Dementia is a general term for a variety of diseases and conditions involving the brain. It is characterized by a decline in memory, language, problem solving and other thinking skills that influence a person’s ability to perform daily activities. It is a very frightening condition because brain function is what makes each of us who we are. It should be noted that some types of dementia involve the misfolding of specific proteins present in the normal brain.
As an individual, you are the result of the myriad of proteins produced by DNA (genes) that you have received from your mother and father. Proteins are chains of a few, hundreds, of smaller molecules called amino acids. It is the specific number, type and sequence of the 20 different amino acids found in proteins that is determined by DNA.
This sequence then leads to a bending of the chain to produce a specific and unique shape for the molecule. It is this form that gives each protein its ability to perform a specific function in the body. These functions include things like the source of building materials for all the different cells in the body, as well as the source of hormones, enzymes, antibodies, etc. For cellular and bodily functions.
Alzheimer’s is a disease that involves the misfolding of two brain proteins. It is the most common dementia among older adults and today affects approximately 5.5 million Americans and is increasing. It is the underlying cause of around 500,000 deaths each year. The causes likely include a combination of genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors. When someone develops Alzheimer’s, there appears to be a problem with two naturally occurring brain proteins identified as amyloid and tau.
For reasons not yet fully understood, the misfolding of the amyloid produces plaques that collect in the external nerve cells (neurons) interrupting their activity and ultimately leading to death. The tau protein produces tangled filaments inside neurons. This disrupts the flow of signals within the neuron and causes the neuron to wilt and die.
Researchers are trying to understand and track the cascade of events in the brain that leads to Alzheimer’s. Hopefully, doctors will soon be able to identify those most at risk based on their genetics, conduct imaging tests to determine the onset and then initiate the most effective therapies to slow or halt further disease progress.
Larrie Stone is a retired science professor from Dana College.