Alzheimer’s disease is a brain condition that affects 5.4 million Americans, most of them over the age of 65. It is the 6th leading cause of the death in the country, and 1 in 3 senior citizens dies from Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. The aging American population and the increased expenses of caring for patients with dementia is sparking intense scientific interest in a vaccine to prevent this common disease. New research has focused on a way to prevent the tangles in the brain that are associated with diminished function in Alzheimer’s.
How Alzheimer’s Affects the Brain
Studies have shown that the brains of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease contain many small tangled packets of beta-amyloid proteins. These tangles cause nerve cell death and brain shrinkage that leads to progressively impaired memory and cognitive function. The cortex of the brain shrivels up, causing damage to areas involved in thought, organization and memory. The hippocampus that is involved in forming new memories also shrinks. The fluid-filled spaces in the brain called “ventricles” increase in size. Protein fragments build up between brain cells. The dead nerve cells create tangles of protein that inhibit normal brain function.
History of Alzheimers Disease Vaccines
Since the disease was named in 1910, research on Alzheimer’s focused on brain studies after the death of the individual. New technologies allowed an ability to view the brains of living subjects with the disease, providing much more information on how the disease progresses. The discovery of beta-amyloid tangles in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients in 1984 brought a new avenue of research into the foreground. In 1999, a researcher named Daniel Shenk produced a vaccine that reversed Alzheimer’s in mice. However, the human study was halted due to the serious side effects that were encountered. Since that time, a number of other vaccines have been attempted, either by injecting subjects with active amyloid protein in hopes that the body would produce antibodies against it, or by injecting the antibodies themselves. In addition, plasma containing immunoglobulins was also injected, but it has produced limited success in animal studies. As a result of these early trials, research attempts for humans have focused mainly on passive immunization methods that inject antibodies against amyloid beta proteins specifically that are associated with the development of Alzheimer’s disease and its related cognitive dysfunction.
A New Vaccine Shows Promise
In 2016, a new vaccine was presented for investigation to see if antibodies could effectively eliminate the beta-amyloid protein clusters that affect brain function in individuals who are at risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease. The new vaccine targets another type of protein involved in memory loss, the tau protein. The vaccine stimulates the individual’s immune system to produce antibodies against the protein to attack the tau tangles in the brain. These tangles prevent nutrients from reaching brain cells, which eventually leads to their death and the resulting loss of memory. The new vaccine takes the approach of attacking the problem of tau proteins, instead of the beta-amyloid proteins, which have had a significant number of problems in vaccine research. Because it is the tau proteins that directly affect memory, researchers feel this is the best route to finding a safe and effective vaccine.
As science provides more information about the structures involved brain deterioration in Alzheimer’s disease and how it affects function, more avenues of investigation will be available to finally put a halt to the terrible toll that Alzheimer’s disease has on families and the society.
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