Category Archives: Science Articles

The Villain of Alzheimer’s Disease Could Actually Be a Hero

The toxic amyloid-beta protein has long been considered the cause of Alzheimer’s disease–but what if it’s actually been a hero all along?

If you were to look inside the brain of someone with Alzheimer’s disease, you’d immediately see that something has gone terribly wrong. The first thing you’d notice is that it’s much smaller than a healthy brain, appearing shriveled up like a raisin. Upon closer examination, you’d see that the brain is filled with large, dark clumps of protein. That protein, called amyloid-beta, can stick to itself and form toxic aggregates that poison the brain from within. Your first instinct would probably be the same as most scientists: in order to cure Alzheimer’s disease, we need to get rid of these amyloid-beta clumps.

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Artistic rendition of amyloid-beta plaques surrounding neurons in the brain. Image Source

It’s a reasonable assumption. These clumps of amyloid-beta, formally known as senile plaques, are among the most recognizable hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease, and they’re toxic to brain cells in high doses. So it makes sense to think that getting rid of them will be the key for curing Alzheimer’s.

For three decades now, that’s exactly what scientists have been trying to do. They created drugs that targeted and destroyed amyloid-beta, or prevented it from being formed in the first place. They invented vaccines to help our own immune systems recognize amyloid-beta, and inhibitors that stopped amyloid-beta from sticking together to form toxic clumps. Yet, despite hundreds of scientists and billions of dollars devoted to the research, these efforts failed. Of the more than 200 drug candidates for Alzheimer’s disease that have reached clinical trials in the past 30 years, not a single one successfully cured the disease or slowed its progression. The drugs currently on the market for Alzheimer’s disease offer some patients a small improvement in their cognitive symptoms, but since they do not treat the underlying pathology, their effects are temporary and they cannot prevent the patient’s deterioration.

Even worse than the poor efficacy of these drugs were the severe side effects they often created. Many patients involved in these trials developed a condition called Amyloid-Related Imaging Abnormalities (ARIA), which results from leaky blood vessels bleeding into the brain. Other patients experienced dangerous infections or skin cancer, and a few even saw their cognition decline faster than patients who weren’t taking the drug at all.

The disastrous results of these clinical trials have shaken the field of neuroscience to its core. A few companies, including the pharma giant Pfizer, have even given up their Alzheimer’s research programs entirely. Yet I would argue that there is still hope for a cure to Alzheimer’s disease, and it lies by viewing the toxic amyloid-beta protein in a new light. In fact, I think that amyloid-beta might actually turn out to be a powerful ally in the fight against Alzheimer’s.

The Evolutionary Riddle of Amyloid-Beta

I’m a geneticist by training, and that means I think a lot about evolution. And so the first question that came to my mind when I first learned about amyloid-beta was, why do we have it in the first place? After all, the core premise of natural selection is that harmful traits tend to disappear from a population over evolutionary time. If amyloid-beta is nothing more than a toxic substance that makes us sick, then we’d expect it to become rarer as our species evolved, and eventually disappear completely.

Yet when you actually look at the data, the opposite seems to be true. In fact, every vertebrate species (including mammals, birds, and reptiles) produces a version of amyloid-beta that’s almost identical to our own. It’s even been found in sea anemones and hydra, meaning that amyloid-beta has been around for at least 600 million years.

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The hydra, a tiny invertebrate often found in ponds, has its own version of amyloid-beta. This suggests that the protein has been remarkably conserved across evolutionary time. Image Source

From an evolutionary perspective, this makes no sense. Why would a toxic, harmful protein have been conserved for so many years across such diverse species? The most likely explanation is that there’s more to amyloid-beta than meets the eye. Specifically, it must be serving some kind of beneficial purpose that’s caused it to be maintained for so long.

The idea that amyloid-beta could actually serve some kind of biological function was originally met with controversy, but as more evidence has emerged, the scientific community has begun to accept this shift in view. In fact, the more we look at amyloid-beta, the more functions we seem to uncover.

