Scientists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) released some unsettling new estimates about the number of individuals affected with Alzheimer’s disease this week—and how that number is expected to skyrocket in the near future.
The NIH team estimates that there are 6 million Americans who currently have either Alzheimer’s disease or some form of cognitive impairment, and that number is expected to more than double to 15 million by 2060.
These staggering statistics highlight the pressing need to better understand how and why Alzheimer’s disease develops, as well as how to treat it.
Here are just some of the ways researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital are working on new strategies to improve diagnosis and treatment.
How “Alzheimer’s in a Dish” Could Improve Research and Treatment Efforts
Scientists and clinicians at Mass General’s Institute for Neurodegenerative Disease (MIND) have developed a creative solution to overcome the challenges of modeling Alzheimer’s disease in the lab.
The laboratory teams of Doo Yeon Kim, PhD, an investigator in the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at MIND, and Rudy Tanzi, PhD, have found a way to grow human neural stem cells in a three-dimensional gel matrix.
One of the challenges in studying the progression of Alzheimer’s disease in the laboratory is that the brain exists in three-dimensions. A Petri dish is flat. Thus it has been difficult to replicate the disease solely by culturing neuronal stem cells and growing them in a dish.
The new 3D model is capable of housing and supporting neuronal stem cells that have been genetically engineered to develop the same plaques and tangles found in the genetic form of Alzheimer’s disease.
The gel not only provides a more brain-like environment for the neurons, allowing them to create more connections, it also helps to retain the Alzheimer’s-linked proteins that are produced by the genetically engineered neuronal cells.
This new model could represent a big step forward in Alzheimer’s research, as it will allow investigators to test thousands of chemical compounds against a more realistic model of the disease, which could speed development of new therapies.
Scent Recognition and Recall Test Could Better Predict Onset of Alzheimer’s Disease
A Mass General research team, led Mark Albers, MD, PhD, of the Center for Alzheimer’s Research, has developed a series of four tests designed to measure early indications of Alzheimer’s disease based on an individual’s ability to recognize, remember and distinguish among odors.
The 30-minute scent test was given to 183 people between 60 and 80 years old – some with mild cognitive impairment or possible Alzheimer’s disease—and of those, about 20 percent showed signs of olfactory deficiencies.
Genetic and imaging testing revealed that that these same individuals had other deficiencies that have been linked to the illness, including thickening of certain brain structures and a mutation in a gene associated with increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
New Brain Scans Used to Detect Risk
Researchers at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging are using a computer aided system called BrainPrint to analyze MRI brain scans to help distinguish individuals who are having minor memory issues from those who are in the silent, early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
The research, led by Martin Reuter, PhD, has shown there are more pronounced asymmetrical differences in the shapes of critical structures between the left and right sides of the brain in individuals who are later diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
A better understanding of the early signs of Alzheimer’s could improve detection and treatment strategies, and delay or prevent the significant cognitive decline that occurs in later stages of the disease.
Non-Invasive Imaging Techniques Help Researchers See Tau and Amyloid Development
Jorge Sepulcre, MD, PhD, and team at Mass General’s Gordon Center for Medical Imaging have been working to improve noninvasive tests to detect amyloid plaques and tau tangles. Specifically, they are investigating the pathways through which tau spreads and amyloid builds up over time.
Their research has found that the tau and amyloid proteins use different brain pathways to reach the areas where they accumulate.
These findings could help researchers describe the stage of the disease in a given patient and may improve their ability to track responses to potential therapeutic interventions, says Sepulcre.
Studying A Small Group in South America Could Help Alzheimer’s Patients Worldwide
The Familial Dementia Neuroimaging Lab, led by Yakeel T. Quiroz, PhD, is investigating how brain changes may lead to memory loss or dementia later in life. Their research is focused on a large group of related individuals Colombia who carry a genetic mutation that predisposes them to develop an inherited form of Alzheimer’s disease.
“If our findings only apply to our population from Colombia, we will still help thousands of people”, says Edmarie Guzman-Velez, PhD, a postdoc in Quiroz’s lab. “But if what we find can also be applied to those who develop sporadic (non-hereditary) Alzheimer’s disease, we could help millions of people around the world.”