Unravelling Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia that makes people forget names, places and things and lose track of time and events irretrievably still remains a mystery. Science has so far failed to fully understand the exact cause of this brain disorder, let alone develop a cure. Alzheimer’s strike at old age and occasional memory lapse is the first symptom. The condition deteriorates rapidly and those suffering from its severest forms may not be able to recognize even their closest family members. Moreover, the patients often experience delusions and hallucinations.

The name Alzheimer’s disease entered the medical lexicon in 1907 following a description of the condition by the German physician Dr Alois Alzheimer at a scientific meeting the year before. Dr Azlheimer happened to treat a female patient in 1901, who had some peculiar symptoms like problems with memory, unfunded suspicions about her husband’s fidelity and difficulty in speaking and understanding what was said to her. After her death, which was about five years later, he performed an autopsy on her. He found that her brain had shrunken dramatically, particularly in the cortex region, the outer layer involved in memory, thinking, judgement and speech.

We still do not know the cause of the disease, but recent advances in neuro-imaging techniques have shown that those suffering from it have two abnormal structures in their brain: plaques formed of deposits of a sticky protein fragment called beta-amyloid, and tangled or twisted fibres of another protein called tau inside the dying neurons.

Most people develop plaques as they age, but those with Alzheimer’s tend to form them on a much larger scale and earlier than others. Ever since the discovery of these unusual elements in the brain of Alzheimer’s patients, scientists have been trying to find out what causes the trigger for their formation.

Recently published in an article of Nature Medicine, came up with an interesting finding. The scientists first isolated beta-amyloid from the brains of Alzheimer’s patients, and separated them as monomers, oligomers and insoluble plaque. They then injected these separately into the brains of mice. They found that memory was impaired only when soluble beta-amylid oligomers were administered the hippocampus (brain region where memory is stored) of the animals.

In an study by researchers in the UK and Canada, which appeared last week in Nature Cell Biology, says that the best way to treat Alzheimer’s is to trick the brain into not producing the tau protein, which forms the aggregates called tangles. The scientists, who studied the chemistry and structure of the tau protein, designed an enzyme inhibitor which uses a sugar molecule to lower the production of the protein.With the new insights, scientists hope that the management of Alzheimer’s disease, which is estimated to cost more than $300 billion a year-may become easier. Perhaps here may soon be drugs that can treat the worst of neuro degenerative disorders.

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