Ant Pheromone May Aid Alzheimer's Patients

ITHACA, N.Y. -- The pheromone trail laid down by an "Aphaenogaster rudis" ant to help the ant and its recruited nest mates find their way back to prey they plan to kill -- contains a chemical now undergoing clinical trials as a possible Alzheimer's disease treatment, Cornell University chemists report in the January 1998 issue of the German journal "Naturwissenschaften".

Anabaseine, whose chemical analog GTS-21 stimulates the nicotine receptor sites in the brains of Alzheimer's patients and helps reduce memory loss, is one of four components found by Cornell researchers in secretions from the poison glands of "A. rudis" ants, a common species in the Northeast United States.

"However, this doesn't mean we should grow ants to treat Alzheimer's patients," said Athula B. Attygalle, senior research associate in the Cornell Institute for Research in Chemical Ecology (CIRCE) laboratory of Professor Jerrold Meinwald as well as director of the Mass Spectrometry Facility in Cornell's Department of Chemistry. "Synthetic versions of anabaseine can be made much more easily for medicinal purposes. We're interested in these neurotoxins because they're found in 'lower' animals, such as marine worms and ants, and even plants, and they seem to have an effect on the human brain."

Friedrich Kern, a visiting scientist in chemistry who observed "A. rudis" ant behavior in the laboratory as well as in wooded areas near Ithaca, described how one chemical cocktail serves several purposes for the ants: "This tiny ant needs help subduing prey that can be 10 to 15 times its size, so the ant returns to the nest and tries to recruit some nest mates," Kern explained. "The ant marks the route by dragging its sting along the ground like an ink pen and leaves traces of this four-part chemical cocktail from its poison gland.

"The chemical is a recruitment pheromone," Kern continued, "and when ants sense the pheromone, they become excited enough to follow the trail back to the pr

Contact: Roger Segelken
Cornell University News Service

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