Heat shock proteins are one portion of an array of cellular housekeeping and repair mechanisms that swing into action in response to circumstances that cause elevated levels of damage to protein machinery: heat, exercise, toxins, and so forth. Some research groups are interested in building therapies based on inducing greater repair activity by raising the levels of heat shock proteins present in cells, but most researchers in the field are gathering data only:
Many members of the heat shock protein family act in unison to refold or degrade misfolded proteins. Some heat shock proteins also directly interfere with apoptosis. These homeostatic functions are especially important in proteinopathic neurodegenerative diseases, in which specific proteins misfold, aggregate, and kill cells through proteotoxic stress. Heat shock protein levels may be increased or decreased in these disorders, with the direction of the response depending on the individual heat shock protein, the disease, cell type, and brain region. Aging is also associated with an accrual of proteotoxic stress and modulates expression of several heat shock proteins.
We speculate that the increase in some heat shock proteins in neurodegenerative conditions may be partly responsible for the slow progression of these disorders, whereas the increase in some heat shock proteins with aging may help delay senescence. The protective nature of many heat shock proteins in experimental models of neurodegeneration supports these hypotheses. Furthermore, some heat shock proteins appear to be expressed at higher levels in longer-lived species. However, increases in heat shock proteins may be insufficient to override overwhelming proteotoxic stress or reverse the course of these conditions, because the expression of several other heat shock proteins and endogenous defense systems is lowered. In this review we describe a number of stress-induced changes in heat shock proteins as a function of age and neurodegenerative pathology, with an emphasis on the heat shock protein 70 (Hsp70) family and the two most common proteinopathic disorders of the brain, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.