While research shows that the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease increases with age, the big question for a biologist at Western University is why some people get the disease and others don’t.
Current experimental therapies for Alzheimer’s disease focus on reducing amyloid beta, a protein that accumulates in the brain with age. Until recently, researchers agreed that excess amyloid beta causes plaques that impair brain function and results in severe memory loss, the chief symptom that defines Alzheimer’s.
Robert Cumming, a biology professor at Western’s Faculty of Science, and his team have discovered that that some people can tolerate high levels of amyloid beta for many, many years without any memory loss. More importantly, the Western researchers have also discovered that the accelerated metabolic process (that makes cancer cells so deadly) seems to have a protective effect against Alzheimer’s.
“There’s definitely a link between your ability to regulate your metabolism and decreasing your risk for Alzheimer’s,” says Cumming.
Rewind to 2007. When a graduate student presented a paper on the Warburg Effect, Otto Warburg’s pioneering discovery in 1920 that accelerated metabolism gives cancer cells a distinct advantage, Cumming had a eureka moment. He saw the same pattern just five years earlier while working as a post-doctoral fellow at the Salk Institute in San Diego. After exposing brain cells to high levels of amyloid beta, the majority died. But some survived.
“The surviving cells were sugar-crazy and acted just like Warburg’s cancer cells,” he says, describing their accelerated metabolic activity.
Cumming is now studying whether or not the Warburg Effect applies to Alzheimer’s disease too by acting as a protective mechanism that makes brain cells resilient to toxins, the ravages of age, and, in theory, reduces Alzheimer’s.
“At this stage, we can’t say unequivocally that if you activate the Warburg Effect in your brain, you won’t get Alzheimer’s or cancer,” says Cumming. “It’s critical to understand if our hypothesis is correct before we turn this on.”
Cumming and his team are currently working with neuroimaging scientists at the Robarts Research Institute at Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry to prove their hypothesis in live models, some of which have been genetically modified to have Alzheimer’s.
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