Category Archives: Alzheimer’s

Have researchers discovered the Philosopher’s Stone of medicine?

iStock_000027186605SmallThe Philosopher’s Stone is a legendary substance that is believed to turn ordinary metals into gold. And in a way, researchers may have found it- a way to turn ordinary cells into extremely valuable new cells that could change the face of medicine.

Believe it or not, plants were the inspiration for this discovery. When exposed to environmental stressors, plant cells can change into immature cells that can develop into completely new plants. So scientists listened to the plants, and decided to see if they could create a similar response when ‘stressing’ mouse cells. And it worked! After trying several different tactics, they found that soaking cells in an acidic solution (think mildly acidic like vinegar, not sulfuric or hydrochloric acid) actually caused them to reprogram.

This breakthrough has enabled researchers to actually create cells that act like stem cells. Stem cells are important because they are flexible enough to be able to develop into any kind of cell (unlike skin cells, muscle cells, liver cells, etc. which already have defined purposes) with the right instructions. The use of stem cells isolated from embryos has been controversial, so this development has really been creating a buzz in the medical community!

Could ‘stressing’ cells help human patients? Is it possible that patients with limb amputations, nerve injuries, or degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s could benefit from this research? While it’s too early to tell, this is one amazing discovery that’s definitely worth keeping tabs on!

A child is always in a mother’s heart!

baby feetThe bond between a mother and her child can be incredibly powerful. But research shows that it’s more than just emotional- a mother can carry a part of her child with her throughout her life!

During pregnancy, a mother provides her baby with warmth, safety, and essential nutrients. But it’s not all one-sided- the baby protects its mother, too! Through the blood exchange via the placenta, cells from the baby enter the mother’s bloodstream and can migrate through her body, ultimately settling in the heart, brain and other tissues.

This specific research study showed that these cells were less common in the brains of women who had Alzheimer’s disease. Earlier research has shown that fetal cells that remain in a mother’s tissues can help her fight off breast cancer, and research in mice showed that fetal cells literally helped heal a mother’s heart- when a pregnant mouse had a heart attack, fetal stem cells rushed to the area and began changing into new heart cells! That mother-child bond is stronger than you thought!

So if you’re a mom, regardless of where your child is, it might help you to know that a part of your child will always be in your heart- literally!

New understanding of Alzheimer’s Disease for 2014!

Toward Digital EncryptionResearchers at Columbia University Medical Center have unlocked several important pieces of information about Alzheimer’s Disease: exactly where it starts, why it starts there, and how the disease spreads.

They’ve identified the specific part of the brain where Alzheimer’s starts- the lateral entorhinal cortex (LEC). The LEC normally accumulates tau, which makes it more likely to accumulate a specific protein called APP- and the combination of tau and APP damages neurons. Not good. 

And Alzheimer’s spreads like a domino effect. When neurons are compromised in the LEC, the neurons in surrounding areas also become compromised- including the hippocampus, which plays an important role in long-term memory storage.

Researchers used fMRI imaging and worked with humans and mice to discover this information. By showing that early changes can be detected using fMRI- and knowing exactly how the process works- detecting the disease before it spreads could be much easier. And this new imaging method could be a very helpful way to determine effectiveness of potential drugs! Read more here:

Alzheimer’s clues from a sleeping baby

close-up portrait of a beautiful sleeping baby on whiteAlzheimer’s clues from a sleeping baby? Sounds a little strange… but read on. Researchers at Brown University imaged the brains of 162 healthy, sleeping babies. Out of these infants, DNA testing showed that 60 had a specific gene variant (APOE ε4) that has been linked to an increase risk of Alzheimer’s disease. And imaging results showed that the brains of babies with this gene variant developed differently than those without it!

Before you worry about these babies, don’t- doctors aren’t assuming that babies with this variant will develop Alzheimer’s. About 25% of the U.S. population carries the APOE ε4 variant, and not everyone who has it will develop the disease- it plays other roles in blood and brain development as well, but is not fully understood. But about 60% of people who develop Alzheimer’s have at least one copy of the gene, so looking at early brain changes in healthy babies with the variant could really help researchers understand how this gene is associated with increased risk for the disease.

Rodents are often used in Alzheimer’s studies, because their generation times are so short that an animal can be followed from birth through adulthood in a matter of months. Hopefully, with the combination of human and animal studies, researchers can use this information to learn more about the gene’s role in predisposition to Alzheimer’s.

Alzheimer’s and a Trojan horse

iStock_000003250297XSmallA roadblock in treating diseases of the brain- like Alzheimer’s- is something called the “blood-brain barrier.” The brain is very well-protected in several ways- not only is is encased in bone, but cells lining the brain and spinal cord are so efficiently arranged that it’s very difficult for anything to enter the central nervous system from the bloodstream. As you can imagine, this barrier makes it difficult for drugs to cross, and this presents a challenge when researchers are specifically trying to target the brain with certain compounds.

Researchers at U Penn have come up with a solution. By linking a protein that can clear dementia-causing plaques from the brain with a molecule that is already able to cross the blood-brain barrier, they are able to get this protein into the brain- think of it as a tiny “Trojan horse.”

