Finding a new way to attack Alzheimer's

Published: Nov. 13, 2018 at 1:08 PM EST
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More than one in 10 people suffer from Alzheimer’s, and researchers searching for a cure may be on to something.

So-called zombie cells hold clues they may yield results for those looking at how Alzheimer’s first takes hold.

Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor recently revealed she likely has Alzheimer’s disease, joining nearly 5.5 million people who struggle with the disease. While scientists are searching for drugs that will make an impact, so far, there is no cure.

Now, researchers are watching so-called zombie cells to monitor the impact on Alzheimer’s.

“It’s tough," Mary Lou Rodriguez said. "It is tough, because I know what’s coming.”

Mary Lou was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s after she started forgetting important dates.

“When I started noticing that I couldn’t remember, when are the kids’ birthdays, when is our anniversary? There’s something wrong,” she said.

Mary Lou, a former San Antonio city worker, knows about Alzheimer’s. It took her sister, her mother and her brother.

“Now I’m getting flustered when people throw too much at you at once,” she said.

Patients like Mary Lou motivated a scientist to search for a cure. Dr. Miranda Orr found what some are calling zombie cells: cells that accumulate in the tangles of the brain before the protein buildup that often signals the start of Alzheimer’s disease.

“My hypothesis was that maybe these tangles are becoming a zombie or entering a zombielike state called senescence and becoming zombies like other tissues had been described,” Orr said.

These cells can kill the tissue around them. Orr started testing a drug first on post-mortem tissue, and then mice, which led to a significant finding.

“The zombie cells have developed an armor that protects themselves from their own toxic compounds," Orr said. "So what these drugs do is they disable their own armor and they kill themselves.”

Orr believes once the zombie cells self-destruct, the source of the disease is cleared from the tissue. It's a possible step toward someday finding a cure.

Orr said that when the zombie cells were taken out, diseased mice appeared to have healthier brains. Also, inflammation was eliminated and the mice maintained normal brain mass.

Orr says she has a vested interest in finding a cure: her own grandmother died at age 71 of Alzheimer’s.




REPORT: MB #4501

BACKGROUND: Alzheimer’s is the most common cause of dementia, a general term for memory loss and other cognitive disabilities serious enough to interfere with daily life. It’s not a normal part of aging but the greatest known risk factor is old age. The majority of people with Alzheimer’s are 65 and older, but approximately 200,000 Americans under the age of 65 have early-onset Alzheimer’s. It’s a progressive disease and dementia symptoms gradually worsen over a number of years. Symptoms can range from mild memory loss early on to individuals losing the ability to carry on a conversation and respond to their environment. It’s the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. Those with Alzheimer’s live an average of eight years after their symptoms become noticeable to other, but survival can range from four to 20 years depending on age and health conditions. While there is no cure, research continues and treatments are available that can temporarily slow the worsening of dementia symptoms and improve quality of life for those with Alzheimer’s and their caregiver.


SYMPTOMS: The most common symptom of Alzheimer’s early on is difficulty remembering newly learned information, as the disease typically begins in the part of the brain that affects learning. As it advances through the brain, more severe symptoms emerge such as disorientation, mood and behavior changes, deepening confusion about events, time, and place, and unfounded suspicions about family, friends, and caregivers. It can eventually result in serious memory loss, difficulty speaking, swallowing, and walking. People with signs of Alzheimer’s may find it hard to recognize they have a problem, while it may be more obvious to family or friends. Anyone experiencing dementia-like symptoms should see a doctor as soon as possible. Contact the Alzheimer’s Association hotline 24/7 at 800-272-3900 for assistance finding a doctor who can evaluate memory problems.


NEW TECHNOLOGY: Results from two studies show that a new non-invasive imaging device called optical coherence tomography angiography (OCTA) can detect signs of Alzheimer’s disease in a matter of seconds. Researchers determined that small blood vessels in the retina at the back of the eye are altered in patients with Alzheimer’s. Altered blood vessels were also found in patients with a family history of Alzheimer’s but no symptoms. "This project meets a huge unmet need," ophthalmologist and lead author Dr. Fekrat said. "It's not possible for current techniques like a brain scan or lumbar puncture (spinal tap) to screen the number of patients with this disease. We need to detect the disease earlier.”