Developments in Alzheimer’s research

Elderly woman's hands holding missing white piece above a human head jigsaw puzzle

Given the rapid aging of the world population, it’s no surprise that research on Alzheimer’s disease has become a scientific focus. Simply understanding the mechanisms resulting in the disease has been a major undertaking, but we’re starting to make progress.

A research study recently published in Nature Communications by scientists at the Van Andel Research Institute has revealed the importance of genetic “enhancers” in brain aging and Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Enhancers increase or decrease the activity of genes, and by comparing the enhancers in people with and without AD, the scientists uncovered some important pathways. In patients with AD, changes in enhancers resulted in greater brain aging and over-activation of mechanisms that result in brain plaques and tangles (the tell-tale evidence of AD). Additionally, these changes reactivated cell division in brain cells, which resulted in cell death. The researchers also found that the genetic enhancers affect the rate of cognitive decline in people with AD.

Fixing this dysregulation of enhancers may prove to be a new method of treating AD.

In a separate study from the University of Chicago, scientists examined the influence of the gut microbiome on AD. The bacteria making up the microbiome of the gastrointestinal tract influence a wide range of diseases, including neurological conditions. In two mouse models of AD, the scientists found that long-term antibiotics were related to fewer plaques and tangles – but only in male mice. Antibiotic use in female mice instead increased inflammatory processes and no reduction of plaques and tangles was found. The antibiotics appear to differently affect the action of microglia (brain cells functioning in cellular defense) depending on the sex of the mouse.

While these new lines of research will take time to yield new treatment and prevention options for Alzheimer’s, it’s clear that diverse mechanisms are involved and that individual factors (such as sex) need to be considered in research design.


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