For years now, researchers have sought insights into the mechanisms underlying Alzheimer’s disease, while also devising treatments that would slow its progression. More recently, however, new technologies have made it possible for scientists to begin envisioning a new future: one without Alzheimer’s disease or other devastating forms of dementia. Is this really possible? While it may be science fiction, for now, researchers are hopeful that such a future is right around the corner.
Going Backward: From Treatments To Mechanism
In order to understand the innovative work behind Alzheimer’s prevention efforts, it helps to take a trip backward and explore the path scientists have traveled so far. This includes exploring a variety of structural changes to the brain, especially the distinctive accumulation of amyloid plaques, as well as devising methods to clear those plaques. One non-invasive approach involves using LED light therapy to stimulate neurons and support plaque elimination.
Another avenue that scientists are exploring as they week to understand Alzheimer’s disease is what’s known as “basic research.” Basic research is a branch of laboratory science focused on the fundamentals of cellular operation and Alzheimer’s researchers are using this approach to understand what is happening in individual brain cells as dementia is developing.
Debating Alzheimer’s Inevitability
While various research programs have helped identify treatment modalities for Alzheimer’s and have developed tests to identify the disease earlier using linguistic changes, basic research coupled with new genetic insights are central to eliminating Alzheimer’s entirely. But why did it take so long to hone in on disease elimination, rather than management?
At the heart of the issue is the fact that, until recently, there was substantial debate over whether dementia was a natural part of the aging process. However, a recent study of centenarians concluded that even those with elevated amyloid-beta markers remained cognitively intact. Something, researchers concluded, made these individuals resistant to memory loss, and so, despite the obvious link between Alzheimer’s disease and age, it’s now clear to researchers that the condition is avoidable and that there may be multiple paths to lasting cognitive capacity.
Cutting Out Alzheimer’s Disease
Now that the debate over the nature of Alzheimer’s disease is largely resolved, there is more motivation to fund neuroscience research into prevention, and one of the most powerful tools at researcher’s disposal today is the gene-editing program known as CRISPR.
CRISPR has earned a lot of attention, with the groundbreaking scientists behind the tool receiving the Nobel Prize in Chemistry last year for their work on gene editing, but CRISPR’s use in Alzheimer’s research isn’t widely known and is still in its infancy. However, scientists have successfully used the tool to edit human brain cells in vitro to slow the production of amyloid-beta. As part of this work, researchers identified a gene variant for the protein that significantly reduces the likelihood of Alzheimer’s disease developing; they then used CRISPR to activate that variant in the cells and are making way for animal trials of the technology.
Obviously, the ability to edit cells in a petri dish is very different from preventing disease in a living person’s brain, but this is how science progresses – one step at a time and with due caution. In conjunction with new insights from basic science research, however, scientists are well on their way to changing how we think about Alzheimer’s disease, and their efforts are offering new hope to millions of families.