Alzheimer's Disease May Not Start In The Brain After All

Amlyoid-beta plaques building up on a neuron. Juan Gaertner/Shutterstock

Alzheimer’s disease involves the destruction of brain tissue, and as such, many have suspected it’s a condition that begins in the brain. A new study, published in Molecular Psychiatry, suggests we may have this completely wrong – the rest of the body may be involved.

It’s easy to see why this assumption has held sway for so long, and likely still will after this study has been considered. After all, it’s a neurodegenerative disease where the accumulation of proteins in the brain disrupts the connections between nerve cells, leading to their deaths.

An international team, led by the University of British Columbia (UBC) and China’s Third Military Medical University, paid more attention to the proteins themselves, called amyloid-beta.

They started off with two sets of mice. One set remained healthy, but the others carried a gene that made them produce excess amounts of amyloid-beta proteins. When both mice were physically attached to each other, the healthy mice “contracted” Alzheimer’s disease over time.

So far, so unexpected: The amyloid-beta was flooding into the healthy mice’s bodies, causing plaques to build up in their brains. Other features that are similar to those found in Alzheimer’s sufferers were also observed.

Here’s the thing, though. Amyloid-beta proteins aren’t just produced in the brain; they are also manufactured by blood platelets, vessels, and muscles. Until this experiment, it was only assumed that amyloid-beta produced in the brain could contribute towards the disease, but this experiment shows that those from outside can affect it.

The logic, then, is that perhaps Alzheimer’s is a “whole body problem”, one in which amyloid-beta production throughout the entire animal, or patient, is causing the disease to manifest itself. This means that although it could sometimes start with the brain, it could also begin elsewhere.

“Alzheimer’s disease is clearly a disease of the brain, but we need to pay attention to the whole body to understand where it comes from, and how to stop it,” co-author Professor Weihong Song of UBC said in a statement.

Alzheimer’s is something that invokes a great deal of fear in many, and it’s easy to see why. It’s the leading cause of dementia, and as it’s a progressive condition, the associated memory loss and cognitive difficulties get worse over time.

Although advanced age, being female, having a family history of it, and having various medical ailments all increase your risk of getting it, it’s still not clear what the primary triggers of it are and why some people are more vulnerable than others. Early detection is difficult, and at present, there is no cure.

The more we understand how it works, the closer we are to making this awful disease a thing of the past – and this study is another step in the right direction.

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