Alzheimer's Disease

Different types of research -- basic, translational, and clinical research -- are conducted to find ways to treat or prevent Alzheimer's disease. This section looks at basic research in Alzheimer's disease.

What Is Basic Research?

Basic biomedical research involves studies at the most fundamental level. It is research that helps scientists gain new knowledge about a disease process, including how and why it starts and progresses. Scientists who conduct basic research in Alzheimer's disease study the cellular and molecular processes that cause nerve cells in the brain to stop functioning and die. Basic research also looks at the role that genes may play in lowering or increasing a person's risk of developing the disease. The aim of basic research is to identify the processes that lead to Alzheimer's in order to discover therapies to fight it.

Studying Plaques and Tangles

For years, basic research has focused on two of the main signs of Alzheimer's disease in the brain: amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. Plaques are made up of a protein called beta-amyloid and form abnormal clumps among cells of the brain. Tangles are made from a protein called tau and form twisted, misfolded bundles of fibers within nerve cells. Scientists have learned that nerve cells in certain parts of the brain of a person with Alzheimer's gradually lose their ability to communicate with each other, deteriorate, and eventually die. A key focus of beta-amyloid and tau research has been to understand if, why, and how plaques and tangles may damage these nerve cells.

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Scientists now know a great deal about how beta-amyloid plaques are formed and the harmful effects they could have on nerve cells and their connections. These findings have opened up new avenues of research, and preliminary studies in humans are being conducted to look at ways to eliminate beta-amyloid from the brain or halt its production before brain nerve cells lose function and die.

Research on the tau protein continues to be a very active area of Alzheimer's research. Studies in animal models are examining whether it might be possible to control the formation of abnormal, damaging tau and beta-amyloid. These studies are also exploring whether it is possible for the brain to regain some cognitive function once the disease process has begun.

Genetic Research

Research sponsored by the National Institute on Aging and others has found that genes play an important role in the development of Alzheimer's disease. A person's genetic make-up can affect the risk of developing both early- and late-onset forms of Alzheimer's disease. Early-onset Alzheimer's, a rare form of the disease affecting only about 5 percent of all people with Alzheimer's, is directly inherited in most cases. One gene -- apoE4 -- may increase a person's risk of developing late-onset Alzheimer's, which occurs after age 65 and is the more common form of the disease. Researchers think that there are at least half a dozen other genes that may increase a person's risk of developing late-onset Alzheimer's, and recent studies have zeroed in on a few possibilities.

Why Basic Research Is Important

Results from basic research help scientists ask better and more precise questions about the ways Alzheimer's develops. As they learn more about the role that genetics and cellular and molecular changes in the brain play in the development of Alzheimer's disease, they are likely to come up with better targets for further research. Over time, this can lead to more effective therapies to delay or prevent the disease.