Exploring How Down Syndrome May Help Us Understand Alzheimer’s

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The increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease in individuals with Down Syndrome isn’t news within the scientific community, but until recently the reason behind the connection was hard to pin down. But, as Hope Gillette reports, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting the presence of amyloid-beta protein plaques between nerve cells in the brain are most likely the culprits.

The protein plaques characteristic of Down Syndrome have been consistently found in patients with Alzheimer’s disease, so researchers have been investigating into how these plaques are formed and how they affect the brain. The hope is that they may be able to develop treatments for the condition.

Amyloid-Beta Plaques“It’s a tantalizing and provocative question: Do people with Down Syndrome hold the key to the mystery of Alzheimer’s development?” Dr. Brian Skotko, co-director of the Down Syndrome Program at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, told Gillette. “And what can we learn from those with Down Syndrome that will benefit the rest of the population?”

The problem is figuring out how exactly these plaques play into Down Syndrome and Alzheimer’s disease. Many suggest it could be related to the extra genes present in people with Down Syndrome, but there is no clear proof yet.

Research does indicate these genes are responsible for the plaque tangles between nerve cells, and the Alzheimer’s Association says that all individuals with Down Syndrome have high levels of amyloid-beta protein plaques by the age of 40. However, only 40-50 percent of those individuals will go on to develop Alzheimer’s.

“We’ve learned that prevention and treatment in the earliest stages is probably our best way to battle this disease,” Cindy Lemere, an associate professor of neurology at the Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, told TODAY. “And we know that everybody with Down Syndrome will eventually develop Alzheimer’s disease – or at least the changes in the brain. So we know that this is now another population where we can perhaps go in and test therapies very early in the disease as a prevention.”

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