The Hero We Never Knew We Had

The beneficial roles of amyloid-beta have become something of a fascination for me. One of its coolest functions is within the immune system. Amazingly, the properties that allow amyloid-beta to aggregate into toxic clumps in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients can also be used to trap harmful microbes, preventing them from spreading. Once the microbes are stuck, amyloid-beta can kill them by tearing holes in their cell membranes. In fact, amyloid-beta’s chemical properties suggest that it’s part of a family of immune proteins called antimicrobial peptides, which all utilize a similar manner of clumping and ripping microbes to protect the body from infection.

In addition to its role in the immune system, amyloid-beta has many other functions. Some research suggests that it may suppress the growth of cancer cells, which could explain why people with Alzheimer’s disease tend to have a lower risk of developing cancer. Others propose that amyloid-beta could help prevent leaks in the brain’s blood vessels by clumping into a kind of “scab” that restricts bleeding. It also seems to be helpful in recovery from neuronal injuries, as mice that are unable to produce amyloid-beta have worse outcomes from traumatic brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, strokes, and even multiple sclerosis. Finally, recent evidence has suggested that amyloid-beta helps to regulate the signaling activity of neurons, which is extremely important for learning and memory.

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This figure, adapted from our recent publication in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, summarizes some of amyloid-beta’s possible roles in human biology.

In light of amyloid-beta’s newly-discovered functions, the side effects that occurred in Alzheimer’s clinical trials begin to make more sense. By removing amyloid-beta from the patients’ brains and bodies, these drugs may have inadvertently led to ARIA, infections, and other harmful outcomes.

A New Dawn for Alzheimer’s Research

So what do the beneficial roles of amyloid-beta mean for the future? Well, if the last 30 years of clinical trials tell us anything, it’s that our current approaches aren’t working, and the functions of amyloid-beta may explain why.

Of course, the fact remains that amyloid-beta is toxic to neurons, and it tends to accumulate within the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. But I would argue that getting rid of amyloid-beta outright is not the answer. Instead, we need to consider what might have caused it to start accumulating in the first place.

For example, maybe the amyloid-beta clumps are actually a protective barrier surrounding infectious microbes that have infiltrated the brain, or a scab that prevents blood from leaking into the brain. As we get older, brain infections and leaky blood vessels become more common, which might explain why amyloid-beta levels tend to increase over time. Perhaps after a certain threshold, the amyloid-beta that’s responding to these issues becomes more harmful than helpful to the brain. It’s doing its job too well–there are too many microbes or leaky blood vessels for amyloid-beta to clump around without its toxic properties damaging the brain in the process.

We can’t just get rid of amyloid-beta at this stage, because then the microbes or vascular leaks that it was protecting us from in the first place will be left unchecked. Instead, we need to first treat the underlying cause of the problem. Only once that has been resolved can we then go back with anti-amyloid-beta drugs and remove the toxic clumps from patients’ brains.

I want to be entirely clear here: at this point, everything I’ve said in this last section is pure speculation. We don’t know if all amyloid-beta plaques are caused by some other factor, or whether resolving that factor will make our drugs more effective. However, a few early studies have provided tantalizing hints that this hypothesis may be correct. For example, one study found that among Alzheimer’s patients who were infected with H. pylori, a common type of bacteria that causes stomach ulcers, treating this infection with antibiotics resulted in a 65% lower risk of Alzheimer’s progression after one year.

The study of amyloid-beta’s biological functions is still in its infancy, and we have a lot to learn about the true role that it plays in Alzheimer’s disease. But if additional research can confirm that amyloid-beta is a side effect of the disease instead of its root cause, it could usher in a new age of Alzheimer’s research and bring us one step closer to finding a cure.

 

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What is the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s disease?

This is probably the most common question I’m asked by my readers, so I decided to devote an entire article to clearing up the confusion. Doctors and scientists often throw around words like “dementia,” “Alzheimer’s,” and “mild cognitive impairment” without making it clear what the difference is between them. Understanding what each of these terms mean is important for being able to interpret articles and recognize how scientific findings may apply to you.

Let’s start with dementia. Dementia itself is actually not a disease, but a set of symptoms. The most well-known dementia symptom is memory loss, but it also includes other things such as difficulty communicating, impaired attention, poor judgement, and a decline in visual perception.

Dementia symptoms can be caused by many different diseases. The most common cause of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease, which makes up around 60% of all dementias. However, many other diseases can cause dementia, including Parkinson’s disease, vascular dementia, frontotemporal dementia, and Lewy body disease. Dementia is often referred to as an “umbrella term” for a range of symptoms than can be caused by multiple diseases.

