It is estimated that as the population ages, the number of Alzheimer’s patients will grow to 44 million by the year 2050. One of the most heartbreaking things about this disease is the fact that there’s no known cure for it yet. But research on Alzheimer’s disease is constantly progressing and a new discovery may finally be able to offer some answers.
A recent study by the Columbia University Medical Center has uncovered the part of the brain that Alzheimer’s disease originates in, a huge step forward in possibly developing a cure for the age-related disease. The researchers followed 96 seniors for three-and-a-half years through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans of the brain. While none of the participants had Alzheimer’s at the start of the study, 12 of them had developed the age-related disease by the time it ended.
By comparing the scans of the subjects who remained healthy against the ones who developed Alzheimer’s, scientists were able to pinpoint that the disease starts in the lateral entorhinal cortex, or LEC, the part of the brain that leads to the hippocampus, which, among other functions, is where long-term memories are stored. Because the LEC is affected by Alzheimer’s, so are certain aspects of the hippocampus.
The findings revealed that Alzheimer’s compromises proper neuron function in the LEC because it encourages the accumulation of two proteins: tau and amyloid precursor protein. When these two proteins coexist in the LEC, it leads to the neuron damage that sets the stage for Alzheimer’s disease.
The researchers behind the study suspect that, because the neurons in the LEC are compromised, the neurons in surrounding areas of the brain also become compromised. This is why Alzheimer’s disease gradually spreads to other parts of the brain, particularly the parietal cortex, which is the part of the brain that controls navigation, spatial orientation, speech, visual perception, and various other cognitive functions.
Scientists hope that with this latest discovery, they will be able to detect Alzheimer’s earlier and treat it more effectively, before it spreads to other parts of the brain. Although these findings are still in the early stages and won’t necessarily lead to a solid cure, they definitely offer more insight into the early onset of Alzheimer’s, which is the first step in figuring out how to prevent and, hopefully one day, cure the disease completely.
MacRae, F., “Source of Alzheimer’s pinpointed – study,” Independent Online web site, December 23, 2013; http://www.iol.co.za/scitech/science/news/source-of-alzheimer-s-pinpointed-study-1.1626134#.UrmId9JDvSk.
“Source of Alzheimer’s disease identified for first time,” The Financial Express web site, December 23, 2013; http://www.financialexpress.com/news/origin-of-alzheimers-disease-identified-for-first-time/1210786?rhnews.
“Study unlocks mysteries about Alzheimer’s,” Business Standard web site, December 23, 2013; http://www.business-standard.com/article/news-ians/study-unlocks-mysteries-about-alzheimer-s-113122300371_1.html.