Alzheimer’s is a degenerative disease that affects millions of people every year. There is no cure for the illness and the treatments are only effective to a certain degree. This is one reason research into the illness is still ongoing and researchers seek to study the disease from every angle. An unexpected discovery may have been produced from one such study, but will it lead to a new treatment?
The latest study took place at the University of Chicago, where researchers hoped to show the positive effects of long-term antibiotic use on Alzheimer’s patients. Specifically, they wanted to prove that antibiotics would slow the activity of amyloid plaques, which are commonly associated with the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Amyloid plaques are the result of protein build-up on the neurons in the brain. By reducing inflammation through antibiotic treatments, the team theorized that the growth of amyloid plaques would be inhibited.
The team, led by Professor Sangram S. Sisodia, had done previous research into Alzheimer’s disease, so this was an extension of their work. Previously, they found that Alzheimer’s patients also exhibited changes in their gut microbiomes, which is where an ecosystem of bacteria influences gastrointestinal health, immune function, and a variety of other biological functions. In that previous study, the team found that a more diverse gut microbiome could help reduce the signs of Alzheimer’s disease in rodents.
While the research was promising, it did show that a possible treatment may have limitations. Even though altering the gut microbiome did help alleviate symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease in male mice, the effect wasn’t duplicated in female mice. This unexpected result presented a challenge that the research team hoped to overcome in a second study.
Taking a Deeper Look at the Relationship Between Antibiotics and Alzheimer’s
The second study conducted by Professor Sisodia and his team looked at how amyloid plaques influenced the activation of microglia in the brain. When microglia are activated, they can cause inflammation in the brain. However, when the brain is exposed to antibiotics over a long period of time, the formation of microglia is altered, inhibiting the growth of amyloid plaques. In this way, the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease in male mice were alleviated.
When the same treatment was administered to female mice, the production of microglia was not altered. In fact, the treatment changed how the immune system functioned in the female mice. This process increased the risk of greater microglia production, which may work to increase the severity of symptoms.
The findings were confirmed by transplanting the fecal matter from male mice who had not received the treatment to male mice who had been treated. Once the treated mice had been exposed to the untreated fecal matter, there was a noticeable increase in the growth of amyloid plaque. There was also a higher degree of microglia activity in the brain.
While the study is promising, it’s still a long way from resulting in a cure or treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. The next step is determining which specific types of bacteria are affected by antibiotic treatments. If the researchers at the University of Chicago can isolate the specific processes that cause antibiotics to affect Alzheimer’s-like symptoms in male mice, this may eventually lead to a cure for the disease.
What is Alzheimer’s Disease?
To understand the important role antibiotics may play in the treatment of the condition, it may be helpful to understand more about Alzheimer’s disease. This is a progressive illness that results from degeneration, or loss, of brain cells. Since it is a progressive illness, the symptoms are often mild to start and grow in severity as the loss of brain cells worsens. It’s the most common type of dementia and can affect adults of any age, although it is more common among seniors.
While we don’t know the exact cause of Alzheimer’s, we believe it’s the result of environmental and lifestyle factors, combined with genetic defects. These three factors are thought to cause the development of the illness to occur gradually over a long period of time. In just 1% of cases, a specific genetic defect will be primarily responsible for the development of the disease. In this type of situation, there’s almost a guarantee that the individual will develop the disease and it usually does develop by the time the person reaches his 40s or 50s.
Alzheimer’s disease is the result of proteins in the brain functioning abnormally. These proteins, such as microglia, disrupt the normal functioning of the neurons in the brain. Once neuron function is inhibited, they lose the ability to communicate with other neurons, leaving them to die off. These dying neurons can go unobserved for many years with even the mildest symptoms taking several years to become noticeable.
The first symptoms often involve memory loss and an inability to concentrate, but those are only the first symptoms. Thinking and reasoning may also be affected, particularly when it comes to dealing with numbers. The individual’s ability to tell time, count money, or remember dates will become affected. Their decision-making skills will also become compromised. They will either feel unable to make decisions, or use poor judgment. This can result in wearing inappropriate clothes for the weather, or it can cause them to make poor driving decisions.
The individual’s personality and behavior will also seem to change. Depressive episodes are not uncommon and many Alzheimer’s patients also suffer from anxiety. They may also have a tendency for apathetic behavior, which may cause them to withdraw from social interactions. As the disease progresses, you can expect to see mood swings, irritability, delusions, and a general mistrust of others. Alzheimer’s patients also tend to wander unexpectedly.
Currently, there’s no way to cure Alzheimer’s disease and even the treatments have their limitations. During the early stages of the disease, treatment can help patients maintain a better quality of life, but the symptoms will eventually become too severe to be controlled. This is what makes Alzheimer’s research so vital. If a more effective treatment can be developed through the use of antibiotics, a better quality of life may be preserved for millions of sufferers.