Defeating dementia

November 25, 2019

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The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

EVER walk into a room and forget what you came in there for? Perhaps you have struggled to remember an acquaintance’s name or an anniversary? If, like most of us you have felt a momentary loss of memory you may also be familiar with the near-panic that accompanies it, followed by a wave of relief when the elusive memory is finally located.

Now imagine that this isn’t a passing thing but a permanent feature. Imagine forgetting words, places and even which city you are living in. Imagine calling for your spouse only to be told that he or she passed away years ago. And then imagine that realisation hitting you like a speeding car every single time, crushing not your body but your very soul. Each and every time.

This is Alzheimer’s disease, a progressive condition which destroys nerve connections in the brain. It strips away the very thing that makes you … you: your memories. After all, what are we except the sum total of our experiences, both good and bad? It is the joy and despair, the highs and the lows of our lives that make us who we are, and it this disease that strips all of that away from us, until death comes to claim the shadow of what was once a human being.

Often, that death is hastened by conditions caused directly or indirectly by Alzheimer’s itself which is considered the sixth leading cause of death in the US alone. Globally, 50 million people are estimated to suffer from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, and because there is no cure and no effective treatment, the number is expected to go up to 152m by 2050.

Imagine forgetting words, places and even which city you are living in.

According to the UK’s National Health Service, Alzheimer’s is thought to be caused “by the abnormal build-up of proteins in and around brain cells. One of the proteins involved is called amyloid, deposits of which form plaques around brain cells. The other protein is called tau, deposits of which form tangles within brain cells”.

These plaques and tangles collect between neurons and begin to disrupt brain function, leading to the cognitive decline that is characteristic of this disease. Thus, most research into Alzheimer’s has focused on somehow controlling the abnormal production of these naturally occurring proteins, but the latest research points towards a rather unexpected culprit: gum disease.

Analysing brain tissue, spinal fluid and saliva from both living and dead patients scientists found the bacteria Porphyromonas gingivalis — usually associated with gingivitis and other gum diseases — in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. Once it manages to travel from the mouth to the brain, it secretes a toxic protein called gingipan which destroys brain neurons, and also increases the production of brain-plaque causing amyloid proteins. Simply put, this means that one way to perhaps prevent or at least decrease the possibility of developing Alzheimer’s is by ensuring good oral health. Maybe.

Another unusual discovery links to gut bacteria, and while we know that the composition of the billions of microbes that live in our gut has a major effect on (and in turn are affected by) our health and lifestyle, there are surprising commonalities in the gut bacteria of people suffering from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Certain strains of bacteria were found in higher levels among patients, as opposed to the control group while others were conspicuously absent or in far lower numbers than the norm.

While these studies are by no means conclusive, it does provide yet more proof of a strong link between diet and brain health with the consensus being that either a Mediterranean diet rich in fish, fruit and vegetables or else a traditional Japanese-style diet is the most beneficial while processed foods and sugars are to be avoided like the plague.

This ‘you are what you eat’ theory founds the basis of what is the first new drug for the treatment of Alzhei­mer’s that has been released in the last 17 years. Developed in China and now approved for use by its drug safety authorities, this drug is extracted from seaweed and is based on the finding that people who regularly consumed seaweed tend to have lower rates of Alzheimer’s as opposed to those who do not. The reason for this is that a sugar contained in seaweed suppresses the aforementioned bacteria that are responsible for neural degeneration.

This drug, called Oligomannate, will be available for patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s soon. While this aims at preventing the plaques from building up, another rather interesting treatment is focusing on removing the plaques that have already built up … by using nothing more than light and sound! Experimenting on mice, MIT researchers found that using strobe lights and a low-pitched buzz, they could recreate brain waves lost to Alzheimer’s, which in turn remove the plaques.

Whether one or all of these treatments bear fruit, it is heartening to see that for so many sufferers, the long dark night of the soul may be coming to an end.

The writer is a journalist.

Twitter: @zarrarkhuhro

Published in Dawn, November 25th, 2019