What is Alzheimer’s disease?
Alzheimer’s disease is a brain disorder that strikes less than four percent of people over the age of 65. It begins with memory loss. As it gets worse, sufferers become confused and irritable, and have trouble with language. Within about seven years, patients die because their nervous system can’t control their bodily functions.
What happens to the brains of Alzheimer’s sufferers?
The brain begins to change even before the symptoms start. Nerve cells, or neurons, accumulate abnormal blobs of protein, called amyloid plaques. Tiny fibers of protein called tangles accumulate inside neurons disrupting their function. Neurons die in massive numbers, and the patient’s brain shrinks.
Do we know what causes all this?
Nobody knows for sure, but neuroscientists do have hypotheses. All cells manufacture many kinds of proteins to perform the chemical functions of life. Proteins are long chains of smaller molecules called amino acids. Proteins can’t do their jobs unless the chains fold up into exactly the right shape. Neuroscientists think that in Alzheimer’s certain proteins don’t fold up properly, and accumulate in the brain as useless junk that becomes toxic to neurons.
Can we do anything to stop this terrible disease?
Not yet. But in 2014 researchers discovered a way to detect the misfolded proteins before other symptoms of the disease appear, using a sample of the fluid that surrounds the brain. Since neurons can’t repair themselves, any attempt to stop the disease must start early, before the damage is done. Scientists hope that early detection is the first step toward developing a treatment.
Alzheimer’s Fact Sheet (National Institute on Aging)
About Alzheimer’s (Alzheimer’s Foundation of America)
Unraveling the Mystery of Alzheimer’s Disease (National Institute of Health)