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Alzheimer's Disease: A Puzzle Being Solved

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By 1999 Progress Report by the NIA/NIH • • December 13, 1999

In normal aging, nerve cells in the brain are not lost in large numbers. In contrast, AD disrupts three key processes--nerve cell communication, metabolism, and repair. This disruption ultimately causes many nerve cells to stop functioning, lose connections with other nerve cells, and die.

At first, AD destroys neurons in parts of the brain that control memory, especially the hippocampus (a structure deep in the brain that helps encode memories) and related structures. As nerve cells in the hippocampus stop functioning properly, short-term memory fails, and often, a person's ability to do easy and familiar tasks begins to decline. AD also attacks the cerebral cortex, particularly the areas responsible for language and reasoning. Here, AD begins to take away language skills and change a person's ability to make judgments. Personality changes also may occur. Emotional outbursts and disturbing behavior, such as wandering and agitation, begin to happen and become more and more frequent as the disease runs its course. Eventually, many other areas of the brain are involved, all these brain regions atrophy (shrink), and the AD patient becomes bedridden, incontinent, totally helpless, and unresponsive to the outside world.

Source: National Institutes of Health; National Institute on Aging; 1999 PROGRESS REPORT ON ALZHEIMER'S DISEASE

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