The key to fighting Alzheimer's disease may be a single brain protein called amyloid beta, which is the subject of dozens of current scientific studies. A recent New York Times article
summarized the current understanding about the role of amyloid beta in Alzheimer's disease as such: "The disease is defined by freckles of barnacle-like piles of a protein fragment, amyloid beta, in the brain. So, the current thinking goes, if you block amyloid formation or get rid of amyloid accumulations—plaque—and if you start treatment before the disease is well under way, you might have a chance to alter its course."
But Dr. Ottavio Arancio
, a professor at Columbia University's Taub Institute and Big Think expert, says the situation is more complicated than that. His research team is at the forefront of the race to understand amyloid proteins, but they are taking a different approach, trying to understand the beneficial side of amyloid beta. Dr. Arancio told Big Think recently
that amyloid beta exists in very small amounts in normal brains, a fact which puzzled most researchers:
"What most scientists thought was that it was kind of piece of garbage in the brain of people with no relevance whatsoever, and instead we have started working on it and we have found that actually the very likely function of this protein in very low amounts is there to lead to normal memory. So without it we could not store information in the brain, we could not learn, and there would not be normal memory."
Dr. Arancio says that understanding the normal functioning of amyloid beta might shed light on the ravages of Alzheimer's. The question, he says, is, "how does a good protein turn into a bad protein?"
5.3 million Americans are affected by Alzheimer's disease, and pharmaceutical companies are understandably eager to discover a cure. Currently, 100 different Alzheimer's drugs are in development, according to the Times. But these drugs work mostly by attacking amyloid beta, which Dr. Arancio's studies suggest plays a small but crucial role in proper memory functioning. Also, these drug studies can take up to a dozen years, so a cure is still years away.
More from the Big Idea for Tuesday, July 20 2010