Neurodegenerative Disease and the Coming Epidemic

Reading time: 6 – 9 minutes

At Neuroscience 2008, the 38th annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience held last month in Washington D.C., a number of researchers presented evidence that a small, soluble, clustered form of a protein called amyloid beta may be responsible for brain damage in Alzheimer’s disease patients [1]. In addition, scientists report that they are finding new sources and uses of neural stem cells that may replace cells damaged by neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease [2].

Creative Commons License photo credit: neurollero

Why are these reports significant? Because until recently, large insoluble amyloid beta plaques, or deposits, were considered the likely cause of Alzheimer’s disease. The plaques were thought to disrupt brain cell communication. However, new findings show that an early (i.e. small), soluble, clustered form of amyloid beta called protofibrils is found in high levels in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease [1]. Researchers also found a strong correlation between the presence of high levels of protofibrils in the brains of transgenic mouse models of Alzheimer’s disease and the cognitive impairments associated with the disease.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, a progressive decline in cognitive function due to damage or disease. Alzheimer’s is a progressive and fatal brain disease, which destroys brain cells and causes problems with memory, thinking and behavior. In June 2008, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics reported that Alzheimer’s disease surpassed diabetes as the sixth leading cause of death in the United States [3]. Although the cause and progression of Alzheimer’s disease is not well understood, research suggests an association with plaques and tangles (meaning pathological protein deposits and aggregates) in the brain [4].

Parkinson’s disease is another neurodegenerative disorder that progressively impairs a person’s speech and motor skills. Parkinson’s disease is characterized by muscle rigidity, tremors and a slowing and loss of physical movement. The disease occurs when neurons (nerve cells) in the brain become impaired or die. Neurons normally produce dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for transmitting signals that produce smooth, coordinated function of the body’s muscles and movement. Neural stem cells hold the promise as a source of dopamine-producing cells to replace the degenerating nerve cells in Parkinson’s patients.

I’ve featured content from TED in the past:

TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design. The annual TED conference brings together some of the world’s most fascinating people to talk briefly about science, business, the arts and global issues facing our world. In his TED talk earlier this year, Gregory Petsko, a Professor of Biochemistry and Chemistry at Brandeis University, warned that:

Unless we do something to prevent it, over the next 40 years we’re facing an epidemic of neurologic diseases on a global scale.

Why? Because biomedical research and better healthcare measures have enabled people to live longer. The average lifespan is increasing and the world population is getting older. In fact, Petsko states that the average lifespan is increasing at the amazing rate of ~5 hours everyday. Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease usually affect individuals that are middle aged or older.

Petsko’s solution? More research into the brain and its function.

Check out his short 4 minute talk below.

Lower your risks for neurodegenerative disease

Even though there is no current treatment to delay or halt the progression of Alzheimer’s, there are a number of things you can do to lower your risk of developing the disease [5]:

  • Keep your cholesterol and homocysteine levels low
  • Keep your blood pressure down (chronic high blood pressure is the biggest single risk factor for Alzheimer’s)
  • Engage in social and intellectually stimulating activities
  • Exercise regularly

Similarly, there are a number of things you can do today to lower your risk of developing Parkinson’s disease:

  • Drink more coffee (increased consumption is also associated with a lower risk of liver cancer)
  • Avoid head injuries
  • Avoid excessive exposure to toxins, such as herbicides and pesticides
  • Take a B vitamin (folic acid) supplement everyday
  • Exercise regularly

More information can be found at the Alzheimer’s Association and The National Parkinson Foundation.


  1. New Studies Probe Role and Form of Brain Protein that May be Responsible for Impaired Memory in Alzheimer’s Disease. Society for Neuroscience press release. 2008 Nov 16.
  2. Research Reports Discovery of New Sources of Neural Stem Cells. Society for Neuroscience press release. 2008 Nov 18.
  3. Deaths: Preliminary Data for 2006. National Vital Statistics Reports, Volume 56, Number 16. 2008 June 11.
  4. Tiraboschi et al. The importance of neuritic plaques and tangles to the development and evolution of AD. Neurology. 2004 Jun 8;62(11):1984-9.
    View abstract
  5. Genes, Lifestyles, and Crossword Puzzles: Can Alzheimer’s Disease be Prevented? U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2006 June.
About the Author

Walter Jessen, Ph.D. is a Data Scientist, Digital Biologist, and Knowledge Engineer. His primary focus is to build and support expert systems, including AI (artificial intelligence) and user-generated platforms, and to identify and develop methods to capture, organize, integrate, and make accessible company knowledge. His research interests include disease biology modeling and biomarker identification. He is also a Principal at Highlight Health Media, which publishes Highlight HEALTH, and lead writer at Highlight HEALTH.