Proteins behind mad-cow disease also help brain to develop.
When not misfolded, prions lend a hand in forming neuronal connections. Prions are best known as the infectious agents that cause ‘mad cow’ disease and the human versions of it, such as variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob Disease. But the proteins also have at least one known useful function, in the cells that insulate nerves, and are suspected to have more.
Now researchers have provided the first direct evidence that the proteins play an important role in neurons themselves. The team reports in the Journal of Neuroscience that prions are involved in brain plasticity, the process by which the structure and function of neurons in the growing brain is shaped by experience.