Deadly Degeneration

Much progress is being made on finding a cure for Alzheimer’s. The brains of people who retain their mental acuity well into old age may offer some clues:

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It is one of the most dreaded and most mysterious diseases known to human beings. German psychiatrist Alois Alzheimer first announced it publicly in 1906. After more than a century, we still do not have a treatment for this problem or even know the major causes of the disease. In fact, during the centenary of the discovery of the disease, all articles in scientific journals unanimously agreed that we have progressed very little in over a century. For how long will this situation continue?

Probably not for long, judging from the spurt of scientific activity around Alzheimer’s in recent times. Several research papers in the last two years have hinted at the possibility of finally understanding the disease, and over 200 clinical trials currently in progress suggest that we could find a drug that could at least slow down the disease in the next decade. In any case, at least one aspect of the disease is becoming clear: its complexity.

Alzheimer’s may have several causes, and thus may need several approaches in developing treatment.

Last month produced a burst of news about the disease. For example, researchers at Northwestern University in the US announced that the so-called ‘super aged’ have brains different from normal people; they have fewer ‘tangles’ in the brain than other older people. The super aged are people who retain their mental acuity well into old age. It was the first study to actually look at the reverse of Alzheimer’s, to see what makes people retain their brain health into old age. “If we know what is different in the brains of the super aged,” says Changiz Geula, professor of neuroscience at Northwestern, “we could design strategies to keep the brain healthy.”

In another piece of research, scientists at the LSU Health Centre at New Orleans in the US discovered the role of micro RNA, a type of small RNAs, in regulating inflammation in the brain and thus Alzheimer’s disease (inflammation is one of the key characteristics of Alzheimer’s disease). This micro RNA targets a specific type of anti-inflammatory agent in the brain, thus reducing their availability and increasing inflammation. Says Walter Lukiw, professor at the centre: “A drug that targets this micro RNA could reduce inflammation in the brain.”

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There were other significant developments as well. Scientists at the Southern Methodist University and the University of Texas, both in the US, found a group of compounds that slow down the degeneration of neurons. Neuronal degeneration is another feature of Alzheimer’s, and slowing the process is a likely method of treating the disease. Scientists at the Feinstein Institute of Medical Research in the US showed why resveratrol, a substance found in red grapes and wine, reduces plaques in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. And scientists at Emory University, again in the US, have developed a new method to detect Alzheimer’s very early, an important factor in the treatment of the disease.

So are we getting close to cracking the disease finally? Probably yes, but we do not know clearly yet. Each step forward brings new vistas and aspects to be worked out. Consider the research on the brains of the super aged. Their brains do not seem to age at all.

A considerable amount of Alzheimer’s research concentrated on the brains of Alzheimer’s patients, and specifically on the amyloid plaques (an abnormal accumulation of proteins) that build up in their brains. But Geula and his colleagues at the Feinberg School of Medicine in the university decided to look at the other side and analyse the super healthy brains. Instead of analysing what goes wrong, they looked at what goes right.

They looked at the brains of five people, in their eighties, who had performed exceptionally well in memory tests. All of them had low levels of a fibre tangle found normally in the brains of older people. This tangle, made of a protein called tau, finally kills the nerve cells. So if we have less of this protein, our brains could remain healthy into old age. So what causes this protein to build up? Is it genes or the environment? We do not know. Geula is in the early stages of this study, and so we have to wait a little longer to find out more.

So while we wait for scientists to understand the disease and discover drugs, what can we do to prevent the disease?

Lifestyle undoubtedly contributes to the development of the disease. In fact, a low fat diet and exercise are among the best options to prevent the disease. “Anything that promotes cardiac health also helps prevent Alzheimer’s,” says Lukiw. Apart from a healthy diet and exercise, scientists advise garlic to promote cardiac health, oats to reduce cholesterol, and turmeric to reduce inflammation. That is not difficult to follow, is it?

Sources: The Telegraph (Kolkata, India)

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