Predicting Alzheimer’s Disease

Over 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease. It is highly likely that you or a loved one knows someone who has been affected. And although Alzheimer’s is quite commonplace among aging individuals, it is not just a symptom of normal aging. It is a progressive, fatal disease. It is one that can potentially be cured or prevented with further research. And while the cure has not yet been found, some BYU FHSS faculty have been gathering data that is promising for the future.

Dr. Jonathan Wisco

Dr. Jonathan Wisco, associate director of the MRI lab here at BYU, has a special interest in studying the effects of Alzheimer’s disease on the brain – particularly the early stages of the brain degeneration. He’s looking for what he calls the “Holy Grail” of Alzheimer’s research: early indicators of Alzheimer’s disease in brain tissue, and he spoke about this research at our recent gerontology conference.

Many outward expressions of brain degeneration are commonly seen at the beginning stages of several different types of dementias. The problem is that it is virtually impossible to tell which way the brain and body will go from there. Will it be to Parkinson’s, Frontotemporal Dementia, or Alzheimer’s?  For the past several years, Wisco has been studying the brain to find what might indicate the track a particular individual is on – and thus aid in the future treatment of that person.

Symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease include:

  • Memory Loss
  • Executive system function deficits
  • Difficulty planning/solving problems
  • Difficulty with familiar tasks
  • Confusion of time and place
  • New problems with speaking or writing
  • Inability to retrace steps
  • Social withdrawal
  • Depression
  • Changes in mood and personality
  • Night terrors

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There are also 2 different types of Alzheimer’s:

  • Familial Alzheimer’s is translated genetically, and it often comes up in the fifth or sixth decade of life, with a quick deterioration of the brain.
  • Sporadic Alzheimer’s is the most common form of the disease, and it typically begins in the eighth decade of life and beyond.

Before coming to BYU, Wisco knew the symptoms of Alzheimers, those that manifested within the brain as well as those that manifested outside it. He collected a lot of data before coming to BYU. But he didn’t know quite what to do with it all.

“At one point while I was at UCLA my work had stalled. I had no idea how I was going to interpret [some data] I had come up with,” said Wisco. “Then when I arrived here at BYU, Dr. Kauwe from Biology invited a bunch of us faculty  who were interested in Alzheimer’s to meet together. Dr. Richard Watt from the Chemistry  department was in attendance, he had some data that he couldn’t make sense of, and his data was all over the map, as was mine.” Wisco and Watt did some comparisons and were able to make some links between symptoms that could potentially be predictors of Alzheimer’s disease.

Old man

Wisco and Watt have worked together for some time now, and have been able to find some potentially groundbreaking evidence of predictors for Alzheimer’s. “What we didn’t expect to find in our research was that the inflammatory  response is probably contributing to signal decay. The pathological response to the disease itself is causing more problems in individuals with Alzheimer’s.”

“The results were exciting to see,” said Wisco. “And we’re curious and anxious to know if this is happening in different parts of the brain that we haven’t yet analyzed.”

Wisco’s research is expected to continue, and they are awaiting  further results from their lab research. And so far, “The results look  promising.”

Do you know someone with Alzheimer’s?




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