Making sense of Alzheimer's disease

Friday, November 21, 2003

Source: University of Melbourne, December 2002

The research challenge
Almost everyone knows a sufferer of Alzheimer’s disease, an increasingly common disorder in our growing population of older people. At present there are no really effective treatments available, and for the most useful treatment programs to be designed, we need to find the causes of this debilitating illness. As in other mental disorders of ageing, the symptoms of memory loss and confusion become apparent gradually, perhaps over a period of ten years or more, and there is no way at present to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease when it is in its early stages, or to predict who will ultimately develop it, apart from a very small group with a known, inherited form of the disease.

The path to discovery
Our research groups at the University of Melbourne are working on several fronts. Firstly, we are searching for ways to identify sufferers of Alzheimer’s disease at early stages, perhaps through changes that might occur in the blood or in brain scans, and before there is any noticeable decline in mental function. Secondly, we are investigating changes in biochemical processes in the brains of sufferers. Thirdly, we are designing drugs to target molecules that are changed in some way, or are present in abnormal amounts in disease sufferers, and finding whether these drugs cause significant improvement in a person’s mental condition.

Research Approach
The brains of Alzheimer’s sufferers have been found to have a build-up of specific proten deposits (called plaques) and our approach is to identify key molecules in this process. We are working to determine what changes occur in the course of the disease. This will allow us to devise ways of interrupting the disease process and also to develop laboratory methods of early diagnosis.

Preliminary findings
We conducted initial studies in cells and as a result of collecting promising data conducted later studies in ‘Alzheimer’s’ mice. These studies showed that treatment with a drug that removes copper and zinc ions from brain amyloid protein ‘plaques’ or ‘deposits’, also lowers the amount of this abnormal deposit in the mouse brain. The drug has been undergoing clinical trials in patients and in 2003 the results from the phase II trial will be published in a peer-reviewed journal.

We know that several enzymes modulate the signals that are carried between brain neurons, and one of these, acetylcholinesterase, is altered in Alzheimer’s sufferers. Investigations are in progress to assess whether this altered molecule could be an early disease marker that is so much needed for timely diagnosis.

For more information visit the Research Australia website, Discoveries in Health.
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