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Will there be a cure for Alzheimer’s disease in our lifetime?

By Peter DiMaria

Around 5 million people live with Alzheimer’s Disease in the United States today. It is expected that almost 20 million people will have Alzheimer’s by 2050. Currently there is no cure and there are no treatment options to relieve the memory loss and other symptoms in Alzheimer’s patients.

There is, however, reason for optimism as important research is being developed in different parts of the United States.

Earlier this month I had the opportunity of visiting the Marine Biology Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where scientists are conducting some exciting research on Alzheimer’s disease. You may be asking: What does marine biology has to do with Alzheimer’s? I was surprised myself to find this type of research there. However, they already have achieved some interesting information on Alzheimer’s.

The scientists at the MBL, which is part of the University of Chicago, are studying the nervous system of the sea lamprey to understand chemical changes that could help us find the cure for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other brain related diseases. The sea lamprey (Petromyzon marinus) is an aggressive parasite that is considered a pest in many regions, including the U.S. Great Lakes. An ancient vertebrate, its lineage diverged from that of humans about 500 million years ago.

At the MBL, it is being used on research for two different reasons. The first is that the lamprey’s neurons are huge, many times larger than human hormones. This makes it easier to see how they react to drugs and substances related to Alzheimer’s disease, on the microscope.

It is known that Alzheimer’s Disease is caused by the accumulation of two different types of protein in the brain, named beta amyloid and tau. Beta amyloid is responsible for the plaques and tau accumulates in the tangles, both identified by Alois Alzheimer, the first scientist to recognize the disease, in 1906.

Although there is tau in the Alzheimer’s tangles, little is known about how this substance causes them, or if it does it at all. Scientists at MBL are adding tau to the lamprey neurons to see what happens there.

The other reason the lamprey is useful in Alzheimer’s disease is that its spinal cord regenerates completely, after being sectioned. In humans, a spinal chord sectioned means a lifetime of paralysis. The lamprey, instead, has all of its movements restored in weeks after that damage.

Therefore, the research is focused on trying to find which substances, genes and mechanisms are related to this regeneration. In a distant future, we could be talking a cure for spinal chord injury, but also the recovery of brain cells that die, in a number of neural diseases, including Alzhimer's and Parkinson's.

Looking into Alzheimer’s research all over the United States, there are really good reasons for excitement. At Duke University, for example, scientists published a groundbreaking study this year. They found evidence that the immune system could be behind the mechanisms that lead to Alzheimer’s disease. This is being considered the biggest breakthrough in Alzheimer’s research in years.

Duke’s research is trying to identify what is the mechanism of the disease and how amyloid and tau are originated. Experiments conducted with mice suggest certain immune cells that normally protect the brain begin to abnormally consume an important nutrient: an amino acid called arginine.

Blocking this process in mice with the use of a small-molecule drug prevented the characteristic brain plaques and memory loss of Alzheimer’s. That points to another possibility of treatment, if the same could be achieved in humans.

Photo: Duke University. In a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease, immune cells called microglia (shown in the black stain) become active in areas of the brain involved in memory and consume an important amino acid, arginine.

In other parts of the country and in Colombia, biotech companies have started large-scale clinical studies for the first drugs to treat Alzheimer’s. They developed substances that connect to beta amyloid in the brain and allow the immune system to identify them and destroy them. Some early results were encouraging and they could lead to the first treatment as early as in 2020.

LED lights could be the cure?

Another huge and exciting scientific advancement in the search for the cure came from the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), earlier in December.

Using LED lights flickering at a specific frequency, MIT researchers have shown that they can substantially reduce the beta amyloid plaques in the visual cortex of mice.

“If humans behave similarly to mice in response to this treatment, I would say the potential is just enormous, because it’s so noninvasive, and it’s so accessible,” says Li-Huei Tsai, the Picower Professor of Neuroscience, when describing a new treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, in a statement released by the MIT.

However, Tsai asks for caution in relation to their discovery. “It’s a big ‘if,’ because so many things have been shown to work in mice, only to fail in humans,” Tsai says. “But if humans behave similarly to mice in response to this treatment, I would say the potential is just enormous, because it’s so noninvasive, and it’s so accessible.”

Be part of the solution

What is the big motion force behind all these developments against Alzheimer’s? I would say that it is funding. Behind of each one of these initiatives there are organizations and individuals mobilizing a huge amount of resources to make it happen.

So, if you still haven’t made a donation to a non-profit organization I would recommend considering one of the many which are funding efforts against Alzheimer’s, like the Alzheimer’s Association. And join us later this year, in the march to end Alzheimer’s. Just imagine: we could actually see it over, in our lifetime, in one of the most groundbreaking achievements of the human spirit. And we could be proud that we helped to make it happen.

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