For caregivers faced with the challenges that come with Alzheimer’s, news that integral research on the cause of the disease may have been faked probably feels like a huge blow. Fortunately, scientists have been pursuing a number of other potential origins in hopes of finding effective treatments. And while there’s still no cure in sight, controllable lifestyle factors remain the best bet for staving off both the onset of dementia as well as further cognitive decline.
For decades, Alzheimer’s research has focused on the plaques formed in the brain by beta-amyloids and tangles caused by a protein called tau—while the medications developed to target them have failed. Last year, a neuroscientist from Vanderbilt University discovered that images from key studies that claimed to identify beta-amyloid as the cause of the neurodegenerative process had likely been manipulated. A number of other researchers have since agreed with his suspicions.
That’s a big deal considering how much of the drug research since has been built on possibly fraudulent findings. Years of work and countless funds may have been spent going in the wrong direction—not to mention the setback the scandal poses for families desperate for a cure.
New research opportunities
All hope is not lost, however. Researchers are busy exploring other potential causes and treatments. In fact, many scientists have been pursuing different avenues since long before the scandal broke. As Elisabeth Bik, PhD, a microbiome and science integrity consultant who independently verified that the images appeared to have been manipulated, said in Medical News Today: “There are other, alternative hypotheses to the beta-amyloid story, and perhaps there now will be more money to test those alternative ideas.”
“We believe much more attention needs to be paid to other factors and proteins underlying various dementias, ranging from environmental factors, to the immune system, to specific molecules like tau, which is the other hallmark protein of Alzheimer’s disease.”
Where else are researchers looking?
Many are searching for changes to the brain before beta-amyloid plaques and tau tangles form. Maria C. Carrillo, PhD, who is the Alzheimer’s Association’s chief science officer, is quoted in NPR as saying that while the proteins are a hallmark of the disease, “it doesn’t mean plaques are the cause of cell death.”
A team from the University of Washington has developed an atlas of the brain using donors from different stages of the disease to gain a fresh perspective. They’re finding surprising changes in the brain’s cortex and links to inflammation, a suspected factor.
Investigations into inflammation’s role in the development and worsening of Alzheimer’s suggest the immune system may play a part in the disease process. A review of the literature by researchers at the University of Nevada found evidence to suggest that inflammation may be a primary force driving AD—which could explain why it’s so closely linked to other health problems that involve inflammation, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
“A growing body of research suggests vascular damage often contributes to Alzheimer’s disease,” Roderick Corriveau, PhD, program director at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, explained in a news release regarding the consortium launched by the National Institutes of Health in 2016 to study the connection between the vascular system and the neurodegenerative disorder.
More recently, researchers at the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University have found a genetic link between vascular disease and Alzheimer’s—which they think may explain the connection between increased rates of the disease among patients with diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and obesity.
Prevention is key
Scientists might not be able to pinpoint the precise cause (or causes) of Alzheimer’s just yet, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do our best to prevent and delay its onset. In fact, with no cure or reliable treatment available, prevention is key.
Living a healthy lifestyle and properly managing any chronic diseases are paramount to AD prevention. Caregivers can keep their loved ones sharper longer by helping them maintain healthy habits throughout their golden years. Similarly, by protecting their own health and staying active, caregivers may be able to forestall a cognitive decline in themselves as well. Be sure to:
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Exercise regularly and avoid sitting too much.
- Don’t use tobacco and avoid second-hand smoke.
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet.
- Avoid excess alcohol.
- Stay hydrated.
- Get plenty of high-quality sleep.
- Relax and avoid stress.
- Feed your brain with ongoing learning.
- Socialize with others.
- Keep diabetes, blood pressure and cholesterol under control.
Although the scandal surrounding key Alzheimer’s research – and the disappointing failure of the medications borne out of it – is upsetting for families affected by AD, there’s still plenty that can be done to combat the disease before it takes hold.
While researchers don’t know for sure what role inflammation and vascular damage may play in Alzheimer’s development, they do know that it’s important to do what you can to limit the effects of both. Paulson reiterated the significance of a healthy lifestyle as prevention:
“If you’re 70 years old, I can’t tell you to go back in time and eat healthier or get more years of school, but I can tell you to do more to get a good night’s sleep as often as possible and connect socially with other people.”