Our world’s population is an ageing one. By 2050, the number of people diagnosed with the form of dementia commonly known as Alzheimer’s disease could potentially be double than what it is today.
It’s little wonder that scientists are throwing their weight into searching for ways to understand and treat this debilitating neurological condition. And they’re succeeding!
Here are seven things we’ve learned about Alzheimer’s disease over the past year, inching us ever closer to a future where its worst effects are history.
1. We now have a good idea of what tau proteins look like
Tangled clumps of the protein called tau are commonly found in the brain cells of people who have died with Alzheimer’s.
While there are theories on how these tangles are related to the condition, there’s still a lot to confirm. Through a cutting edging imaging technique, we finally know what it looks like up close.
2. Bacteria seem to be playing some kind of role in Alzheimer’s development
As we learn more about the role of gut bacteria in potentially triggering neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, we’re discovering our relationship with microbes is a complex one.
Brains from deceased Alzheimer’s patients found to contain more bacteria than those of controls might hint at some kind of inflammation response. If so, we might have a way to prevent it in some individuals.
3. An ultraprecise blood test could spot the condition decades ahead
The tragedy of Alzheimer’s is by the time it’s spotted, those with the condition are often already experiencing its effects.
A simple blood test could mean better care and prevention is put into action well ahead of time. One in the works detects variations in beta amyloid levels that also build-up as plaques in the brain.
Best of all, it could potentially detect the condition 30 years before symptoms appear. Watch this space!
4. Alzheimer’s patients lose access to memories, but not all is lost
Forgetting loved ones and significant life events has a deeply emotional impact not only on those with Alzheimer’s, but those close to them as well.
We now understand that those memories aren’t erased by the condition, and could even be accessed again with the right treatment.
One study on mice identified these isolated memories and managed to use a form of light therapy to repair the connections. Advances in brain implants that stimulate memory retrieval could also provide much needed relief for those with ailing memories.
5. Ultrasound with immunotherapy offers hope of future treatment
Part of the problem with treating Alzheimer’s is the brain is awfully protective of its contents. Getting materials into damaged areas requires crossing a formidable barrier.
Several years ago, scientists found tiny air bubbles made to jiggle with waves of ultrasound could make this barrier between blood vessels and the brain ‘leak’ enough to allow antibodies to cross and target the amyloid plaques that are thought to cause Alzheimer’s disease.
More recently, the same researchers found the technique could work better when antibodies for tau proteins were introduced as well. So far it’s only been shown in mice, but one day it might be an efficient treatment in humans.
6. Beta amyloid can move into the brain from other places around the body
New research is suggesting the beta amyloid that aggregates in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s could originate somewhere else in the body.
This finding could help us track down a starting point for the condition, opening the possibility that its origins lie somewhere outside of the brain.
7. A drug used to treat type 2 diabetes could also be used to treat Alzheimer’s
While the two conditions couldn’t seem to be more different, past research has found something of a relationship between Alzheimer’s and type 2 diabetes.
A drug used to treat diabetes found to also affect several receptors in the brain appears to stimulate nerve cells enough to help stave off further damage – at least in mice. It could join the list of potential Alzheimer’s treatments currently in the pipeline.
While it’s easy to get excited over so many significant discoveries, there’s little doubt that many could well become dead ends.
But that still leaves us with a lot of hope; bit by bit, we will learn enough about the disease to eventually see the worst of it as a treatable, if not preventable condition.
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