New hope for an Alzheimer’s cure

Posted on May 1, 2007

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After my sophomore year of college, my father and I took my aging grandfather on a week-long road trip to Yellowstone National Park. We stayed in a beautiful old hotel on Lake Yellowstone and did day trips around the park, visiting my sister one day, going to Old Faithful another, watching bison and grizzly bears and wolves, etc. It was wonderful and beautiful, and it is one of the best times my dad and I have ever had. Unfortunately, my grandfather was suffering from Alzheimer’s at the time, and he thought he had traveled to Yellowstone not as a vacation and a chance to look at natural beauty in the springtime, but as a trip to doctors for yet another round of tests. I’ll never forget his surprise at seeing my aunt come out of our house when we got back from the trip (she had flown with him because he wasn’t safe to fly alone). It was heartbreaking.

A few years ago my old Toyota Camry started to click as I turned and accelerated. This is a sure sign of problems on a front wheel drive car, so my wife and I decided to donate it. After much discussion, we decided that we should find some non-profit in the Colorado area that could really use the money from the donation, and I went hunting on-line to see who would accept cars. Eventually I stumbled across the Colorado Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. And when I saw that they accepted cars, I immediately knew two things. The first was that they were going to get my Camry. The second was that my Yellowstone experience with my dad and grandfather (who had died in the interim) had affected me more profoundly than I realized at the time.

Ever since then, I’ve been attuned to health news about Alzheimer’s disease. There are genetic components to the disease (something that scares the crap out of me), there are environmental components, and while there is significant agreement as to the biological cause (plaques on neurons and fewer dendrite connections between neurons in the brain) there is no consensus on what causes those plaques to develop in the first place. And the research emphasis has been on figuring out ways to delay or prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s and on slowing its advance through the brain, not on curing Alzheimer’s once it’s damaged the brain.

Thankfully, “research emphasis” doesn’t mean that no-one was doing research on a cure, and new research is showing promise in reversing the main effect of Alzheimer’s – memory loss. A new study out of MIT and published in the current issue of Nature describes how mice with intentionally atrophied brains were put into an “enriched environment” specifically designed to exercise the mice’s minds and bodies recovered some mental functioning and memory (tested by putting the mice in a maze) that the mice in bare cages did not. In addition, an experimental class of drugs known as histone deacetylase (HDAC) inhibitors appeared to have the same effect as the enriched environment.

What this tells us is that physical exercise and an enriching, interactive environment appears to help reverse the brain atrophy associated with neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. It also tells us that a class of drugs historically used to fight cancer may also aid in reversing the effects, effectively curing the memory loss by enabling the brain’s neurons to regrow and reconnect to some amount of lost memory.

Experiments with mice are not experiments with people, and there are probably millions of things that could go wrong in transitioning from experiments with mice to human trials. The fact that some of the HDAC inhibitor drugs are already used to fight cancer means that transitioning to human trials may be quite a bit simpler than for a totally unknown class of drugs. And the experiments point to keeping the brain active (in ways similar to the adult-targeted video games described in this Discover Magazine article) as another way to stave off, or even reverse, neurodegenerative diseases.

Until now, all I have had was hope – hope that my grandfather’s genes had been diluted over two generations and hope that my environment was different enough from his that the two factors wouldn’t combine to consign me to a fate of memory loss and eventual dementia. Now, though, I know that the physical exercise I need to control my high blood pressure and high cholesterol will also help my brain. And I know that activities that keep my brain active too will also help stave off Alzheimer’s. And, if all of that isn’t enough, that there may be pharmacological ways to prevent and/or cure Alzheimer’s.

I’ve been hoping for a medical advance in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases in general (my grandmother had Parkinson’s disease) for a long time now, with little to show for my faith in medical progress. Now my hope has been partly answered.

[Crossposted at: The 5th Estate, The Daedalnexus]

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