Scientific Advancements in Alzheimer’s Research
Research into Alzheimer’s disease started after 1906, when Dr. Alois Alzheimer discovered changes in the brain tissue of a woman who had died of an unusual mental illness. The woman had experienced memory loss, unpredictable behavior and language problems. After her death, the doctor examined the woman’s brain where he found many abnormal clumps and tangled bundles of fiber.
Doctors now refer to those clumps as amyloid plaques. They describe the bundles of fibers as neurofibrillary, or tau, tangles. Researchers are still investigating the role plaques and tangles have on Alzheimer’s disease.
Scientists are also looking into how the loss of connections between special nerve cells, known as neurons, in the brain affects Alzheimer’s disease. Neurons transmit messages between different parts of the brain, and transmit messages from the brain to organs and muscles throughout the rest of the body.
Researchers continue to work to understand the complex brain changes involved in the development and progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Abnormal deposits of proteins trigger the formation of tau tangles and amyloid plaques throughout the brain. Neurons stop functioning normally so they lose connection with other neurons and eventually die.
These changes likely begin a decade or so before memory problems or other cognitive issues appear, according to the National Institute on Aging. During these early years, people may not experience symptoms even though changes are occurring in their brains.
The changes seem to start in the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain associated with the formation of memories. As the disease develops, an increasing number of neurons die. This widespread death of neurons affects additional parts of the brain. These areas of the brain begin to shrink. Damage is widespread by the final stage of Alzheimer’s disease, and brain tissue has shrunk considerably.
History of Scientific Advancements in Alzheimer’s Research
In the first few decades following Dr. Alzheimer’s discovery, research into brain changes was difficult because of limitations to the scientific technology available at the time. The 1931 invention of the electron microscope, capable of magnifying up to one million times, allowed researchers to study brain cells in more detail.
Scientists developed the scale for assessing the cognitive decline in older adults in 1968. In the decades since, researchers have developed scales that can estimate the extent of a patient’s brain damage by assessing the level of memory impairment.
In 1984, researchers identified beta-amyloid, which is the primary component of Alzheimer’s brain plaques and is the likely trigger of nerve cell damage. Scientists discovered that tau protein is the key component of tangles in 1986. Researchers identified the first gene associated with certain forms of Alzheimer’s disease in 1987.
Today’s Advancements Using Medical Technology
Currently, most doctors diagnose Alzheimer’s disease by documenting mental decline. Because Alzheimer’s disease causes damage to the brain long before it causes symptoms, doctors can only diagnose the disease after substantial brain damage has already occurred.
Modern brain imaging techniques allow scientists to see the development and spread of plaques and tangles in living brains. Brain scans also help doctors see changes in brain structure and function in living patients.
Advances in medical technology help today’s researchers learn more about the amyloid plaques, tau proteins and other biological features of Alzheimer’s disease so that they can diagnose it sooner. Advances may also someday lead to treatments.
The use of modern medical technology is particularly important because they allow researchers to detect and explore the earliest changes in the brain and body fluids, years before the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease appear.
Researchers are now using the most advanced medical technology and scientific approaches to investigate the underlying causes of Alzheimer’s disease, chart its progression in living patients and work towards developing treatments for the disease.
Much of the work focuses on understanding how genetics might play a role in Alzheimer’s disease. Scientists working in the Alzheimer’s Disease Genetics Consortium collect and analyze genetic data from thousands of families around the world, identifying genes associated with a higher risk of developing the disease.
Researchers in the Late-Onset Alzheimer’s Disease Genetics Study are gathering up and analyzing genetic information from at least 1,500 American families that have at least two members with the disease.
Scientists are also investigating new ways to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease with blood tests, optical imaging and even speech patterns. Researchers use advanced technology to discover new ways to watch communication between neurons or remove Alzheimer’s plaques. New imaging techniques may someday help guide and assess treatments with the help of positron emission tomography (PET) scans. Other research focuses on establishing or ruling out associations between Alzheimer’s disease and lack of sleep, diet and even slow walking.
There are many questions surrounding Alzheimer’s disease but one of the biggest mysteries is why it mainly affects older adults. Scientists hope to answer this question by using advanced technology to get a better understanding of normal brain aging. They are looking into how age-related changes in the brain, such as inflammation and shrinking of the brain, might damage neurons in ways that lead to Alzheimer’s disease.
These scientific advancements will someday give medical professionals a better understanding of the causes and progression of Alzheimer’s disease, and help make diagnosis of the disease easier. These advances may lead to the new imaging techniques, blood tests and other diagnostic tools of tomorrow.
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