It is an unforeseen threat that is rarely detected before it is too late. And then, like losing pieces of a puzzle, you can’t remember parts of your life. What you had for lunch yesterday. Where you live. Your name. Or even how to play that favorite game of yours. Something is taking your precious memories away from you. The culprit: neurodegenerative diseases. As the world becomes more developed and the global average life expectancy increases, neurodegenerative diseases are becoming more of a prominent issue. One of the most devastating neurodegenerative disorders plaguing society today is Alzheimer’s disease(AD).
What exactly is Alzheimer’s Disease?
You may have heard the term Alzheimer’s being thrown around before in newspapers or television reports. Characterized by extensive memory loss and impairment of thinking and reasoning abilities, this disease affects nearly 40 million people around the world. AD is a progressive disorder, meaning that time goes on, impairments worsen and new symptoms develop. Its mechanisms involve the active degeneration of brain cells, which ultimately disrupts a person’s ability to function independently. Currently, there is no treatment that can cure AD. A main reason for this is that it has been difficult to identify what exactly causes AD. However, researchers have shifted the tables with the discovery of a new phenomenon among AD patients: astrocyte atrophy.
The Role of Astrocytes
What are astrocytes and how can they be used to help develop treatments for AD? Well, astrocytes are neural cells primarily responsible for homeostasis and neuroprotection in the central nervous system(CNS). They are fundamental for synaptogenesis and synaptic maintenance. Recently, a study by Jones et. al. used iPSC(induced pluripotent stem cells) derived astrocytes to investigate how astrocyte atrophy could be a sign and a direct cause of the development of AD in individual. Jones and his team found that astrocytes derived from AD patients exhibited significantly distorted morphological appearance and cellular phenotype. A key observation to note is that the cells that gave rise to the astrocytes in healthy and AD individuals showed little to no difference, further corroborating the fact that pathological change occurred in the astrocytes themselves.
We may be closer to a cure for Alzheimer’s than we think. In a study conducted by Kim Lee and his colleagues, the team identified the Naltrexone drug as a treatment that actually reverses astrocyte atrophy. Although Naltrexone was initially approved to treat addiction to other drugs, the study found that rhesus monkeys with a condition similar to AD exhibited more normal behaviors after treatment with Naltrexone. These monkeys also had a decreased atrophy of grey and white matter astrocytes. The results and effects of the drug illustrate how addictive mechanisms in the brain and behaviors of AD may be related in some way. More work and testing needs to be done before anything is released to the public, but this research provides promising results and moves us a step closer to finding a real cure.
There is much evidence that symptoms of Alzheimer’s such as synaptic dysfunction can be attributed to a degradation of astrocytes in affected individuals. Treating astrocyte atrophy can have great potential in stopping or even reversing the detrimental symptoms of AD. If particular drugs that effectively inhibit the atrophy of astrocytes can be developed, humanity may just finally be able to cure AD and several other neurodegenerative diseases for good.
Disclaimer : This article is not intended to offer official medical advice. It is merely a report of findings from other studies to inform the public.
- Alzheimer’s disease. (2018, December 8). Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alzheimers-disease/symptoms-causes/syc-20350447
- Jones, V. C., Atkinson-Dell, R., Verkhratsky, A., & Mohamet, L. (2017). Aberrant iPSC-derived human astrocytes in Alzheimer’s disease. Cell death & disease, 8(3), e2696. https://doi.org/10.1038/cddis.2017.89
- Lee, K. M., Chiu, K. B., Didier, P. J., Baker, K. C., & MacLean, A. G. (2015). Naltrexone treatment reverses astrocyte atrophy and immune dysfunction in self-harming macaques. Brain, behavior, and immunity, 50, 288–297. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bbi.2015.07.017