January 30, 2012

Stimulate the Brain, Lower Alzheimer’s Risk

(Ivanhoe Newswire)-- Alzheimer´s disease is ranked the sixth-leading killer in the country, along with an estimated 5.4 million Americans and their families who continually suffer with the disease.

A new study led by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, revealed that individuals with no symptoms of Alzheimer´s disease who participate in cognitively stimulating activities such as reading books, or doing puzzles throughout their lives had fewer deposits of the destructive protein called Beta-amyloid. Beta-amyloid is a protein considered to be a major contributor to Alzheimer´s disease.

While prior research has suggested that engaging in mentally stimulating activities helps prevent Alzheimer's later in life, this new study identifies the biological target at hand. This discovery could lead to effective prevention strategies.

"These findings point to a new way of thinking about how cognitive engagement throughout life affects the brain," Dr. William Jagust, study principal investigator and professor with joint appointments at UC Berkeley's Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, the School of Public Health and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory was quoted as saying.

"Rather than simply providing resistance to Alzheimer's, brain-stimulating activities may affect a primary pathological process in the disease. This suggests that cognitive therapies could have significant disease-modifying treatment benefits if applied early enough, before symptoms appear."

The new study focuses on protein fibers folded into tangled plaques that accumulate in the brain known as amyloid. Finding a way to reduce its development has become a major focus of research because beta-amyloid is believed to be the leading cause in Alzheimer's disease.

The buildup of amyloid can also be influenced by genes and aging. 1 in 3 individuals age 60 and over have some amyloid deposits in their brain.

"This is the first time cognitive activity level has been related to amyloid buildup in the brain," Susan Landau, research scientist at the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute and the Berkeley Lab, was quoted as saying.

"Amyloid probably starts accumulating many years before symptoms appear. So it's possible that by the time you have symptoms of Alzheimer's, like memory problems, there is little that can be done to stop disease progression. The time for intervention may be much sooner, which is why we're trying to identify whether lifestyle factors might be related to the earliest possible changes."

The study consisted of 65 healthy, cognitively normal adults aged 60 and over (average age was 76), the participants were asked to rate how frequently they engaged in mentally stimulating activities. The questions focused on activities such as going to the library, reading books or newspapers, and writing letters or emails, at different points in their lives starting at age 6.

The participants took part in extensive neuropsychological testing to assess memory and other cognitive functions, and received positron emission tomography (PET) scans at the Berkeley Lab using a new tracer called Pittsburgh Compound B that was created to visualize amyloid. The results of the brain scans of healthy older individuals with different levels of lifetime cognitive activity were compared with those of 10 patients diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and 11 healthy people in their 20s.

A link between higher levels of cognitive activity over a lifetime and lower levels of beta-amyloid in the PET scans were discovered. Researchers analyzed the impact of other factors such as memory function, physical activity, self-rated memory ability, level of education and gender, and found that lifelong cognitive engagement was independently connected with amyloid deposition.

The researchers did not find a strong connection between amyloid deposition and levels of recent cognitive activity by itself.

"What our data suggests is that a whole lifetime of engaging in these activities has a bigger effect than being cognitively active just in older age," Landau said.

The researchers stressed that the study does not negate the benefits of increasing brain activity in the later years.

"There is no downside to cognitive activity. It can only be beneficial, even if for reasons other than reducing amyloid in the brain, including social stimulation and empowerment," Jagust said.

"And actually, cognitive activity late in life may well turn out to be beneficial for reducing amyloid. We just haven't found that connection yet."

There is still no cure for Alzheimer´s disease, but a draft of the first-ever National Alzheimer's Plan, was released this week, revealing that the U.S. government is aiming for effective Alzheimer's treatments by 2025.

SOURCE: Archives of Neurology, January 23, 2012