Alzheimer's: Leaky Blood-Brain Barrier One More Step in Understanding Development of Disease

Caregiver, patient expert

The blood-brain barrier (BBB) is a collection of cells and cellular components that line the walls of blood vessels in the brain. This barrier is an important part of brain health because it separates the brain from circulating blood. A study led by Walter H. Backes, Ph.D., a professor in medical physics at Maastricht University Medical Center in the Netherlands, has found that the blood-brain barrier was leakier in a group of people with Alzheimer's disease than in those without the disease.

This new information could add to the accumulation of evidence that early detection of Alzheimer's is the key to defeating it. In fact, most of the drugs now going through trails need to be taken in the pre-symptom stage of the disease in order to be effective. The goal is to one day be able to start interventions early enough to stop or reverse damage from the disease before symptoms start.

The team used contrast-enhanced magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to identify leakages in the BBB of people who had early Alzheimer's disease and then produced a histogram, which is a mathematical diagram, to map out the brain showing how much tissue was affected by this leakage.

The down side of the study is that it was not large, as it only used 16 people with early Alzheimer’s disease balanced by 17 people without symptoms of the disease for controls. The distinct upside is that, unlike many studies that use mice in their first rounds, this study was conducted using human participants. This can significantly improve the chances of moving increased testing forward quickly.

Why does this study matter?

Every new study that illustrates what occurs in the brain prior to the appearance of Alzheimer’s symptoms brings us one step closer to a cure.

I’m aware of the feelings of many in the Alzheimer’s community who are coping with the disease at this time. They are rightly frustrated by constant study information that is not helping them now. They need funding to help offset the enormous costs of Alzheimer’s care. They need respite care for the caregivers. They need help in every aspect of living with Alzheimer's — now.

However, many family members of this same group are at high risk of developing the disease themselves. Therefore, these new studies are extremely important to the families of those with the disease even if the answers won't come in time to help their loved one who now lives with AD.

What is needed, of course, is more funding overall so that the needs of those who are living with Alzheimer’s, as well as other types of dementia, can obtain help as they struggle with the disease. But it’s still vital to find a cure for the future.

Runs and walks sponsored by the Alzheimer’s Association and the Alzheimer's Foundation of America, as well as many other fundraising events, are held over the entire year. These efforts not only help raise needed funding, but they also help raise awareness as well. Unrelenting pressure on lawmakers is needed to bring Alzheimer’s funding up to the levels of funding for other diseases such as cancer.

The cost of dementia is estimated to increase from $226 million in 2015 to over $1 trillion in 2050. This will not only bankrupt our families, but it will also bankrupt our health care system, which is already struggling under the costs of helping people cope with Alzheimer’s.

Early detection is vital for the purposes of financial and care planning, but it will become even more vital as drugs are brought to market that can stop or reverse the disease.

We don’t know which test will become the gold standard of early detection, so we must watch the studies and, as frustrating as it is, wait until more is known. It’s possible that the findings about a leaky BBB could be in the running for that early detection distinction.

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Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver having spent over two decades caring for a total of seven elders. She is a longtime newspaper columnist and the author of “Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories,” as well as a contributor to several additional books on caregiving and dementia. Her websites can be accessed at Follow Carol on Twitter @mindingourelder_ and on Facebook _Minding Our Elders.