Researchers’ findings may lead to earlier Alzheimer’s diagnosis

Three scientists were awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their research into how people navigate their surroundings. A truly exciting aspect of their research is its possible implications for the early diagnosis and prevention of Alzheimer’s

My husband has an exceptional sense of direction. He always knows which way to go to get where he wants to be, and he never gets lost.

Because of his special skill, we both took notice when three scientists were awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their research into how people navigate their surroundings. A truly exciting aspect of their research is its possible implications for the early diagnosis and prevention of Alzheimer’s disease.

Background

In 1971, Professor John O’Keefe of University College in London, England, found that placing a rat in a certain part of a room caused specific nerve cells to be activated in the hippocampus of the rat’s brain. The activated cells form a grid, allowing the rat to create an inner map of its environment. When the rat went back to a place it had already visited, the same cells were reactivated.

Professors May-Britt and Edvard Moser of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology discovered in 2005 that a part of the brain called the entorhinal cortex activated specific cells when a rat passed through multiple locations in a room. The Mosers showed that each activated cell was able to form a hexagonal grid, with each cell in the grid coding a unique spatial pattern. Together the grid cells form a coordinated system and allow spatial navigation.

Implications

The human brain appears to use a positioning system similar to a rat’s. The regions of the brain that are involved — the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex — also are the first regions of the brain to be damaged when people develop Alzheimer’s disease. This accounts for the pronounced memory loss in Alzheimer’s disease.

“A defining feature of Alzheimer’s disease is loss of episodic memory, which is a person’s unique memory of a specific event,” said Bradley S. Folley, Ph.D., neuropsychologist with Norton Neuroscience Institute. “The hippocampus binds the information — place, time and details — into one memory. When the cells in the hippocampus die, we lose the ability to form those types of new memories.”

Increasing our knowledge about the brain’s positioning system will allow researchers to target therapies to the cells involved. It also may help scientists to develop behavioral tests that can diagnose Alzheimer’s even before a patient shows symptoms.

“The earlier a patient is diagnosed, the earlier we can apply medical intervention, and these discoveries will allow us to create models and behavioral probes to progress toward a cure for the disease. That hope is what is reflected in the Nobel Prize for these findings,” Dr. Folley said.

Resources

Norton Neuroscience Institute Resource Center offers a music therapy class for people who have been diagnosed with a neurological condition. The group meets every Tuesday from 1 to 2 p.m. at Norton Medical Plaza 2 – St. Matthews, 3991 Dutchmans Lane, Third Floor, Joan Riehm Conference Room. The class is led by a music therapist and focuses on stress relief, pain management, self-expression and overall wellness. No vocal or musical training is required. Call (502) 629-1234 to register. Space is limited.

Norton Neuroscience Institute offers Brain Games Café, a group for anyone with cognitive issues and their loved ones. It meets on the third Wednesday of each month from 1 to 3 p.m. in the Marshall Women’s Health & Education Center, Norton Medical Plaza 3 – St. Matthews, 4123 Dutchmans Lane, Suite 108. Led by a speech-language pathologist, the meetings offer participants a safe, comfortable, engaging environment where they can laugh, learn and remain socially engaged. Call (502) 559-3230 to make a reservation.


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