Neurodegeneration is the progressive loss of structure or function of neurons, including death of neurons. Many neurodegenerative diseases including amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, and Huntington's – occur as a result of neurodegenerative processes. Such diseases are incurable, resulting in progressive degeneration and/or death of neuron cells. As research progresses, many similarities appear that relate these diseases to one another on a sub-cellular level. Discovering these similarities offers hope for therapeutic advances that could ameliorate many diseases simultaneously.
There are many parallels between different neurodegenerative disorders including atypical protein assemblies as well as induced cell death. Neurodegeneration can be found in many different levels of neuronal circuitry ranging from molecular to systemic. The greatest risk factor for neurodegenerative diseases is aging. Mitochondrial DNA mutations as well as oxidative stress both contribute to aging. Many of these diseases are late-onset, meaning there is some factor that changes as a person ages for each disease. One constant factor is that in each disease, neurons gradually lose function as the disease progresses with age.
The process of neurodegeneration is not well understood, so the diseases that stem from it have, as yet, no cures. In the search for effective treatments (as opposed to palliative care), investigators employ animal models of disease to test potential therapeutic agents. Model organisms provide an inexpensive and relatively quick means to perform two main functions: target identification and target validation. Together, these help show the value of any specific therapeutic strategies and drugs when attempting to ameliorate disease severity.