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Fighting Alzheimer’s Disease: An Undergraduate Perspective on Recent Discoveries

As an undergraduate pursuing a double major in political science and psychology, a passion for finding a cure or new, beneficial treatments for those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease may seem odd. As a James Scholar, I wanted to pursue a project focusing on new findings in the field of Alzheimer’s studies.

By Justin Shlensky, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, United States



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Like countless other individuals, I have witnessed a family member wither away due to a disease that is currently neither completely preventable nor curable. From the time I was 10 years of age, my grandfather suffered from Alzheimer’s disease until his passing. Over the course of his life, his doctors and specialists prescribed numerous medications and exercise routines along with specific diets and sleep schedules. Unfortunately, even though this may have slightly slowed the deterioration process and gave him “good days” in which his memory was much better than it had been on average over the course of the disease, Alzheimer’s eventually took his life.

As an undergraduate at the University in Illinois at Urbana-Champaign pursuing a double major in political science and psychology, a passion for finding a cure or new, beneficial treatments for those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease may seem odd. Even though I find politics and developmental psychology intriguing, I could not stop myself from registering for a gerontology-related class my senior year. For years I had wanted to further understand the aging process and learn more about Alzheimer’s disease, which is exactly what the class provided for me. After a few weeks of instruction, I began to notice that my professor, Andiara Schwingel, shared an intense passion for the material, seldom found even within instructors on campus. As a James Scholar, I wanted to pursue a project focusing on new findings in the field of Alzheimer’s studies. After debriefing Professor Schwingel on the guidelines of the project, she agreed that this would be an interesting task, and has since allowed me to compose this brief research document for publication.

While clinical researchers and pharmaceutical companies are in the process of attempting to create stronger medications, many studies have surfaced over the years that have demonstrated conflicting results. In a European study focusing on high blood pressure, thought to be correlated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease, researchers found a 60% reduction in Alzheimer’s disease when patients were given antihypertensive therapy on dementia prevention (Bassil & Grossberg, 2009a). However, no statistical difference was found between treatment and placebo groups regarding dementia in the Hypertension in the Very Elderly Trial (Bassil & Grossberg, 2009a).

Smoking has also been a focal point of research, but contradictory evidence has been found as well. Various studies commit that middle- and older-aged smokers may have an increased risk of Alzheimer’s. Other research focusing on current vs. former smokers has also produced results that claim that current smokers are at a higher risk, but another study refuted that statement (Bassil & Grossberg, 2009a). Staying physically active has always been suggested, but no solid evidence has shown a reduction in the disease solely due to exercise (Bassil & Grossberg, 2009b). Diet has also been attributed to Alzheimer’s, but conclusive research has yet to determine any restrictions or suggestions; however, recent studies have shown there may be a spice that may have characteristics worth investigation.

Curcumin, a curry spice traditionally found in Indian dishes containing turmeric, has recently gone under research in hopes of finding a positive outcome for those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Curcumin possesses anti-inflammatory, anti-amyloid, and antioxidant properties, all of which are beneficial to supporting a healthy diet. According to a large epidemiological study, the rural population of India has a low incidence of Alzheimer’s disease compared to the population of the United States, providing a possible link to diet and the memory-inhibiting disease (Ray & Lahiri, 2009).

In a key study conducted in 2009 at the University Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the Panjab University located in India, researchers tested the effects of curcumin on aluminum-chloride induced rats. Aluminum toxicity has been found to cause distress in the cerebral cortex, brain stem, spinal cord, hippocampus, but most importantly for this study, memory.

