Natalie is a BSc from Monash University with an intense passion for improving accessibility of scientific research to the public.
Dementia in it’s most common form: Alzheimer’s disease.
Those words send shivers down the spines of even the most confident. It affects 30% of our over 65’s. More nightmare fuel? Scientists don’t yet know what causes Alzheimer’s. We do know what is different in a brain with Alzheimer’s, but beware, it isn’t pretty. The brain physically deteriorates, and our memory centre (hippocampus), gets physically smaller and shrinks. This explains why Alzheimer’s is associated with severe memory loss and confusion. But why does this happen? Can drugs help?
Welcome to your brain.
It’s filled with millions of neurons. Think of it like people all holding hands and communicating via those hands. Cut that connection off by killing one, and a whole part of the brain won’t get important information. This is what Alzheimer’s does, making neurons die off. Horrifying.
1. A peptide (small protein) known as Amyloid-beta congregates and forms plaques around neurons. In small amounts, it's actually harmless, and we all have some amount of it in our systems. The problem is this aggregation they insist on doing around our neurons. They make our neurons die via different ways including poking holes and making ions leak out, not allowing them to send and receive information and making them commit suicide (apoptosis). Not good for our brain at all.
2. Tau is a protein that normally helps our neurons keep their structure, similar to the foundations in a house. In Alzheimer’s, these proteins undergo hyperphosphorylation (stay with me), which means it has had the maximum number of phosphate groups attached to it. Problem is, this hyperphosphorylation called neurofibrillary tangles is like termites breaking the foundations of your house, it eventually collapses and the neuron dies.
Can drugs help?
It’s complicated. There are 4 approved medications to help Alzheimer’s: Donepezil, Galantamine, Rivastigmine, and Memantine. They help, but only stop the symptoms getting worse, stop the progressive cognitive decline. They don’t reverse the damage. In fact, nothing currently available on the market can reverse Alzheimer’s.
What are the labs doing? So far, nothing successful. A few years ago there was promising preclinical research for an amyloid-beta antibody which helped clear it from our brains, but Solanezumab failed in phase 3 clinical trials as it didn’t affect the cognitive decline in patients. Bapineuzumab worked similarly, but also cleared the amyloid-beta that wasn’t in the brain, but it too failed to show that it helped the cognitive decline.
this is hot research and has been for some time. Antibodies have proven to be superior drugs in many diseases, but without knowing what causes Alzheimer’s, we may be here for a while. There is nothing you and I can do without Ph.D.’s in pharmacology, but we can look for symptoms and help catch it in those around us. Early detection is the most effective method of preventing irreversible damage until better drugs are found. The fight against Alzheimer’s is tough.
For the latest guidelines on Alzheimer’s including symptoms, treatment and support:
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2020 Natalie Vashevnik