By: Dr. Andrew J. Rochman
Alzheimer’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder that afflicts million of people today. It affects people over 60-65 years of age. Alzheimer’s disease causes lapses in memory leading to excessive memory loss, often rendering people unable to find the right words to speak or to find their possessions. It afflicts million of Americans today and every 70 seconds someone in America develops Alzheimer’s disease (Stemgenex.com, 2014).
Alzheimer’s disease is caused by the build-up of proteins in the brain leading to the formation of plaques and ‘tangles’. There are two main proteins responsible for the formation of plaques and tangles, named beta amyloid and tau proteins. However, the mechanism by which they affect the functioning of the brain is not completely known. Researchers believe that the formation of plaques and tangles hinders the communication between different neurons that prevent the normal flow of information within the brain and thus cause disintegration of communication channel within the brain. Another theory is that the formation of plaques and tangles may prevent neurons from getting the nutrients they need in order to live. Whatever the cause may be, it is clear that as Alzheimer’s advances, it leads to the death of more and more neuronal cells (EuroStemCell, 2014).
Currently, there are no cures to treat Alzheimer’s disease. The drugs available seek to merely eradicate the symptoms of this disease, like improving memory and performance temporarily. One class of such drugs is called cholinesterase inhibitors that prevent the breakdown of a chemical called acetylcholine, which is responsible for communicating information between the cells (EuroStemCell, 2014).
With the advancement in stem cell research, scientists are looking for a cure through stem cells. Initial studies done on animals, such as rats and mice show significant promise. In these studies, stem cells from embryonic cell lines or adult tissues were incorporated into the brains of the animals, which were followed by the differentiation of the stem cells into specialized neural cells. The subsequent integration of these cells was caused by the migration of the cells to the damaged areas of the brain. These cells then integrated with other cells in the environment and began to form new connections which later manifested as reduced deficit of memory and learning. These stem cells also caused the activation of neural precursor cells that found naturally in the brain to form new brain cells, and also assisted in enhancing the brain’s ability to reorganize itself to learn new things (an ability known as neuroplasticity) (Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov, 2014).
However, scientists are still uncertain about the impact of stem cell therapy. Transplanted stem cells may be damaged by the amyloid or tau proteins in the brain, which implies that stem cell therapy may be a temporary form of therapy. Another concern is the incomplete integration of transplanted stem cells with other cells in the human brain (EuroStemCell, 2014).
The area of stem cell therapy for the treatment of Alzheimer’s is still its early stages, and faces many unknown questions. As of yet, there are no therapies using stem cells that are approved by the FDA, (Stemgenex.com, 2014), but scientists are hopeful that they will be able to discover a cure soon.
EuroStemCell, (2014). Alzheimer’s disease: how could stem cells help?. [online] Available at: http://www.eurostemcell.org/factsheet/alzheimer’s-disease-how-could-stem-cells-help [Accessed 19 May. 2014].
PhD, C. and Catharine, V. (2014). Modified stem cells may offer way to treat Alzheimer’s disease. [online] Medical News Today. Available at: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/275582.php [Accessed 19 May. 2014].
Stemgenex.com, (2014). Alzheimer’s Stem Cell Treatment. [online] Available at: http://stemgenex.com/stemcelltreatments/alzheimersstemcelltreatment.html [Accessed 19 May. 2014].
Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov, (2014). Stem cell therapy for Alzheim… [CNS Neurol Disord Drug Targets. 2011] – PubMed – NCBI. [online] Available at: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21495961 [Accessed 19 May. 2014].