Even the most optimistic of us know that, at this time, there is no reliable way to prevent Alzheimer’s disease and there is no cure. Pharmaceutical companies have committed billions of dollars to study drug therapies that have yet to prove effective. Yes, there are more pharmaceutical approaches in the pipeline, but none of them will be available soon, and there is no guarantee that these drugs are even targeting the correct source of the disease. The bottom line is that there’s simply too little known about Alzheimer’s disease to promise an imminent solution.
The good news is that recent studies have shown a healthy lifestyle may delay Alzheimer's symptoms for up to 10 years for some people. Still, this just delays symptoms. Researchers have yet to show that lifestyle may prevent or cure the disease. Certainly, leading a healthy lifestyle is worth the effort for many reasons, but Alzheimer’s researchers must continue their efforts to find a method that can make a significant, reliable difference to the millions of people affected by the disease. That is where these two exceptionally modern approaches come in to play.
The Department of Defense's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) awarded Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) up to $2.5 million to develop a neural device that can be implanted in the brain. This device would have the ability to record and stimulate neurons that can help restore memory.
What sparked this research? Hundreds of thousands of our military veterans are suffering from injuries that have caused trauma to the brain, or Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). TBI can disrupt the process in which neurons in certain regions of the brain encode, store and retrieve information. TBI has affected approximately 270,000 military service members since 2000 and often leads to a type of dementia called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). Additionally, there are illnesses that can cause a similar type of damage, such as Alzheimer’s disease and epilepsy. These diseases affect our military, but like TBI, they also affect the general population.
According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, DARPA has contracted with UCLA and the University of Pennsylvania to lead a four-year effort to develop a brain implant that could make a big difference in the lives of these injured soldiers. The implant will use real-time recording and closed-loop stimulation of neural tissues to bridge gaps in the injured brain, and restore an individual's ability to form new memories and access previously formed ones. This program, known as Restoring Active Memory (RAM), will focus on declarative memory which is the ability to record and recall times, places and other facts necessary to lead a normal life.
Teams of scientists from the two institutions will be aided by neural technology experts at Lawrence Livermore National Lab, and by experts in the design and manufacture brain-stimulating devices from Medtronic Inc. and Neuropace Inc.
The RAM initiative is an extension of a field that is exploring what is called "brain-machine interfaces" that can compensate for injury, illness or disability. Think of cochlear implants which bypass faulty auditory nerves thus allowing some people to hear for the first time.
One of the most exciting components of this research is that a successful implant would be able to help people who already have Alzheimer’s disease. There’s little hope at this time that a drug will be developed anytime soon that can reverse damage or help people with Alzheimer’s remember more clearly, making this surgical approach an important step in a new direction.
Brain cell transplants
A study conducted by the Gladstone Institutes, in collaboration with researchers at University of California, San Francisco, have found in experiments on mice that transplanting certain brain cells may help those with Alzheimer’s disease.
According to the Institute, the scientists transplanted inhibitory neuron progenitors, which are early-stage brain cells that have the capacity to develop into mature inhibitory neurons, into two mouse models with Alzheimer’s disease.
One mouse model carried the apoE4 gene which is considered to be a major contributor to Alzheimer’s disease. Another model carried the apoE4 gene with an accumulation of amyloid beta. Amyloid beta, also called beta-amyloid, is considered to be another major contributor to Alzheimer’s. These healthy cell transplants assisted the brain in replacing cells lost due to apoE4 thus regulating brain activity resulting in improved learning and memory abilities and raising these activities to the normal levels in aged mice. This research was published in a recent issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.
The New Frontier
Both of these developments are experimental and carry the risk of invasive surgery. They aren’t likely to be a first choice option for many people even if they are proven safe and effective, since surgery on people who have dementia, especially those who are aged, could possibly backfire. Yet, people are desperate for some way to reverse the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. This new frontier of research may provide some hope for many who will risk anything to reverse their disease.
Zarembo, A; Healy, M. (2014, July 9) Pentagon spurs new work on a brain implant to aid memory problems. LA Times. Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-pentagon-neural-prosthetic-memory-20140709-story.html
Stonehouse News (2014, July 15) Alzheimer’s memory loss could be reversed. With brain cell transplants. Retrieved from http://www.stonehearthnewsletters.com/alzheimers-memory-loss-reversed-brain-cell-transplants/alzheimers/
The Alzheimer’s and Dementia Weekly (2014, July 13) Department of Defense Invests in Brain Implants to Restore Memories. Retrieved from http://www.alzheimersweekly.com/2014/07/department-of-defense-invests-in-brain.html
Published On: August 11, 2014