Alzheimer's disease (AD), also called Alzheimer disease, senile dementia of the Alzheimer type, primary degenerative dementia of the Alzheimer's type, or simply Alzheimer's, is the most common form of dementia. This incurable, degenerative, and terminal disease was first described by German psychiatrist and neuropathologist Alois Alzheimer in 1906 and was named after him. Most often, it is diagnosed in people over 65 years of age, although the less-prevalent early-onset Alzheimer's can occur much earlier. In 2006, there were 26.6 million sufferers worldwide. Alzheimer's is predicted to affect 1 in 85 people globally by 2050.
Although the course of Alzheimer's disease is unique for every individual, there are many common symptoms. The earliest observable symptoms are often mistakenly thought to be 'age-related' concerns, or manifestations of stress. In the early stages, the most common symptom is inability to acquire new memories, observed as difficulty in recalling recently observed events. When AD is suspected, the diagnosis is usually confirmed with behavioural assessments and cognitive tests, often followed by a brain scan if available.
As the disease advances, symptoms include confusion, irritability and aggression, mood swings, language breakdown, long-term memory loss, and the general withdrawal of the sufferer as their senses decline. Gradually, bodily functions are lost, ultimately leading to death. Individual prognosis is difficult to assess, as the duration of the disease varies. AD develops for an indeterminate period of time before becoming fully apparent, and it can progress undiagnosed for years. The mean life expectancy following diagnosis is approximately seven years. Fewer than three percent of individuals live more than fourteen years after diagnosis.
The cause and progression of Alzheimer's disease are not well understood. Research indicates that the disease is associated with plaques and tangles in the brain. Currently used treatments offer a small symptomatic benefit; no treatments to delay or halt the progression of the disease are, as of yet, available. As of 2008[update], more than 500 clinical trials have been conducted for identification of a possible treatment for AD, but it is unknown if any of the tested intervention strategies will show promising results. A number of non-invasive, life-style habits have been suggested for the prevention of Alzheimer's disease, but there is a lack of adequate evidence for a link between these recommendations and reduced degeneration. Mental stimulation, exercise, and a balanced diet are suggested, as both a possible prevention and a sensible way of managing the disease.
Because AD cannot be cured and is degenerative, management of patients is essential. The role of the main caregiver is often taken by the spouse or a close relative. Alzheimer's disease is known for placing a great burden on caregivers; the pressures can be wide-ranging, involving social, psychological, physical, and economic elements of the caregiver's life. In developed countries, AD is one of the most costly diseases to society.
The first symptoms are often mistakenly attributed to aging or stress. Detailed neuropsychological testing can reveal mild cognitive difficulties up to eight years before a person fulfills the clinical criteria for diagnosis of AD. These early symptoms can affect the most complex daily living activities. The most noticeable deficit is memory loss, which shows up as difficulty in remembering recently learned facts and inability to acquire new information.
Subtle problems with the executive functions of attentiveness, planning, flexibility, and abstract thinking, or impairments in semantic memory (memory of meanings, and concept relationships) can also be symptomatic of the early stages of AD. Apathy can be observed at this stage, and remains the most persistent neuropsychiatric symptom throughout the course of the disease. The preclinical stage of the disease has also been termed mild cognitive impairment, but whether this term corresponds to a different diagnostic stage or identifies the first step of AD is a matter of dispute.
In people with AD the increasing impairment of learning and memory eventually leads to a definitive diagnosis. In a small portion of them, difficulties with language, executive functions, perception (agnosia), or execution of movements (apraxia) are more prominent than memory problems. AD does not affect all memory capacities equally. Older memories of the person's life (episodic memory), facts learned (semantic memory), and implicit memory (the memory of the body on how to do things, such as using a fork to eat) are affected to a lesser degree than new facts or memories.
Language problems are mainly characterised by a shrinking vocabulary and decreased word fluency, which lead to a general impoverishment of oral and written language. In this stage, the person with Alzheimer's is usually capable of adequately communicating basic ideas. While performing fine motor tasks such as writing, drawing or dressing, certain movement coordination and planning difficulties (apraxia) may be present but they are commonly unnoticed. As the disease progresses, people with AD can often continue to perform many tasks independently, but may need assistance or supervision with the most cognitively demanding activities.
Progressive deterioration eventually hinders independence; with subjects being unable to perform most common activities of daily living. Speech difficulties become evident due to an inability to recall vocabulary, which leads to frequent incorrect word substitutions (paraphasias). Reading and writing skills are also progressively lost. Complex motor sequences become less coordinated as time passes and AD progresses, so the risk of falling increases. During this phase, memory problems worsen, and the person may fail to recognise close relatives. Long-term memory, which was previously intact, becomes impaired.
Behavioural and neuropsychiatric changes become more prevalent. Common manifestations are wandering, irritability and labile affect, leading to crying, outbursts of unpremeditated aggression, or resistance to caregiving. Sundowning can also appear. Approximately 30% of patients develop illusionary misidentifications and other delusional symptoms. Subjects also lose insight of their disease process and limitations (anosognosia). Urinary incontinence can develop. These symptoms create stress for relatives and caretakers, which can be reduced by moving the person from home care to other long-term care facilities.
