You can’t always trust the headlines. Most journalists summarized the February 7 issue of Nature, quoted by HealthCentral, as a report that amyloid plaques, considered the main sign of Alzheimer’s disease, can form in one day in laboratory mice. That was interesting, That attracted the readers. That frightened many readers. It wasn’t the whole story.
According to Scientific American, the real story may be the opposite of what many readers expected. The real story revolves, in part, around the question, “Does amyloid plaque cause Alzheimer’s disease? Or does Alzheimer’s disease cause amyloid plaque?”
At least one doctor cautioned that, despite the headlines, the researchers weren’t saying that Alzheimer’s disease can form in one day. Alzheimer’s disease develops more slowly. The study found that soon after the plaque appeared, specialized cells called microglia appeared. Doctors wonder if microglia might actually fight the growth of plaque. Glial cells seemed to fill in spaces to stop further plaque formation.
As it turns out, says the study’s co-author Bradley Hyman, they didn’t see malformed neurons before the plaque appeared, but only after. Hyman is director of the Alzheimer’s Unit at Massachusetts General’s Institute for Neurodegenerative Disease, and his researchers decided that the plaque was causing the neurological damage, not the other way around. So this study seems to have answered one of the most important questions that Alzheimer’s disease researchers have been asking.
The real point of the research is not shock but hope. The story was not a warning that “you could get Alzheimer’s overnight!” but an inquiry into whether watching the formation of plaque can teach us what really causes the disease and how might it be prevented. And as the authors of The Myth of Alzheimer’s Disease have emphasized, not all dementia features the plaques and tangles of Alzheimer’s disease. Maybe dementia is the real monster.