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Alzheimer's researchers developing new approaches to treatment

November 22, 2013

Alzheimer's disease is poised to be one of the biggest issues facing the senior care community in the coming decades. Some estimates suggest that the number of people with the condition could triple by 2050 due to an aging population, and finding a cure - or even an effective treatment - is the focus of a great deal of research. Although a lot of emphasis has been placed on finding a way to prevent the accumulation of amyloid beta proteins, which are often seen as hallmarks of the disease, there has been a recent shift in how researchers are approaching their studies, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Only one piece of the puzzle
A considerable amount of research has been dedicated to understanding what role amyloid beta plays in the development of Alzheimer's, and while it's clear that it is a big factor, experts believe its accumulation often comes as the result of a long chain of events. With that in mind, much of the most recent approach has focused on what role synapses - the communication between neurons - plays in the process. Experts believe that the adults affected by Alzheimer's have a synapse pruning process that's too active, meaning it destroys synapses that help build memories, which causes damage to neurons.

"The current idea is the sickness starts earlier [than previously thought,]" Carla Shatz, a Stanford neurobiologist, told the newspaper. "The real loss is in the loss of synapse connections."

Other early indicators
Although some of the recent focus has been on the destruction of synapses, scientists around the globe have been looking for other early indicators that could help older adults recognize symptoms and seek out memory care and other services, and experts from Washington University in St. Louis say that problems with sleep may be an accurate indicator.

The study, which was published earlier this year in JAMA Neurology, found that people with preclinical Alzheimer's disease were more likely to experience issues when they were trying to get some rest. Specifically, they had a poorer sleep efficiency compared to the cognitively healthy study participants. There's still more work to be done, however.

"We think this may help us get a better feel for the way this connection flows - does sleep loss drive Alzheimer's, does Alzheimer's lead to sleep loss, or is it a combination?" said first author Dr. Yo-El Ju.