Alzheimer's is a particularly tragic disease, devastating both those who suffer from it and their family members. Alzheimer's patients experience a loss of neurons (brain cells). This leads to a progressive loss of memory as well as loss of the ability to reason, communicate, learn and perform other tasks. Typically, Alzheimer's patients die four to six years after being diagnosed, though some live up to 20 years.

Five million people in the United States have Alzheimer's. Of those five million, 200,000 to 500,000 are under the age of 65, afflicted with dementias, including s early-onset Alzheimer's [Source: Alzheimer's Association]. There is no cure for Alzheimer's, but there are several different groups performing research to develop new treatments and possibly a cure. One new study, conducted on mice by researchers at MIT's Howard Hughes Medical Institute (with its findings published in the journal "Nature") offers exciting treatment possibilities.

Researchers have already discovered that a protein called p25 is linked to neurodegeneration found in Alzheimer's and similar diseases. The mice used in the MIT study are engineered so that the p25 gene can be turned on whenever the scientists desire. When the p25 gene is on, the mice develop a condition similar to Alzheimer's, characterized by a loss of neurons and brain atrophy.

Before activating the gene, the researchers, led by neuroscientist Dr. Li-Huei Tsai, taught the mice to associate a chamber with an electric shock -- called a "fear-conditioning test" -- and to navigate a maze. After the mice learned these tasks, the gene was turned on and the illness induced. It only took six weeks for the illness to erase the memories of the mice. They could no longer remember how to avoid being shocked or how to maneuver the maze with success.

Prior to this study, scientists already knew that a stimulating environment can promote learning in mice. However, they didn't know the effect of this type of environment on mice experiencing long-term memory loss (six weeks is "long-term" for a mouse). To test the effects of environmental cues on the mice, half the population was moved to a new habitat complete with engaging elements, including toys, exercise wheels and additional mice.The other group of mice was kept in an environment without any stimulation. After four weeks, the mice in the stimulating environment could remember the shock test and maze better than the mice in the non-stimulating environment. They could also learn new tasks better.

For Dr. Tsai and her team, the results were encouraging and pointed to a new possibility for the treatment of Alzheimer's disease. While the stimulation in mice didn't regenerate neurons, the treatment did promote the growth of new connections between existing ones. In other words, the neural networks of the stimulated mice re-established connections to previously "lost" memories. Dr. Tsai described the treatment as "actually rewiring the brain" [Source: Atlanta Journal Constitution].

A second part of the study conducted by Dr. Tsai's team involved treating mice experiencing neurodegeneration with a drug called an HDAC inhibitor. These drugs are usually used to treat cancer and have not been used on Alzheimer's patients. The mice treated with the HDAC inhibitors did better on memory-dependent tasks than the control group. According to Dr. Tsai, more research must be done to understand the effect before this therapy is tried on people. Her team is going to conduct further research to explore how these drugs work.

Both treatments by the MIT team are intriguing, especially because they achieved similar results. The big breakthrough is that memories lost to Alzheimer's disease don't appear to be actually "lost.". They still exist in the patient's brain and simply need to be accessed by "regrowing" the neural pathways leading to them. The ability of sick mice to learn new tasks also offers hope to people with advanced Alzheimer's. Even if memories can't be fully recovered, it may be possible to boost their learning capacity and their ability to form new memories. If the study's results are reproduced in human patients, it will go a long way towards turning Alzheimer's into a treatable, manageable illness. Much like some types of cancer, Alzheimer's could one day be, if not curable, a disease that people can live with for a long time and in relative peace and comfort.

For more information about this study and about Alzheimer's disease, please consult the links on the next page.