ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE: CLUES FOR A CURE — Dr Rosie Staniforth 3rd September 2018

 

 

 

There has a notice­able increase in media atten­tion in recent years to the matter of ageing and it asso­ci­ated health prob­lems and espe­cially mental health.  We all know people suf­fer­ing from the symp­toms includ­ing memory loss, con­fu­sion, mood changes and com­mu­nic­a­tion skills and will have observed that Alzheimer’s becomes more common with advan­cing age.

Our speaker this week is a lec­turer in Sheffield University’s Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry.  Perhaps because her sub­ject was so rel­ev­ant to our mem­bers’ age group she not only spoke to a full house but cap­tured the interest of those present.

Dr Staniforth com­menced her present­a­tion with an out­line of her subject’s his­tory and a sum­mary of past research.  It was a story of much achieved but, like a long jour­ney, still much to be dis­covered before the des­tin­a­tion is reached.

Alzheimer’s Disease –the most common (about 70% of cases) form of Dementia- is now one of the lead­ing causes of death, still behind Cancer but now edging ahead of chronic heart dis­eases.  There are around 850,000 suf­fer­ers in the UK, a figure set to rise to over two mil­lion by 2050.  Despite this rapid growth, research fund­ing –both public and private- is pro­por­tion­ately way behind those dis­eases, com­mand­ing only 3% of med­ical research and expendit­ure in this coun­try. Dr Staniforth wondered if this was a symp­tom of an ageist soci­ety or faith in our abil­ity to under­stand the brain.  Despite the fund­ing prob­lems, the sci­ence into the causes and mech­an­isms of Alzheimers’s dis­ease is ongo­ing and we know that mul­tiple factors con­trib­ute to the devel­op­ment of the dis­ease.  These include dam­aged pro­teins, genet­ics, neur­onal energy fail­ure, inflam­ma­tion and vas­cu­lar dis­ease.

The dis­cov­ery of Alzheimer’s dis­ease is attrib­uted a German Scientist of that name.  Alois Alzheimer (1864–1915) was a Psychiatrist and a Neuro Pathologist who worked in the fields of epi­lepsy and lunacy, ini­tially in Frankfurt am Main.  Drawing on the work of the Polish-born sci­ent­ist, Rudolph Virchow (1821–1902) and others, Alzheimer was the first to dis­cover the import­ance and impact of the build-up of nat­ur­ally occur­ring pro­teins on the func­tion of the brain.  He found there were two main types of pro­tein which, as the dis­ease pro­gresses, cause more and more nerve cells to become dam­aged:

  • Amyloid. This pro­tein forms plaques or clumps that can ‘mis­fold’ and which accu­mu­late in the brain, caus­ing dis­rup­tion to normal mental pro­cesses, and
  • Tau. This pro­tein accu­mu­lates into tangles within nerve cells in the brain, caus­ing massive dis­rup­tion and cell death.

The aim of research is to dis­cover ways of remov­ing the amyl­oids which are toxic to the body’s nervous system and nor­m­al­ise the pro­duc­tion of Tau, together with redu­cing neuro-inflammation and other symp­toms.  Our Speaker showed us photos and dia­gram­matic examples of the brain in vari­ous stages of decay. 

Dr Staniforth con­tin­ued her present­a­tion by expand­ing on some of the research cur­rently under­way to try to find a cure for this dis­abling dis­ease.   Such research is greatly assisted by the devel­op­ment of mag­netic res­on­ance and micro­scopy equip­ment that can reveal the detail of how pro­teins clump together to form amyl­oid.  The impact of amyl­oid modi­fy­ing agents is a major area of study while another is improv­ing our under­stand­ing of how amyl­oids become toxic to the body’s nervous system.  Brain cells do not regen­er­ate as easily as other cells in the body and there was a fur­ther need to under­stand more of how the body trans­ports amyl­oids, spread­ing the toxin through the brain. Interestingly, modern drugs have not been the com­plete answer.  Everyday plants such as mint, rose­mary, sage and tea con­tain help­ful anti-oxidants but are also excel­lent at dis­solv­ing away these amyl­oids.  A great deal remains unknown and not under­stood but she was con­fid­ent that, given time and resources, cures could be found.

In con­clu­sion, our speaker touched on how we might reduce the like­li­hood of con­tract­ing Alzheimers’s and others related such as Parkinson’s and Hodgkinson’s.  She sup­por­ted the well- rehearsed advice of med­ical prac­ti­tion­ers applied to these afflic­tions as to many others: a bal­anced diet, reg­u­lar exer­cise, reduced weight, stress avoid­ance, no smoking and modest con­sump­tion of alco­hol.

Dr Staniforth’s talk stim­u­lated an unusu­ally long ses­sion of ques­tions and answers which ranged from redu­cing the disease’s effects, its early detec­tion, to the use of Marijuana.  She was warmly thanked for provid­ing a most inter­est­ing and well- presen­ted ses­sion. Hopes were expressed that a future return visit might be made to update us on research devel­op­ments in this import­ant field.

Michael Clarke