Surprising. Frustrating. Promising. These words sum up the current thinking of the brightest minds in Alzheimer’s research. Come along as we explore up-to-the-minute news about how Alzheimer’s develops. We will also assess the quest for the holy grail: a cure for Alzheimer’s.
Alzheimer's Research: What We Know Now
What’s the relationship between poor sleep, frailty and gum disease?
All of these can contribute to Alzheimer’s! Here are seven intriguing insights from the front lines of Alzheimer’s research.
Part 1: How does Alzheimer’s develop and what are the best ways to treat it?
1. How the brain changes during early Alzheimer’s.
What’s been discovered: Recently, we explored the emotional impact of hearing you have dementia. But what is really happening during the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s disease? For the first time, researchers at the University of Eastern Finland have identified a series of changes that occur in the human brain during the initial phases of Alzheimer’s.
Specifically, researchers found a connection between changes in certain types of brain cells and the accumulation of tau protein. Next, researchers will turn their attention to whether these brain changes show up in blood samples or cerebrospinal fluid. If they do, this information could be used to identify Alzheimer’s biomarkers.
The bottom line: This promising breakthrough may create a path for new ways to treat the disease.
2. Neurons that create the conditions for Alzheimer’s.
What’s been discovered: When it comes to developing Alzheimer’s, all brain cells aren’t created equally. In fact, one kind of brain cell is more likely to attract abnormal protein. These “excitatory neurons” cause tau protein to build up, clog and kill healthy cells.
Much of the research on Alzheimer's disease in the past focused on the buildup of amyloid beta proteins in the brain. But a team of Ohio State University researchers has set its sights on a protein called tau.
Researcher Hongjun “Harry” Fu of Ohio State University explains, “if we can figure out the molecular determinants underlying vulnerability to this disease, it will help us better understand the development of Alzheimer’s disease and could lead to techniques for early detection and targeted treatment.”
The bottom line: Research conducted on unhealthy tau accumulation has only just begun. Upcoming studies will explore the way genes interact and create openings for neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s.
3. Frailty increases susceptibility for Alzheimer's.
What’s been discovered: One reason Alzheimer’s research is tricky is that it’s a complex disease with multiple causes. The Lancet Neurology journal published new research that demonstrates a relationship between frailty and Alzheimer’s.
The research revealed that older people who are frail are more likely to have increased symptoms than those who are stronger. In simple terms, a “frail brain” could be more likely to encounter neurological conditions such as dementia.
The bottom line: These findings could lead to a new set of preventive guidelines designed to delay the symptoms of dementia.
4. Why lighter sleepers might have a heavier risk of Alzheimer's.
What’s been discovered: Poor sleep has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease for some time. Now researchers are waking up to one of the root causes. Their discovery? Elderly people who experience less deep sleep have higher concentrations of tau brain protein. Elevated tau is a common symptom pointing to Alzheimer’s disease. It is also associated with cognitive decline and even brain damage.
The bottom line: Researchers now believe that sleep monitoring might lead to earlier detection of Alzheimer’s. Even daytime napping correlates with increased tau levels. Simply asking, “How much do you nap during the day?” could help medical professionals find patients who might benefit from additional screening.
5. Open wide and say, “gum disease might encourage Alzheimer’s.”
What’s been discovered: Researchers now believe that a bacterium that leads to gum disease may also be a contributing factor to Alzheimer’s. This means that one of the bacteria responsible for things like tooth loss and a higher risk of cancer could also encourage toxic proteins to build up in the brain. This accumulation of abnormal proteins is a leading suspect in the development of Alzheimer’s.
The bottom line: The connection between gum disease and Alzheimer’s is paving the way for new kinds of therapeutic drugs targeting Alzheimer’s disease.
6. Can exercise stop Alzheimer’s in its tracks?
What’s been discovered: It’s old news that regular exercise can help us feel better and live longer. But a new study found that exercise protects against cognitive decline. Equally important, the study reveals precisely how this occurs.
Research shared by Medical News Today in 2018 showed that half a year of regular exercise has the potential to “actually reverse the symptoms of mild cognitive impairment.” Now researchers from around the world are racing to explore the biological reasons that support this connection.
