There’s no single, underlying cause of Alzheimer’s disease, but many researchers point to a range of genetic and environmental factors that are scientifically confirmed to contribute to the disease.
It’s a complex picture for sure, but one way to unravel the mystery behind Alzheimer’s disease is to examine how it changes the way proteins are expressed in the body and in the brain. Research shows that these proteins reveal how we can exert more control over our brain health than we ever realized.
A collaborative research project called the Accelerating Medicines Partnership – Alzheimer’s Disease, was launched in 2015. Its aim is to speedily identify and validate new targets for diagnosis and treatment of the disease.
The most recent study involved over 30 scientists from The National Institutes of Health, Stanford University, the Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkins, and other U.S. medical institutions.
In order to find a “fingerprint” unique to Alzheimer’s, the research team analyzed more than 3000 patterns of protein expression from over 2000 brain samples, plus another 400 samples of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). The samples were all post mortem and came from people with Alzheimer’s disease and from people of the same age without the disease.
In addition, the scientists compared CSF samples from Alzheimer’s patients to those suffering from six other neurodegenerative diseases.
Problems Handling Glucose
This large research study led to the revelation that proteins acted uniquely in Alzheimer’s disease, specifically during the process by which cells break down glucose to supply the brain with energy.
They found that the activity of proteins that control the sugar metabolizing process was lower in Alzheimer’s patients, and this correlated with the number of rogue amyloid plaques and tau tangles that are strongly linked to the disease. Lower protein activity also correlated with the development of symptoms and disease severity.
The scientists published their findings in April in the journal Nature Medicine.
Their research confirmed the findings of a 2017 study, when researchers for the first time uncovered a connection between abnormalities in glucose breakdown, the severity of plaques and tangles, and the onset of symptoms.
“We’ve been studying the possible links between abnormalities in the way the brain metabolizes glucose and Alzheimer’s-related changes for a while now,” said neuroscientist MadhavThambisetty, one of the authors of the new study.
“The latest analysis suggests that these proteins may also have potential as fluid biomarkers to detect the presence of early disease.”
They also made another important finding.
The Brain on Fire
In the Alzheimer’s patients, researchers found higher levels of proteins in the brain involved with anti-inflammatory responses by immune cells called microglia and astrocytes. They also saw this in other types of brain pathology, even where the patient had been cognitively healthy, i.e. not suffering from memory loss, brain fog or the other symptoms of dementia.
Interestingly, researchers found the same proteins were also raised in the CSF of those with early Alzheimer’s disease who hadn’t yet developed symptoms.
The scientists think these anti-inflammatory processes are triggered to protect nerve cells from damage.
In conclusion, the researchers said proteins that regulate glucose metabolism, together with proteins related to a protective role of microglia and astrocytes, are strongly associated with Alzheimer’s pathology and cognitive impairment.
The scientists hope these findings will lead to the identification of biomarkers useful for early diagnosis of the disease as well as the development of new treatments.
Keeping the Brain Healthy
This research confirms what other studies have long revealed: that unbalanced blood sugar and chronic inflammation lead to dementia.
In fact, people with diabetes are at vastly greater risk of Alzheimer’s, which is why Alzheimer’s disease is sometimes referred to as type-3 diabetes. Even those without diabetes are at much greater risk of dementia with every uptick in blood glucose levels.
Blood sugar control must be a top priority for everyone who wants to avoid both diabetes and Alzheimer’s, and that means keeping sugar and refined carbohydrates to pretty much the lowest level you can tolerate.
A typical Western diet also promotes chronic low-level inflammation, which is itself linked to almost all disease processes including the development of Alzheimer’s. A diet that discourages inflammation emphasizes vegetables, legumes, fish, olive oil, herbs, spices, and nuts.