Facial close-up of an elderly man who has Alzheimer's disease.
Alzheimer's disease may be contagious, according to a new study. (Photo Credit: CC BY/Marg/Flickr)

A study published Tuesday in the online journal Molecular Psychiatry says that Alzheimer’s disease may be the result of an infection. Alzheimer’s may also be contagious, as studies involving mice suggest. Researchers found that over time, the disease spreads in much the same way as an infection.

Alzheimer’s contagious in mice

The University of Texas Medical School at Houston-based study, led by professor of neurology Dr. Claudio Soto, involved exposing lab mice to human brain tissue. The group exposed to the tissue of human Alzheimer’s disease patients eventually developed the same type of damage throughout their brains. Mice injected with the brain tissue of healthy humans did not go on to manifest signs of the disease.

“Our findings open the possibility that some of the sporadic Alzheimer’s cases may arise from an infectious process, similar to how mad cow disease arises from infection with diseased proteins called prions,” said Soto. “It involves a normal protein that becomes misshapen, and is able to spread by transforming good proteins to bad ones. The bad proteins accumulate in the brain, forming plaque deposits that are believed to kill neuron cells in Alzheimer’s.”

Soto and other researchers involved in the study admit that the findings are very preliminary. It is unclear whether the same thing could occur in people, and the conditions of the experiment under which the spread of Alzheimer’s disease occurred were artificial and would likely never be experienced by a person under normal circumstances.

Taking a cue from Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease

Soto and his team looked to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) as a potential model for how Alzheimer’s may be contagious in humans. CJD is a prion-related disease that slowly destroys the brain tissue of infected people. It is known to spread via contaminated food, blood transfusions, tissue transplants and other forms of surgery. If Alzheimer’s behaves the same way, Soto notes that the spread will be dramatically reduced if the medical community screens blood more thoroughly and uses greater precautions during surgery.

Until results of the study with mice can be corroborated, Soto suggests that people continue to avoid well-known risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease, like high blood pressure, smoking and weight gain.

“Environmental risk factors may still accelerate the disease or increase the risk, even in cases in which there is an infectious origin,” Soto told CBS News. “Besides, it is likely that only a proportion of the cases may occur by transmission and many others may still be associated to environmental risk factors.”

Don’t panic

As prions are not known to be transmissible through the air, Soto encourages the families of Alzheimer’s sufferers to continue to show affection and support. Give them a hug.

“We know that there is no risk to family members of people with prion diseases,” he told CBS News. “There are no cases of disease in relatives.”

What is Alzheimer’s disease?

Sources

Alzheimer’s disease Wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alzheimer%27s_disease

CBS News: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504763_162-20115519-10391704.html

MSNBC: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/44779621/ns/health-alzheimers_disease/#.Tox841myBw1

My Health News Daily: http://www.myhealthnewsdaily.com/blood-test-creutzfeldt-jakob-disease-110202-1124/

University of Texas Health Science Center: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2011-10/uoth-uam100311.php

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