As we age, the risk of developing dementia increases. Dementia is basically losing the ability to think and remember clearly, though it is a general term, not a specific disease. There are many diseases that fall under the umbrella term of “dementia.” One of the most common is Alzheimer’s disease.
Alzheimer’s disease was named after Alois Alzheimer, a researcher and pathologist who observed memory loss, hallucinations and disorientation in a 50-year-old patient in the early 1900s. After the patient died, Alzheimer noticed abnormalities in her brain that were typically seen in much older people. He called these abnormalities an “unusual” or “peculiar” disease.
While you have probably at least heard of Alzheimer’s disease, you may not know what causes the disease. But really, no one exactly knows the cause of Alzheimer’s disease. The development of amyloid beta plaques in the brain is the one reigning hypothesis generally accepted in the field of neuropathology as a hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease.
Pieces of amyloid beta, also called peptides, come from a larger form of the protein called amyloid precursor protein. While the larger “original” protein is not sticky, amyloid beta peptides are sticky and can clump together to form deposits—called plaques—in the brain. The accumulation of amyloid-beta plaques in the brain are considered toxic and can lead to memory impairment. The plaques can cause additional symptoms, including:
- problems with finding the right words and following conversations;
- trouble with concentration and performing everyday tasks;
- changes in mood, judgement and behavior; and
- difficulty seeing images and deciphering spatial relationships.
There is still a lot that scientists need to discover about Alzheimer’s disease. Even though this form of dementia affects millions of people worldwide, as of today, there is only one drug on the market that is FDA-approved to treat Alzheimer’s disease.
As people are living longer, the number of people with Alzheimer’s disease is only growing larger. But luckily, so is our understanding of—and research funding toward—Alzheimer’s disease.
Katie Anne Fopiano is a doctoral candidate at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University. She researches how various diseases alter the microvasculature and specifically explores the role the microvasculature plays in the development of cardiovascular and cerebral diseases.