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Breakdown of Myelin May Lead to Alzheimer's

WEDNESDAY, Jan. 4 (HealthDay News) -- A new study links the age-related breakdown of myelin, the fatty insulation coating brain cell connections, to the onset of Alzheimer's disease.

The report by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) demonstrated that genetic testing, coupled with MRI imaging of myelin breakdown, may prove useful in assessing treatments for prevention of the disease, the scientists said.

The finding offers genetic evidence that myelin breakdown underlies both the advanced age and the principal genetic risks for Alzheimer's disease, Dr. George Bartzokis, director of the UCLA Memory Disorders and Alzheimer's Disease Clinic director, said in a prepared statement.

"Myelination, a process uniquely built up in humans, arguably is the most important and most vulnerable process of brain development as we mature and age. These new findings offer, for the first time, compelling genetic evidence that myelin breakdown underlies both the advanced age and the principal genetic risks for Alzheimer's disease," Bartzokis said.

"The human brain functions as a high-speed Internet system," he added. "The quality of the brain's connections is key to its speed, bandwidth, fidelity and overall on-line capability."

As the brain continues to develop in adulthood and as myelin is produced in greater and greater quantities, cholesterol levels increase, causing a toxic protein that attacks the brain. The protein attacks myelin, disrupts message transfer and eventually can lead to plaques and tangles visible in the cortex of Alzheimer's patients, the researchers said.

The findings appear in the January issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry.


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