Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is not fully understood within the scientific community, but recent medical evidence has determined that the development of this disease is greatly controlled by genetics. AD is a progressive and fatal brain disease, which affects approximately 5.3 million Americans by destroying brain cells causing problems with behavior, memory, and thinking. These symptoms are also associated with dementia. AD accounts for 50 to 70 percent of all reported dementia cases.
Genetic Risk for Alzheimer’s Disease and Dementia
Although medical science is only beginning to understand what causes Alzheimer’s, it has been determined that genetics plays a very important role in the development of the disease. AD is caused by a lack of connection between each of the nerve cells of the brain, called synapses. This deterioration continues to progress until the nerve cells eventually die. Scientists have discovered four to seven genes that cause Alzheimer’s, and they are performing a new study called a Genome-Wide Association Study (GWAS) to help further these discoveries.
The study of genetics is very complex and genetic problems can be implicated occur before or at birth (congenital disorders.) These conditions are usually caused by a problem with only one specific gene. At other times, a change in a gene may occur after birth, but this change does not necessarily cause a person to develop the disease. Therefore, it is important for healthy people who have a family history of AD to learn about the disease and speak to a professional about the family risks of AD.
What Research can “REVEAL”
Currently, experts at the National Human Genome Research Institute and the National Institute on Aging at the Boston University School of Medicine are conducting research on the link between Alzheimer’s, dementia and gentics. REVEAL, or Risk Evaluation and Education for Alzheimer’s Disease, is a multicenter study which aims to provide healthy people who are at risk for getting AD with the testing and information that they need about their chances of getting AD, as well as information on how to live well with Alzheimer’s.
People who are interviewed to be accepted into the study are given a telephone interview with questions about their attitudes toward AD, and are then given a chance to meet with a genetic counselor and discuss their family history of AD. Those involved in the study will also have a chance to learn about the genes involved with AD and have a chance to have their blood drawn for testing and to receive an AD risk evaluation.
Currently, men and women between the ages of 18 and 84 years old are able to participate in the study, requiring three or four appointments over the period of seven to nine months. The appointments generally take around 30 to 90 minutes to complete and usually require interviews and taking surveys. There are no physical exams or treatment programs offered for AD during the course of the REVEAL examination. For those who have Alzheimer’s in their family history, it seems that this study is worthwhile and can provide information on each person’s possible risk of AD.
That being said, there are several other factors that should be taken into consideration before taking part in a study such as REVEAL. For instance, one must take into consideration how he or she will feel about being told up front about their risks of Alzheimer’s. In addition, this information can affect a person financially. For instance, some who have learned about possessing such a risk have compulsively purchased life term insurance, which can be very expensive.
The REVEAL study is also being performed at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine at Cleveland, Ohio, Howard University in Washington D.C. and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.
Recent Developments in Alzheimer’s Research
In addition to the research being conducted with the REVEAL study, there is new medical evidence that has emerged regarding MRI brain scans and Alzheimer’s. These scans have been shown to be very effective at determining which patients do have AD and their specific stage of development of the disease in each case. This is done by measuring how much of the tissue of the brain is deteriorating, and how quickly that process occurs. This new knowledge helps doctors to understand how to treat their patients with different type of drugs. This process also assists in shedding light on which drugs are working and which are not.
Alzheimer’s Association. (n.d.) What is Alzheimer’s? Retrieved July 19, 2009, from the Alzheimer’s Association Web site: http://www.alz.org/alzheimers_disease_what_is_alzheimers.asp.
Boston University Alzheimer’s Disease Center. REVEAL (Risk Evaluation and Education for Alzheimer’s Disease). Retrieved July 19, 2009, from the Boston University Alzheimer’s Disease Center Web site: http://www.bu.edu/alzresearch/research/genetics/reveal/index.html.
Dollorto, D. (2009) Brain scan may reveal risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Retrieved July 19, 2009, from the CNN Web site: http://www.cnn.com/2009/HEALTH/02/10/alzheimers.brain.atrophy/index.html.
National Institute on Aging at the National Institute of Health. (2008). Alzheimer’s Disease Genetic Fact Sheet. Retrieved July 19, 2009, from the National Institute of Health Web site: http://www.nia.nih.gov/Alzheimers/Publications/geneticsfs.htm.
National Library of Medicine’s National Center for Biotechnology Information. Retrieved on July 19, 2009, from the National Library of Medicine Web site: www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/disease.