A new discovery could be the secret to a cure for Alzheimer's.
A team at Stanford University discovered that when a class of brain cells, called microglia, stop doing their jobs, Alzheimer's happens.
Microglia make up 10-15 percent of all brain cells. They're a combination of crime fighters and garbage collectors: they search out and eat up any bad things they find in the brain, from bacteria to viruses to so-called A-Beta, which can form the gummy protein deposits that cause Alzheimer's.
"Microglia are the brain's beat cops," said Dr. Katrin Andreasson, professor of neurology and neurological sciences and the study's senior author, in a press release. "Our experiments show that keeping them on the right track counters memory loss and preserves healthy brain physiology."
Sometimes, a single tiny molecule, a protein called EP2, that lives on microglia goes haywire, and that's where the trouble starts. The misbehaving molecule tells the microglia to stop clearing out A-Beta and plaque starts to form in the brain -- beginning the process of Alzheimer's.
"The microglia are supposed to be, from the get-go, constantly clearing A-beta, as well as keeping a lid on inflammation," Andreasson said. "If they lose their ability to function, things get out of control. A-beta builds up in the brain, inducing toxic inflammation."
By simply blocking the actions of that EP2 molecule, Alzheimer's was reversed in mice.
The study was published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.
Analyzing the data, the researchers found evidence that drugs like aspirin might help stave off Alzheimer's, though dosages would have to start well before the onset of symptoms.
"Once you have any whiff of memory loss, these drugs have no effect," she said.
Plus, long-term use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) also carries risks, such as kidney damage and stomach problems. Ideally, the researchers said, a targeted drug would block that malfunctioning EP2 molecule on the back of microglia and reverse memory loss.
More work needs to be done, of course, but this seems really promising.
Over 5 million people in the United States have Alzheimer's disease and roughly every minute, someone in the country develops it, according to the Alzheimer's Association.
Hat tip to @Geequinox