Dec. 10, 2001 COLLEGE STATION, December 6 - 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 its onset.
Laboratory studies conducted by chemical engineer Theresa Good, an Assistant professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, and Ph.D. students Dawn L. Rymer and Steven S. Wang, suggest that Alzheimer's onset and the damage it causes to memory and cognitive abilities are tied to two substances: cholesterol (the same cholesterol doctors say people have too much of) and a complex chemical called ganglioside GM-1 -- found in the brain cells it attacks.
Their work centers on an important characteristic of Alzheimer's disease, a build-up of masses of protein, known as senile plaques. These plaques 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. Loss of neurons is what brings 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 good news is that 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.
*The results of her studies must be confirmed by other scientists.
*New medications must be developed, and they must be tested in laboratory animals, then in humans.
*Finally, the indications will have to be approved by the Federal Drug Administration.
In the meantime, what is Good's advice to people who want to boost their odds against developing Alzheimer's? Use diet to reduce cholesterol levels.
"Drink your red wine, eat your oatmeal and throw out your butter," she says.
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