Research hints that a protein and hormone released during exercise might explain the slowing cognitive impairment that accompanies Alzheimer’s related diseases. In the study, scientists found that Alzheimer’s disease interferes with these normal hormonal signals.
The bottom line: Researchers are now studying these “signaling pathways” in hopes that it leads to improved treatments for cognitive problems.
7. Early-onset Alzheimer’s disease is increasing.
What’s been discovered: Alzheimer’s patients can be young. According to the Alzheimer’s Association spokesperson Kaylin Risvold, around 200,000 of the 5.7 million Americans live with early-onset Alzheimer's, meaning the disease developed before turning 65. Some of them were even diagnosed in their 40s.
The Chicago Sun Times recently shared the story of Chicago native Theresa Montgomery, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at 58 years old. According to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Montgomery and other African-Americans are more likely to develop early-onset Alzheimer’s and related diseases than other races.
At the same time, African-Americans and Latinos are less likely to be diagnosed. This is especially troublesome because researchers are increasingly able to screen and identify people at risk of developing dementia and treat Alzheimer’s.
The bottom line: While a cure remains elusive, there are things within our power that we can do to help maintain a high quality of life and promote a healthy brain. This includes everyday activities such as proper eating, regular exercise, and an active social life.
Part 2: Are we close to a cure for Alzheimer’s?
Do lifestyle changes have the power to reverse Alzheimer’s? Can a stool sample transplanted from a “super donor” turn back the clock on dementia? Is there a vaccine on the horizon that might prevent Alzheimer’s from developing in the first place? Dive in and explore some encouraging news about one of medicine’s most elusive pursuits.
1. Lifestyle changes the course of Alzheimer’s.
What’s been discovered: Last year, UCLA researchers reported on a different kind of treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. Each of the participants in the study showed dramatic improvements in both memory and cognition. Even more remarkable, the results didn’t come from a miracle drug or research breakthrough. Instead, it was centered around lifestyle modifications. This included a combination of a better diet, increased exercise, reduced stress, improved sleep, and additional changes.
Naturally, conducting research on this type of treatment brings many challenges. For one thing, it’s far easier to take a pill than watch our diet, exercise regularly and reduce stress. However, the results speak for themselves.
The bottom line: There are things we can do right now for people with Alzheimer’s and they’re as close as the kitchen and the yoga mat!
2. A message from the gut to your brain.
What’s been discovered: Sometimes medical breakthroughs come from unlikely sources. A recent round of research indicates that stools — yes, that’s right, stools — might cure a variety of diseases like Alzheimer’s. This area of study is based on research that discovered a relationship between gut bacteria and age-related maladies.
But not just any stool sample will do the trick. A certain kind of donor known as a “super donor” has rich microbial diversity. Fecal transplants from “super donors” may have the power to heal everything from inflammatory bowel disease to multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s disease!
The, um, bottom line: Researchers are seeking to understand how super donor stool samples help conquer chronic diseases. If and when they do, fecal transplantation could be a common therapy for treating illness.
3. The buildup to a vaccine that really works.
What’s been discovered: Researchers have been seeking a magic bullet for Alzheimer’s for decades. One of the most promising areas is in the study of the neurological characteristics of Alzheimer’s. Researchers believe that homing in on amyloid buildup might make it possible to halt Alzheimer’s in its tracks.
The bottom line: Currently being tested with a mouse model of Alzheimer’s, a team at the University of Texas has shown safe and effective results. Human trials are on the horizon. While this approach shows great promise, there is no timeline for the introduction of a vaccine that cures Alzheimer’s.
No Cure Doesn’t Mean Zero Options
Many years and billions of dollars in research later, we still can’t cure Alzheimer’s. So what can we do for our loved one’s — or ourselves — if we are diagnosed? You might wish to heed the advice of P. Murali Doraiswamy, the head of biological psychiatry at Duke University and a Senior Fellow at Duke’s Center for the Study of Aging.
Doraiswamy reminds us that while aging is the major risk factor for Alzheimer’s, Alzheimer’s is not a normal part of aging. It isn’t. The second thing to remember is that there’s a lot we can already do to stay healthier and enjoy a more productive life.