mechanisms that control these things and find out how they’re being affected in the diseases, that gives us targets for therapeutic intervention.”

This is Rintoul’s first time speaking at the Café Scientifique series, but he believes by reaching out to the community, scientists are fulfilling their duty to the public.

“I really feel it’s the responsibility of scientists to promote science,” said Rintoul. “We are a publicly funded institution, so I think its our duty to get across to the public what we’re doing with their money and show them that we’re using it to work toward worthwhile causes.”

Time lapse video of a cortical astrocyte with mitochondria illuminated with Yellow Fluorescent protein (shot in grey-scale) Total time: 10 Minutes.