Few people can look Alzheimer’s disease in the face without flinching. Alzheimer’s takes from people the things they value most: intellect, emotion, independence, hope, and eventually, life itself. Now, a group of unlikely Alzheimer’s researchers, chemical engineers in Texas A&M University’s Dwight Look College of Engineering, are developing new understanding of how the disease robs Alzheimer’s sufferers of their memory and reason. They’ve also found hints of new ways to eventually prevent the onset of the disease.
Laboratory studies conducted by chemical engineer Theresa Good, Ph.D., Assistant professor, Department of Chemical Engineering, and her students Dawn L. Rymer and Steven S. Wang, suggest that Alzheimer’s development and the damage it causes to memory and cognitive abilities, are tied to two substances: cholesterol and a complex chemical called ganglioside GM-1, which is found in the brain cells it attacks.
The research focuses on an important characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease, a build-up of protein masses known as senile plaques. These plaques may attach or bind to neurons, specialized cells that allow information to move from place to place in the brain. When the plaques attach to the neurons it causes a biochemical process to begin that eventually kills the neurons. Deaths of neurons are what bring on the disease’s characteristic loss of memory and cognitive abilities. High levels of either cholesterol or ganglioside GM-1 seem to make it easy for the plaques to attach to neurons.
The promising news is Good’s research also suggests that reducing the amount of either cholesterol or ganglioside GM-1 interferes with the plaque’s ability to attach to the neurons. In fact, simply reducing the amount of cholesterol in the cells seems to block attachment by almost all of the plaque.
Good and her students used a well-known chemical engineering test called a diffusion study to understand how this process works. They also used analytical techniques such as image analysis and Mathematical modeling of molecules, techniques more familiar to chemical engineers than biochemists or molecular biologists, to carry out their studies.
A lot of research remains to be done before the work done by Good and her colleagues is translated into medications that can prevent or treat Alzheimer’s disease.