What goes on in a brain with Alzheimer's Disease?
A DESTROYER OF THE BRAIN
BY: ISABELLA G.
This is the comparison between a healthy brain and an Alzheimer's brain.
Most of you have probably heard of Alzheimer’s Disease, and all of the stories about it. For example, a person with AD (Alzheimer’s Disease) might have trouble talking or they might forget things. Have you ever wondered why these people act this way? If you want the answer, you must take a closer look inside the brain.
PLAQUES AND TANGLES IN A BRAIN??
One way that AD affects the brain is through plaques and tangles. Plaques are similar to the substance that clogs heart arteries. People who don’t have Alzheimer’s can also get plaques, but the kind of plaques that people get when they do have AD causes inflammation. Researchers from Massachusetts reported that plaques can develop in 24 hours. When neurons are healthy, they have these internal structures called microtubules. These microtubules are the paths for the information traveling through our brains. A protein called tau makes the microtubules stable and strong. When Alzheimer’s Disease takes over the brain, the tau becomes destructive. According to “Alzheimer’s Disease”, by Peggy J. Parks, the plaques keep forming while “tau proteins undergo chemical changes.” This makes them bunch together and create tangles inside of dead or close to dead neurons. This causes the microtubules to fall, which leads to the paths for information being destroyed. The Mayo Clinic says, when neurons keep dying, there aren’t as many left to store and retrieve information. That is just one way how Alzheimer’s Disease affects the brain.
THE FIRST ALZHEIMER’S PATIENT
Dr. Alois Alzheimer was the doctor of Auguste D. When he met her he was 37 years old and had established himself as a leading neurologist. For four years he observed Auguste in the mental asylum in Frankfurt. He wondered about what was happening to her, and he finally could investigate it after her brain was removed from her head after she died. He noticed that it was much lighter and smaller than a regular brain. Usually the outside layer of the brain is very big, and it has to fold back on itself to fit inside of the skull. There are pleats on this area of the brain called the cerebral cortex. In Auguste D.’s brain these pleats were a lot thinner and more spread apart than usual. Dr. Alzheimer then got out a microscope and looked at little slices of brain tissue. He found that some of the brain cells had disappeared. A lot of the other cells in her brain had tangles inside of them. There were also plaques all over the surface of the brain. The plaques had been discovered before, called senile plaques. The senile plaques, the brain cell loss, and the tangles are the basic diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE REASONS PEOPLE GET ALZHEIMER’S??
There are some risks for getting AD, but the biggest one is age. At age 85 getting the disease has risen about 50%. When I asked “About how old do most of your AD patients live?” Hugh Ryan MD answered, “80-85.” There is also another risk for getting AD, which is genetics. A person is likely to get early-onset Alzheimer’s if they were born with one mutated gene from their parent. However, late-onset AD is not believed to be passed on from parent. Another risk to developing AD is having other health problems. Scientists know that people suffering from other chronic sicknesses have a higher risk of developing AD. According to, Hugh Ryan MD, “Most have some chronic conditions, but are generally in good 'physical' health.” High blood pressure and heart disease are also believed to be risks. Also, people with diabetes have a 30-60% higher chance of getting the disease. Those are some of the risks for developing Alzheimer’s Disease.
WHAT ARE WAYS THAT YOU CAN TELL A PERSON HAS ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE??
Speech and memory loss are common symptoms for Alzheimer’s patients. A common memory loss symptom is forgetting many recent memories. Short term memory is usually affected early in AD, which is the first sign of brain trouble. Because learning depends on short term memories, early Alzheimer’s patients are unable to get new information. In early Alzheimer’s the immediate memory has little change and the long term memory is usually kept safe. The long term memories will eventually fail, though. This memory loss can even get in the way of social activities. As for speech, in the initial stage of AD it becomes hard to find the correct word. The patient might also talk around the word that can’t be remembered and avoid complicated conversations. In the middle stage the patient might use empty phrases. There are definitely many ways to tell if a person might have Alzheimer’s.
WHAT HAPPENS IN THE STAGES OF ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE??
