Alzheimer’s disease, or AD, is a chronic and debilitating disorder that starts with occasional forgetfulness and eventually progresses into confusion, irritability, severe memory loss, intellectual disturbances, dramatic personality changes and ultimately an inability to function on one’s own. In addition, it reduces one’s lifespan considerably.
Even more tragic is the fact that 10% of the American population over the age of 65 suffers from Alzheimer’s and up until now scientists have been completely perplexed as to what causes the initiation and progression of AD. Without this understanding, they have been unable to develop an effective cure for it. Fortunately, there has been a recent, ground-breaking discovery, which may help scientists to develop a drug that will halt the progression of this horrible disease.
According to the Harvard Neuro Discovery Center, AD symptoms develop because neurons, which are tiny cells that comprise the basic building blocks of the nervous system, become destroyed. Scientists attribute this destruction to two separate processes. Firstly, toxic clumps of protein build-up around the neurons in the brain of AD patients and form deadly “plaques.” Secondly, “tangles,” which are fibers inside the neurons themselves, become twisted, and this also causes death to the neurons. Although scientist have been aware of this process for some time, until know they have not understood exactly how a few dead neurons ultimately progresses into the destruction of the vast majority of one’s brain tissue.
Columbia and Harvard University conducted two independent studies on the brains of mice and discovered that Alzheimer’s spreads like a virus from one neuron in the brain to another. It turns out that when neurons die from plaques and tangles they form a distorted version of a protein called “tau.” In healthy individuals, tau plays a supportive role inside the neuron but in AD patients, the tau becomes distorted and loses its ability to hold the cell together. Once the tau becomes distorted, the dying neurons then bunch together and spread outward. They spread like a virus, jumping from one cell to another and destroying all of the surrounding cells in the process.”
Unfortunately, this spreading of infection is not limited to one area of the brain; instead the disease spreads through a connected path to other regions which control reason and memory. The ability of distorted tau to spread from one brain region to another explains why something that starts out as occasional forgetfulness can ultimately progress into full blown dementia.
Although scientists are a long way from developing a therapy to prevent the spread of Alzheimer’s, study co-author Karen Duff, of the Columbia University Medical Center, is optimistic that this discovery is a huge step in the right direction.
Duff discussed this recent discovery on “Talk of the Nation,” (Feb 3rd 2012). “We were surprised,” said Duff. “The idea that tau can actually leave one cell and go into another is really, fairly radical.” Now that we know that the spread of distorted tau is the cause of Alzheimer’s progression, we can work on developing a specific agent, such as an antibody, to prevent the spread of tau to other cells and brain regions, explains Duff. If a tau-blocking drug can be created, it will prevent people with early Alzheimer’s symptoms from experiencing the further decline of neurons.
The prevention of, and/or cure for, Alzheimer’s is still a work in progress but many scientists consider this new brain discovery to be a major advance in Alzheimer’s research. Currently Duff and her associates at Columbia University Medical Center are investigating the biology of Alzheimer’s and working on creating a model of the disease, in order to identify why the brain develops AD it in the first place. One theory proposed by Duff is that as the brain ages, it becomes less efficient at dealing with normal cellular processes. As a result, it accumulates toxic substances which contribute to its decline and in some vulnerable individuals, to the formation of plaques and tangles.
A further understanding of Alzheimer’s is clearly needed in order for an effective cure to be created. In the meantime, the best thing you can do for you and your loved ones is to take steps to prevent its development in the first place. The Alzheimer’s Research and Prevention Foundation recommends reducing stress, exercising regularly and seeing your doctor for regular check-ups.
You diet will also have a profound effect on your entire body, including neurons and your brain. The Canadian School of Natural Nutrition recommends consuming a whole foods diet that is based on fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, healthy fats and lean proteins. Finally, spinach, berries and seaweed as well as omega-3 rich foods including walnuts, tuna, mackerel and salmon, are considered especially beneficial to the brain and neurons.