Alzheimer’s, a progressive brain disease, is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, affecting more than 5 million Americans directly. Millions more, including family caregivers, also struggle against the disease.
While no cure currently exists, two types of medications are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — cholinesterase inhibitors (tacrine, donepezil, rivastigmine and galantamine) and memantine — and both have been shown to lessen symptoms for a time. However, these medications don’t work for everyone, and they don’t destroy the clumps of proteins that may cause Alzheimer’s.
That’s why researchers at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden and Wroclaw University of Technology in Poland are excited about their recent discovery: The malfunctioning proteins in Alzheimer’s, known as “amyloid fibrils,” are detectable by laser light.
This discovery may lead to the use of laser therapy both to detect and destroy the clumping brain proteins, theoretically curing the disease without the use of harmful chemicals and without damaging healthy tissue, says Piotr Hanczyc, MSc, a doctoral student at Chalmers University of Technology.
Lasers Represent Advances in Alzheimer’s Research
Scientists suspect two kinds of proteins play definitive roles in Alzheimer’s. One, called “plaques,” are clumps of proteins known as beta-amyloids that build up between brain nerve cells. Another, called “tangles,” are tau proteins (also called “tau”) that build up inside nerve cells. Both block communication between nerve cells, starting in the parts of the brain essential for memory. They also appear to disrupt the processes that enable nerve cells to survive.
But, it gets more complicated. Researcher Marc L. Gordon, MD, chief of neurology at Zucker Hillside Hospital and a professor of neurology and psychiatry at the Hofstra Northshore-LIJ School of Medicine, explains that there are two types of beta-amyloid plaques with different outcomes. The danger sign in Alzheimer’s and its progression appears to be related to the soluble amyloids (smaller stickier types that combine together), rather than the insoluble amyloid plaques, which appear after the damage is done.
“We frankly don’t know what exactly causes the disease,” says Gordon. “We do know it is forms of the soluble beta-amyloids that wreak brain havoc.”
If these amyloids are to blame, and lasers can now clearly distinguish between the two kinds, it may be easier (and much safer) to remove them using lasers, says Hanczyc.
Right now, the laser discovery has led only to speculation, not actual experiments on human brain cells or to patient trials. “Without experimental data, I don’t know how many laser treatments patients would need or for how long,” says Hanczyc. “Even if lasers do become a successful method of treating Alzheimer’s, and if the amyloid theory is correct, it could be 20 years before lasers could be used therapeutically.”
Still, the discovery represents a significant step in Alzheimer’s research and only means researchers are one step closer to finding a cure.
Take the next steps
While there still isn’t a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, there are steps that patients can take to address the progression of Alzheimer’s:
- Sign up for a clinical trial. Talk to your doctor about the value of signing up for a trial testing Alzheimer’s treatments. She may be able to direct you to a trial appropriate for you.
- Educate yourself about treatments and research. Tap into information about experimental treatments and research trials through the Alzheimer’s Association.