Alzheimer’s disease is infamous for its devastating impact on memory, bringing significant mental and emotional stress to patients and their families. But scientists at the University of Buffalo believe they’re one step closer to reversing memory loss.
Research published Wednesday in the journal Brain shows a possible solution by focusing on the emerging field of neurobiology called epigenetics.
“The epigenetic process is like a switch — it can switch genes on or switch genes off,” Dr. Zhen Yan, senior study author and professor in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, tells The Post.
“During the aging process. . . some genes need to be turned on, and some turned off.” When there are abnormalities in epigenetic processes, says Yan, “you [may] have an over-expression of harmful genes or the loss of the useful genes.”
Yan’s team studied mice with genetic markers for Alzheimer’s, as well as brain tissue from deceased patients. In both mice and human brain tissue, scientists discovered a drop in receptors for glutamate, a neurotransmitter in the brain necessary for both learning and short-term memory retention. The researchers attribute this loss to an “elevation” of proteins responsible for suppressing glutamate receptor maintenance, otherwise known as repressive histone modifiers.
Histone modifications are directed by enzymes. For the study, chemists developed a drug to help control these modifications, and injected lab mice with the compound three times over three days. This led to restored memory function for about one week, which Yan says was confirmed by evaluating a number of memory tests.
Yan believes epigenetic drugs may be able to help reverse memory loss in those already in the throes of the disease, rather than trying to prevent the onset of the disease. Yan says patients don’t usually seek treatment for symptoms they don’t yet have.
Yan notes that epigenetic treatments are already being used to help cancer patients. She hopes future studies will help determine “disease-specific abnormalities” to create more targeted drugs, as well as longer- lasting methods for treating memory loss. First, though, the drugs need to be tested on people. Says Yan, “We hope there are physicians that will try the clinical studies on human patients.”