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Secret Signal You May Have Alzheimer's, Says New Study

The disease seems to cause changes to specific cells in the brain.
FACT CHECKED BY Alek Korab
senior woman with adult daughter at home.

Alzheimer's disease is the most common form of dementia in the U.S, with more than five million people affected. At the same time, it is disproportionately mysterious. Although scientists have become more sure about the causes of Alzheimer's—including a buildup of toxic plaques in the brain called amyloids—much about the disorder is still poorly understood, including how the brain reacts as the disease progresses (and therefore how it might be slowed or stopped). 

But a new study has provided some potential insight on that process. Researchers from the ASU-Banner Neurodegenerative Research Center (NDRC) and MIT/Koch Institute developed a new model of how Alzheimer's progresses. In their research, they found an association between the buildup of those plaques, the degeneration of the brain, and the cells (called glial cells) that are usually protective of the brain. 

Specifically, the scientists connected neurodegeneration to two types of glial cell: oligodendrocytes and microglia. The changes in those cells may help researchers understand how Alzheimer's makes the brain degrade. 

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Glia Cells May Hold the Key

"Our results show that there are a plethora of cellular signaling pathways that are activated at all stages of disease. We may be able to repurpose available therapies to target protein kinases that regulate these cell signaling events," said Forest White of MIT's Department of Biological Engineering. "Clinicians today are studying therapeutic effects on amyloid and tau as proxies for disease, but our results suggest that glia cells are involved at every step of the process. Improved understanding of glia cells and their roles in progressive neurodegeneration may provide new opportunities for treatment of this disease."

The scientists called for more study and collaboration. Said Diego Mastroeni of the NDRC: "No one individual can tackle this disease on their own; it's going to take a group effort to combat this devastating illness."

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What is Alzheimer's Disease?

Alzheimer's disease, a type of dementia, is a disorder that can cause changes to memory, thinking, and personality, inhibiting a person's ability to function. It is a progressive disease; at present, there is no cure. About 50 million people are living with various types of dementia worldwide, and that number is expected to triple by 2050, as the population ages and people live longer.

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Symptoms of Alzheimer's Disease

Memory problems are a common first sign of Alzheimer's disease. Someone with Alzheimer's may forget recent or important events, or names and places. Other symptoms include:

  • Misplacing items and being unable to retrace steps to find them
  • Visual and spatial problems, such as getting lost while driving
  • Difficulty solving problems and completing mental tasks, organizing or planning
  • General confusion
  • Problems with coordination 
  • Unexplained changes to personality, such as depression, anxiety, or mood swings

Talk to your doctor if you experience any of those, and to get through life at your healthiest, don't miss these First Signs You Have a Serious Illness.