Like Willy Sutton, the bank robber famed for his explanation of why he robbed banks (because that’s where the money is), Alzheimer’s disease researchers have aimed most of their efforts at the well-known, visible pathology of the disease, the collections of debris scattered among the dying cells in the brains of patients suffering from the dementing illness. Made of a protein known called beta-amyloid, these plaques are the cause of the progressive death of brain cells and consequent loss of mental function – or so it has been thought. Research focus on amyloid plaques has been disappointing, though, yielding neither effective treatments nor preventive strategies. Moreover, the dramatic rise in the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease (AD), from 2% of people over age 85 in 1960 to 50% in 2000 indicates that something else is in play, something other than bad genetic luck that supposedly causes beta-amyloid to accumulate and nerve cells to die.
Energy production in the brain
As attention has turned to other potential causes of AD, older research findings seemingly unrelated to AD have assumed new importance, particularly discoveries related to brain energy metabolism. The preferred fuel for the brain is glucose. Until the 1980s, researchers thought that the brain, unlike other organs, did not need use the hormone insulin to allow glucose to enter its cells. But in the 1970s insulin receptors were discovered in brain cells and insulin was found in the spinal fluid, implying that the brain did indeed use the hormone. Because progressive resistance to insulin and difficulty getting glucose into cells to provide energy are the hallmarks of type 2 diabetes, and because the rise in AD incidence paralleled rising rates of type 2 diabetes in the last few decades, researchers began to wonder if AD might be rooted in insulin resistance and impaired energy production in brain cells. Insulin resistance in the brain might also explain the results of glucose metabolism studies in the brains of people at high genetic risk for AD, showing as much as 25% decrease in the use of glucose in areas concerned with memory and learning – long before any symptoms suggestive of AD have appeared.
By 2005, the idea that insulin resistance in the brain plays a significant role in the development of AD gained traction. Since not all type 2 diabetics get AD and not all AD patients have type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance cannot be the sole cause of AD. But a high blood insulin level is one of the two biggest risk factors for the disease. The other is a genetic factor – the gene for the E4 version of a protein called apolipoprotein B (apoB). Like insulin, apoB’s function is moving the building blocks for energy production into place in the various cells of the body. ApoB is like a delivery vehicle, packed with fats and cholesterol which are necessary for building the cellular machinery in the brain and providing fatty fuel for use when glucose is unavailable.
The tie between glucose, insulin and amyloid
Does impairment of glucose metabolism in the brain have any relationship to the classic pathological components of the disease – the amyloid plaques littering the brain, the destruction of nerve cell architecture, and the non-specific inflammatory changes? There are tantalizing clues. In the brain amyloid protein is a normal waste product. What is not normal is its accumulation in clumps around nerve cells. Beta-amyloid is usually broken down by an enzyme called IDE, insulin destroying enzyme. IDE breaks down insulin much more readily than it does amyloid proteins and when insulin is present in high amounts, the amyloid waits longer to be cleaned up and precipitates out of solution, forming clumps. Uncleared amyloid also prevents insulin from attaching to nerve cells to let more glucose in, depriving them of fuel.
Competition for IDE may not explain beta-amyloid accumulation completely, but it is a link between insulin, glucose metabolism and AD. In addition, high levels of glucose in all parts of the body prompt the development of abnormal collections of proteins/glucose combinations called advanced glycation products which trigger inflammatory damage to tissues in all organs. The brain is no exception.
A link between poor sleep and AD?
Sleep is another subject beginning to gain attention in the prevention and treatment of AD. Lack of good sleep contributes to the development of the metabolic syndrome, including type 2 diabetes, though disruption of normal hormonal rhythms. In normal people and in people with sleep apnea, sleep deprivation produces measurable impairments in working memory, thinking speed, attention, vigilance, and higher cognitive functions – the same functions affected by dementing illnesses such as AD.
Reasons for optimism
Do changing theories about AD have any practical consequences? Indeed. First, there is more reason for optimism about the future. If AD rates have risen because of changing dietary habits and lifestyles, we can change them again. The factors known to produce the metabolic syndrome are weight gain, lack of exercise and poor diet. Regular exercise is recognized as a deterrent to the development of AD. Some people are beginning to feel that the low fat dietary recommendations must also be changed since they have resulted in diets high in processed foods and carbohydrates, and low in foods with high amounts of antioxidants which counter inflammation. Fat metabolism, abnormal in the metabolic syndrome, is also important in the brain, which contains 25% of the body’s cholesterol. It needs sufficient healthy fats in the diet for normal function.
The second practical implication of the changing view of AD is the application of known drug treatments for type 2 diabetes, both for attempted prevention and for treatment of AD. Clinical studies in AD patients are already under way, using medications that improve insulin resistance. Intranasal insulin has also been tried. It is delivered directly into the brain, without fear of lowering body glucose levels and has shown some promise in improving AD symptoms. These approaches are entirely new and evidence of shifting focus in research. If Willy Sutton were an AD researcher he would be changing his targets.
Terminal Lucidity and Lucid Intervals
Caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients have long reported episodes of the patient returning briefly to “themselves,” for periods of hours to days. Some dramatic cases of such returns have been reported in the terminal phases of life. All of these cases have fallen into the “we don’t know why that happens” category of clinical observations. The concept of brain cells failing to function because of lack of energy is one that fits the appearance of lucid intervals better than a theory of the disease that implicates cellular destruction alone as the underlying cause of symptoms.