Dementia has always been near and dear to my heart, since my Dad had a rare form called diffuse Lewy body. I saw my mother hang in there until the bitter end, and watching him deteriorate was awful. So when research gets published that shows that science could one day cure this problem, I pay attention. This new study focuses on curing the brain cells that are dysfunctional. Let me explain.
Alzheimer’s Disease: The Most Common Dementia
Alzheimer’s disease, also known as senile dementia, is the most common form of dementia. It’s progressive and debilitating as it destroys brain cells and, therefore, memory and many other cognitive functions. Some of the more common symptoms of Alzheimer’s include forgetting routine tasks, conversations, family names, and so on; inability to perform everyday tasks correctly, such as driving, cooking, grooming; and changes in behavior and emotion (e.g., depression, delusions, mood swings).
What causes Alzheimer’s? While there are many risk factors for the disease, such as age, head trauma, lifestyle, and so on, the primary risk factor is believed to be genetic due to the presence of the ApoE4 gene.
What Is the ApoE Gene?
The Apolipoprotein E gene (ApoE) is a protein that comes in three potential forms: ApoE2, ApoE3, or ApoE4. While all three ApoE proteins can be beneficial, transporting important vitamins, fats, and so on throughout the body, ApoE4, in particular, is a protein that can go bad. The presence of the ApoE4 gene (which has the blueprints for making ApoE4) puts those that have a copy at double the risk for Alzheimer’s disease. And for those who happen to have two copies of ApoE4, one from each parent, there’s three to five times the risk for developing this devastating disease.
It’s important to note here that simply having the ApoE4 gene doesn’t guarantee an Alzheimer’s diagnosis later in life; it is a predisposition. Like many things, actually getting the disease is based on a combination of having the gene and a bad environment. Everything from lack of exercise, to a high-carb American diet, to living near a major highway throwing off noxious exhaust chemicals can seal the deal. This is called an epigenetic risk.
So if you have this ApoE4 gene, you need to take great care of your brain and body. Even if you have the ApoE2 or ApoE3 genes, depending on the genetic combinations inherited, there is also some Alzheimer’s risk, but it’s slight or minimal compared to the ApoE4 gene.
Knowing that ApoE4 is the primary genetic culprit here when it comes to Alzheimer’s disease, let’s take a look at the new research.
Researchers May Be on the Cusp of an Alzheimer’s Cure
The new study was conducted on human stem cells from both Alzheimer’s and healthy subjects. The Alzheimer’s subjects had two copies of the ApoE4 gene, while the healthy subjects had two copies of the ApoE3 gene.
First, researchers investigated why the ApoE4 gene increases risk and found that the gene produces an increased amount of the amyloid beta protein. This is significant because we know that this protein forms those plaques on the brain that are associated with Alzheimer’s. This can happen when amyloid nerve cell proteins become misfolded and form clumps that then deposit as those plaques on the brain (leading to Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s—read more about this at this link). The bigger discovery here, however, is that researchers also were able to eradicate Alzheimer’s in the human cells by using a small molecule to convert the ApoE4 protein structure to ApoE3. Whenever you see the phrase “small molecule” that’s scientific code for “we can make a drug”.
So with Alzheimer’s Disease remedied in a Human Cell Study, is this a cure for Alzheimer’s? The researchers plan to continue their work via clinical trials on human patients (rather than just human cell samples), so it will be exciting news if these findings are confirmed in patients and could potentially put us on the cusp of an Alzheimer’s treatment and cure. We’ll continue to follow.
Environmental Links to Alzheimer’s Dementia
While Alzheimer’s dementia is directly linked to genetic susceptibility, there are also environmental impacts that seem to hasten its onset. Studies have shown that those who are already at a genetic risk for Alzheimer’s disease also have a much higher risk of cognitive decline following surgery with general anesthesia. Another interesting link to Alzheimer’s disease is the use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). A few years ago, research was published that found a strong association between Alzheimer’s and NSAIDs, such as Celebrex. Another interesting study I covered last year actually linked Alzheimer’s dementia to car-exhaust toxins. While it might sound far-fetched, this was government-funded research on Alzheimer’s that studied the health effects of highway traffic on over two million people who lived close to highways. They found a direct connection between Alzheimer’s and subjects who lived closest to heavily traveled highways.
So certainly if you carry the ApoE4 gene, it’s best to limit environmental exposures that are linked to Alzheimer’s dementia.
The upshot? If just giving people a small molecule to fix the structure of the ApoE protein fixes Alzheimer’s, that could be the biggest discovery since penicillin. Back in the ’40s, the leading cause of death was an infection; today it’s chronic disease due to a combo of bad genes, a toxic environment, lousy eating, and no exercise. Hence, learning how to fix chronic disease is the new panacea.