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Dementia is an “umbrella term” for a set of symptoms that can be caused by several different diseases. Image Source

I like to use an analogy to make this distinction a bit clearer. Think of Alzheimer’s disease like the flu. These are both diseases with a particular cause. Now think of some of the symptoms of having the flu: congestion, chills, nausea, and so on. There are many different diseases that can cause these symptoms, like a cold or sinus infection. In the same way, there are multiple diseases that can cause dementia symptoms.

To put it another way: everyone with Alzheimer’s disease has dementia, but not everyone with dementia has Alzheimer’s disease.

Now, there’s a third term you may have also heard thrown around: mild cognitive impairment, or MCI. It’s characterized by memory problems that are noticeable but not severe enough to interfere with daily life, such as forgetting appointments, losing your train of thought, and having trouble with planning or organization. Some people with MCI later progress to Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias, while others do not. Around 20% of adults over age 65 have MCI.

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Mild cognitive impairment sometimes progresses to Alzheimer’s disease or other dementia-causing diseases. Image Source

So there you have it! To summarize:

  • Dementia is a set of symptoms that include memory loss, impaired attention, and and poor judgement.
  • Alzheimer’s is one of several diseases that can lead to dementia symptoms.
  • Mild cognitive impairment is a less serious memory problem than can, but does not always, progress to dementia.

Hopefully that helps to clear up some of the confusion surrounding these three terms! As always, feel free to comment or send me a message if there are any other topics you’d like me to explain.

 

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Vascular Damage May Affect Progression to Alzheimer’s Dementia

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Guest author: Rachana Tank has a master’s degree in Neuropsychology from Maastricht University in the Netherlands. Her goal is to pursue a PhD in psychology exploring cognitive ageing, where her research interests lie.

As we grow older, we tend to become a little forgetful which is thought to be a normal part of ageing, but when does forgetfulness turn into abnormal ageing? Sometimes even slight but noticeable changes in thinking skills can be symptoms of an underlying issue. Alzheimer’s dementia is a continuous process, a progression taking place over many years, during which individuals experience considerable deficits before reaching clinical dementia. Stages leading up to Alzheimer’s dementia are referred to as predementia stages and are considered to be on the spectrum of Alzheimer’s dementia. In such stages, cognitive deficits are typically experienced as deterioration of memory, attention, and language skills.

Predementia stages can include individuals who self-report a decline in cognitive abilities (subjective cognitive impairments), or experience cognitive impairments that can be diagnosed by standardised testing (mild cognitive impairments). Both of these can, but not always, indicate an initial phase of neurodegeneration that may suggest they are in an early stage of Alzheimer’s dementia.

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The difference between normal brain ageing (purple line) and stages of cognitive decline experienced as part of abnormal brain ageing in dementia. Image source

Individuals with subjective or mild cognitive impairments tend to have a higher incidence of future cognitive decline than the general population and more often show Alzheimer related pathology. However, it is still difficult to predict which individuals in these stages will progress to Alzheimer’s dementia.

Differentiating between those who will progress and who will not is a difficult task. However, biomarkers can be utilised to indicate the presence of Alzheimer’s pathology to detect and diagnose predementia stages. Namely, amyloid protein plaques and neurofibrillary tau tangles are the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease, with amyloid pathology being the earliest identifiable change in the brain. Although amyloid and tau have both been fundamental to understanding and estimating the pathological cascade, there is a lot of emerging evidence to suggest that it is not just tau and amyloid in isolation that contribute to progression of Alzheimer’s pathology and subsequent cognitive symptoms.

As evidence indicates there is more to consider than amyloid and tau, recent research, including my master’s research, investigates mixed Alzheimer’s pathology in early stages. Mixed pathology refers to hallmark Alzheimer pathology, such as amyloid and tau, that coexist with additional abnormalities such as vascular disease. Vascular disease is of particular interest in predementia stages as it is the most common disease to coexist with typical Alzheimer pathology early in the disease process.

