Alzheimer’s Disease is the most common type of dementia, accounting for 60 to 80 percent of all dementia cases. In patients suffering from this disease, the brain shows an accumulation of the beta-amyloid protein or plaque, resulting in cell degeneration and atrophy, and affecting communication between brain cells. This is due to a deficiency in the neurotransmitter that directly affects memory, known as acetylcholine.
The accumulation of beta-amyloid begins in the part of the brain known as the hippocampus. This part of the brain plays a crucial part in the conversion of short-term memories into long-term memories (which is necessary for the learning of new information), a process known as “consolidation”. Although the hippocampus is not the part of the brain that stores information, if this part of the brain atrophies or damages, patients begin to have issues with memory, particularly short-term memory. For example, a patient may completely forget and be unable to recall what they did or said to someone just 10 or 15 minutes earlier. From there, damage can spread to other regions of the brain and affect learning, feelings and emotions, language, and behavior, resulting in an inability to care for oneself and, finally, becoming a burden on one’s family.
Alzheimer’s is also one of the diseases caused by genetic mutation, supported by a variety of factors (complex disorders or multifactorial inheritance) including increased age, genetic disorders, existing chronic diseases such as dyslipidemia, diabetes, high blood pressure, chronic depression or chronic stress disorders, certain conditions of the body, or risky behaviors such as injury to the head or brain, smoking, or brain infection.
Currently, it is possible to carry out tests and detect gene mutations linked to Alzheimer’s, such as Apo E , APP, PSEN1 and PSEN2, as these are groups of genes found in patients with a family history of Alzheimer’s disease. Genetic testing for this type of risk can be considered as another way to help us be cautious and careful in the way we live our lives. If the results of the examination tell us that we are at risk, this means that due to our family history, we are more likely to develop the disease than others, and thus we can take steps to modify certain lifestyle behaviors that could help slow the progression of the disease before we reach old age (Early Risk Assessment Quiz for Alzheimer’s)
At present, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s. Once you find out you have the disease, you can only slow down the progression of the disease, and take steps to improve the quality of life of the person with Alzheimer’s. However, a world-class pharmaceutical research and development team is currently working on developing a new drug that helps to prevent the formation of beta-amyloid plaque in the brain. They are using research concepts based on certain mechanisms of a microorganism found in yogurt known as streptococcus thermophilus, which has its own immune protection system able to edit parts of its own genome in the event of an abnormality or a virus infection. We call this the CRISPR/Cas9 system.
The discovery of this CRISPR/Cas9 system, along with our current knowledge of DNA synthesis allows researchers to modify DNA sequences in living cells as needed, whether to add to, delete or change specific DNA sequences. This also includes the development of nanoparticles that are able to penetrate the blood-brain barrier, and help to repair cells or gene abnormalities in the brain.
While it may not be in our very near future, this is still good news for us all—not only for Alzheimer’s patients, but also for those suffering from other immune system disorders, cancer, AIDs as well as other genetic disorders.
Master of Science in Clinical and Public Health Nutrition (Distinction). UCL Division of Medicine, London. , 2016