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Research: Selenium protects the brain's nerve cells from cell death

Research: Selenium protects the brain's nerve cells from cell death


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Doctors are investigating why selenium is essential for mammalian survival

200 years ago, researchers discovered the trace element selenium. But only now have the scientists been able to prove that this chemical element is essential for the survival of mammals. Selenium is a component of the GPX4 enzyme and protects the nerve cells from cell death as they develop.

In their current investigation, the researchers from the Institute for Developmental Genetics (IDG) at the Helmholtz Zentrum München found that selenium, as a component of the GPX4 enzyme, can protect certain nerve cells from cell death during their development. The doctors published the results of their study in the English-language journal "Cell".

Why is selenium so important for survival?

Swedish researcher Jöns Jacob Berzelius discovered the trace element selenium 200 years ago. He then named it after the moon goddess Selene. The trace element is used in industry. For example, it is used for the production of semiconductors and toners and used in the chemical industry. But selenium is also an essential trace element, which is essential for survival for humans, for many animals and some bacteria. The scientists at the Helmholtz Zentrum München are now exploring for the first time why the element is so important for survival.

Enzyme GPX4 plays an important role in ferroptosis

The experts have been dealing with so-called ferroptosis, a known form of cell death, for several years. The enzyme GPX4 plays an important role here. GPX4 normally contains selenium in the form of the amino acid selenocysteine, the researchers explain.

Doctors examined models with mice

"In order to better describe the role of GPX4, we had established and examined mouse models in which the enzyme was changed," explains the study leader Dr. Conrad in a press release from the Helmholtz Zentrum München. "We noticed one thing above all, in which GPX4 is not formed with selenium but with sulfur," adds the expert. However, the mouse model was not viable for longer than three weeks due to neurological complications.

Without GPX4 containing selenium, certain nerve cells in the brain die

In their search for the causes, the scientists found certain nerve cells in the brain. These were missing without GPX4 containing selenium. Through further investigations, the researchers found that the nerve cells had died during their development due to the so-called ferroptosis if there was no selenium-containing GPX4, according to the author Irina Ingold from the Institute for Developmental Genetics.

Selenium is an essential factor in the postnatal development of a type of nerve cell

The experts also found that the main cause of ferroptosis is strong oxidative stress. Such stress is typical of high metabolic activity and signal transmission in nerve cells, the authors say. The current study shows for the first time that selenium is an essential factor for the postnatal development of a certain type of nerve cell, explains the researcher Dr. José Pedro Friedmann Angeli from the Institute for Developmental Genetics.

Selenium-containing GPX4 protects nerve cells from oxidative stress

Selenium-containing GPX4 is able to protect the nerve cells from oxidative stress, which prevents the nerve cells from dying. This is an explanation of why so-called selenoenzymes are so essential in some organisms such as mammals, the experts explain. With other organisms (fungi and some higher plants), however, they are unnecessary.

More research is needed

The research team around Dr. In the future, Marcus Conrad plans to investigate how and where exactly ferroptosis is triggered in the cells. It is important for the future to better understand the role of ferroptosis in various diseases. So far, diseases that were not or only very difficult to treat could be alleviated. These include, for example, cancer or neurodegenerative diseases. (as)

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