Alzheimer: what do we know about it?
In Switzerland, more than 130,000 people suffer from a demential disease, which in most cases is diagnosed as Alzheimer’s disease. The causes leading to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease remain somewhat obscure, as explained by Professor Esther Stoeckli, Chairman of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Synapsis Foundation – Alzheimer Research Switzerland RAS, which aims to deepen the understanding of Alzheimer’s disease at all stages.
Professor Stoeckli, how much do we know today about Alzheimer?
We know that it causes progressive destruction of nerve cells in the nervous system. Today we know that neurons, which we might call the bricks of the brain, undergo a degenerative process. At an early stage, the connections between cells die, the cells are therefore no longer able to communicate with each other. The result is a cognitive deficit. At a more advanced stage, the cells themselves die. Today, various studies suggest that protein deposits typical of the disease are responsible for the death of nerve cells, but it is not clear how these protein accumulations in the brain get there. Numerous factors have been linked to the onset of the disease, from inflammatory reactions to the energy supply of nerve cells.
What is medical research working on today?
Today we are trying to find antibodies capable of dissolving the protein aggregates that form in patients’ brains. Some researchers, for example, have been engaged in research aimed at dissolving toxic proteins that typically accumulate in the diseased brain. Unfortunately, clinical studies in this direction did not give the results we hoped for: in some cases the side effects were too strong, while in other more advanced cases of the disease – and despite the fact that these aggregates were dissolved – patients could not be treated for dementia. The scientific community agrees that there is “something else”, which still eludes us, that does not allow the removal of proteins to cure Alzheimer’s disease. But it may also be the case that by the time we go to remove the proteins the damage has already been done, so to speak, and therefore removing the aggregate does not help.
Women are known to suffer more than men from Alzheimer’s disease. Why is that?
We know for a fact that the greatest risk of contracting this disease is at an advanced age, even if the disease begins 10-20 years before the first symptoms appear, which, when they do appear, already imply irreversible damage to the brain. Therefore, we see more cases of Alzheimer’s in the female population probably because women live longer than men. However, although Alzheimer’s is considered an old age disease, unfortunately every year around 6% of sufferers fall ill before the age of 65. This is why it is important to develop effective methods for early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, i.e. even before the symptoms of the disease appear.
Some recent research, for example in the field of cancer, is focusing on the possibility that ethnicity, in addition to social class and lifestyle, is an explanatory factor for certain types of cancer. Have differences been observed between people of different ethnicities with regard to the incidence of dementia?
To date, there are no results pointing in this direction.
Recently there has also been talk of “prevention” for Alzheimer’s disease.
That’s right, some studies, conducted on a large scale of subjects, some healthy and others with Alzheimer’s disease, have examined and compared different lifestyles and followed the subjects over the years. It would not be correct to talk about causation, but studies show that regular exercise and keeping the brain “active” are factors that help reduce the possibility of developing dementia. A British study found that the length of schooling (taken as an indicator of keeping the brain busy) correlates with a lower likelihood of developing neurodegenerative diseases.
Esther Stoeckli, a neuroscientist at the University of Zurich, is director of the Institute of Molecular Life Sciences. Her research focuses on the molecular mechanisms that underlie the creation of neuronal circuits.