Jan 24, 2019

Chasing the elusive causes of Alzheimer's disease

Gym lessons for residents with Alzheimer's disease in a French facility. Photo: BSIP/UIG via Getty Images

The dramatic increase in funding for Alzheimer's research in recent years is spurring hope that scientists will be able to discover the elusive biological causes of the disease.

Why it matters: A total of 5.7 million Americans currently live with Alzheimer's and, as baby boomers age, 14 million are expected to develop the illness by 2050. In response, the U.S. has dramatically stepped up funding for Alzheimer’s research, from $400 million a year to over $2 billion annually, a fact that Bill Gates touted in his end-of-year blog.

"The brain really is the most complex organ of the body. We have not yet figured out the biological mechanical underpinnings of the disease... [But] we're incredibly excited about the new funding... It'll really allow us to expand the hypotheses to investigate for this disease."
— Rebecca Edelmayer, director of scientific engagement, Alzheimer's Association.

What's new: Recent research looks at possible causal links, including...

1. Bacteria and viruses. A study out Wednesday says there could be a connection to bacteria that causes gingivitis, Porphyromonas gingivalis.

  • The bacteria causes toxic enzymes, called gingipains, that were found to cause dementia-like symptoms in mice and have been discovered in the brain samples of Alzheimer's patients.
  • But not everyone's convinced it causes Alzheimer's. Edelmayer says several studies are examining the role of bacteria and/or viruses found in the brain of patients — the problem is that larger studies are needed to see if those pathogens caused Alzheimer's, or if they entered the brain because of damage caused by the disease already.

2. Lifestyle. Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis announced Thursday they found sleep deprivation increases two proteins — tau and amyloid-beta, which have been linked to brain damage and dementia.

  • While she couldn't comment on this study, Edelmayer says there's been connections found between Alzheimer's and a failure to maintain a healthy lifestyle. This includes sleep and controlling blood pressure and blood sugar levels.
  • AA recently started a two-year clinical trial called U.S. Pointer, which involves over 2,000 people between the ages of 60 and 70 to examine lifestyle interventions.
  • "The point is that there are things we could be doing today that could lower the risk of cognitive decline," Edelmayer says.

3. Genetic mutations. There have been many genes linked to the disorder, and now there are take-home blood tests that could look for genes linked to Alzheimer's, like APOE-4.

  • But, Edelmayer points out there are the rare inherited genes that cause familial Alzheimer's and there are multiple genes that may indicate a greater risk for Alzheimer's, but don't necessarily mean the person will get the disease.
  • AA's stance is that people taking home tests for genetic markers should do so with a genetic counselor who can explain what the results really mean.

4. Inflammation. There may be a role played by inflammation of blood vessels including those in the blood-brain barrier that protects the brain.

  • A new study, called BEACON, expects to start clinical trials in April to look at how one type of inflammation in the brain’s blood vessels may affect brain development.
  • They will test if the drug Dabigatran, typically used to prevent strokes, will break the cycle of inflammation.

The bottom line: Researchers are working to narrow down the still wide range of possible biological causes of this disease, with a big boost in available resources.

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Judge rules against Trump policy limiting public comment on energy leasing

Photo: Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images

A federal judge on Thursday overturned a 2018 Trump administration directive that sought to speed up energy leases on public land by limiting the amount of time the public could comment.

Why it matters: U.S. Chief Magistrate Judge Ronald Bush's decision voids almost a million acres of leases in the West, according to The Washington Post. It's a victory for environmentalists, who tried to block the change as part of an effort to protect the habitat of the at-risk greater sage grouse.

  • The ruling invalidated five oil and gas leases in Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming, and affected 104,688 square miles of greater sage-grouse habitat, per The Associated Press.
  • Leases in greater sage-grouse habitat will return to allowing 30 days of public comment and administrative protest.

The big picture: From Axios' Amy Harder, this is the latest in a long and convoluted list of regulatory rollbacks the Trump administration is pursuing on environmental rules that courts are, more often than not, rebutting. With Congress gridlocked on these matters, expect the courts to be the default way Trump's agenda faces checks (unless, of course, a Democrat wins the White House this November).

Your best defense against coronavirus

Photo: Adrian Greeman/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images

Washing your hands is the best way to protect against the novel coronavirus, according to doctors and health officials, as the virus continues to spread around the globe.

Why it matters: Frequent hand washing can stop germs from spreading in a community, a known preventative for COVID-19 and influenza.

Major League Soccer embarks on its 25th season

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

As Major League Soccer begins its 25th season, the league is financially stable and surging in popularity, and its 26 teams have gorgeous facilities and rapidly increasing valuations.

  • It also continues to expand, with David Beckham's Inter Miami and Nashville SC set to debut this season as the 25th and 26th teams. Plans are in place to reach 30 franchises by 2022 — triple the number from 2004.
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