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BY RAMI AL-AREF, Guest Writer

Alzheimer’s is a very current, and sadly, common disease. While it is true that it is fatal and there is no real cure for the disease, new research has shown that Alzheimer’s seems to be caused by a defective protein.

Let us first begin with a short explanation on the integral molecules of life. Our bodies are made up of things called polymers, which are in turn made up of monomers. The word polymer indicates that there are more than one of these monomers, and it logically follows that the molecules of life are made of different kinds of monomers.

What are the molecules of life, you might ask? There are four: nucleotides (DNA and RNA), carbohydrates, lipids (fats), and proteins. Each of these molecules are made up of tinier parts, each with its own distinct characteristics that allow it to create very different molecules. For example: carbohydrates are made of sugars, nucleotides are made of nucleic acids, lipids are made of fatty acids, and proteins are made of amino acids.

Recent studies have shown that it is very possible that the amino acids in proteins are the reason we live today. There are 21 different amino acids in our bodies; in different combinations, they form the proteins that allow us to function. The chemical characteristics of the amino acids and the way that they combine allows the protein to “fold,” or become activated, causing it to function properly. Recent studies have shown that proteins that fold in an improper manner lead to certain diseases, one of those being Alzheimer’s.

Proteins are usually soluble, however, due to certain inherited traits the protein can “misfold” and form an insoluble aggregate that accumulates in tissue. Such proteins are referred to as amyloids. When these amyloids were first discovered, scientists believed that they were a grainy-like substance, hence the term amyloid, which means starch-like.

Alzheimer’s is a neurodegenerative disease that is characterized by mental degradation found mainly in the elderly. Studies have found that people with Alzheimer’s have very large deposits of amyloids surrounding the dying neurons in their brain. It turns out that there is a precursor to the amyloids, a neurotoxin which slowly kills the neurons.

It follows that as more amyloids surround the neurons they slowly begin to die. This makes sense, because the older you are there is increased likelihood of getting Alzheimer’s. This is based on the understanding that the longer you live the longer the time-span is for the amyloids to accumulate. While this is very grim, there is a beacon of hope. Scientists have reasoned that a potential method for curing Alzheimer’s lies in inhibiting (or preventing) the onset of the neurotoxin precursor. The good news is that when you understand a disease, you are more able to find a solution.

All the information for this post was taken from “Fundamentals of Biochemistry: Life at the Molecular Level,” 3rd Edition by Donald Voet, Judith Voet, and Charlotte W. Pratt.