Growing old is a dynamic process, and no two people do it in exactly the same way. Though most people fall into a middle range of aging patterns, some fall into more extreme patterns. One such pattern is Alzheimer’s. Characterized by plaques and tangles in the brain that cause mental dysfunction and dementia, suffering from Alzheimer’s is a particularly unpleasant way to get older. Though we are far from fully understanding the inner workings of the brain, doctors believe that these physical brain menaces cause neuron death and, in time, the dementia associated with Alzheimer’s.
You can imagine the surprise at Northwestern University when they examined the brains of older Americans with superior memory skills and found signs of exactly the same brain structures – plaques and tangles – that are believed to be responsible for Alzheimer’s.
When the brains in questions were examined more closely, and compared to the brains of people exhibiting symptoms of Alzheimer’s, the underlying difference became clear. The nerve cells in the hippocampus of symptomatic brains were largely dead; those in the patients without symptoms were alive and kicking.
“We never expected it,” reports lead medical investigator Chagiz Geula. It tells us there are some factors that are protecting their brains and memories against the Alzheimer’s pathology of plaques and tangles. Now we have to find out what those are.”
Researchers are hoping to figure out how the brains of these particular individuals display all the physical signs of the disease, without experiencing cell death. Once they do, they may be able to apply these protective measures to the brains of older individuals, especially those who are experiencing the first stages of Alzheimer’s, in an attempt to protect their brains from damage. With a little luck, and a lot of study and hard work, Alzheimer’s may become a thing of the past.