Scientists are five steps closer to discovering how to treat Alzheimer's disease. (Photo Credit: Public Domain/National Institutes of Health/Wikipedia)

Few neurodegenerative diseases are as devastating as Alzheimer’s disease, an irreversible condition from which more than 5.4 million people suffer. Scientists have gone to great lengths to understand how the disease ravages the brain, typically approaching from the angle of genetics. Time magazine reports that it is that path that has opened up one of the most exciting advances in the battle against Alzheimer’s. Five genes – MS4A, CD2AP, CD33, EPHA1 and ABCA7 – have been identified as markers of increased risk of contracting late-onset Alzheimer’s.

Discovery doubles total number of known Alzheimer’s genes

A team of scientists from 44 universities and research institutes across the U.S. analyzed genetic data from more than 54,000 subjects for the new Alzheimer’s disease study, which will publish in the April 10 issue of the journal Nature Genetics. The five new genetic links have shown scientists that such things as inflammation, cholesterol and cell transport systems are biological pathways to the disease. Based upon the findings, the study also suggests a number of new potential treatments, ranging from drug therapies and behavioral changes to other avenues.

Alzheimer’s disease primer

Alzheimer’s disease is characterized by the formation of amyloid plaques (waxy, translucent proteins) and neurofibrillary tangles, as well as the disconnection between and eventual death of brain neurons. There are two types of the disease, early-onset and late-onset. The former is rare, developing in only 5 percent of AD patients, typically striking those between the ages of 30 and 60, with a 50 percent chance of inheritance from a parent. The latter develops after age 60, displaying different gene mutations than early-onset AD.

The first step in a long journey

While the discovery of the new Alzheimer’s genes is encouraging, genetic counselor Jennifer Williamson of Columbia University suggests that some perspective is in order. It will be some time before new Alzheimer’s medicines will be ready for use.

“We take pains to be very honest with participants in our trials,” she says. “A lot of my job is explaining to people the limitations of what we understand and what we don’t understand, and that there are a lot of incremental steps toward having a better understanding of this disease.”

For more information about Alzheimer’s disease, contact the Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral Center. The weblink can be found below.

Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral (ADEAR) Center
P.O. Box 8250
Silver Spring, MD 20907-8250
800-438-4380 (toll-free)

Sources

Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral Center: www.nia.nih.gov/Alzheimers
MSN Health: http://health.msn.com/health-topics/alzheimers-disease/articlepage.aspx?cp-documentid=100271149
National Institute on Aging: http://1.usa.gov/geeeYj
Time: http://healthland.time.com/2011/04/05/new-alzheimers-genes-why-they-matter-even-if-they-dont-change-patient-care/

Mayo Clinic discusses discovery of Alzheimer’s genes

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