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Published on: June 14, 2015
by Sunrise Senior Living:
Our bodies are resilient disease-fighting machines. Our complex and effective immune systems can help purge our system of harmful bacteria and viruses linked to disease.
However, there are some medical conditions that our immune systems haven’t been able to crack. One such illness is Alzheimer’s disease, which affects over 5 million seniors in the U.S., according to the Alzheimer’s Association. While treatment options are limited and there is currently no cure, researchers are constantly seeking ways to improve Alzheimer’s care through new treatment methods.
Researchers sic the immune system on damaged brain cells
Alzheimer’s is characterized by a buildup of damaged brain cells, called plaques. These plaques obstruct neural pathways and prevent the affected brain from being able to carry out the intended function, which is why cognitive decline is such a noted symptom of dementia.
Particularly concerning for seniors, families and doctors alike is that no treatment method has yet been devised that is capable of stopping or reversing the progression of symptoms. But researchers from the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California are seeking to challenge that standard. A recent study found that amyloid-beta plaques – the offending particles in Alzheimer’s cases – may be able to be removed by using the body’s natural immune processes. Typically, immune imbalance is an additional symptom of Alzheimer’s, which has most likely prevented effective immune response in patients up to this point.
However, researchers found that the immune system could be “rebalanced,” which would then allow it to clear the harmful amyloid-beta plaques from the brain, as was demonstrated in mice. While still in early stages, this treatment method could be an enormous milestone for Alzheimer’s research, as it would represent one of the first treatments that could potentially reverse symptoms rather than merely prevent them.
Additional treatment pioneers
The Keck School’s study is just one of many such programs currently exploring potential treatment options to tackle Alzheimer’s and dementia, and the horizon is littered with similar studies that are focusing on the disease. For example, the Mayo Clinic indicated that work is being done into exploring a possible “immunization” option. While not a true vaccination, this strategy would seek to prevent amyloid-beta proteins from clumping together into plaques. This would better enable the body to dispose of them via the immune system and would, in effect, prevent the development of Alzheimer’s. Other similar ideas seek to prevent the body from producing amyloid-beta in the brain in the first place by blocking activity in the enzymes that are believed to produce it.
Some researchers have focused not on the cause of the disease, but on its effects. For example, the tau protein networks – responsible for communicating messages between parts of the brain – can become damaged and tangled due to Alzheimer’s. If scientists are able to prevent this from happening, the cognitive symptoms associated with Alzheimer’s may not manifest.
Prevention is the best treatment
Despite these many new and often exciting advances in treatment research, there still is no method approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that has demonstrated an ability to reverse the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. This means that promoting brain health from the start is the best way to maintain cognitive function and prevent developing the disease as much as possible.
The National Institute on Aging emphasized the significance of leading a healthy lifestyle as a means of keeping Alzheimer’s – as well as other chronic health conditions – at bay. While there is no direct link between lifestyle-oriented prevention methods and the development of the disease, healthy choices such as exercise and a balanced diet can help keep other parts of the body healthy. It is widely believed that by keeping a healthy heart in particular, Alzheimer’s may better be prevented.
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