In a new study, researchers have made a breakthrough in the study of Alzheimer’s which could inspire better treatments and earlier diagnosis.
They have for the first time found a key protein in one of the brain regions first to be affected by Alzheimer’s.
The research is conducted by a team at the University of Portsmouth and elsewhere.
Alzheimer’s-related pathology is first detectable in a few brain regions, long before patients exhibit any clinical symptoms.
However, because it is a progressive disease, it eventually spreads throughout the brain to cause a significant degree of nerve cell loss, giving rise to the main symptoms such as changes in the way people think, remember or deal with daily emotional challenges.
The current study set out to fully understand how this brain region changes in the earliest phases of the disease and why.
The team focused on how the brain changes in the early stages of the condition.
This has been scientifically challenging because the unequivocal diagnosis of Alzheimer’s invariably occurs only in the late stage of the condition.
For the first time, key proteins—amyloid β oligomers (AβO) involved in Alzheimer’s pathology, were found in one of the earliest brain regions to be affected by the condition—the locus coeruleus (LC).
This is important because up until now it was believed that AβO were not a significant component of Alzheimer’s pathology within the LC, especially in the early stages.
The LC controls a number of the key brain functions that are severely compromised in Alzheimer’s, such as memory, cognition and our stress response.
A large body of evidence, using brain imaging, also indicates that there are changes in the structure of the LC during Alzheimer’s.
However, precisely how Alzheimer’s alters LC function, at the level of individual nerve cells, has been relatively less well understood.
This study provided the first demonstration that AβO, found in Alzheimer’s patients, result in the overactivity of LC nerve cells.
This is notable because such heightened levels of LC activity are thought to drive changes in human behavior which closely mirror those seen in the early stages of people living with Alzheimer’s, such as emotional instability and a heightened response to stress.
These findings may therefore help to explain why such behavior occurs during this phase of the condition.
The research can drive the development of improved diagnostic protocols, such as functional brain imaging, during the earliest stages of the condition.
Such early, reliable diagnostic tools are essential for any patient interventions, be they new drug treatments or the optimization of care.
One author of the study is Jerome Swinny, a professor of neuropharmacology.
The study is published in Neuropathology and Applied Neurobiology.
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