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.