A gas famous for its rotten egg pong could help prevent the spread of Alzheimer's disease, according to a study.
Typically characterized as poisonous, corrosive and smelling of rotten eggs, hydrogen sulfide's reputation may soon get a facelift.
In experiments involving mice, researchers have shown the foul-smelling gas may help protect aging brain cells against Alzheimer's disease.
The discovery of the biochemical reactions that make this possible could lead to the development of new drugs to combat neurodegenerative disease.
Scientists working at the University of Exeter and Johns Hopkins University in the US made the discovery.
"The human body naturally creates small amounts of hydrogen sulfide to help regulate functions across the body from cell metabolism to dilating blood vessels," said Professor Solomon Snyder, of Johns Hopkins University.
"The rapidly burgeoning field of gasotransmission shows that gases are major cellular messenger molecules, with particular importance in the brain.
"However, unlike conventional neurotransmitters, gases can't be stored in vesicles.
"Thus, gases act through very different mechanisms to rapidly facilitate cellular messaging.
"In the case of hydrogen sulfide, this entails the modification of target proteins by a process called chemical sulfhydration, which modulates their activity."
Pictures of the week: January 10 - 16
Pictures of the week: January 10 - 16
Swimmer at Thorpe Bay near Southend in Essex. Heavy snow and freezing rain is set to batter the UK this week, with warnings issued over potential power cuts and travel delays.
A large balloon with Love written on it blocks the staircase of a basement in London, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021 during England's third national lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
A train passes over a swolen River Great Ouse in Haversham, Buckinghamshire. Heavy snow and freezing rain is set to batter the UK this week, with warnings issued over potential power cuts and travel delays.
An anti-High Speed 2 (HS2) rail line protest banner hangs next to a tree house in the Euston Square Gardens tree protection camp, outside Euston train station, in London, Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. Construction formally began in September on Britain's 106 billion-pound ($140 billion) high-speed railway project, aiming to forge better connections between cities for decades to come. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps defended the project, which had its "shovels in the ground" moment just as the country was wondering whether the over-budget and often-delayed project offered good value at a time when the the COVID-19 pandemic enshrined the idea of working from home. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
Snow in East Ardsley, West Yorkshire. Heavy snow and freezing rain is set to batter the UK this week, with warnings issued over potential power cuts and travel delays.
The River Roding after it burst its banks in Abridge, Essex. Heavy snow and freezing rain is set to batter the UK this week, with warnings issued over potential power cuts and travel delays.
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(left to right) Michael McInally, Katie Black, Rhea Black, 10, and Carmyn McInally, 10, sledging at Glencourse Golf Course near Penicuik, Midlothian. Heavy snow and freezing rain is set to batter the UK this week, with warnings issued over potential power cuts and travel delays.
An air ambulance takes off from a helipad on the roof of the Royal London Hospital in east London, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021, during England's third national lockdown since the coronavirus outbreak began. Britain, with over 81,000 dead, has the deadliest virus toll in Europe and the number of hospital beds filled by COVID-19 patients has risen steadily for more than a month. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
FOLKESTONE, UNITED KINGDOM - JANUARY 13: Artwork by Richard Woods in the harbor on January 13, 2021 in Folkestone, United Kingdom. On Monday January 4th England entered its third lockdown due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Schools and colleges moved to online learning, mixing with people outside households and bubbles was curtailed and non-essential food shops closed. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
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Medical staff treat an arriving patient at the Royal London Hospital in London, Monday, Jan. 11, 2021 during England's third national lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus. The government has imposed a national lockdown while allowing schools to open, with freedom to exercise and shop for food and essential items.(AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
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Two women swim as a ferry boat approaches the harbour at Dover, south England, Monday Jan. 11, 2021, during the third national lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus. The government has imposed a national lockdown while allowing schools to open, with freedom to exercise and shop for food and essential items. (Gareth Fuller/PA via AP)
CROSBY, ENGLAND - JANUARY 10: A policeman stands in-front of Newport fans prior to the FA Cup Third Round match between Marine and Tottenham Hotspur at Rossett Park on January 10, 2021 in Crosby, England. Sporting stadiums around England remain under strict restrictions due to the Coronavirus Pandemic as Government social distancing laws prohibit fans inside venues resulting in games being played behind closed doors. (Photo by Tottenham Hotspur FC/Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty Images)
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Previous studies have shown that sulfhydration levels in the brain decrease with age, a trend that is amplified in patients with Alzheimer's disease.
Professor Matt Whiteman, from the University of Exeter, said: "Up until recently, researchers lacked the pharmacological tools to mimic how the body slowly makes tiny quantities of hydrogen sulfide inside cells.
"The compound used in this study does just that and shows by correcting brain levels of hydrogen sulfide, we could successfully reverse some aspects of Alzheimer's disease."
The results showed some of the behaviours exhibited by people suffering from Alzheimer's could be reversed by introducing hydrogen sulfide.
Researchers found in the absence of hydrogen sulfide, enzymes in the brain interact with a protein called Tau leading to nerve cells dying off.
This leads to the deterioration and eventual loss of cognition, memory and motor function that is characteristic of Alzheimer's disease.
"Understanding the cascade of events is important to designing therapies that can block this interaction, like natural hydrogen sulfide is able to do," added Daniel Giovinazzo, from Johns Hopkins University.
– The study is published in the journal The Proceedings of the National Academies of Science.