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Alzheimer’s Breakthrough?

By Shlomo Maital

Alzheimer plaque

   Alzheimer’s Disease causes some 70 per cent of all dementia. In terms of the numbers who suffer from it, the WHO (World Health Organization) estimates that in absolute numbers 26.6 million, with a huge range of 11.4–59.4 million,   were afflicted by AD, in the world,   and, most significant,   the prevalence rate would triple and the absolute number would quadruple by 2050.  So it would not be an exaggeration to call Alzheimer’s an epidemic.

     According to Lisa Desjardins, PBS News Hour: More than five million Americans live with the degenerative brain disease that robs people of their memory. It is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S     Yet Alzheimer’s research is seriously underfunded. America’s National Cancer Institutes alone get some $5 billion a year. On pure economic grounds, a small fraction of that sum could be better invested in the causes of dementia. Few people today have been untouched by it.

     New research led by Harvard scientists brings hope that the cause of Alzheimer’s, still unknown, will soon be unraveled:

     “….a study led by Harvard University researchers and published this week in the journal “Science Translational Medicine” suggests that Alzheimer’s could stem from the brain’s past attempts to fight off infections.”

   According to Rob Moir, a researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital:   “Alzheimer’s disease and the neurodegeneration you see with it is thought to be caused by a little protein that forms this concrete like substance in your brain called amyloid. Amyloid, it turns out, is actually be an antimicrobial pit pod, that is to say it is a natural antibiotic that defends against infection in the brain, and if you get a virus or a bacteria that gets into the brain, it rises to do better with it and binds to it and then entraps it in these long fibers and eventually entombs it forever. And as they mount in number, eventually they start to be toxic to our own cells, and that leads to the neurodegeneration. So, that’s what I bet it does.”

     In short – Alzheimer’s is caused by amyloid plaque. Amyloid plaque in turn appears to be a result of the brain’s efforts to fight infection.  

     So what?   Notes Moir: “So if it does turn out to be an infection, there is a possibility of treating people before they get AD with vaccines, to target those particular bugs so that the pathogens don’t get a chance to infect the brain.”

     Let’s follow this research closely.   One day those 50 and over may get a vaccine, like those given to children, that protect their brains. As a senior citizen, few things scare me – but the idea that my brain may one day become scrambled is a major fear. The new Harvard research offers us hope.      

 The Hunt for the Cause of Dementia: New Hope

By Shlomo  Maital

       prion           prions

  The latest issue of Scientific American (May 2013) describes vividly how scientists are on the trail to find the cause of Alzheimer’s and dementia, leading to hope for a cure.  We have known for years that Alzheimer’s is caused by clumps of proteins that lump together and destroy brain cells.  This has been known since 1906, when Alois Alzheimer identified the plaque linked to the disease.

         But why and how does this happen?

          A scientist, Stanley B. Prusiner, U. California San Francisco, found, in a series of brilliant experiments, what causes the brain to become like “Swiss cheese” in some diseases.   

      The culprit?  An innocuous protein, PrP, which when ‘misfolded’, causes other proteins to become mis-shaped, which in turn ‘infect’ other proteins, creating clumps that do great damage.  Prusiner called these protions ‘prions’ (proteinaceous infectious particles).  Of course, when he published his findings, scientists pooh-poohed them, doubting that a protein could act like a virus, infecting other proteins.  But in 1997 Prusiner won the Nobel Prize for his breakthrough.    

    Today we know prions cause “mad cow disease” (Creutzfeld-Jacob) and evidence grows that prions also cause Alzheimer’s and dementia.  Prions begin in one part of the brain, spread to other parts, eventually reaching the brain’s deepest reaches. 

     Now, what causes ‘prions’?   And is there a therapy that can halt their spread, or reverse it?   Some day, notes the Scientific American, “prion-like seeded protein aggregation may explain the origin of some of the most feared diseases of old age – and day translate into treatments that alter the relentless progression of neurodegenerative illnesses”. 

   Let’s hope!

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital