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Published on: March 2, 2015
by Fiona MacRae for Daily Mail:
The telltale signs of Alzheimer’s can be seen in people as young as 20, research shows.
The ‘unprecedented’ finding suggests that the disease starts to eat away at the brain half a century before symptoms develop.
This is a ‘much younger age than the scientists ever imagined’.
The discovery raises the prospect of giving people drugs in the very earliest stages, when it is easiest to treat, and even stopping the disease in its tracks.
However, British experts cautioned that the research is still at an early stage.
Crucially, it isn’t known how many people who have the early signs of Alzheimer’s in their brains in their 20s will go on to develop the disease.
Researchers, from Northwestern University in Chicago, examined the brains of elderly people with and without Alzheimer’s, as well as samples taken from 13 people aged between 20 and 66. These younger people were free of memory problems when they died.
Tests showed that beta-amyloid, the toxic protein that clogs up the brain in Alzheimer’s, had started building up in people as young as 20.
It had been thought that the damage to the brain started just 15 or 20 years before the disease takes hold.
Lead researcher Professor Changiz Geula said: ‘Discovering that amyloid begins to accumulate so early in life is unprecedented.’
The amyloid clumps were found inside neurons, or brain cells, that are involved in memory and attention and are among the first to die in normal ageing, as well as in Alzheimer’s.
The professor said: ‘This points to why those neurons die early. The lifelong accumulation of amyloid likely contributes to the vulnerability of these cells.
‘The growing clumps likely damage and eventually kill the neurons.’
Scientists around the world are trying to make drugs that stop Alzheimer’s in its tracks.
They believe the key to treatment will be to give the medicines as early as possible in the disease.
Even delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s would have a massive impact on the lives of sufferers and their loved ones.
The Alzheimer’s Society gave the research, which is published in the journal Brain a cautious welcome.
Dr James Pickett, the charity’s head of research said the study was very small and that it is already known that not everyone with amyloid clumps will develop Alzheimer’s.
He added: ‘More research is needed to explain why only a proportion of people with a build-up of amyloid go on to develop Alzheimer’s disease.
‘There are clinical trials currently underway of drugs that reduce amyloid in the brain and we hope to find out if this is a successful way to prevent or delay Alzheimer’s disease in the next few years.’
Dr Laura Phipps of Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: ‘With half a million people living with Alzheimer’s in the UK and that number on the increase, we urgently need new treatments to stop the disease in its tracks.
‘A greater understanding of the early stages of Alzheimer’s could provide new clues to help fight the disease, which is why investment in research is crucial.’
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