As researchers administered aluminum-chloride to their rat test subjects, they noticed a decline in ability of completing memory-driven tasks like the Morris water maze. Researchers observed a significant reversal of cognitive deficiencies caused by the induced aluminum with the aid of administered curcumin (Kumar, Dogra, & Prakash, 2009). While the study found no positive effect of curcumin on rats without aluminum, it did relieve those with aluminum chloride-induced damage (Kumar, Dogra, & Prakash,, 2009). Researchers also found curcumin to play a significant role in decreasing the quantity of aluminum in the hippocampus of rats induced with the chemical (Kumar, Dogra, & Prakash, 2009). Because the hippocampus is thought to play a large role in long-term and spatial task memory, it seems that curcumin holds a great potential benefit for those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

Currently, two professors from the Indiana University of Medicine are comparing the effects of turmeric and curcumin, among various other natural products, on neural cell viability, synaptic proteins, neurite extensions, and neuroprotection in primary cortical neuronal cultures in their laboratory (Ray & Lahiri, 2009). Thus, future research may depend on the laboratory results from this study.

Another serious area of interest comes not from an ingestible source, but rather a simple genetic test. The gene Apolipoprotein E (APOE) has three common alleles: epsilon 2 (ε2), epsilon 3 (ε3), and epsilon 4 (ε4). Prior genetic research has shown a correlation between certain combinations of APOE alleles and Alzheimer’s disease.

A Swedish study, titled the “Kungsholmen Project”, documented more than 1,000 75+ year-old individuals over an 18-year span and compared their APOE allele genetic makeup to find correlations with Alzheimer’s disease and mortality rates. They found that having the ε4 allele contributed to an increased risk of mortality, whereas the ε2 allele presented a lower risk (Rosvall, et al., 2009). Statistically, those with the ε4 allele had a 20% higher risk of dying than those with the ε3ε3 genotype, and those with the ε2ε3 genotype had a 28% lower risk of dying than those with the ε3ε3 genotype (Rosvall, et al., 2009). Researchers also found a gender difference. It seems that the ε4 allele affected men more negatively, as males with that allele experienced a roughly two-year shorter lifespan, but the ε4 allele did not affect women in such an extreme way (Rosvall, et al., 2009). In fact, the ε2 allele demonstrated a protective property in women only (Rosvall, et al., 2009).

Genetic screening for APOE or APOE-related alleles is currently not required for any age. However, there would be no harm in physicians or specialists taking an extra step to test their patients for APOE alleles, in hope that they may be able to catch an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease not physically present.

In conclusion, if curcumin, a simple compound easily attainable and distributed across the globe, could aid in any type of reversal in regards to memory degradation, it should be recommended to those afflicted by Alzheimer’s. Although the Food and Drug Administration may not officially advocate Alzheimer’s patients to consume turmeric or curcumin at this present juncture, I wholeheartedly suggest doing so, for no negative side effects have been shown; it seems it would only cause benefits. I see no harm in suggesting that physicians take the extra step to screen their older patients for APOE alleles. A correlation has already been found due to a lengthy longitudinal study, and if doctors can start their patients on medications that could either slow the process of Alzheimer’s, or specifically combat the negative effects of the APOE ε4 allele, I believe they should. While others may claim there are ethical considerations involved, there are no negative effects of either of my suggestions. Curcumin has not been found to cause any distress in those who already consume it, and a simple genetic test, while it may take time and money to obtain the final result, will not harm individuals either.

For more details, feel free to contact me via e-mail at justin.shlensky@gmail.com.

References

Bassil, N. and Grossberg, G.T. (2009a). Evidence-based approaches to preventing

Alzheimer’s disease, part 1. Primary Psychiatry, 16(6), 29-37.

Bassil, N. and Grossberg, G.T. (2009b). Evidence-based approaches to preventing

Alzheimer’s disease, part 2. Primary Psychiatry, 16(7), 33-38.

Kumar, A., Dogra, S., and Prakash, A. (2009). Protective effect of curcumin (Curcuma

longa), against aluminium toxicity: Possible behavioral and biochemical alterations in rats. Behavioural Brain Research, 205, 384-309.

Ray, B. and Lahiri, D. (2009). Neuroinflammation in alzheimer’s disease: different

molecular targets and potential therapeutic agents including curcumin. Current Opinions in Psychology, 9, 434-444.

Rosvall, L., Rizzuto, D., Wang, H., Winblad, B., Graff, C., and Fratiglioni L. (2009).

APOE-related morality: Effect of dementia, cardiovascular disease and gender. Neurobiology of Aging, 30, 1545-1551.




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