Alzheimer's disease, the most common form of dementia, causes memory loss, confusion, disorientation, mood and behavioral changes in more than 5 million Americans. Although no cure has been identified, significant advances have been made in prevention and treatment. This article provides an overview of recent studies.
Understanding Its Origin
Many medical advances in Alzheimer's treatment are a result of more thorough understanding of the disease. Triggered by a buildup of amyloid beta in the brain, Alzheimer's causes plaques that disrupt nerve cells. Until recently, the reason for this plaque production was unknown. But researchers recently identified a section of a cell and a protein that may be central to the process.1 The protein possibly involved, named PITRM1, is found in mitochondria. As it decreases in a cell, it may lead to an increase in the deposition of protein sediment in the brain.
"The results conclude a long discussion about the relationship between mitochondria and accumulation of amyloid in the brain. We have found that mitochondria play a crucial role in the process of protein deposition," explained researcher Janniche Torsvik, of the Mitochondrial Medicine & Neurogenetics research group at the University of Bergen in Norway.
Stem Cell Treatment
In an attempt to slow or reverse the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, researchers at the University Of Miami Miller School Of Medicine are using mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) in their newest research endeavor.2 The team hypothesizes that because of their anti-inflammatory properties and ability to develop into many different types of cells, MSCs will help reduce inflammation and will stimulate neural stem cells to proliferate and repair damaged areas of the brain associated with Alzheimer's.
It has also been hypothesized that MSCs can promote neurogenesis, the growth and development of nervous tissue, which would enable the brain to produce new cells in the hippocampus, where new memories form and Alzheimer's disease begins.
"This is a phase 1 study; we want to prove that it's safe," Bernard Baumel, principal investigator and an assistant professor of neurology at the Miller School of Medicine, told FoxNews.com. "We minimally would like to see that it slows down the progression of the disease."
Although this approach has already been tested in mice and produced positive results, the researchers hope to soon enroll 30 patients in the study to observe cognitive function, memory, quality of life and brain volume over the span of a year. Successful results could pave the way toward a breakthrough in Alzheimer's treatment.
Hormones have numerous effects on the development of Alzheimer's disease. Researchers3 at the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford University have uncovered evidence to suggest an association between the use of androgen deprivation therapy (ADT) in the treatment of prostate cancer and an increased risk of Alzheimer's disease in the general population.
The researchers examined the records of 2,400 cancer patients who were receiving ADT and compared them to a group of prostate cancer patients who were not receiving ADT. ADT is used to inhibit the growth of prostate cells in patients who have been diagnosed with prostate cancer. The results revealed that the patients in the ADT group were 88% more likely to develop Alzheimer's during the follow-up period.4
"Researchers have shown that all of the biochemical processes associated with Alzheimer's can be reversed by hormones, with testosterone being the most powerful hormone in this regard," explained Edward Friedman, PhD, author of The New Testosterone Treatment: How You and Your Doctor Can Fight Breast Cancer, Prostate Cancer, and Alzheimer's. "In 2010, researchers showed that super-physiological levels of testosterone in male mice carrying the Alzheimer's-like gene resulted in none of the mice ever developing any Alzheimer's symptoms, all of them having a better memory than normal mice, and none of them showing any age-related decline in memory."
Testosterone levels play an influential role in Alzheimer's disease because ADT also lowers levels of testosterone, as well as other male hormones that can fuel the growth of prostate cancer. Thus, as reported by the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford study, men who take testosterone-blocking drugs as treatment have nearly twice the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease as those using alternatives.
More Research Needed
By learning more about the nature of Alzheimer's disease, there is great hope for future patients diagnosed with this disease. Although much more research is necessary, these developments are a step in the right direction.
"The research on cognitive decline is still evolving," said Angela Geiger, chief strategy officer of the Alzheimer's Association, in a press release.5 "But there are actions people can take. Certain healthy behaviors known to combat cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes may also reduce the risk of cognitive decline. These include staying mentally active, engaging in regular physical activity, and eating a heart-healthy diet that benefits your body and your brain. There is also some evidence people may benefit from staying socially engaged with friends, family and the community."
1. Brunetti D, et al. Defective PITRM1 mitochondrial peptidase is associated with Aβ amyloidotic neurodegeneration. EMBO Molecular Medicine. 2016;8:176-190.
2. Researchers testing stem cells to treat Alzheimer's in first-of-its-kind trial. http://www.foxnews.com/health/2016/04/14/researchers-testing-stem-cells-to-treat-alzheimers-in-first-its-kind-trial.html
3. Androgen Deprivation Therapy and Future Alzheimer's Disease Risk. Journal of Clinical Oncology. http://jco.ascopubs.org/content/early/2015/12/07/JCO.2015.63.6266.abstract
4. Androgen Deprivation Therapy Linked to Alzheimer's Disease. Renal & Urology News. http://www.renalandurologynews.com/prostate-cancer/androgen-deprivation-therapy-linked-to-alzheimers-disease/article/458567/
5. Alzheimer's Association. New Research Summary: Lifestyle Changes Help Reduce Risk of Cognitive Decline. http://www.alz.org/documents_custom/national_abam_press_release.pdf
Lindsey Nolen is a writer based in the Philadelphia region.