How Proteins in the Brain Reveal Early Alzheimer’s Clues

Alissa Sauer
By Alissa SauerMarch 24, 2014

Once Alzheimer’s symptoms begin to occur, treatment options are limited. Stressing the importance of early detection for Alzheimer’s disease, researchers are now focusing on new methods of diagnosing Alzheimer’s earlier than ever. New studies have revealed the important roles of two proteins in the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

New Spinal Fluid Test Holds Hope for Earlier Alzheimer’s Detection

A new test that can detect protein fragments in cerebrospinal fluid promises to spot the earliest signs of Alzheimer’s disease, years before symptoms appear. Scientists at the University of Texas Medical School in Houston are repurposing technology previously used to detect proteins responsible for mad cow disease, to detect beta amyloid proteins that cause Alzheimer’s. Clusters of the protein move around in the brain and are ultimately dumped in the spinal fluid years, and possibly decades, before symptoms begin.

By detecting the presence of beta amyloid clusters, doctors could tell patients if there is a potential threat of Alzheimer’s disease. Though, a major drawback of the study is the process of taking spinal fluid, which be a painful and difficult process. Researchers hope to develop a similar test that can detect the presence of beta amyloid clusters through a blood sample.

While the spinal fluid test may be able to detect the presence of the Alzheimer’s protein, it can not guarantee a diagnosis. Some people with these clusters never develop Alzheimer’s disease and others that have Alzheimer’s do not have the protein. It’s a strong indicator, but it still leaves the question why some people have Alzheimer’s disease and others do not.

REST Protein May Determine Who Develops Alzheimer’s

The answer to that question may lie with the REST protein. Until now, the REST protein has been thought to act mostly in the brains of fetuses. Now, scientists at Harvard University believe that this protein can protect the brains of healthy older people. In seniors with Alzheimer’s or dementia, the protein is depleted in certain areas of the brain.

REST is inactive after babies are born, but becomes an active gene regulator in older brains. Researchers hypothesize this is because, as in birth, an aging brain comes under great stress and certain neurons need to be protected. The protein essentially acts as a protector.

Scientists believe that if they can replicate the role of the protein, they may be able to develop a new drug for dementia. More research is needed to learn more about the role of the protein in the aging brain but the findings give some insight into why Alzheimer’s may be age related and why the presence of beta amyloid protein clusters is not sufficient evidence of the disease.

Early Detection is the Goal

Researchers in both studies are hopeful that their results will lead to fundamental transformation of the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. Lead researcher and professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center, Claudio Soto, sums up the goal of the research by saying,

“What we really need in this field is to know [whether a] person is on the way to Alzheimer’s. Knowing that, we can start safe treatment [early] that will delay progression of the disease, so much so that people will maybe die from other conditions at old age and not from the disease itself.”

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Alissa Sauer

Alissa Sauer

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