Genetic risk for Alzheimer’s and brain structure

Now is an exciting time for Alzheimer’s research. Although we are very far from discovering a cure, we are learning more and more each day about how this terrible disease works, leading us closer to better treatments and preventative measures. For example, we know that a certain part of one gene, the E4 allele of ApoE, is associated with an increased risk for Alzheimer’s, and this allele is also related to changes in grey brain matter (the tissue in the brain that has most of the synapses).

The E4 allele of ApoE is a risk factor,
but not a determinant of Alzheimer’s.
Photo: © Tatiana53 | 
Stock Free Images

A study just published in PLOS ONE measured volumes of different brain structures in healthy, middle-aged people, who either had the E4 allele of the ApoE gene (carriers) or didn’t have it (non-carriers). The carriers had smaller hippocampi than non-carriers, especially on the right side. The hippocampus is a brain structure that is really important for memory function, so it makes sense that people who may be at genetic risk for Alzheimer’s have decreased volume in this structure. What is interesting about this study is that they are able to see this specific abnormality before people become sick, when they are still young and healthy. This means a lot for future directions of preventative treatments in this area.

Other recent research has used this design to examine functional brain differences in people that carry this gene, too. This is a great area of research and a good direction for scientists to focus on, however, it’s important to remember that although having this allele is a risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s, it is not a determinant. People who do not have this allele may also develop Alzheimer’s. We have a lot to do to understand how E4 works in the pathology of this disease. You can help by donating (Australia, USA, UK).

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