Vascular disease can be defined as any condition that affects the arteries, veins, and capillaries responsible for carrying blood to and from the heart. Vascular damage can compromise brain health by reducing blood flow to vital areas, leading to loss of neurons. Such damage to the brain affects how well certain areas function, sometimes leading to decreased cognitive abilities such as language difficulties, attention problems or memory issues. There is evidence that vascular disease shortens time to progression when coexisting with traditional Alzheimer pathology. However, the mechanisms by which they may interact is not known.

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Arterial plaques are one example of vascular disease. Image source

My research investigated mixed pathology in 269 memory clinic patients aged 39 or older with subjective or objective cognitive impairments. Levels of amyloid burden and vascular damage were recorded at baseline and at follow-up between 1 and 5 years later. Those who progressed to Alzheimer’s dementia were then compared to those who did not. Vascular damage was assessed using MRI scans, and level of amyloid pathology was determined via cerebrospinal fluid samples.

The results of my research found that Alzheimer’s disease patients with vascular damage had less amyloid in their brains than Alzheimer’s patients who did not have vascular damage. This suggests that vascular damage may worsen the effects of amyloid plaques on cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s. These findings are compatible with other studies that investigated vascular damage in relation to amyloid burden.

Different amounts of amyloid in patients did not show any direct relationship with vascular damage, suggesting that the presence or absence of vascular disease does not influence the presence of Abeta. However, both vascular damage and amyloid pathology increased the risk of progressing to Alzheimer’s dementia significantly, and 93% of individuals who progressed to Alzheimer’s dementia showed abnormal levels of both amyloid and vascular pathology, indicating that both contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s dementia. These research insights help us to better understand early stages and the influencing factors involved. This allows us to develop interventions, for example, promoting cardiovascular health in those at risk by encouraging memory clinic patients to participate in exercise programs.

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Macular Degeneration: Alzheimer’s Disease of the Eye?

Macular degeneration affects more than 10 million Americans, making it the leading cause of vision loss. It occurs when, for reasons that aren’t entirely understood, the central region of the retina (known as the “macula”) begins to deteriorate. The disease is considered incurable and usually occurs in people over the age of 55. Smokers and individuals of Caucasian decent are at an increased risk, as well as anyone with a family history of the disease.

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This animation from the American Macular Degeneration Foundation shows the loss of central vision that occurs with this disease.

Surprisingly, there are many parallels between macular degeneration and Alzheimer’s disease. Though the two conditions may seem unrelated, both are believed to be caused by the buildup of a toxic protein called amyloid-beta. In Alzheimer’s disease, amyloid-beta plaques accumulate in the brain, while in macular degeneration, amyloid-beta forms fatty deposits behind the retina called “drusen.” Plaques and drusen appear to have similar composition of proteins and fats, and utilize the same mechanisms to damage surrounding tissue.

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Diagram of a normal eye and an eye with macular degeneration. Image Source

The similarities between these two diseases don’t end there. Older people with macular degeneration are three times as likely to have cognitive impairment, suggesting that the same processes leading to amyloid-beta accumulation in the retina could also be occurring in the brain. This makes sense, since the retina and the brain are both part of the central nervous system. Additionally, several mouse models of Alzheimer’s disease exhibit amyloid-beta buildup in both the brain and the retina, further cementing the link between the two conditions.

The emerging connection between Alzheimer’s and macular degeneration has several important consequences. If amyloid-beta buildup in the retina could be a sign of a similar process happening in the brain, it raises the possibility that eye exams could serve as a non-invasive method to screen people for Alzheimer’s disease. Clinical trials for this idea are still ongoing, but the early results seem encouraging. These eye exams could potentially allow for earlier Alzheimer’s diagnosis or a lower risk of misdiagnosis.

This relationship also suggests that people with Alzheimer’s disease could be at a greater risk of macular degeneration, or vice versa. If you or a loved one is experiencing dementia, it’s recommended to minimize the risk of macular degeneration by receiving regular eye exams, protecting the eyes from sunlight, and maintaining a healthy diet.

 

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What Naked Mole Rats Can Teach Us About Alzheimer’s Disease

Yes, you read that title correctly. I’m talking about naked mole rats, the burrowing hairless rodents with a face only a mother could love. You might just know them for their strange appearance, but naked mole rats have fascinated scientists for decades due to their extreme longevity. They are by far the longest-lived rodent species, with a maximum lifespan of more than 30 years, compared to only 2 years for your typical mouse. They also are practically immune to cancer, for reasons we don’t entirely understand.

