New Research Holds Promise for Alzheimer’s Disease

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Doctor viewing patient's brain scan on digital tablet in laboratory

Forgetting how to brush your teeth. Leaving your car keys inside the refrigerator. A blank look of unrecognition when your spouse of 50 years brings you flowers.

Alzheimer’s disease manifests itself in these heartbreaking ways and many others—the result of the build-up of abnormal proteins in the brain, called plaques and tangles.

To date, Alzheimer’s researchers have focused on ways to reduce the accumulation of these proteins in the brain. But these efforts have had limited success. In addition, the bulk of Alzheimer’s research has focused on very rare forms of the disease that can be linked to a single gene mutation, because it’s easier to study. However, most people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s have no one clear cause. Instead, it’s likely the result of a complex interaction of many genes, the environment and normal aging.

Ongoing Alzheimer’s research at Harrington Discovery Institute at University Hospitals is attacking the disease in novel ways, with some early successes that show promise for the future of treating this disease.

Improving Blood Flow to the Brain May Improve Memory

Jonathan Stamler, MD, President of Harrington Discovery Institute, is investigating Alzheimer’s disease from a different vantage point – with a focus on the tiny microvessels in the brain that supply blood to keep vital tissue nourished.

“There is a school of thought that blood flow in small blood vessels that supply oxygen to the brain is a critical factor in the development of Alzheimer’s disease,” he says. “Impairment of that blood flow is a very early and contributing cause in Alzheimer’s disease.”

Poor blood flow in the brain is a known cause of what’s called vascular dementia. But Dr. Stamler says this process also has a connection to what goes on in the Alzheimer’s brain. And importantly, he and his team have discovered a way that may stop it from happening.

Building on their discovery that a source of nitric oxide from the red blood cells inside these blood vessels actually keeps them open, he and his team have developed tools to both measure and improve blood flow inside the human brain.

“We’re working on how to improve blood flow in those small blood vessels so that memory is improved and risk of Alzheimer’s is diminished,” Stamler says.

“We’re working in people and we have ways to measure the nitric oxide coming out of their blood cells that keeps those blood vessels open, and we’re able to manipulate those levels in people to improve blood flow. We are hopeful that this will represent an important new approach to improving memory and protecting against Alzheimer’s disease.”

“We’ve made so much progress,” Dr. Stamler says. “There’s no reason to believe that we can’t protect the brain the way we protect any other organ in the body.”

Linking Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Alzheimer’s Disease

Andrew A. Pieper, MD, PhD, Director of the Center for Brain Health Medicines at Harrington Discovery Institute, is leading another promising area of Alzheimer’s research.

Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is the third-leading cause of Alzheimer’s disease, but so far the reason for this association has been unclear. New results from Dr. Pieper’s lab show that TBI produces higher levels of acetylated tau protein – the same protein found in people with late-stage Alzheimer’s disease.

The protein is not limited to the brain – in animal studies it shows up in the blood as well, raising the possibility that a blood test could be part of monitoring brain health after a TBI or other brain injury. Can this harmful process be halted? Or even reversed? It appears it could be. Dr. Pieper and his colleagues have discovered a brain molecule, called P7C3, that “cleans up” the brain after an injury and protected the animals from cognitive decline.

Dr. Pieper and his team have also identified two specific non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) – think ibuprofen or naproxen – that can block production of the harmful brain protein in the first place. In addition, his team analyzed 7 million patient records and found that people who use these medications have a significantly lower occurrence of Alzheimer’s disease than those who had taken other pain relievers. “We’re hopeful that these are medicines that could be repurposed right now for patients and might be protective,” says Dr. Pieper.

With these and other research efforts, the goal is the same: To leverage scientific discovery into real-world therapies for Alzheimer’s patients. In months and years, not decades.

Given the ongoing toll of Alzheimer’s, there’s no time to waste.

Related Links

The specialized brain health and memory team at University Hospitals Neurology Institute, offers comprehensive treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.

Learn more about Harrington Discovery Institute at University Hospitals.

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