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Alzheimer's can begin in young people

23rd May 2011

Some people whose genes predispose them to Alzheimer's disease begin to lose brain integrity in their 20s and 30s, according to a recent US study.

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The researchers found that people who had certain forms of the clusterin (CLU) gene were at a particularly high risk for certain types of early damage from Alzheimer's disease.

For several years, researchers had known that CLU played an important role in Alzheimer's development, but they did not know the gene was so active throughout the lifespan.

The researchers found that certain versions of the CLU gene actually impaired the body's production of myelin, a type of brain matter known as white matter.

Myelin consists of a mixture of mainly lipids and proteins, which chain together in water to form one of the main structural features of brain matter.

Lead researcher Paul Thompson, a professor of neurology at UCLA, said that while Alzheimer's had traditionally been viewed as a disease marked by neuronal cell loss and widespread gray matter atrophy, myelin degeneration in white matter fibre pathways was more and more being considered a key disease component and another possible pathway to the disease.

For the study, the researchers used a special type of MRI scan that maps brain connections.

There were 398 otherwise healthy young adult study subjects, some of whom carried the gene variant under study.

Thompson said that the people who carried the gene had severely impaired "wiring" in most of their brain, even when they were young.

Such people did not notice symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, however.

Thompson said that following a healthy lifestyle might allow people who had the gene variant to avoid some of the risk inherent in their bodies.

For some time now, scientists have been making progress in classifying Alzheimer's disease as something that is inherited.

About 18 years ago, researchers noticed that a gene called ApoE4 tripled Alzheimer's risk in about a quarter of people around the world.

Two years ago, when researchers studied the CLU gene, they found that the C variant (the subject of the recent study) increased people's Alzheimer's risk by 16%.

As many as 88% of some European-descended populations may carry at least one copy of the CLU-C variant.

The results of the study contrast with findings which show how Alzheimer's development is related to the accretion of plaques within the brain.

Thompson said he believed that studying the effects of the CLU-C allele could allow scientists to find new ways to protect the brain in early adulthood.

Charles DeCarli, MD, professor of neurology at University of California, Davis, said he believed that the study provided the first clear evidence of what the CLU-C gene variant did to the brain.

He said that, if other scientists could confirm the results of the study, it would prove that myelin was somehow more vulnerable to deterioration than researchers had previously believed.

 

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