Buck Institute Study Shows Birth of New Nerve Cells Increased in Patients with Alzheimer's Disease

Stimulating Neurogenesis May Provide New Treatment Strategies

December 1, 2003 Brains affected by Alzheimer’s disease may try to heal themselves by growing new nerve cells, according to a new Buck Institute study. The finding raises the possibility that treatments could be developed which would boost the natural process of nerve cell birth, also called neurogenesis, helping to forestall or repair damage from the degenerative neurological disease. The study results contradict the commonly held belief that neurogenesis diminishes with the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. The research is to be published the week of December 1 in the on-line edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The study identified increased birth of new nerve cells in the hippocampus of patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease (AD). David Greenberg, MD, PhD, lead scientist, and his team identified the presence of new nerve cells in their studies by measuring the levels and position of proteins known to exist in newly born nerve cells.

The hippocampus is the part of the brain involved in memory, learning and emotion.  AD usually starts with mild memory problems and ends with severe brain damage; it is the most common form of dementia in older people. Nearly four million Americans are believed to be affected by AD. The exact cause of disease is undetermined and no cure has been discovered.  AD usually begins after the age of 60 with patients commonly living for eight to ten years after diagnosis.

Greenberg said the next step in the research will involve trying to stimulate the new nerve growth in animal models of AD.  His team at the Buck Institute has already seen the process at work in the study of cerebral vascular disease. “Working with animal models, we already know that neurogenesis is increased in certain acute disorders such as stroke and epilepsy,” said Greenberg. “If we’re able to encourage the process in Alzheimer’s, it would open the inquiry to include other chronic conditions such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s diseases.”

The study involved collaboration between two laboratories at the Buck Institute, one focused on stroke, the other on AD.  “Once again, research on one disease has led to a new and unexpected finding on another disease -- in this case, Alzheimer’s, “ said Buck Institute President Dale Bredesen, MD. “I’m excited by the results and implications of this collaborative study: since the Alzheimer’s brain appears to be attempting to heal itself, if we can find a way to turn off the ongoing degeneration this study suggests that we might ultimately see significant repair.”

Joining Greenberg as co-authors of the paper are Buck Institute scientists Kunlin Jin, MD, PhD; Alyson Peel, PhD; Xiao Ou Mao, MD; Lin Xie, MS, and Barbara Cottrell MS, along with David Henshall PhD from the R.S. Dow Neurobiology Laboratories in Portland, OR.  The work was supported by Public Health Service Grant NS44921.

The Buck Institute is the only freestanding institute in the United States that is devoted solely to basic research on aging and age-associated disease. The Institute is an independent non-profit organization dedicated to extending the healthspan, the healthy years of each individual’s life.  Buck Institute scientists work in an innovative, interdisciplinary setting to understand the mechanisms of aging and to discover new ways of detecting, preventing and treating conditions such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cancer and stroke.  Collaborative research at the Institute is supported by new developments in genomics, proteomics and bioinformatics technology.

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