We’re vaccinated throughout our lives for various diseases such as polio, measles, flu and even shingles. Will an Alzheimer’s vaccine one day be part of the growing list of vaccinations that most of us now take for granted? A researcher in the UK thinks that’s possible.
James Nicoll, professor of neuropathology at Southampton University, found that a vaccine can spur the immune system into wiping out beta-amyloid plaques that are thought to stop the brain from properly sending and receiving signals.
While speaking at the Cheltenham Science Festival, Nicoll said: “We do know that people aren’t affected by Alzheimer's until later in life but it takes a good 20 years for the disease to emerge, so we would probably want to start vaccinating people in their 50s or 40s.”
The vaccine that Nicoll thinks may be the answer to preventing the development of Alzheimer’s is made from the same beta-amyloid protein that is found in the brains of people who show Alzheimer’s symptoms.
Nicoll told the gathering that he was “amazed to find the injections removed the beta-amyloid clusters in people with the condition, but was dismayed to find it did not stop mental decline or early death.”
Nicoll believes that vaccinating people long before they show symptoms – he suggests doing so between the ages of 40 and 50 – could prevent the plaques from forming in the first place.
“It’s possible that the beta-amyloid accumulation causes a cascade of things which you can’t reverse,” Nicoll said. “But could we vaccinate before that started? For me that is the most interesting and exciting question. It could prevent the accumulation in the first place.”
A study in Columbia, South America is currently testing this theory on a large extended family whose members are all genetically predisposed to Alzheimer’s disease. Realistically, it will be decades before scientists know if the vaccine has been effective.
Another study looking at viruses as Alzheimer’s catalyst
In separate research, Professor Clive Holmes, professor of biological psychiatry at Southampton University, says that Alzheimer’s could be caused and/or worsened by common infections such as gum disease and flu.
He suggests that the apathy experienced by many dementia sufferers is caused by the same brain mechanism that makes people feel listless and unsociable when they are fighting an infection.
This study is also based on beta-amyloid plaques but has a different focus. Holmes says that these plaques in the brain cause a heightened response to inflammation that makes people feel permanently lethargic.
“We think that infections are contributing to the development of Alzheimer’s but could they actually be causing the disease in the first place? We are getting increasing evidence to suggest this might be the case,” Holmes said.
90+ Study may eventually lead to answers
UC Irvine’s enormous 90+ Study, led by Dr. Claudia Kawas, was launched in 2003 to learn more about the “oldest old.” Kawas and her team are studying elders over 90, some of whom have the plaques and tangles associated with Alzheimer’s but have no Alzheimer’s symptoms. They will be watching these elders closely as they try to get to the root of many diseases, but the cause of Alzheimer’s is one of the most riveting. The fact that many elderly people die with the physical signs of Alzheimer’s in the brain but no cognitive or behavioral symptoms has some researchers looking for other causes of Alzheimer’s while others are looking for a substance that may turn beta amyloid and tau proteins toxic. Beta-amyloid and tau proteins are the source of the plaques and tangles that most Alzheimer's researchers are focusing on.
Sadly, while all of the studies are interesting and give us hope for the future, there isn't much significant help, other than some drugs that may slow symptom development, for people struggling with AD right now. However, there are two things that can be done to contribute to an eventual cure. One is to see if you qualify to volunteer for an Alzheimer’s study by looking for active clinical trials on the National Institute on Aging website. The other is to urge the people you’ve voted into public office to increase funding for Alzheimer’s research. Either or both of these steps could help you feel connected to the fight that will eventually end Alzheimer’s.
Related story: New Alzheimer’s Related Clinical Trials Open for Volunteers
Knapton, S. (2014, June 3) Prevent Alzheimer’s by vaccinating at 40, scientist suggests. The Telegraph. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/10873506/Prevent-Alzheimers-by-vaccinating-at-40-scientist-suggests.html
University of California Irvine (2013, October 17) National Institute on Aging renews funding for UCI’s 90+ Study. Retrieved from http://news.uci.edu/press-releases/national-institute-on-aging-renews-funding-for-ucis-90-study/
Published On: June 13, 2014