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Fruit Flies & Alzheimer’s Research

The Alzheimer’s Association has been involved in every major advancement in Alzheimer research since the 1980’s. Over the last 30 years, researchers have made remarkable progress in understanding healthy brain function and what goes wrong causing Alzheimer’s disease. In addition to investigating experimental drugs, many clinical trials in progress include various brain imaging studies and testing of blood or spinal fluid. Researchers hope these techniques will one day provide methods to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease in its earliest, most treatable stages, possibly even before symptoms appear. They may also eventually offer better methods to monitor response to treatment. Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. Those with Alzheimer’s live an average of eight years after their symptoms become noticeable to others, but survival can range from three to twenty years, depending on age and other health conditions. The greatest known risk factor for the disease is increasing age and the majority of people with Alzheimer’s are 65 and older, turning the impending “coming of age” of the Baby Boomer generation into a national crisis.

Scientists are often criticized for using animals or insects in research studies to find cures for disease. One research team is testing fruit flies to help determine the genetic causes of Alzheimer’s disease. Understandably drawing skepticism, Laurie Thompkins, chief of Genetic Mechanisms Branch Division in Biology at the U.S. National Institute of General Medical Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland said, “People have a hard time comprehending that a lot of the processes that go on in these organisms are similar to those in humans.” Tompkins, who has studied fruit flies for more than a decade, noted that animals, insects, plants and even microorganisms have certain genetic and systemic similarities to humans that can be exploited by researchers to better understand human illness.

fly on green by *sergiemag on deviantART

Interestingly, one of the genes that exist in both fruit flies and humans has been linked to the hereditary form of Alzheimer’s disease, which is particularly aggressive in people, said Thomas A. Jongens, a member of the fruit fly research team and an associate professor of genetics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

“In familial Alzheimer’s, the genetics are pretty well characterized,” Jongens said. “The idea is then to go and find what kind of treatments can be done to rescue and prevent this loss of memory and learning.” Jongens’ research team used fruit flies to test treatments that would counter the genetic mutation that causes Alzheimer’s in people. In one phase of the study, researchers gave their test flies drugs that theoretically would block the genetic pathways that allow Alzheimer’s to take root. Some of the drugs were experimental; the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have approved one of them, lithium, for use in humans. The researchers found that the drugs prevented the onset of memory and learning loss in the flies and additionally caused them to recover some of their memory deficits. “The results suggest there is a window of time when the loss of cognition is reversible through pharmacological treatment,” Jongens said. “Maybe there’s a window of time in human patients where these pharmacological treatments might have efficacy.” Although the results cannot automatically be used to recommend treatment in humans, Jongens believes that testing on mice is the next logical step. And after that, human clinical trials could be considered.

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About The Author: Gloria Ha’o Schneider is an expert in senior citizen and baby boomer issues. Her topics revolve around Senior Living and Healthcare to provide the latest information to this demographic as well as their families and loved ones.

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