So what does this have to do with Alzheimer’s? Well, another one of the naked mole rat’s strange quirks is that is possesses extremely high levels of amyloid-beta, the toxic protein that is believed to cause Alzheimer’s disease. In humans, amyloid-beta aggregates into sticky plaques in the brain, which can cause a whole host of problems. Amazingly, naked mole rats have even higher amyloid-beta levels than 3xTg-AD mice, which are an Alzheimer’s mouse model genetically engineered to over-produce amyloid-beta. However, the amyloid-beta found in naked mole rats is less sticky and does not tend to form plaques, despite being just as toxic to neurons. Additionally, while amyloid-beta in humans increases as we age, its levels remain constant in naked mole rats. This suggests that amyloid-beta could be harmless (or possibly even beneficial) when it’s present in its non-sticky form. A 2015 report also found that the brains of old naked mole rats look more like what you’d expect to see in a baby animal’s brain, with high numbers of new neurons constantly being formed.

The fact that naked mole rats possess exceedingly high levels of amyloid-beta throughout their lifespan, yet do not develop Alzheimer’s disease, makes them an extremely useful research subject. If scientists can unravel what makes these rodents so resistant to amyloid-beta, we might be able to apply this finding to humans in the form of a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. So even though they may not be the cutest creatures, you might someday have the naked mole rat to thank for keeping your brain healthy!

Here are some more fun facts about naked mole rats! They have no sense of pain and are nearly blind. They are almost entirely cold-blooded, relying on their environment to regulate body temperature. In order to live underground, naked mole rats have evolved very low rates of breathing and metabolism, and can survive for up to 5 hours in low-oxygen conditions. They live in eusocial colonies similar to ants or bees, with a single queen that produces all the colony’s offspring.

 

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Alzheimer’s and Coconut Oil: What Does the Science Say?

Coconut oil has certainly been a health craze over the past few years, with people claiming it can do everything from whiten your teeth to promote weight loss. Recently I’ve had several readers ask me to look into claims that coconut oil could treat or cure Alzheimer’s disease. So let’s dive into the details and figure out whether coconut oil could really be healthy for your brain.

Ketones and Where to Find Them

Most explanations for coconut oil’s supposed miraculous properties focus on its high ketone content. The “ketogenic diet,” sometimes shortened to the “keto diet,” has recently seen a surge in popularity. The idea behind the keto diet is to shift your body’s primary energy source from carbohydrates to ketones. Normally, the carbs in the food you eat are converted into glucose (aka sugar), which your body then uses for energy. However, when your carb intake is very low, a backup mechanisms called ketogenesis kicks in. Your liver starts breaking down fat into ketones, another type of energy-storing molecule similar to glucose but with a different chemical structure.

To induce ketosis, people cut back on their intake of carbs to less than 20 grams per day (equivalent to half a cup of pasta or one slice of bread), compared to the 225 to 335 grams that most people consume daily. To compensate for the reduced calories, they also increase their consumption of fats. Coconut oil is especially popular in keto diets because it is rich in medium-chain triglycerides, a type of fat that your body can easily convert into ketones. By maintaining a low-carb diet for an extended period of time, your body shifts toward utilizing fat as its primary energy source. As a result, your pancreas starts producing lower levels of insulin, the hormone that tells your body to store glucose as fat. The idea then is that less of what you eat gets stored as body fat and more gets burned for energy, and so you lose weight.

An overview of the ketogenic diet. Image Source

How Ketones Affect the Brain

In general, most studies have suggested that the keto diet could be an effective weight loss tool, though research on its longer-term effects remains limited. But what effect does it have on the brain? The idea that coconut oil and other ketogenic foods could help with Alzheimer’s disease comes from studies showing that Alzheimer’s patients have lower glucose metabolism in their brains. This means that their brains have trouble utilizing glucose for energy, which could result in cognitive impairment. This tends to be worse in people with diabetes, perhaps one of the reasons why diabetics are at an increased risk of Alzheimer’s. (See Alzheimer’s Disease: Diabetes of the Brain?)

