There is more interesting research going on in the world of Alzheimer’s. Scientists are examining whether the brain’s infrastructure plays a role in a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s. A damaged vascular system in the brain could develop cognitive performance issues, akin to an aging power grid that struggles to deliver power to a city, according to the research discussed in this Stanford Medicine Scope blog post.
In looking at a genetic atlas of the brain, researchers found that the “majority of the top Alzheimer’s risk genes are significantly expressed in the [brain’s] vasculature.” If you want to do a deep dive into the research, take a look at the study published in Nature.
The new technology used to create a genetic atlas and the accompanying discoveries give Alzheimer’s researchers new avenues to explore. No cause and effect has been established yet between brain vascular damage and Alzheimer’s risk, but there will now be additional research conducted to examine this area.
What could this mean for potential treatment of Alzheimer’s disease down the road? According to the Tony Wyss-Coray, who runs the lab where the research was conducted, treatments that could target the brain’s vascular system may be more easily accessible as the blood-brain barrier presents a challenge when it comes to getting drugs into the brain.
Plaques and tangles in the brain have been a focus of Alzheimer’s researchers and some believe ridding the brain of the buildup will help in treating the disease. Approximately 20 percent of people have plaques detected in the brain, but do not develop dementia, prompting researchers to do a deeper investigation of the tau protein. Their results suggest that a specific presentation of the protein was linked to the development of dementia. The body has an automatic mechanism called autophagy to clear defective proteins from cells, but that process slows as we age, especially for those over the age of 65.
The researchers described the defective tau protein as “trying to put a right-handed glove on your left hand.”
If their preliminary research proves to be correct, there are drugs being tested to improve the autophagy process, which could potentially be used to treat Alzheimer’s disease.
A recent study found that the spread of a key marker for Alzheimer’s develops in four distinct patterns, each presenting with a specific set of symptoms. The findings could help provide more targeted treatment for Alzheimer’s in the future.
An article in Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News offers a good overview of the study. Researchers focused on the spread of the tau protein in the brain, which has long been a key marker for Alzheimer’s. Studying the PET scans of approximately 1,600 individuals in relation to tau pathology, researchers found four distinct patterns:
Variant one: Found in 33 percent of cases and primarily affects the memory. The tau spread was mainly found in the temporal lobe.
Variant two: Found in 18 percent of cases and targets executive functioning. Tau spread was in the rest of the cerebral cortex.
Variant three: Occurring in 30 percent of cases, this variant targets the visual cortex, leading to a variety of visual processing issues.
Variant four: Found in 19 percent of cases, this variant spreads in the left hemisphere, leading to issues with one’s language ability.
I thought these were intriguing findings. Of course more research is needed in this area to confirm the findings of this study and learn more about the variants. But these finding could eventually lead to better, more targeted treatment for the specific variants of Alzheimer’s disease.
As I mentioned recently, I just finished the excellent novel, “Still Alice” which is told from the perspective of a woman with early-onset Alzheimer’s. One facet of the book that seemed very realistic and frightening to me is how the character gets lost on her travels through her neighborhood. I love to walk around my neighborhood (the character in the book loves to run or ride her bicycle). I have lived in my neighborhood since 1997, and like to think I know it like the back of my hand.
But an experience last week gave me just the tiniest insight into how disconcerting feeling lost amidst the familiar can be.
I was going to a dentist appointment, and my dentist had moved his office to a condo building just off the park that is in the center of my neighborhood. I made a note of the new address, and then made an assumption of where I thought it was located. Ironically, I was actually reflecting on “Still Alice” as I was walking to my appointment!
So I reached the corner where I thought the office would be, and no condo building. Then I realized that I was probably a couple of blocks off. But in my mind, I could not picture where this condo building would be along the street that matched the address. I started walking hurriedly, not wanting to be late. A car honked, and a co-worker of mine shouted out my name and waved to me, distracting me further. I was about halfway down the street and thought for sure that there was no condo building at the end of the street. But there had to be! It was hard to see the house numbers so I couldn’t use that as my gauge. I finally broke out Google Maps on my phone but the sun was shining bright and it was hard to follow the arrow to see if I was walking in the right direction.
I was reaching a mild panic at this point, and also felt embarrassed. How could I be lost in my own neighborhood?
Suddenly, like magic, the condo building appeared. It is newish, and I don’t walk down this street very often, but as it turned out, I went out of my way to get to it because of my careless planning. My heart was pounding a bit as I stepped into the dentist’s office, with a few minutes to spare.
The experience gave me a better understanding of disorientation, a common symptom of Alzheimer’s. It also reminded me how often we put ourselves on auto-pilot as we go about running errands and performing daily tasks. We take so much for granted. Alzheimer’s shows us how much we have to lose when our brain function falters.