Alzheimer's Disease: An Overview
Alzheimer’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder that lowers the brain's ability to access and store memories. It is a condition that exponentially worsens over time and will eventually result in death.
The purpose of this article is to serve as an overview of the condition for anybody looking for more information.
There are 3 stages of Alzheimer's:
The First Stage:
Alzheimer's begins with mild disorientation and difficulty with memories. These memories are usually only new memories, such as where the car keys are, what happened the day before, and the names of people met recently. This is associated with damage in the hippocampus region in the brain which serves long-term memory.
Other symptoms of the first stage include:
- Difficulty finding the right words
- Trouble remembering recently read material
- Inability to put names to faces of people
- Trouble with planning
- Overall reduction in short term memory
The Second Stage
As the condition progresses, the damage can be found further throughout the brain, up to the cerebral cortex. When this begins to take place, the symptoms will begin to grow stronger. Memories from the past will become lost as the neurons are destroyed. This stage affects more than just the formation of new memories, it will affect memories from as far back as childhood.
Symptoms in the second stage includes:
- Forgetting events from personal history
- Moodiness or antisocial behavior towards challenging situations
- Confusion about the time and place they are in
- Sleep pattern issues, insomnia and tiredness at different points in the day
- Becoming lost easily
- Personality or behavioral changes
The Third Stage
The last stage occurs after a significant neuronal loss in the brain. The brain will have visible shrinkage from a great deal of lost neurons. All normal function will become lost, and the person will need assistance with normal daily activities like getting out of bed, bathing and going to the bathroom. Communication will be difficult, and the person will have a very hard time avoiding confusion and frustration.
In symptoms of the third (and final stage) of Alzheimer's:
- They require around the clock care and assistance with nearly all daily activities
- They will experience difficulty sitting, standing, and lying normally
- Communication will be limited and difficult
- They will be vulnerable to infections
- They will lose the ability to recognize faces, including close friends and family
- They will become confused and frustrated on a daily basis
What causes it?
Alzheimer's can have a long list of causes, and scientists have long been in disagreement over the actual cause of the condition. Some suggest that Alzheimer's is a type II diabetic condition, while others suggest it is purely genetic and has no known triggers.
Recently there have been some good quality studies with new information regarding the cause of Alzheimer’s.
In the brain, Alzheimer's has been found to show the first signs of damage in the hippocampus. This is the region of the brain that plays a key role in memory storage, as well as imagining events in the future. It is closely related to constructing visual locations of past and future places and events. It also happens to be the first place damage is noticed in the progression of Alzheimer’s. If enough damage occurs in the hippocampus, disorientation and difficulty storing new memories will result. Both of which are early markers for Alzheimer's disease.
Over time, this damage can be seen spreading throughout the brain. On the microscopic level, this is seen as tangles in the important transport protein known as TAU which can build up, and eventually damage the neurons ability to function.
Another issue is the buildup of the sticky byproduct known as amyloid-beta. This substance is made when the neurotransmitter acetylcholine is broken down. Normally, it’s removed, but in Alzheimer's patients the sticky plaque remains and begins to clog up the synapses of the neurons. In both cases, TAU and amyloid-beta buildup will eventually lead to the death of the neuron.
When this happens on a large scale, throughout the brain, as in the case of Alzheimer's, this can actually be seen with the naked eye as the brain shrinks in size. As the neurons die, large amounts of brain tissue are lost and the brain begins to shrink, mainly from the cerebral cortex where the bulk of the gray matter is located.
Can Alzheimer's Be Detected Early On?
In recent years, as the field of neuroscience forms a deeper level of understanding about complexities of the human brain, new theories are being tested on how we can identify Alzheimer's before it becomes irreversible.
In one study Researchers from the University of Aberdeen were able to identify some key changes in the brains of people with Alzheimer's disease. They were able to confirm the theory that 2 proteins (amyloid and TAU) played a significant role in the development of Alzheimer's, and were the first to find an interaction between the two. With this information, researchers are able to develop new techniques that we can use to test for an abnormal presence of these proteins to look for Alzheimer's before it becomes irreversible.
Another important biomarker is an elevation in monoamine oxidase (MAO). This is an enzyme that is responsible for the breakdown of monoamine neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. MAO is well known to play a role in neurological conditions like depression, and anxiety, and has been associated with Alzheimer's in the past.
