Researchers Find New Keys To The Development of Dementia

The new year is upon and so is the hope that this will be the year that we find a way to stop Alzheimer's and other dementias in their tracks. "We are always checking in with new research that can offer help to those with dementia," said Certified Elder Law Attorney RJ Connelly III. "We became aware of two new pieces of research that seem to offer some future promise to those suffering from the disease and those who are in the process of a spiraling cognitive decline so, as always, we wanted to share it."

Poor Cellular NRG Production Linked to Alzheimer's

Australian researchers have discovered genes "thought to raise the risk" of brain deterioration by disrupting the way the brain cells produce energy. Researchers at the University of Adelaide released a study that showed how genetic mutations that have been linked to early-onset Alzheimers affected the brain cells of zebrafish that appeared in the medical journal Disease Models and Mechanisms.

Dr. Karrisa Barthelson

What was found in the fish was that the DNA changes caused the cells to use less oxygen resulting in the brain being unable to produce the energy needed to function. The team then tested this on mice with similar results. Dr. Karrisa Barthelson is confident that the researchers have found the "fundamental, early driver of Alzheimer’s in humans."

In an interview with the British newspaper The Daily Mail, Dr. Barthelson explained, "Energy production is the most fundamentally important cellular activity supporting all other functions, particularly in highly active organs such as brains. If we can understand what is going wrong with oxygen use and energy production, we may see ways of stopping the disease before it starts. That would enormously benefit our aging population."

Alzheimer's is a degenerative brain disease in which a build-up of certain abnormal proteins causes the death of nerve cells in the brain. This process disrupts the brain's ability to carry messages and results in the brain shrinking. Dr. Barthelson also points out that the brain in those with Alzheimer's "become severely deficient in energy production." But how do zebrafish brains correlate with human brains in this study?

The team at the University chose to study zebrafish because they have an extremely large family that makes it easier for researchers to detect subtle changes in their brains. when they conducted similar research on mice, they were able to produce similar outcomes. "This [outcome] reinforces our confidence that we've found a fundamental, early driver of Alzheimer's in humans," stated Dr. Barthelson.

The Zebra Fish

The next step for researchers is to examine how genes associated with Alzheimer's impact the energy generation of multiple types of brain cells. Although there is a plethora of research that lies ahead, this provides yet another light at the end of that tunnel. "It is very satisfying to have found this important common, early factor driving the development of Alzheimer's in humans," said Dr. Barthelson.

Here in the United States, an estimated five million people have Alzheimer’s and it is officially the sixth leading cause of death in the country, though more recent estimates have suggested it should now be bumped up to third, just behind heart disease and cancer.

The Exercise "Sweet Spot" and Cognitive Decline

Yet another study out of Australia suggests that an exercise "sweet spot" was found to reverse cognitive decline in mice and may offer some hope in the future for those living with dementia.

Dr. Dan Blackmore

In research with mice, Australian scientists found that exercising for 35 days straight was considered the "sweet spot" for reversing learning deficits in mice aged 24 months (equivalent age in humans 56-69 years). In a study at the Queensland Brain Institute (QBI), researchers found that longer or shorter exercise periods were ineffective in reversing cognitive decline.

The study author, Dr. Dan Blackmore, told The Daily Mail, "We tested the cognitive ability of elderly mice following defined periods of exercise and found an optimal period or 'sweet spot' that greatly improved their spatial learning." Dementia is caused by damage to or loss of neurons (nerve cells) and their connections in the brain. Neurons carry electrical impulses within the brain, transmitting information as it is received. The growth of new neurons, known as neurogenesis, is critical in maintaining cognitive abilities and the creation of new learning pathways.

Hippocampus portion of the brain

According to Dr. Blackmore, the hippocampus portion of the brain is essential for the creation of long-term memories, called memory consolidation. "Hippocampal function is critical for spatial and contextual learning, and its decline with age contributes to cognitive impairment," said Dr. Blackmore."Exercise can improve hippocampal function, however, the amount of exercise and mechanisms mediating improvement remain largely unknown."

Researchers say that they don't think the 35 day exercise period is an essential condition for hippocampal activation "under all conditions and for all ages." Saying that the research on the mice will continue in order to "... demonstrate that a comprehensive examination of different exercise periods is crucial to understand the mechanisms underlying the cognitive improvements which follow exercise."

"When it comes to exercise," said Attorney Connelly, "all the professionals we speak with regarding Alzheimer's and other dementias, is that the brain thrives on physical activity and this is something that older adults and seniors need to engage in on a regular basis."

Rhode Island Hospital Memory Disorder Center

"We also want to remind everyone that we have a world-class center right here in Rhode Island that offers a full range of diagnostic and treatment services," said Attorney Connelly. "The Alzheimer's Disease and Memory Disorders Center (ADMDC) at Rhode Island Hospital is not only known for these services, but for their research and clinical trials aimed at new therapies for those with the disease." Those who want to find out what clinical trials are currently underway at Rhode Island Hospital or would be interested in possibly volunteering as a study participant, please click on the logo below.