That’s where coconut oil might come in. Since their brains have trouble metabolizing glucose, perhaps Alzheimer’s patients could substitute ketones as an alternative source of energy. Research shows that ketone metabolism in normal in Alzheimer’s brains, providing hope that this could be a possibility. A recent study also showed that neurons incubated with coconut oil and then exposed to amyloid-beta (a toxic protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease) had increased survival compared to neurons not treated with coconut oil.

Unfortunately, clinical trials in humans are lacking. I was only able to find one small study from Spain, in which 22 Alzheimer’s patients were given 40 mL of coconut oil daily for three weeks. They found that these patients scored better on a memory test than others who did not receive coconut oil. However, the sample size was very small and they also did not include a placebo in the control group, so it’s difficult to say how meaningful these results really are. Other clinical trials studying different types of ketogenic compounds to treat Alzheimer’s disease have seen only limited success in a small subset of participants.

What’s the Verdict?

While it’s possible that it could help you lose weight or provide other health benefits, there’s just not enough evidence to say whether or not coconut oil and other ketogenic foods could reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. On the other hand, there are some possible risks associated with it. Consumption of coconut oil in large quantities can lead to gastrointestinal problems, and its high saturated fat content also makes it a risk factor for heart disease or obesity. However, incorporating a small amount of coconut oil into your diet could be beneficial if you offset those calories with reduced carb intake. That being said, it’s unlikely that coconut oil or any ketogenic diet alone will be enough to dramatically alter your risk of Alzheimer’s disease. (To learn about real ways you can reduce your risk, see How to Reduce your Dementia Risk in 2017)

 

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Could We Ever Bring Back Alzheimer’s Patients’ Memories?

We spend our whole lives collecting memories. To many of us, these are far more precious than any of our material possessions. Perhaps this is why diseases like Alzheimer’s that rob us of our memories feel especially tragic and frightening.

There’s a lot of brilliant research being done on ways to prevent Alzheimer’s disease or to halt its progress, and each day the field is making great strides toward this goal. Yet many scientists are reluctant to address the elephant in the room: what about the memories that are already gone? Will we ever be able to bring back a lifetime of precious memories to a patient who’s forgotten them all? It’s a difficult question, one that no one can predict with absolute certainty, but here I’ll attempt to describe where our current research stands and the obstacles we must overcome if we’re ever to achieve this goal.

The Hunt for the Engram

Here’s a deceptively simple question for you: what is a memory? You might think you know the answer. Of course, memories are our way of looking pack on our past, the images you recall from your wedding day, the mouthwatering smell of your grandma’s brownies, the lyrics to your favorite song. But what are they really? Do memories exist in physical space, governed by simple chemical reactions like the rest of our bodies? Or are they more ethereal, an untouchable something that’s a part of us yet separate from our physical form? These questions have been a source of philosophical debate for centuries, going back to the time of Plato and Aristotle.

In the early 1900s, neuroscientist Richard Semon hypothesized that our brains undergo an enduring physical or chemical change whenever we form a new memory. He coined a new term, “engram,” to describe this physical manifestation of memory. The nature of the engram was a topic of considerable debate. Some, like William James, believed that each memory is stored within a single neuron. “Every brain-cell has its own individual consciousness, which no other cell knows anything about,” James famously wrote. According to this theory, there’s a cell for all your memories of your grandmother, a cell for memories of macaroni and cheese, a cell for memories of the color blue, and so on. Others took a more holistic approach to memory theory. They believed that memories were stored as a pattern of activity within a particular group of neurons, rather than in a single neuron.

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According to William James, everyone has a “grandmother cell” which contains all the memories you have of your grandmother. Image Source

For nearly a century, neuroscience lacked the proper tools to resolve this debate. Finally, in 2007, a revolutionary paper was published in the journal ScienceThe researchers in the study genetically engineered mice so that any neurons that became activated while learning a new behavior were permanently “tagged.” The researchers observed a particular group of neurons that were activated after learning the new behavior, but not in control mice that received no training. When the mice were exposed once again to the training, causing them to recall their previous memory, the same group of neurons became active. This was seen as the first proof that engrams existed within the brain and could be reactivated when recalling memories.

Subsequent research provided more concrete evidence that these neurons were indeed an engram. In one study, researchers placed rats in a cage where they received a foot shock. Normally, if the rats were placed in that cage again, they would remember the foot shock and display signs of fear such as “freezing.” However, when the researchers selectively destroyed the cells within that engram, the rats seemed to forget the memory and did not freeze when placed back in the cage.

