Brain power: new treatments should focus on developing drugs to treat changes to the blood vessels, before brain cells are affected
Brain power: new treatments should focus on developing drugs to treat changes to the blood vessels, before brain cells are affected

Alzheimer’s could be caused by disruption to brain’s energy supply, say neuroscientists

The brain is the most energy-demanding organ, relying on a constant supply of glucose and oxygen. When this supply is disrupted, it can lead to the onset of Alzheimer’s

Kira Shaw,Orla Bonnar
Monday 16 April 2018 13:26
Comments

It is well known that Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, involves the accumulation of sticky proteins (plaques and tangles) in the brain. But we still don’t know what the root cause of the disease is. Given that someone, somewhere in the world, is diagnosed with dementia every three seconds, there is an urgent race to discover the causes of the disease so that treatments can be developed.

Scientists know that changes to the brain’s blood flow happen before plaques and tangles appear and this has led to an interesting theory of the causes of the disease, known as the vascular hypothesis.

When brain cells become active, they need energy in the form of glucose and oxygen, which is delivered by an increase in blood supply to that part of the brain. But in Alzheimer’s disease the blood supply is often impaired, so the amount of energy supplied to the brain cells is compromised. One of the reasons for the breakdown in this energy supply may be explained by a breakdown in the blood-brain barrier.

Capillaries in the brain are lined with very tightly packed endothelial cells that form a semi-permeable barrier. They let oxygen, glucose and other necessary substances across the barrier, but stop larger molecules from crossing into the brain. Research has shown that in people with Alzheimer’s, the integrity of this barrier is compromised due to gaps forming in the usually tightly packed endothelial cells. This leads to a buildup of harmful molecules in the brain, which in turn results in swelling of the brain and reduced blood flow in it.

A lack of oxygen to the brain (a condition known as “hypoxia”) has been shown to lessen the ability of neurons to fire and to alter brain chemistry. This causes brain swelling, lesions and, importantly, helps the formation of beta-amyloid plaques and tau tangles – the hallmark features of Alzheimer’s. So the degeneration of these blood vessels in the brain may form a vicious cycle, eventually resulting in mass cell death.

Changes to the brain’s blood flow happen before plaques and tangles appear 

Another hint that Alzheimer’s disease may be caused by poor blood flow to the brain comes from genetics.

The gene associated with the highest risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease later in life is called APOE. Everyone inherits two copies of this gene, one from each parent, and APOE exists in three variants (alleles), called e2, e3 and e4. People with two copies of the e4 variant of the gene (APOE4) increase their risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by about three to five times.

Researchers from Johns Hopkins University showed that people with the APOE4 gene had reduced brain blood flow, without any symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. And a separate study, using genetically engineered mice with the human APOE genes, showed that APOE4 resulted in damage to the capillaries before any decline in brain cell activity became evident. These findings support the idea that blood flow disruptions may be one of the earliest changes in Alzheimer’s disease.

A vascular theory of Alzheimer’s disease may also explain why people who have high blood pressure, or who have had a stroke, are more likely to develop the disease. High blood pressure can cause blood clots to form in the arteries leading to your brain, which reduces blood flow and oxygenation.

A stroke may occur as a result of such blood clots, meaning the blood supply to a part of the brain is suddenly cut off. Both of these conditions decrease the energy supply to the brain, which can damage brain cells significantly.

There are no cures for Alzheimer’s disease, only drugs to manage some of the symptoms. The new treatments that are being investigated tend to focus on removing plaques, which may or may not recover function. But perhaps a better target for drug developers would be medicines that treat changes to the blood vessels, before brain cells are affected.

In a 2012 study, published in Nature, researchers at the University of Rochester gave an immunosuppressant drug called cyclosporine to mice with the human APOE4 gene. They showed that, following this treatment, the early damage to capillaries and the blood-brain barrier were recovered. Clearly, genetically modified mice are not the same as humans, but the findings do lend further support to the vascular hypothesis.

Kira Shaw is a postdoctoral researcher in neuroscience at the University of Sussex, Orla Bonnar is a PhD candidate at the University of Sussex. This article first appeared on The Conversation (theconversation.com)

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in