Looking for the Alzheimer’s Smoking Gun
The research into how to treat Alzheimer’s disease has turned into a long, hard slog. But some researchers think they are getting closer to identifying damaging brain changes that occur very early in the Alzheimer’s process.
Importantly, intriguing research now focuses on immune cells that may be at fault for helping destroy brain tissue as Alzheimer’s begins.
The cells in question are called microglia.
Continued below. . .
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In a healthy person, microglia are tasked with swallowing up inter-cellular garbage harmful to the brain’s neurons.
But a study at the Institute for Regenerative Medicine of the University of Zurich shows that misbehaving microglia can, instead, damage the brain and contribute to Alzheimer’s disease by destroying the brain’s synapses – the connections between neurons that allow signals to be passed from neuron to neuron through brain tissue.1
Sometimes, the researchers note, the removal of synapses is a good thing. For example, during the brain’s development, when you are a child, excess synapses are removed to improve brain function. Research shows that kids with too many synapses are at a greater risk of autism.2
But as we get older, our microglia can become too enthusiastic about gobbling up synapses. When that happens, they remove connections among neurons we can’t afford to lose.
The result, say these researchers, is the kind of memory and attention difficulties that are evident in Alzheimer’s disease.
According to researcher Lawrence Rajendran, our aging immune systems can leave us with cranky, inflamed microglia that stay in inflammatory overdrive and become a synapse’s worst nightmare.
Microglia Malfunctions Linked to Depression
While simply getting older can make your microglia more prone to going rogue, a study at Ohio State University shows that a concussion can add to their tendency to become too destructive. And the problem may not show up for decades.3
The researchers in this case point out that a concussion early in your life – say in your 20s or 30s – can lead to microglia malfunctions in middle age. They found that the inflammation linked to over-eager microglia can cause depression or other mental health issues.
The eventual brain problems may result from the combination of malfunctioning microglia and infections that occur late in life, or other immune problems linked to aging.
"A lot of people with a history of head injury don't develop mental-health problems until they're in their 40s, 50s or 60s. That suggests there are other factors involved, and that's why we're looking at this two-hit idea - the brain injury being the first and then an immune challenge," says researcher Jonathan Godbout who teaches neuroscience at Ohio State. "It's as if one plus one plus one equals 15. There can be a multiplier effect."
A Solution for Aging Microglia
Now, as far as I’ve been able to find in my research, scientists have only been able to identify one dependable way to significantly lower your risk of developing microglia that damage your brain as you age – aerobic exercise.
Lab work at the Jackson Laboratory in Maine found that an exercise like jogging reduces the number of overactive microglia that give off inflammatory chemicals that can lead to memory-destroying brain changes.4
They also found that exercise reduces the leakiness of the blood-brain barrier – the wall designed to keep harmful substances in the blood from getting into the brain.
Although these researchers are looking for other ways besides exercise to make microglia stand down and stop gobbling synapses, up till now, they admit, exercise is all they can offer.
I think it’s an offer you can’t refuse. And even if you can’t jog, activities like a brisk walk may also help.