In the study of Alzheimer's disease, the smallest steps forward have sometimes led to the most exciting breakthroughs, reports today's SF Chronicle.
In the case of a recent study from Novato's Buck Institute, it's a molecular step forward -- specifically, modifying a single amino acid in the brains of lab mice that could prevent the frightening memory loss and dementia associated with Alzheimer's disease.
While several scientists outside the Buck Institute were reluctant to call the study a true breakthrough, the results "are not a trivial step forward," said Stephen Snyder, an Alzheimer's disease specialist with the National Institute on Aging.
"This opens the door on a field of research. What these guys are showing, basically, is a new universe for us to look into more deeply," Snyder said. "We don't know much about the mechanisms. You could fault these people for rushing to print the study without knowing that, but in the Alzheimer's field, we accept a lot of this because these little incremental things could mean a lot."
Alzheimer's is a debilitating neurological disease that affects 4.5 million Americans, and with the Baby Boomer generation a decade or so away from the at-risk years, scientists have been under increasing pressure to develop treatments for the disease.
There are dozens, even hundreds, of studies being conducted on Alzheimer's at any given time, as scientists reconsider 15-year-old theories that haven't yet led to viable treatments, or spin off into new, untapped realms of brain chemistry research.
In the Buck Institute study, a protein was altered in the brains of lab mice. The mice that received the treatment showed all the pathological signs of suffering Alzheimer's disease -- most notably, a buildup of sticky plaque that scientists believe is related to the disease -- but had none of the memory-loss symptoms or brain shrinkage.