Almost 6 million Americans are now living with Alzheimer’s, and even with the overwhelming harmful effects of the illness, researchers have not yet accurately determined how it advances. Until now.
A new study released in the Science Advances journal was the first to make use human data, rather than animal studies, to find the cause of Alzheimer’s spreading within the brain.
What causes Alzheimer’s to get worse?
It is helpful to understand that there are two proteins connected to the cognitive decline people have with Alzheimer’s: tau and amyloid-beta. The buildup of these proteins is known as aggregates, and they are the cause of personality changes, memory loss, and ultimately the death of brain cells.
Until now, researchers thought that the disease spread from one area of the brain to another “in a way that is like cancer,” leader of the study Georg Meisl, Ph.D., said in a press release.
By using brain samples from people who passed away while having Alzheimer’s along with PET scans from living donors with varying levels of the disease, researchers found how tau aggregates actually come to be. What they discovered was that rather than spread over time, tau aggregates exist in multiple areas of the brain at the onset. “So attempting to stop the spread between areas will not do much to slow the disease down,” Meisl says.
What does this mean for Alzheimer’s?
While there is still no treatment for the illness, this study causes researchers to be one step closer to understanding it. “The crucial discovery is that preventing the replication of aggregates instead of their propagation is going to be better during the stages of the disease we investigated,” notes the study co-author Dr. Tuomas Knowles, Ph.D.
In more good news, researchers also found the replication of tau aggregates is really quite slow—around five years on average. “Neurons are surprisingly adept at stopping the aggregates from being created,” says dementia researcher and co-author Sir David Klenerman, “but we needed to discover ways to make them better if we want to create an effective treatment.”
While there is no current treatment for Alzheimer’s, new technology is giving more accurate research that can help scientists get even closer to such a treatment. Meanwhile, people can take some preventive actions, like adding in more amino acids into their diet.
Author: Blake Ambrose