The Origin of Alzheimer’s Disease

  • 24 Aug 2015
  • Reading time 9 mins
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One of the most dangerous and incorrect assumptions often made about Alzheimer’s is that it is a natural consequence of ageing – and that therefore, the longer you live, the more likely you are to develop it. This is simply not true. Many people live to a ripe old age without any significant loss in mental faculties. Only a small proportion of older people develop dementia and Alzheimer’s.

In some countries, for example India and China, that proportion appears to be less than half that occurring in Britain. When people in one country suffer much more from a disease than people of a similar age in another country, this is a sure sign that the difference has something to do with diet, lifestyle or other environmental factors – or genetic variance. We can rule out genetic differences as the major factor, particularly because Chinese and Indian people who emigrate to Britain soon acquire a similar risk for developing dementia. In any event only one in a hundred cases of Alzheimer’s is caused by genes.2

A decline in memory and concentration is not the same thing as a diagnosis of dementia or probable Alzheimer’s, although it does mean your chances of developing these conditions are higher. Every year roughly a million people in Europe will develop age-related cognitive impairment. Within a few years, more than 50 per cent, and possibly 80 per cent, of these people will develop dementia.3 Currently, there are an estimated 750,000 people with dementia in Britain, and some 24 million worldwide.

Roughly speaking, 50 to 70 per cent of people diagnosed with dementia will end up diagnosed with probable Alzheimer’s, while 20 per cent will be given a diagnosis of vascular dementia, caused by constricted blood flow to the brain due to blocked arteries. There are other forms, such as dementia with Lewy bodies, fronto-temporal dementia and dementia caused by a stroke, a bleed in the brain or a brain tumour. But as Alzheimer’s is the most widespread, let’s look at it in depth.

The anatomy of Alzheimer’s

Dementia – including Alzheimer’s – is an insidious condition. In the early stages, sufferers have increasing symptoms of absentmindedness, low mood and an inability to learn new things. Judgement, and their ability to function intellectually and socially, begin to go awry. The person may repeatedly forget to turn off the iron, or may not recall which medicines they took in the morning. They may start to show mild personality changes, such as a lack of spontaneity or a sense of apathy and a tendency to withdraw from social interactions.

Later on, there will be a loss of logic and memory, disorientation and poor coordination. Speech deteriorates and paranoia may appear. At this point, a diagnosis of probable Alzheimer’s disease may be given. Why ‘probable’? Because Alzheimer’s is properly diagnosed, not simply by symptoms, but by the presence of a specific kind of degeneration in a specific part of the brain – and this is difficult to see without the aid of expensive scans.

The German neuropathologist Alois Alzheimer discovered this characteristic degeneration in the brain back in 1906. Using a technique known as silver stain, he examined the brain cells of a woman who died prematurely at 55 with signs of dementia, and found a tangled mess of proteins and clusters of degenerating nerve endings, called neurofibrillary tangles. This condition is associated with a gradual dying-off of neurons and poor communication between neurons. There is also often a build-up of something called beta-amyloid plaque, a protein-like substance that shouldn’t be there.

Since that time, research into Alzheimer’s has continued apace. Largely thanks to the pioneering work of Professor David Smith and colleagues in the University of Oxford’s pharmacology department, we now know that Alzheimer’s is a specific disease process, not just a random, gradual decline in brain cells, and that it originates in a particular brain region. Their Optima (Oxford Project to Investigate Memory and Ageing) study has been running since 1988 and has proved, among other things, that the damage leading to Alzheimer’s begins in a central part of the brain known as the medial temporal lobe.4-7

Pinpointing the problem area

The medial temporal lobe is vital for both mood and memory. Even though this lobe accounts for only 2 per cent of the brain’s total area, it is essential for the processing of everything we sense, feel or think.

Precisely because it’s in the middle of the head, it’s a difficult region to scan.This is also where there are more neurofibrillary tangles and beta-amyloid plaques – the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s. These indicate damage and chaos to the normal network of neurons and their connections.

Since information is passed from and to the medial temporal lobe from other parts of the brain, as this area becomes more damaged, fewer signals are sent to other parts of the brain. These then also start to decline, becoming more and more disconnected, with ever-decreasing blood flow. The beginning of damage is estimated to occur as early as 40 years before a person is diagnosed with dementia. That is why it is important to start your prevention plan young.

So far I’ve talked about the spread of damage seen in Alzheimer’s, starting with the medial temporal lobe, and radiating out to other areas of the brain, which are in effect starved of signals, much as a muscle atrophies through lack of use. I’ve also mentioned other indicators of Alzheimer’s such as neurofibrillary tangles, the lack of blood flow in the brain, the presence of beta-amyloid plaques. There is also the presence of high levels of homocysteine in the blood.

Exactly which of these factors ‘causes’ Alzheimer’s, or kickstarts the process of damage, is the subject of much debate and ongoing research.

Clues to curbing the epidemic

At the other end of the spectrum, scientists have been looking for ways to prevent Alzheimer’s disease, ......

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