An Article to Remember

Find out where your memory goes—and how to hold on to it.

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Has anyone seen my keys?

The brain, like the rest of the body, gets a little less limber with time. It slows down, has trouble making connections and may even falter completely from time to time. For many of us, that’s just the normal process of aging. For others, it may signal the onset of a more serious cognitive disorder.

“A century ago, the elderly died from infectious diseases, heart disease, diabetes and other things we can now manage with modern medicine,” says Dr. John Q. Trojanowski, director of the Institute on Aging at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. “As a result, we are living longer and often healthier lives.”

Unfortunately, our brains can’t always keep up.

From the time we are born to the time we turn into raging adolescents, the brain is racing to wire itself, making connections between nerve cells that in turn enlarge vital regions. By the time we reach puberty, we have the largest number of cells we’re ever going to have, says Dr. Carol Lippa, director of the Memory and Cognitive Disorders Center at Drexel University College of Medicine. After that, the process slows down, and the brain, in effect, prunes itself—refining what’s there rather than adding any new wiring.

“The brain is different from other organs in your body,” says Lippa. “If you lose a brain cell, it is gone forever. You have no way of getting it back, and as you get older, you lose cells in a variety of ways.”

We all experience forgetfulness from time to time. Who hasn’t walked into a room for something and forgotten what it is they wanted? It’s when experiences like that become daily occurrences that memory problems turn into something other than annoying. And while the biggest fear is developing Alzheimer’s, some memory problems can be the result of an underlying—and treatable—ailment. For example, Trojanowski points out that both hypothyroidism and vitamin B12 deficiency may cause memory decline and cognitive failure. With treatment, however, those symptoms decline or disappear altogether.

Unlike the old Rolling Stones song, time is not on our side. The unfortunate reality seems to be that the longer we live, the greater our chances are of developing Alzheimer’s. In fact, the national Alzheimer’s Association says 50 percent of people over 85 will develop Alzheimer’s. That’s a staggering number—and one that’s about to get larger as the wave of baby boomers starts crossing the hill into its sunset years.

The upside is that scientists are making new discoveries into the causes of Alzheimer’s every day. We now know that it’s caused by a toxic peptide in the brain called beta-amyloid. Beta-amyloid aggregates into plaques that deposit in the brain, killing cells in the memory and thinking areas of the brain.

The mystery is why some people who have the plaques don’t develop the disease. However, the discovery that plaques are caused by a genetic mutation suggests new areas of research, such as small molecule therapies, that block plaque formation, says Trojanowski.

In addition to possible small molecule therapies, Lippa and her colleagues at Drexel University’s College of Medicine are about to launch into a clinical trial using an immunotherapy vaccine for Alzheimer’s to see if the vaccine will clear beta-amyloid from the brain in those in the first stages of the disease. If it works, the vaccine could be given to people with early symptoms. Someday, Alzheimer’s vaccines may be administered to people who have a higher genetic disposition toward the disease or, perhaps, those of us who are just worried about getting it.

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