The next breakthrough came in 2011 with the invention of optogenetics, which allows us manipulate the activity of individual neurons without destroying them. Using this technique, it was shown that activating the fear engram caused the rats to freeze, even if they weren’t in the cage where the shock happened. Conversely, inactivating the engram blocked the memory, so that the rats would not freeze when placed back in the cage where they had been shocked.

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Optogenetics allows researchers to directly manipulate neuronal activity using pulses of light. (Don’t worry, this is painless for the mouse!) Image Source

These studies show that engrams are probably formed by the activity of multiple neurons, casting doubt on James’s theory of one memory per cell. However, the mystery of the engram is not yet completely resolved. Today we are still trying to figure out what kinds of changes are occurring at the cellular and molecular level within these neurons when a memory is formed.

Alzheimer’s Disease: Memory Destroyer or Memory Blocker?

Now that we have a better understanding of what exactly a memory is, I can return to my original question: can the memories lost by Alzheimer’s patients ever be rescued? The answer to this question depends on what is actually happening to the memories in this disease. If the engrams encoding these memories are destroyed, it seems unlikely that we could ever rebuild them. However, there is a more hopeful possibility. What if the memories are still present in the brain, but Alzheimer’s simply prevents us from accessing them?

This is essentially a question of what aspect of memory is lost in Alzheimer’s disease. Memory formation is divided into three stages:

  1. Encoding. Your brain translates the raw data obtained through your senses into a pattern of neuronal activity, which forms a short-term memory.
  2. Storage. If the memory is deemed by your brain to be important, it is transferred into long-term storage.
  3. Retrieval. Whenever you recall that memory, your brain accesses its stored engram and allows you to remember.

It is still not entirely clear which stage of memory is disrupted in Alzheimer’s disease. Are the patients simply unable to encode new memories? Can they form memories but not transfer them to long-term storage? Or maybe the memories are there but simply can’t be retrieved?

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A computer is a useful metaphor for understanding the stages of memory (even if it is a bit of an over-simplification). You encode information using the keyboard, which is stored on the hard drive or disk. When you want to retrieve that information, it is displayed on the monitor. Image Source

A study published last year in Nature took a step toward addressing this dilemma. Researchers used a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease and selected mice that were 7 months old. This age group is a representation of early Alzheimer’s disease, when short-term memory is normal while long-term memory experiences deficits. Using the same foot-shock protocol I described before, they saw that the mice showed freezing behavior 1 hour after the training but had forgotten 24 hours later.

Next, the researchers used optogenetics to activate the engram associated with the fear memory 24 hours after the training period. This time, the mice showed freezing behavior, indicating that the memory had been recalled using the light stimulation. This result is encouraging because it suggests that, at least in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, memories can be consolidated into long-term storage, and the problem is simply an inability to retrieve them.

Will We Ever Rescue Lost Memories?

Our understanding of Alzheimer’s disease, and of the nature of memory itself, remain incomplete. The study I’ve just described does not address whether activating an engram can retrieve a memory formed months or even years ago. It also does not explore whether mice in later stages of the disease can have their memories revived in this way. Furthermore, at present we do not have a noninvasive method for activating particular engrams in humans.

However, it does provide at least of glimmer of hope. If it is the case that the memories of Alzheimer’s patients are still present in their brains, then the possibility of restoring the memories becomes much more feasible than if they were completely destroyed. It also suggests that emerging therapies like deep brain stimulation could one day be used to help restore memory.

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Deep brain stimulation uses an electrode to provide stimulation directly into the brain. These devices have had encouraging results for Parkinson’s disease and are now starting to be tested for Alzheimer’s. Image Source

Sometimes, people with Alzheimer’s disease will seem to momentarily remember something they had previously forgotten. They are plenty of videos of this online, such as this one, where a man suffers from severe dementia and yet can inexplicably recall the lyrics to his favorite songs; or this one, where a woman with Alzheimer’s recognizes her daughter after having forgotten her. Perhaps those other memories are not gone but just inaccessible. Perhaps the memories are still buried deep inside their brains, just waiting for the right stimulus to bring them back to the surface.

 

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