Build an Alzheimer resistant brain

Parul Budhraja Khanna

Can you imagine how it’d feel to see a loved one disappearing in front of your eyes, just like sand trickles through your fingers, slowly and steadily. This heartachingly dismal episode befalls when a brain develops plaques, tangles and in due course shrinks. Everyone with a brain is at the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. It’s like living in a world of complete strangers because your mind doesn’t remember anything when its hit by this oblivion’s curse i.e., Alzheimer’s. When you lose your memory you lose everything, the whole meaning of your existence just vanishes, poof! Most of us wish to live long enough into our old age. However, likelihood of us stumbling across Alzheimer’s is quite high, either by being inflicted by it or by being a caregiver for a loved one struck by it. Every 4 seconds someone is diagnosed with this disease. Alzheimer’s seem to be our brain’s destiny if we’re lucky to live long enough! It has been there for over a century and yet finding a cure for it eludes the researchers. it’s not very comforting to know that since a century people have been battling with this morbid disease with no cure. Nevertheless, we can definitely stand up for our older self in the present and take some preventive measures now without being dependent on advancement in medicine or a cure few years from now!

How does it affect the working of our brain?

Let’s get acquainted with the knowledge that our brain is made up of neurons, the building blocks of our nervous system. There are about 100 billion neurons in a human brain. Clearly, we’ve got more than enough to work with. These neurons are responsible for transmission of information to other parts of the body. They communicate with each other at the point of connection called synapses, where the electrical signal is changed into chemical signal by the release of neurotransmitters. And finally, that’s when we think, feel, desire, see, hear and remember. However, apart from the release of neurotransmitters, there’s a protein that is released too, called amyloid beta. This protein is a major culprit in causing Alzheimer’s. Because in the brains of those affected with Alzheimer’s this protein is seen to be formed and accumulated in clumps, disrupting the communication between the brain cells, obstructing the nutrients to reach the nerve cell leading to their starvation and eventually cell death. These chain of activities in the brain invokes the disease, however, it may take up to 15 years for it reach that tipping point. It is this misfolding of proteins that we today know as plaques and tangles, this breaks down and causes shrinkage of our brain structures by choking the neurons from the inside. Now this destructive duo of plaques and tangles, originates in the region of brain that is responsible for our memory, that is why loss of or fuzzy memory is the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s. These proteins from thereon, progress to other parts of the brain exhibiting different stages of the disease. Moving towards the front of the brain they affect the ability of our logical thinking and then to the region that controls our emotions, resulting in erratic mood changes. Finally, causing paranoia and hallucination. And once they reach brain’s rear, they erase our deepest memories. Ultimately, the control centers of heartrate and breathing are overpowered as well leading to an individual’s death. Researchers are working on slowing the speed of progression of this destructive disease. One of those researches focuses on acetylcholine therapy. This therapy helps reduce the breakdown of acetylcholine, which is brain’s important chemical messenger and is decreased in Alzheimer’s patients due to the death of nerve cells that manufacture it. Another solution that scientists are looking into, is a vaccination, that’ll train body’s immune system to attack the formation of amyloid beta plaques in the brain. Although, these options only entail preventative medicine not a concrete cure.

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Constructing a brain immune to the disease

Currently about 35-40 million people are living with some form of dementia and by 2030 this number is expected to go as high as 70 million. It is frightening for sure but instead of being afraid of it we must fight it, we must prevent it. Diet and sleep cycle play a vital role to keep away this monster. It is because the way we live can influence the formation of amyloid beta plaques. Some of us develop these plaques with age and some of us through the genes from our parents. Fortunately, for most of us our DNA alone doesn’t determine our tendency to get Alzheimer’s, even if we get the gene variant for the disease from both our parents. The dilemma that arises is that we can’t stop ourselves from aging or determine the genes that we inherit. So, how do we change our brain’s destiny? That’s where sleep plays a crucial role. Scientists say that slow wave deep sleep works as a power cleanser. Wherein, cerebrospinal fluid rinses through, clearing away the metabolic waste that accumulates at the synapses while we are awake. Poor sleep cycle can be a predictor of Alzheimer’s and a single night of sleep deprivation leads to an increase in the amyloid beta. Moreover, amyloid beta accumulation has been shown to cause disruption in sleep, which in turn causes more amyloid to accumulate. This amyloid beta protein definitely doesn’t catch a break does it!

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Holding onto hope

Some autopsy studies show that almost 80% of people with Alzheimer’s, also had cardiovascular disease in addition to high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, smoking and high cholesterol. So, let’s stay steer clear of cigarettes, trans as well as saturated fats and lead a hearty and healthy lifestyle. Regular aerobic exercises have shown to decrease the risk of Alzheimer’s significantly by literally reducing the amyloid beta accumulation. Let’s say, you’re at the age where you’re at the risk of developing Alzheimer’s and haven’t taken any preventive measures or led a healthy lifestyle, you’ve relished all the yummy junk food and ran only when someone was chasing you. Even at this stage you can perform one more task to protect yourself from being trapped by Alzheimer’s. It has to do with your cognitive reserve. Since Alzheimer’s is all about synapses, we’ve about 100 trillion synapses and normally we gain or lose these synapses through a process called neuroplasticity. Every time we learn something novel, we create and strengthen new neural connections, hence, new synapses. It’s this high cognitive reserve that results in more functional synapses. Therefore, those who’ve been involved regularly in high mentally stimulating activities or have had more formal years of education i.e., high degree of literacy; have a huge backup of these neural connections that buffers them from noticing that anything is amiss. They still have a way to detour the wreckage. This shows that both physical and mental agility is important to keep a disease like Alzheimer’s at bay. Pave fresh neural roads by learning something new. And if despite all of this, you still are detected with Alzheimer’s, remember that diagnosis is not the end of life. Even if your memory lets go of you, keep living with love and joy because no one will ever be able to take those feelings away from you

The writer is an Entrepreneurial Biotechnologist and  passionate about creating awareness amongst the masses and steering a tangible change in the healthcare delivery systems.

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