Monday, November 06, 2006

The Slow But Gradual End of Alzheimer's As We Know It

As noted in Sunday's LA Times and this month's Science magazine, November 3 (or 4, depending on which publication you read) marked the hundredth anniversary of Dr. Alois Alzheimer's medical conference presentation of a patient's case with a neurogenerative disease that has come to be known as Alzheimer's Disease. The Neurophilopher's Weblog also did a fine recounting of the history. The LA Times states that another event will also be marked: "the slow but gradual end of Alzheimer's as we know it--and the Americanization of dementia science."

For the last 100 years, scientists have been trying to figure out what causes Alzheimer's plaques and tangles in the brain. Sadly, very few actual advances in therapies have occurred for people who have been diagnosed with AD. But as author Greg Critser points out, President Ronald Reagan and his family's openness about their struggles with AD have motivated researchers to begin looking at AD differently, both in ways to prevent it and therapies to deal with this tragic disease. In the therapeutic arena, stem cell research is one possibility. We know from research on brain plasticity that we can already "rewire" our brains so why not get a little help from transplanted neurons to make connections stifled by AD's plaques and tangles?

On the prevention side, researchers are looking at diet, exercise, mental stimulation, and "dysfunction" of brain cells due to other potentially controllable brain environmental factors, such as the way certain brain cells use glucose. Scientists are realizing that AD does not have to be totally linear in its progression. We are beginning to see solid research on strategies that can prevent or slow down AD and dementia as well as compensation strategies to help the brain create additional connections and pathways through mental stimulation and learning. Many, many scientists are now looking closely at these lifestyle decisions and concluding that it really does matter how you live your life and the choices you make along the way.

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