From the discovery of new ways to predict Alzheimer’s disease to the testing of new dementia medications, the recent research landscape has provided a range of exciting —and hopeful— news for seniors with Alzheimer’s and their loved ones.
Read on to find out about 10 recent scientific discoveries that have shed new light on our growing knowledge of Alzheimer’s.
A 2012 study in Sweden provided one of the biggest Alzheimer’s findings to date: biomarkers in cerebrospinal fluid —namely beta-amyloid and tau proteins— undergo characteristic changes 5-10 years before the onset of Alzheimer’s, a discovery that has promising implications both for prediction and treatment of the disease.
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According to an October 2012 research study at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada and a March 2013 report in JAMA Neurology, sleep problems such as poor sleep efficiency, daytime sleepiness and frequent napping may be a useful early predictor of Alzheimer’s. However, scientists don’t yet know whether the sleep problems are a result of the brain changes caused by Alzheimer’s or a contributing factor to the disease.
Researchers already know there’s a strong genetic component to Alzheimer’s. Earlier this year, a study reported in the journal PLOS ONE confirmed that people who have relatives with Alzheimer’s are more likely to show an earlier buildup of telltale cerebrospinal biomarkers — even those who appear healthy.
Scientists already know there is a link between the brains of people with Down syndrome and the brains of people with Alzheimer’s —both conditions result from disruptions on chromosome 21. This means that people with Down syndrome are valuable as a source of study for the disease. In a study of Down Syndrome individuals reported in a 2013 issue of PLOS ONE, researchers found that high levels of cholesterol —particularly LDL— can cause disruptions to chromosome 21 that lead to Alzheimer’s.
In studies released earlier this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and the Journal of Cellular Biochemistry, green tea extract and cocoa polyphenols both provided a protective effect against the formation of beta-amyloid plaques in the brain.
We’ve all heard of the beta-amyloid plaques that are characteristic of Alzheimer’s, but scientists have also found that excess tau proteins contribute to cognitive degeneration and dementia in people with the disease. A study published in the April 2013 issue of Neuron reported that tau protein levels are linked to four different genes, three of which are unrelated to amyloid levels. They say this may help explain why some individuals with high beta-amyloid do not end up developing AD.
Did you know that the prevalence of Alzheimer’s is lower in Mediterranean countries? A 2013 study reported in ACS Chemical Neuroscience reveals that a substance called oleocanthal, found in extra virgin olive oil, helps boost the production of key proteins and enzymes that help remove beta-amyloids from the brain.
In individuals already possessing a genetic predisposition to Alzheimer’s, uncontrolled hypertension may lead to much higher amyloid levels, and thus a greater risk of developing the disease, according to a 2013 study in Journal of the American Medical Association Neurology.
Clinical trials have revealed that a drug called ORM-12741 may improve memory-related problems in patients already receiving drug treatment for Alzheimer’s, reports the American Academy of Neurology. After three months of treatment, patients receiving ORM-12741 scored slightly higher on memory tests than they had previous to treatment, while those receiving a placebo scored worse.
Thanks to new brain scanning techniques and DNA screening tests, researchers at UCLA have discovered a new genetic risk factor for Alzheimer’s: subjects with a variation on a gene called SPON1 had weaker brain connections that predisposed them to dementia risk. The study was reported in the 2013 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Have we missed any exciting Alzheimer’s findings that you’d like to share? Share your stories in the comments below.