Researchers have been studying the causes, effects and treatment options for Alzheimer’s disease for many years. Until now, the majority of researchers believed that the main cause of the debilitating disease has been a protein called amyloid beta, a protein that is not known to play any useful role in the body. According to Scientific American, “when amyloid beta is not properly cleared from the brain, it builds up into plaques that destroy synapses, the junctions between nerve cells, resulting in cognitive decline and memory loss. The protein has thus become a major drug target in the search for a cure to Alzheimer’s.”
But recently, a team of researchers at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital are proposing a different theory. In a May 2016 study published in Science Translational Medicine, neurologists Rudolph Tanzi and Robert Moir discovered evidence that amyloid beta serves a crucial purpose: protecting the brain from invading microbes.
If the new study is proven, it could affect the way researchers and the medical community approach treatment of the disease, including the development of future drug protocols. This study suggests that amyloid buildup may be a protective measure when the brain is trying to fight off infections. According to an article in Time, “Alzheimer’s disease may be caused when an infection causes too much amyloid buildup. As people age, it may be easier for infections to reach the brain, triggering the amyloid and spurring the cascade of problems that lead to the disease.”
The Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital researchers infected brain cells in lab dishes, worms and mice with bacteria and then studied how the brain created amyloid and plaque in response. Scientific American reported the study results might indicate that a small amount of amyloid protein could be good for the brain and instead of getting rid of all of the protein; future research may want to focus on ways to lower the levels.
Although additional research will be needed to replicate the study results and determine whether the link is definitive, some experts in the field are calling the findings “provocative.”
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