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Episode 5: The Aging Brain - Alzheimer's Vaccine

Illustration of brain

It takes decades for the plaques and tangles to move through the hippocampus and the amygdala and ultimately take over the Alzheimer's brain. The parts of brain in charge of motor functions such as the midbrain and cerebellum are affected gradually.

Battling Inflammation

Other researchers are pursuing the implications of some interesting findings from population studies: that people who take high doses of anti-inflammatory drugs, and women who take estrogen, develop Alzheimer's at a lower-than-expected rate. Some researchers now believe that brain inflammation may play a part in the development of Alzheimer's, and are investigating whether anti-inflammatories and estrogen (which has an anti-inflammatory effect on nerve cells) can be used to prevent or delay Alzheimer's.

Others are investigating the effect of diet, specifically of restricting calories, since calorie restriction may also prevent brain inflammation and perhaps therefore the development of Alzheimer's.

Increasing Supplies of a Chemical Messenger

One significant cause of Alzheimer's symptoms is the fact that, as the disease progresses, it destroys the brain's ability to produce an important chemical messenger called acetylcholine. The medications that are already in use to treat Alzheimer's symptoms, mentioned above, all work by blocking an enzyme that breaks down acetylcholine, thus preserving more for the brain to use. Some researchers are now focusing on tackling the shortage from a different angle, by increasing production of acetylcholine.

A Cholesterol Connection?

Still other researchers are testing the idea, gleaned from some population and animal studies, that cholesterol may play a role in Alzheimer's development. In 2002, there will be a large trial to see if taking cholesterol-lowering statin drugs can slow down the progression of clinical signs of the disease in patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer's.

The above are only some of a wealth of different avenues in research to prevent and/or treat Alzheimer's. Bill Thies of the Alzheimer's Association summed up the held-breath quality of this moment in time: "Waiting for the results of all these trials going on right now is like being a mother hen sitting on a bunch of eggs, waiting for the first beak to pop out."

1. Shenk, David. The Forgetting: Alzheimer's: Portrait of an Epidemic. New York: Doubleday, 2001.

2. Cooney, Eleanor. "Death in Slow Motion: A Descent into Alzheimer's." Harper's Magazine 30, no. 1817 (October 2001): 43-58.

Written by Sue-Young Wilson.

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