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It’s been an extraordinary week for Alzheimer’s research, with two groundbreaking discoveries having been made that could transform future treatment. Along with discovering what could be the earliest symptom of preclinical Alzheimer’s, experiments on test subjects have highlighted a possible method for reversing the symptoms of the disease.
Scientists from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Glasgow University injected mice with a protein called IL-33 on a daily basis, which resulted in a full reversal in cognitive decline and the symptoms of Alzheimer’s in a matter of days.
Though the tests have so far been limited to rodents, the team believes it possible that the same technique could be used to treat human patients.
The mice had been bred to exhibit the same kinds of symptoms as those of Alzheimer’s, though within a week were brought back to their prior cognitive capacities with the protein injections. IL-33 is a protein naturally present in the body, which has been linked to a reduction in the amyloid plaque development that causes Alzheimer’s and its devastating symptoms.
Meanwhile, the results of a new study carried out at Washington University in St. Louis suggest that long before a clinical diagnosis is possible, Alzheimer’s patients display signs of increasing difficulties with navigation.
Specifically, their brains’ capacity to build, store and access mental maps of their surroundings was found to be somewhat reduced.
“These findings suggest that navigational tasks designed to assess a cognitive mapping strategy could represent a powerful new tool for detecting the very earliest Alzheimer’s disease-related changes in cognition,” wrote associate professor of psychological and brain sciences in Arts & Sciences, Denise Head.
“The spatial navigation task used in this study to assess cognitive map skills was more sensitive at detecting preclinical Alzheimer’s disease than the standard psychometric task of episodic memory.”
Researchers continue to investigate the detectable effects Alzheimer’s has on the brain, prior to the condition presenting with the kinds of symptoms that lead to standard clinical diagnoses.
Preclinical Alzheimer’s disease denotes the presence of Alzheimer-related changes in the brain that occur prior to the development of symptoms that lead to the diagnosis. The medical and scientific communities hope that by studying Alzheimer’s right back to the moment it first manifests, it may be possible to slow or halt its progression entirely.
This is not the first study to link navigational problems with early-onset Alzheimer’s. The damage caused by the amyloid plaques and tau tangles associated with Alzheimer’s to the brain’s hippocampus affects long-term memory storage, while damage to the caudate is suspected to play a role in harming navigational and mapping functions.
“Our observations suggest a progression such that preclinical Alzheimer’s disease is characterized by hippocampal atrophy and associated cognitive mapping difficulties, particularly during the learning phase,” wrote Samantha Allison, a psychology doctoral student at Washington University and the study’s lead author
“As the disease progresses, cognitive mapping deficits worsen, the caudate becomes involved, and route learning deficits emerge.”
By comparing the performance in simulated tests between 16 adults with early stage Alzheimer’s, 13 with preclinical Alzheimer’s and 42 with no sign of the disease, the researchers were able to link the condition with mental mapping and navigation. The participants were given 20 minutes to explore a maze or learn a specific route, after which they were tested on certain landmarks, directions and pathways they could remember.
“People with cerebrospinal markers for preclinical Alzheimer’s disease demonstrated significant difficulties only when they had to form a cognitive map of the environment — an allocentric, place-learning navigation process associated with hippocampal function,” Denise Head added.
“This same preclinical Alzheimer’s disease group showed little or no impairment on route learning tasks — an egocentric navigation process more closely associated with caudate function,”
“These findings suggest that the wayfinding difficulties experienced by people with preclinical Alzheimer’s disease are in part related to trouble acquiring the environmental information,” she commented.
“While they may require additional training to learn new environments, the good news here is that they seem to retain sufficient information to use a cognitive map almost as well as their cognitively normal counterparts.”