Researchers say that they used the tiny crystals to detect amyloid fibrils, a type of proteins developing in people brains before Alzheimer’s symptoms are visible and a full-fledged diagnosis is possible. These fibers also herald other neurodegenerative diseases including Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, and Mad Cow Disease, as well as type 2 diabetes.
The new technique is less expensive, easier, and can detect the fibrils when they reach high peak levels of toxicity and long before fully developing.
“It is extremely important to develop techniques that allow us to detect the formation of these so-called amyloid fibrils when they’re first starting to grow,”
noted lead author of the study and molecular engineering expert at the University of Chicago.
Researchers also said that liquid crystals are more sensitive to amyloid fibrils than any method used before. These proteins can either infect the brain and lead to neurodegenerative disorders or the pancreas and result in type 2 diabetes.
Studying these fibrils is of high importance for medical research because it can help scientists develop more effective drugs that can stave off a wide range of illnesses. Yet, the proteins are too small in size, and no optical instrument was ever able to detect them. So, research teams needed to use neutron microscopes and a costly fluorescence-scattering method to be able to study them.
But the authors of the study that was published this week in Advanced Functional Materials believe that liquid crystals, which are currently used only in TV and computer screens’ production, could clear these technological hurdles.
Scientists made use of liquid crystal’s property of rearranging when they respond to a stimulus on their surface. The research team designed a tiny film of a liquid crystal dubbed 5CB or the “fruit fly” of liquid crystal experiments, as one researcher put it.
Next, researchers placed chemical compounds on the 5CB film’s surface so that the molecules of the liquid crystal flock together and light cannot pass through.
Study authors explained that they first put a membrane of molecules on the film and another layer made of a mix of water and toxic amyloid fibrils. As the proteins grew on the membrane, the liquid crystal molecules changed position so that no light could go through.
Although the proteins are smaller than a blood cell, the imprint they leave on the organic membrane which is magnified by the liquid crystal molecules underneath can be observed through the polarized light of an optical microscope.
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