Self-destructing mitochondria could be the initiation step for a range of neurogenerative diseases, new research shows.

Mitochondrial dysfunction has been observed in the early stages of ALS, a neurogenerative disease that affects voluntary muscle movement. The symptoms of ALS are caused by the disintegration of the upper motor neurons of the brain, which is often observed in disease sufferers from a very young age.

Using immune-electron microscopy the researchers investigated the molecular changes happening in the mice neurons to cause their degeneration. They were shocked to observe that the mitochondria were self-destructing within the neuron cells that later degenerated. Because this is such a new phenomenon, the researchers named it ‘mitoautophagy.’

Mitochondria are known as the powerhouses of the cell, as they generate and store the cell’s energy. The mitochondria also control multiple metabolic processes within the cell, and mitochondria dysfunction is implicated in a rising number of diseases. The mitochondria self-destruct by elongating, forming a ring structure and disintegrating from the inside out. The mechanism of mitochondria destruction is different from anything observed previously, including the cell-controlled process.

It is possible that drugs that promote healthy mitochondrial function could be applied to treat ALS and other neurogenerative diseases.