Alzheimer’s: Scientists Find New Way to Save Neurons

As scientists are learning more about Alzheimer’s disease everyday, there is still yet a cure for the devastating disease. One of those new findings from a study at the Tokyo Medical and Dental University in Japan is that neurons die earlier than experts previously thought in Alzheimer’s disease, and stopping the process could prevent the disease from ever developing.

What we know

Alzheimer’s disease is the leading cause of dementia.

There is no known cure.

5 million people in the United States live with Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer’s symptoms can begin with memory loss and confusion before progressing to difficulties with orientation, thinking, and speech.

Scientists have found sticky clumps of a protein called beta-amyloid in the brains of people who have died of the disease. This protein has been a major target for research to date, though all have been found unsuccessful

It is believed that the process leading to Alzheimer’s disease starts many years before diagnosis. Meaning that by the time people join clinical trials, it may be too late to help them. The early stages of the disease, therefore, represent a critical window in which researchers are trying to capture. 

The new developments

Researchers from Tokyo Medical and Dental University began looking at an earlier phase of cognitive decline called mild cognitive impairment (MCI). MCI describes the small changes to brain function like what you associate with as signs of Alzheimer’s, such as forgetting the names of items or losing things more often than usual. 

Although it is not always the case, people with MCI are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease later on. Due to this, researchers consider it to be the very early stages of the disease.

In the lab

Researchers studied mice, people with MCI, and people with Alzheimer’s disease for measurements of neuronal death

They measured how many neurons had died using a protein called HMGB1, which is released by dying neurons. Then, they measured the levels of this protein in the fluid surrounding the spinal cord of 26 people with MCI and 73 people with Alzheimer’s disease.

The researchers also carried out an innovative new test, using a new biomarker called pSer46-MARCKS. This test was to detect dying neurons at different stages of the disease in the brains of Alzheimer’s disease model mice and people with MCI.

The researchers were surprised to find that neurons died much earlier than they expected. Actually, the participants with MCI had more neuronal death than those with Alzheimer’s disease.

Interestingly, the researchers found the missing protein called YAP trapped inside clumps of beta-amyloid. This finding may change how scientists think about Alzheimer’s disease and the amyloid hypothesis.

Does this mean new treatment?

The researchers believe that their findings could lead to a new treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. “We predict that novel Alzheimer’s disease therapies will be developed,” says senior author, Hitoshi Okazawa.

To test a potential treatment, the team gave the mice gene therapy to replace the missing YAP protein. The treatment stopped the animals’ neurons from dying, improved cognitive function, and even prevented beta-amyloid plaques from forming. This new method of measuring dying neurons could make it easier for doctors to diagnose people with MCI or Alzheimer’s disease. At the moment, no objective biomarkers are available to aid the diagnosis of MCI. Though the research continues.


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