To test this, they linked a fluorescent protein to this Trojan horse and tried it in mice. After the mice consumed this new treatment, researchers were able to track the ‘glow’ of the protein and found that it was successfully incorporated into the brain and retina! And- in both mouse studies and cell studies- the treatment was successful in dissolving plaques! This is one Trojan horse that could prove to be a lifesaver. Read about it here:


Alzheimer’s, Marijuana, and Ibuprofen

I’ll admit, I tried it once in college. Once. That was enough for me- the very next day, I felt so dumb that I had no desire to try it again! Literally- I felt stupid. Attempting to study didn’t go too well- I couldn’t remember what I had just read! And apparently, that’s a common side effect of marijuana use. So the thought of using marijuana (THC)  to alleviate Alzheimer’s symptoms seems pretty far-fetched- the side effects of the marijuana are similar to the symptoms of the disease!

But after careful research, scientists have learned the reason for the unwanted side effects of THC. It causes an increase in levels of an enzyme called COX-2 in the part of the brain involved in learning and memory. And they found that using ibuprofen (an over-the-counter painkiller that happens to inhibit COX-2) minimizes these side effects.

This is important, because if unwanted side effects can be eliminated for patients currently using marijuana for medicinal purposes, it could have a much broader treatment range. It has been shown that mouse models of Alzheimer’s had reduced neuronal damage after THC treatment. What do you think? The use of medical marijuana can be controversial. What are your thoughts?

Sugary drinks may cause more damage than you think

Child drinking unhealthy bottled sodaThere’s plenty of research out there showing that sugary drinks can contribute to hyperactivity, obesity, heart problems, and diabetes. We already know that. But new research might make you pause the next time you grab a sugary drink from the fridge- or give your kids soda instead of water.

We know what sugar can do to your body. But what about your brain? It’s a really good question- and you need to pay close attention to the answer! In recent laboratory studies in Sydney, Australia, it was found that hundreds of proteins in the brain were altered in rats that consumed sugar water instead of plain water. In fact, there were more changes seen in these proteins than in rats given caffeine!

The most worrisome part? A significant number of these altered proteins are known to play a role in cellular lifespan, and 30% of these proteins are linked to conditions such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, schizophrenia, and cancer. If sugary drinks can play a role in the development of neurological disorders, that’s one more really good reason to choose water instead of soda or sugary juices!

What are your thoughts? I’d love to hear them!

Alzheimer’s progression tracked through retinal changes

Aging ConceptThe ability to diagnose Alzheimer’s before the onset of symptoms would be extremely valuable. By the time people show clinical signs of the disease, significant damage to the brain has already been done. Because of this, pro-active therapies in patients with pre-clinical signs of the disease could be much more effective than therapies aimed at patients in later stages of Alzheimer’s.

Researchers found that genetically engineered mice with Alzheimer’s showed thinning in a specific layer of retinal cells that were normal in control mice. They suspect that this retinal thinning occurs long before clinical symptoms of Alzheimer’s begins. If the loss of retinal neurons correlates to the loss of brain cells, it’s possible that early signs of the disease could be detected at routine eye checks!

And this works both ways- while retinal changes could help doctors detect patients in early stages of Alzheimer’s, it’s also possible that treatments developed for Alzheimer’s could be useful in the treatment of glaucoma.

Further research will continue to determine if these changes are also seen in human patients. Early detection is an important factor in preventing memory loss- and thanks to the mice, researchers may have a whole new approach!

Read more:

Alzheimer’s: Would you want to know?

iStock_000015944645XSmallIf you carried a biomarker that might mean that you were at a higher risk for developing Alzheimer’s Disease, would you want to know?

Researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis are looking at patients who have a family history of Alzheimer’s, and they are looking at certain proteins in an attempt to find out what kind of signatures Alzheimer’s Disease might create in the body. They hope to follow patients over many years to determine whether or not these biomarkers are actually accurate indicators of the disease. 

But that brings up a question- if a patient has biomarkers that researchers currently think might contribute to the development of the disease, should the patients be told about this? Opinions differ. Some researchers don’t want to share information about biomarkers with their patients until they are sure that this information is clinically relevant. Others believe that there could be some benefits to knowing.

What do you think? Would you want this information, or do you think it would cause more harm than good to have it hanging over your head? Let me know what you think- I’d love to get your opinion on this!

Copperheads curing cancer?

CopperheadVenomous snakes, while usually beautiful, aren’t really the kind of animals that come to mind when we think of “animals helping people.” But researchers are discovering that proteins in snake venom could be extremely effective as cancer treatments!

To put it as simply as possible, cancer cells are problematic because they spread through the bloodstream, attach to new sites in the body, and signal new blood vessels to grow and supply them with nutrients.

Snake venom, on the other hand, is problematic because it prevents clotting and disrupts the nervous system. But it turns out that in addition to preventing clotting (by preventing platelets from attaching together), copperhead venom proteins also prevent cancer cells from attaching to other cells. AND- research showed that the venom also prevented cancer cells from signaling new blood vessel growth! In mouse studies, these proteins were very successful in preventing the spread of cancer cells.

The next step will be testing this protein compound on women with breast cancer. And don’t think it stops there- read more about the potential for snake venom to treat stroke, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s patients. Rattlesnakes, pit vipers, mambas- the amazing research taking place is yet another reason to be in awe of these beautiful animals!