Alzheimer’s Disease: A Scary Monster for Adults

Claire Galloway

Originally published March 6, 2015

photo by: kristen thomas

photo by: kristen thomas

As a child, you may have feared dying at the hands of ghosts, zombies, and witches. As an adult, you have probably outgrown your irrational fear of monsters creeping into your room to quickly kill you. Instead, now you may harbor an all-too-rational fear of Alzheimer’s disease creeping into your brain to kill you in a torturous and demeaning manner, and slowly stealing all your memories in the process. If so, you are not alone. Over 1 in 5 adults were more fearful of developing Alzheimer’s disease than almost any other disease – second only to cancer.

Unfortunately, simply learning the facts about Alzheimer’s disease prevalence and treatment options is enough to strike fear in the bravest of hearts. Currently, 5 million Americans 65 and older have Alzheimer’s disease. If the disease incidence is left unchecked, this number is expected to exceed 7 million over the next 10 years. Prepare yourself for the scarier news: no one has found a silver bullet to stop the disease. Although research into Alzheimer’s disease has been ongoing for over a century, it is still unknown what causes the vast majority of Alzheimer’s disease cases. Similarly, the three drugs that are FDA-approved for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease prevent symptoms of the disease, such as cognitive decline… temporarily… in roughly half the patients. Many other drugs that were developed to target the underlying disease mechanisms have shown promise when tested in animal models, but none have proven to be viable treatment options when tested in humans.

If you haven't already thrown down this magazine and run away in terror, take heart. It is not as if you are completely defenseless against the Alzheimer's disease monster. In actuality, there are lifestyle choices you can make now to reduce your risk of Alzheimer's disease. As you may have guessed, many choices that are linked to overall health are also correlated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer's disease. For example, eating a diet low in saturated fat and high in fresh produce, as well as exercising - even if it's just a slow walk – may reduce your risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

In addition, new and creative research directions are flooding the shadowy field of Alzheimer's disease research with light. Using in vivo electrophysiology to record from animal models of Alzheimer’s disease has potential to help researchers understand how Alzheimer’s disease alters communication between brain regions as animals are awake and even performing memory tasks. In vivo electrophysiology studies the electrical properties of cells within living animals, and can be used to measure the activity of cells within a specific brain region at a millisecond time scale. In the context of Alzheimer’s disease, this technique could offer insight into if and how the protein abnormalities that characterize Alzheimer’s disease change the nature and quality of communication between regions of the brain before cells actually begin to die.

For example, studies in Alzheimer’s disease patients show that the hippocampus, a brain region that is important for memory and disproportionately targeted by Alzheimer’s disease pathology, changes dynamically as Alzheimer’s disease progresses. In very early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, hippocampal neurons are hyperactive. Later in Alzheimer’s disease, hippocampal neurons become underactive. One important function of hippocampal cells is that, by selectively increasing their firing rate in distinct locations of a given environment, collectively these cells create a mental map of the environment. The mental map of rodents who are aged, or given drugs that impair memory, is degraded. In vivo electrophysiology techniques will allow researchers to record from the hippocampus of rodent models of Alzheimer’s disease, and tell us whether brain changes during early stages of Alzheimer’s disease interfere with the ability of hippocampal cells to provide an accurate and reliable mental map of spatial location. Not only could this research help us gain a better understanding of how Alzheimer’s disease attacks our brains, it could be used as a sensitive measure to evaluate how new therapeutics affect brain function before being tested in humans.

So, if you or your loved ones can't sleep at night over the fear of Alzheimer's disease, rest a little easier knowing there are practical steps you can take to reduce your risk of disease, and that Alzheimer’s disease researchers are working around the clock to beat one of your scariest adult monsters.