The order of stages in Alzheimer’s Disease goes mild, moderate, and severe. In the first stage of AD, which is the mild stage, the symptoms are not as noticeable. Things that used to be easy to do are now harder. Learning new information also becomes harder. Patients in this stage are also known to make bad choices and avoid people. Mood and personality changes can also happen in the mild stage. In the moderate stage of AD the symptoms get worse, and the person needs to be supervised more to act normal in regular places. They will eventually need full-time supervision. Jobs that include doing things with multiple steps become harder. Lists and calendars can no longer help the patient’s memory loss. They also lose the ability to judge what is socially normal, such as dressing appropriately. Getting confused about the place and time is also common. The patient might also have trouble reading/writing, recognizing friends, or even normally walking. All of these problems are dangerous risks for the patient because they could lead to leaving the stove on, getting confused with medicines, getting lost, and driving dangerously. When I asked doctors the question, “Are most of the patients you have in mild, moderate, or severe stages when they first come in?” both Hugh Ryan MD and Brandie Niedens MD responded with “moderate.” Finally, comes the severe stage. The patient is more at risk for falling in this stage because they have trouble walking, standing, and getting out of chairs. They might not be able to swallow solids or liquids. In addition to motor problems, an Alzheimer’s patient in this stage might also have trouble talking and sleeping. The patient could also experience seizures. A person with AD might not even be able to recognize themselves because the memory loss and confusion problems are more severe.
HOW DO PEOPLE TRY TO TREAT ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE WITH DRUGS??
There are a few ways that people try to treat Alzheimer’s, and one of them is using drugs. In the United States, only four drugs are approved. Tacrine (Cognex brand name) was approved by the FDA in 1993, donepezil (Aricept brand name) came out in 1996, and rivastigmine (Exelon brand name) became available in 2000. All of them work by inhibiting the enzyme that destroys acetylcholine in the brain. People with Alzheimer’s don’t have as much acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is a chemical that helps brain cells communicate. For some patients in the early or middle stages of AD the drugs made their mental function better. Sadly, the drug’s improvement is only temporary. Dr. Ronald C. Petersen says, “Neither tacrine nor donepezil can stop or reverse the disease.” Sooner or later Aricept becomes useless. The drug comes with side effects, such as nausea. Tacrine has the worst side effect: in 30% of people it affected the function of their liver. Therefore, people taking tacrine must take regular blood tests to check liver function. The fourth drug, called, galantamine (Reminyl brand name) was approved in March, 2001. It helps the brain become more “open” to acetylcholine and it increases the brain’s amount of this chemical. These four drugs all relate to the one chemical that AD patients lack: acetylcholine.
HOW DO PEOPLE TRY TO TREAT ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE WITH COMFORT??
Another way that people try to treat Alzheimer’s is giving the patient comfort. The caregivers at some nursing homes use kids toys, books, and games to help the AD patients with their memory. They think in the last stage of AD the areas that control motor function and senses have not deteriorated. During this phase the patient usually acts childlike and things that comfort them are playing with toys or people reading to them.
HOW DO PEOPLE TRY TO TREAT ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE BY CHANGING THEIR LIFESTYLE??
There also a few changes you can make in your life to be less likely to develop Alzheimer’s later in life. One is: regularly exercising and staying fit! Research also shows, people who do activities to keep their brains active are less like to develop the disease. If you don’t want to get Alzheimer’s, try using these tips!
DOES DOWN SYNDROME REALLY HAVE A CONNECTION TO ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE??
The answer is yes! In case you were wondering, Down Syndrome is a chromosomal disorder that gives a person 47 chromosomes instead of 46. People with DS (Down Syndrome) develop Alzheimer’s at a higher rate than people without it. Studies during the 1970’s and 80’s showed abnormalities in brains with AD are also found in brains with DS. In one study researchers looked at 100 different brains of people with DS and they were filled with plaques. Colin Davidson says, in brains with Down Syndrome and Alzheimer’s Disease the APP gene which is part of chromosome 21 becomes mutated which leads to plaques. So yes, Alzheimer’s and Down Syndrome DO have a connection.
Alzheimer’s Disease is an awful disorder that destroys the brain. Plaques, tangles, and brain brain cell loss are all problems that Alzheimer’s patients experience. If you know someone that is losing their memories, acting differently, and not talking normally, then you might know someone with Alzheimer’s Disease. If you don’t want to get Alzheimer’s Disease later in life, here are a couple of tips to help you prevent it! Tip #1: keep your brain active! Tip #2: exercise! There is not yet a cure for Alzheimer’s Disease as of 2015, but we are still hopeful!
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