Mapping the brain to track diseases

NEW YORK (CNN) – In the next 60 seconds or so, someone will begin to show signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Then, 67 seconds after that, someone else in the United States will begin to suffer from this most common form of dementia.

Alzheimers is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States affecting more than 5 million Americans and doctors say, they don’t know why.

The average healthy brain has more than 100 billion nerve cells which record and recall memories and tell our bodies what to do, basically keeping us alive. In the brain of an Alzheimer’s patient, it’s believed those nerve cells are slowly killed by what are called “plaques ‘ and “tangles”.

The plaques are clumps of amyloid protein pieces that build in the space between nerve cells interrupting signals. The tangles are tau protein that have collapsed and twisted, building up inside the individual nerve cells likely causing them to die. So, researchers have now developed a way to scan patients to look for the buildup of the tau protein.

“So this has enabled us now to image the entire disease process from the start of the tangle to the plaque, how they interact with each other,” said Dr. Val John Lowe, Professor of Radiology, Mayo Clinic. “The thinking is there’s an interaction then between the abnormal amyloid that’s been processed and the abnormal tau that’s being laid down and both of these may accelerate at that point and time and produce symptoms and ultimately Dementia.”

Which is why they continue to study both proteins in hopes of developing a combination therapy.

“If we can postpone the onset of cognitive impairment the forgetfulness by 3 to 5 to 8 years that would be a very dramatic improvement in the quality of lives that of people,” said Dr. Lowe.

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