There's a fine line between genius and madness. Now scientists studying the pathogen responsible for mad cow disease have proven this old adage to be as poignant as ever. They have discovered that the same protein that causes the devastating neurological disease may improve brain function when in its "normal" form, according to MedicalXpress.


By learning how to manipulate this protein, scientists may one day be able to use it to make us smarter. A cure for diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's could also be in the offing.


Mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, is a fatal neurodegenerative disease that infects cattle. It is highly infectious and can be spread to other species, including humans, through ingestion of infected tissue. In humans it is more commonly referred to as Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease. When the disease was first identified, researchers were puzzled about how it was transmitted since it was not linked to any known viruses, parasites, or bacterial or fungal infections. This led to the profound discovery of a new form of pathogen: the prion.


Prions are proteins that have become "misfolded," according to the prevailing Prion Hypothesis. In the case of diseases like mad cow disease, they spread by inducing healthy proteins in the brain to convert into the disease-associated form. Since their discovery, prions have been heavily studied, but less research has been performed on the "normally folded" forms of the proteins which exist in healthy brains. This made scientists at the University of Leeds curious.


In a study recently published in the journal Nature Communications, researchers found that "normal" prion proteins play a major role in the absorption of zinc in the brain, a function crucial to our ability to learn and to the well-being of our memory. For instance, it is well known that high levels of zinc between neurons are linked to diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.


"Zinc is thought to aid signaling in the brain as it's released into the space between brain cells. However, when there's too much zinc between the brain cells it can become toxic," explained lead researcher, Dr. Nicole Watts. "High levels of zinc in this area between the brain cells are known to be a factor in neurodegenerative diseases, so regulating the amount of absorption by the cells is crucial."


In other words, when prion proteins are folded properly, they appear to help brain function by cleaning up excess zinc. Theoretically, the more efficiently these proteins do their job, the better our memory and other cognitive faculties should operate. It could therefore be possible to one day manipulate these "smart cow" proteins to  improve our cognitive capacities.


"By studying both their roles in the body, we hope to uncover exactly how prion and zinc affect memory and learning. This could help us better understand how to maintain healthy brain cells and limit the effects of aging on the brain," explained Nigel Hooper from the University of Leeds.


Related health story on MNN: Is pink slime green or gross?


Bryan Nelson ( @@brynelson ) writes about everything from environmental problems here on Earth to big questions in space.

'Normal' form of mad cow disease may actually make you smarter
Prion proteins that cause mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, might have the reverse effect in their normal form, improving memory and cogniti