Northwestern researchers find protein related to Alzheimer’s present in young people

Olivia Exstrum, Campus Editor

A new Northwestern Medicine study revealed a protein involved in the development of Alzheimer’s disease can begin forming in the neurons of people as young as 20. Scientists believe this is the first time the protein, amyloid, has been shown in people so young.

“Discovering that amyloid begins to accumulate so early in life is unprecedented,” said lead investigator Changiz Geula in a news release. “This is very significant. We know that amyloid, when present for long periods of time, is bad for you.”

To conduct the study, scientists looked at neurons that are involved with memory and attention to understand why they are the first affected in cases of Alzheimer’s. They examined brains from deceased individuals in three groups: cognitively normal people ages 20 to 66, older individuals ages 70 to 99 and people with Alzheimer’s ages 60 to 95.

Researchers found the amyloid molecules started accumulating in the brains in young adulthood and never ceased growing. The molecules formed clumps, which grew larger in older people and individuals with Alzheimer’s.

“This points to why these neurons die early,” Geula said in the release. “The small clumps of amyloid may be a key reason. The lifelong accumulation of amyloid in these neurons likely contributes to the vulnerability of these cells to pathology in aging and loss in Alzheimer’s.”

The clumps can kill the neurons and cause brain damage.

“It’s also possible that the clumps get so large, the degradation machinery in the cell can’t get rid of them, and they clog it up,” Geula said.

Geula and his colleagues plan to further study how amyloid can damage neurons in the future. The study was published Monday in the scientific journal Brain.

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