News on Wellness

Down Syndrome Persons at Risk for Developing Alzheimer’s

down-syndromeA new study conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison was used to look at how a brain protein called amyloid-beta in adults with Down syndrome makes them more susceptible to developing Alzheimer’s. For years, experts believed the link between this protein commonly associated with Alzheimer’s disease and the impact on cognition and memory was understood but now, they feel differently.

The study conducted at the university’s Waisman Center involved some of the country’s top experts to include Sigan Hartley, study author and assistant professor of human development and family studies at Waisman and Brad Christian, director of PET Physics in the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior, as well as associate professor of medical physics and psychiatry with the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Together, these researchers were able to uncover additional information pertaining to the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. In particular, they focused on the role that the amyloid-beta protein in adults with Down syndrome plays in the development of Alzheimer’s, with findings of the study published in the current issue of the Brain journal.

According to Hartley, the goal of the study was to gain a better understanding of how this protein affects cognitive function and memory. With the information gathered, researchers hope not only to understand the earliest stages of the disease but also find methods of prevention and effective treatment.

In addition to helping scientists understand Alzheimer’s and its impact on people with Down syndrome, experts believe the findings will prove relevant to adults without this genetic syndrome. As of today, many questions remain unanswered such as when does this protein, along with changes in the brain, start to compromise cognition and memory but also, why certain people are more resistant than others.

Scientific experts from the University of Wisconsin-Madison collaborated with scientists from the University of Pittsburgh to study 63 healthy adults living with Down syndrome. These participants ranged in age between 30 and 53 and did not display any clinical signs of Alzheimer’s, as well as other forms of Dementia. Researchers discovered that the level of amyloid-beta protein was elevated in many of the adults with Down syndrome. However, these individuals did not suffer from the expected consequences of a high protein level.

During the two-day study, Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) was used along with Position Emission Tomography (PET) to capture images of the brains in participants. Of the 63 people involved 22 displayed high levels of the amyloid-beta protein yet there was no evidence of compromised cognitive function or memory compared to the individuals who did not have an elevated level of amyloid-beta.

As part of the study, researchers controlled for both intellectual level and age differences and when the participants were assessed as a continuous measure, levels of the protein showed no ties to difference in cognitive ability or memory, to include things like language, attention, visual, and verbal memory.

Harley and Christian also worked closely with Marsha Mailick, the interim chancellor for research and graduate education, as well as Elizabeth M. Boggs, professor and investigator for the university’s Alzheimer’s disease Research Center. Researchers plan to follow the 63 adults who participated in the study for several years, tracking both the levels of the amyloid-beta protein and its effect over a longer period of time.

Overall, almost every adult with Down syndrome over the age of 50 shows neuropathology of Alzheimer’s disease, to include the amyloid-beta protein disposition.

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