Study Sheds Light On What May Cause Alzheimer's Disease

Alzheimer's disease devastates not just those who suffer from it, but also their family and loved ones, who watch helplessly as the condition takes its toll. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of Alzheimer's, however, is the question of its cause; why do some people get it, while others retain their mental faculties late in life?

A study published on Wednesday in the journal Nature suggests that the answer may be a protein previously thought to function only in fetuses, but which researchers now say may protect the brain later in life. The protein, called repressor element 1-silencing transcription factor (REST) appears to be lost in patients with Alzheimer's and other mild cognitive impairment. Here's The New York Times on the essential role this protein may play:

REST, a regulator that switches off certain genes, is primarily known to keep fetal neurons in an immature state until they develop to perform brain functions, said Dr. Bruce A. Yankner, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and the lead author of the new study. By the time babies are born, REST becomes inactive, he said, except in some areas outside the brain like the colon, where it seems to suppress cancer. While investigating how different genes in the brain change as people age, Dr. Yankner’s team was startled to find that REST was the most active gene regulator in older brains.

Before you start jumping for joy, thinking the secret to Alzheimer's has been unlocked, it's worth noting that these findings are preliminary. While diminished REST may lead to Alzheimer's, doctors still lack the ability to detect levels of the protein in living patients. Still, hope is on the horizon for anyone who may contract Alzheimer's in the future. Until then, you might want to reconsider your grain consumption.

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