Alzheimer’s Disease is a progressive and irreversible brain disease that destroys mental and physical functioning in human beings, and invariably leads to death.
It is the fourth leading cause of adult death in the United States. Alzheimer’s creates emotional and financial catastrophe for many American families every year. Fortunately, a large amount of progress is being made to combat Alzheimer’s disease every year. To fully comprehend and combat Alzheimer’s disease, one must know what it does to the brain, the part of the human body it most greatly affects. Many Alzheimer’s disease sufferers had their brains examined.
A large number of differences were present when comparing the normal brain to the Alzheimer’s brain. There was a loss of nerve cells from the Cerebral Cortex in the Alzheimer’s victim. Approximately ten percent of the neurons in this region were lost. However, a ten percent loss is relatively minor and cannot account for the severe impairment suffered by Alzheimer’s victims. Neurofibrillary Tangles are also found in the brains of Alzheimer’s victims. They are found within the cell bodies of nerve cells in the cerebral cortex and take on the structure of a paired helix.
Other diseases that have paired helixes” include Parkinson’s disease, Down’s Syndrome, and Dementia Pugilistica. Scientists are not sure how the paired helixes are related in these very different diseases. Neuritic Plaques are patches of clumped material lying outside the bodies of nerve cells in the brain. They are mainly found in the cerebral cortex but have also been seen in other areas of the brain. At the core of each of these plaques is a substance called amyloid, an abnormal protein not usually found in the brain.
This amyloid core is surrounded by cast-off fragments of dead or dying nerve cells. The cell fragments include dying mitochondria, presynaptic terminals, and paired helical filaments identical to those that form neurofibrillary tangles. Many neuropathologists think that these plaques are clusters of degenerating nerve cells, but they are still not sure how or why these fragments cluster together. Congophilic Angiopathy is the technical name that neuropathologists have given to an abnormality found in the walls of blood vessels in the brains of Alzheimer’s disease victims. These abnormal patches are similar to the neuritic plaques that develop in Alzheimer’s disease, in that amyloid has been found within the blood vessel walls wherever the patches occur.
Another name for these patches is cerebrovascular amyloid, meaning amyloid found in the blood vessels of the brain. Acetylcholine is a substance that carries signals from one nerve cell to another and is known to be important for learning and memory. In the mid-1970s, scientists found that the brains of those afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease contained 60 to 90 percent less of the enzyme choline acetyltransferase (CAT), which is responsible for producing acetylcholine, than did the brains of healthy individuals. This was a significant milestone as it was the first functional change related to learning and memory, rather than different structures. Somatostatin is another means by which cells in the brain communicate with each other.
The quantities of this chemical messenger, like those of CAT, are greatly decreased in the cerebral cortex and hippocampus of persons with Alzheimer’s disease, almost to the same degree as CAT is lost. Although scientists have identified many of these changes, they are not yet sure how or why they take place in Alzheimer’s disease. They have most of the pieces of the puzzle; all that is left is to find the missing piece and decipher the meaning. If treatment is required for someone with Alzheimer’s disease, the Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders Association (ADRDA) can be contacted. ADRDA is a privately funded, national, non-profit organization dedicated to easing the burden of Alzheimer’s victims and their families and finding a cure. There are over 160 chapters throughout the country and over 1,000 support groups that can be contacted for help. ADRDA fights Alzheimer’s on five fronts: funding research, educating and increasing public awareness, establishing chapters with support groups, encouraging federal and local legislation to help victims and their families, and providing a service to help victims and their families find the proper care they need.