Recently, a study looking specifically at the presence of MAO in mice with Alzheimer's found that as the conditioned worsened, the levels of amyloid proteins (which have been confirmed in previous studies to play a role in the development of Alzheimer's), as well as MAO, increased as the condition progressed. This is a significant finding and may prove to deliver a new method of detection in early stage Alzheimer's in the near future.
What to take away from this
As these recent studies are passed around and analyzed further, new markers such as TAU, Amyloid-beta, and MAO have all been shown to be significant markers in the early stages of Alzheimer's. From here, we can develop ways to measure this without having to dissect the brain under a microscope. If we can develop blood tests, cerebrospinal fluid tests, or MRI techniques to identify the presence of these proteins in elevated levels, then we may be able to detect Alzheimer's long before it becomes a problem.
The next big leap will be to develop diagnostic techniques with this information, to check for these markers early on in the disease process, and promptly treating it.
Areas To Focus On for Prevention And Treatment
Using this information, we know that Alzheimer's is related to an increase in amyloid and MAO, as well as a tangling of TAU proteins. Finding ways to prevent or reverse these processes will be important in the treatment of Alzheimer's disease in the long term.
Although not widely tested yet in the scientific literature, it is likely that the best way treat or prevent Alzheimer's is through daily supplementation and lifestyle changes. As with most chronic illnesses, this condition is not a simple issue. It’s a long-term, gradual destruction of the neurons in the brain. Therefore, when talking about prevention, a long-term, regular strategy will be necessary.
Neurotransmitter modulators, adequate blood flow, water intake, nutritional support, and stress reduction techniques all have a beneficial impact on both the treatment and prevention of Alzheimer's.
Let’s discuss some of these main mechanisms in more detail...
Amyloid is formed naturally when the neurotransmitter acetylcholine is broken down by the enzyme acetylcholinesterase. As we age, more of this byproduct tends to accumulate. Whether this is from low cerebral blood flow or an increase in the breakdown of acetylcholine is up for debate.
Interestingly, many of the traditional medicines for treating Alzheimer's act on this neurotransmitter. Muira puama for example, which is an important memory herb from the Amazon rainforest, is a particularly potent inhibitor of the acetylcholinesterase enzyme. If this enzyme is inhibited, the breakdown of acetylcholine will be reduced and the buildup of amyloid beta will not accumulate. This is also the target for most modern day Alzheimers medications such as Aducanumab.
The best natural treatments for this includes:
- Huperzine-A (From Huperzia)
- Muira puama (Ptychopetalum olacoides)
- Bacopa (Bacopa monnieri)
MAO (Monoamine oxidase)
Monoamine oxidase is the enzyme that breaks down the monoamines. These include dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin which are all important neurotransmitters in the brain.
Mao inhibitors have been used as a treatment for memory related dysfunctions, as well as other neurological conditions like depression and anxiety for a very long time. Some of the most potent neuroprotective plants in the world offer this as their main chemical actions.
- Passionflower (Passiflora spp.)
- Ayahuasca vine
- Gingko (Gingko biloba)
- Hordenine-A (from Hordeum vulgare)
- Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea)
When looking at the process that takes place in the progression of Alzheimer's, it’s well known that stress plays a major factor. In the hippocampus, where the progression of Alzheimer’s begins, there is a high level of glucocorticoid receptors present. These are special receptors that pick up and respond to the stress hormones within the body such as cortisol. In the short term, the effects brought on by this is beneficial and well designed to improve survival in stressful situations. In the long term, however, as with chronic stress conditions, this can have major negative consequences on the body, and though we are not sure if this is enough to cause Alzheimer's, it will do nothing to prevent it. In fact, it is likely to exponentiate the effects of Alzheimer's progression in the hippocampus through mutual damage.
The best ways to reduce stress include:
- Adequate exercise (20 min-1 hour a day)
- Regular water consumption
- Adequate sleep
- Avoiding added sugar
- Seeing family and friends regularly (socializing)
- Taking time to be alone and away from the computer
University of Aberdeen. (2016, December 1). Early Signs of Alzheimer’s Identified. Neuroscience News. Retrieved December 1, 2016, from http://neurosciencenews.com/alzheimers-early-signs-5692/
American Chemical Society. (2016, December 1). MAO is a Possible Biomarker For Alzheimer’s. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved December 1, 2016, from http://neurosciencenews.com/mao-biomarker-alzheimers-5701/