What is happening in the brain of someone with Alzheimer’s?

What is happening in the brain of someone with Alzheimer's?

What is happening in the brain of someone with Alzheimer’s?

In order to fully understand what Alzheimer’s is, you first need to know what is happening in the brain of people suffering from this disease.

Scientists are still trying to decipher the complex changes that occur in the brain during the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Brain damage can begin 10 years before memory loss and cognitive issues start to manifest.

Patients do not show any symptoms during the preclinical stage of Alzheimer’s and yet, although you cannot see them, significant microscopic changes are already happening in the brain.

But what exactly are these changes in the brain and why do people with Alzheimer’s experience memory loss? Keep reading to find out.

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How does this disease develop in the brain?

The brain is a very complex structure that is still being studied today. What we do know is that the brain has as a functional unit, cells called neurons, which are equally complex.

The brain has as a functional unit, cells called neurons.
With Alzheimer’s, neurons stop working properly

Neurons are made up of a cell body, which holds all the information, different arms called dendrites, which help it to communicate with neighboring neurons, and a long tail called an axon, which consolidates the information received in the arms and the cell body and will transmit it to other neurons further away.

In Alzheimer’s, these functional units, the neurons, start to fail. It may help to imagine them as individual light bulbs in a city (which is the brain). When you turn off one light, nothing happens. But when you start turning off more and more lights, it gets darker and darker until the city cannot carry on as normal.

Also, take into account that there are independent currents of electricity within a city, and others that power the lights on various streets, meaning that when you turn of some bulbs, nothing happens, but we depend much more on others. This is what determines the onset of Alzheimer’s or the patient’s symptoms.

With Alzheimer’s, it is like you are gradually turning off more and more lights. When a neuron fails, the neighboring neuron cannot do its job, until finally that part of the brain stops working properly.

Neurons that used to be healthy stop working properly, lose connections with other neurons and, finally, are destroyed, causing irreversible changes in the brain.

Why does brain damage occur in Alzheimer’s?

This happens because abnormal deposits of proteins arise in the brain that start to form amyloid plaques (abnormal masses) and neurofibrillary tangles (groups of tangled fibers) throughout the brain, that prevent neurons from communicating with each other.

This damage exists in the senile plaques that are produced naturally in the body over the years and that, under normal conditions, cause senile dementia.

Senile dementia should not be confused with Alzheimer’s disease, which is an early-onset degenerative dementia caused by the premature deterioration of neurons generated by those amyloid plaques described above.

Which parts of the brain are affected by Alzheimer’s?

Alzheimer’s disease affects specific parts of the brain:

First, the limbic system is attacked – particularly the hippocampus-, then, the cerebral cortex and finally, the brain stem, causing each structure to lose its ability to function.

The symptoms that occur are a direct result of the following damage:

  1. Damage to the limbic system: causes memory loss and mood swings.
  2. Damage to the cerebral cortex: results in difficulty managing emotions. Causes problems with reasoning and mathematics. The patient may need help using money, counting, following a series of information, remembering news, eating, shaving or combing their hair.
  3. Damage to the stem cell: occurs in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s and impairs organ function, including the function of the heart, lungs and other bodily processes.

The effect of Alzheimer’s disease on the neurons

If we look back at the history of the disease, around the year 1907 Alois Alzheimer studied the corpse of a 51-year-old woman that had presented symptoms of dementia and disorientation.

Upon looking at her brain under a microscope, he found clusters that he named neurofibrillary tangles. Along with senile plaques that come with aging, these clusters prevent neurons from communicating with each other.

These tangles are found in two toxic proteins that have since been found to be responsible for the onset of the disease: beta-amyloid and tau proteins.

On a cellular level, these two toxic proteins appear to be responsible for neuron damage. These proteins cause tangles that accumulate inside the neurons and eventually, cause them to be destroyed.

The destroyed neurons form neuritic plaques, which act as scars between the neurons, which interferes with cells’ ability to function and send messages to other neurons. Neurons that are not properly connected do not work properly and are destroyed.

The result of cell damage

When communication between neurons is impaired, it affects our memory and ability to learn. As we mentioned above, cell damage occurs gradually, and damage to just a small part of the brain can greatly affect another, until eventually a huge part of the brain becomes damaged.

Due to this, the brain gradually starts to shrink and becomes less and less functional. This leads to many symptoms of dementia, such as memory problems, reasoning, orientation, comprehension, calculation skills, the ability to learn, language and judgement.

The Alzheimer’s Association has an interactive model of the brain that shows what is happening in the brain of people with Alzheimer’s.

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Current research

Alzheimer's is a major topic of biomedical research
Experts are working hard to uncover as many aspects and characteristics of Alzheimer’s (and other types of dementia) as possible

Today, Alzheimer’s is a major topic of biomedical research and due to a number of technological advances, the life expectancy of patients with this disease has increased. It is more common among people over the age of 90, for which there are some new scientific challenges.

The most significant progress has been made in terms of discovering how Alzheimer’s disease specifically affects the brain. Hopefully, a better understanding of the changes that occur in the brain, will shed some light on possible solutions and  alternatives for effectively treating this disease.

If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, do not panic. Research surrounding treatment for this disease is advancing along with significant biomedical developments. For now, click here to find out more information that will help guide you in the adjustment process so that you can maintain an independent and happy life.

Alzheimer’s is more common than you would think, so why not share this article with your loved ones and help raise awareness about this disease.

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