During this last stage of AD, the patient is completely dependent upon caregivers. Language is reduced to simple phrases or even single words, eventually leading to complete loss of speech. Despite the loss of verbal language abilities, patients can often understand and return emotional signals. Although aggressiveness can still be present, extreme apathy and exhaustion are much more common results. Patients will ultimately not be able to perform even the simplest tasks without assistance. Muscle mass and mobility deteriorate to the point where they are bedridden, and they lose the ability to feed themselves. AD is a terminal illness, with the cause of death typically being an external factor, such as infection of pressure ulcers or pneumonia, not the disease itself.
Several competing hypotheses exist trying to explain the cause of the disease. The oldest, on which most currently available drug therapies are based, is the cholinergic hypothesis, which proposes that AD is caused by reduced synthesis of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. The cholinergic hypothesis has not maintained widespread support, largely because medications intended to treat acetylcholine deficiency have not been very effective. Other cholinergic effects have also been proposed, for example, initiation of large-scale aggregation of amyloid, leading to generalised neuroinflammation.
In 1991, the amyloid hypothesis postulated that amyloid beta (Aβ) deposits are the fundamental cause of the disease. Support for this postulate comes from the location of the gene for the amyloid beta precursor protein (APP) on chromosome 21, together with the fact that people with trisomy 21 (Down Syndrome) who have an extra gene copy almost universally exhibit AD by 40 years of age. Also APOE4, the major genetic risk factor for AD, leads to excess amyloid buildup in the brain before AD symptoms arise. Thus, Aβ deposition precedes clinical AD. Further evidence comes from the finding that transgenic mice that express a mutant form of the human APP gene develop fibrillar amyloid plaques and Alzheimer's-like brain pathology with spatial learning deficits.
An experimental vaccine was found to clear the amyloid plaques in early human trials, but it did not have any significant effect on dementia. Researchers have been led to suspect non-plaque Aβ oligomers (aggregates of many monomers) as the primary pathogenic form of Aβ. These toxic oligomers, also referred to as amyloid-derived diffusible ligands (ADDLs), bind to a surface receptor on neurons and change the structure of the synapse, thereby disrupting neuronal communication. One receptor for Aβ oligomers may be the prion protein, the same protein that has been linked to mad cow disease and the related human condition, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, thus potentially linking the underlying mechanism of these neurodegenerative disorders with that of Alzheimer's disease.
In 2009, this theory was updated, suggesting that a close relative of the beta-amyloid protein, and not necessarily the beta-amyloid itself, may be a major culprit in the disease. The theory holds that an amyloid-related mechanism that prunes neuronal connections in the brain in the fast-growth phase of early life may be triggered by aging-related processes in later life to cause the neuronal withering of Alzheimer's disease. N-APP, a fragment of APP from the peptide's N-terminus, is adjacent to beta-amyloid and is cleaved from APP by one of the same enzymes. N-APP triggers the self-destruct pathway by binding to a neuronal receptor called death receptor 6 (DR6, also known as TNFRSF21). DR6 is highly expressed in the human brain regions most affected by Alzheimer's, so it is possible that the N-APP/DR6 pathway might be hijacked in the aging brain to cause damage. In this model, beta-amyloid plays a complementary role, by depressing synaptic function.
A 2004 study found that deposition of amyloid plaques does not correlate well with neuron loss. This observation supports the tau hypothesis, the idea that tau protein abnormalities initiate the disease cascade. In this model, hyperphosphorylated tau begins to pair with other threads of tau. Eventually, they form neurofibrillary tangles inside nerve cell bodies. When this occurs, the microtubules disintegrate, collapsing the neuron's transport system. This may result first in malfunctions in biochemical communication between neurons and later in the death of the cells. Herpes simplex virus type 1 has also been proposed to play a causative role in people carrying the susceptible versions of the apoE gene.
Another hypothesis asserts that the disease may be caused by age-related myelin breakdown in the brain. Demyelination leads to axonal transport disruptions, leading to loss of neurons that become stale. Iron released during myelin breakdown is hypothesized to cause further damage. Homeostatic myelin repair processes contribute to the development of proteinaceous deposits such as amyloid-beta and tau.
Oxidative stress and dys-homeostasis of biometal (biology) metabolism may be significant in the formation of the pathology.
AD individuals show 70% loss of locus coeruleus cells that provide norepinephrine (in addition to its neurotransmitter role) that locally diffuses from "varicosities" as an endogenous antiinflammatory agent in the microenvironment around the neurons, glial cells, and blood vessels in the neocortex and hippocampus. It has been shown that norepinephrine stimulates mouse microglia to suppress Aβ-induced production of cytokines and their phagocytosis of Aβ. This suggests that degeneration of the locus ceruleus might be responsible for increased Aβ deposition in AD brains.
Alzheimer's disease is characterised by loss of neurons and synapses in the cerebral cortex and certain subcortical regions. This loss results in gross atrophy of the affected regions, including degeneration in the temporal lobe and parietal lobe, and parts of the frontal cortex and cingulate gyrus. Studies using MRI and PET have documented reductions in the size of specific brain regions in patients as they progressed from mild cognitive impairment to Alzheimer's disease, and in comparison with similar images from healthy older adults.
Both amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles are clearly visible by microscopy in brains of those afflicted by AD. Plaques are dense, mostly insoluble deposits of amyloid-beta peptide and cellular material outside and around neurons. Tangles (neurofibrillary tangles) are aggregates of the microtubule-associated protein tau which has become hyperphosphorylated and accumulate inside the cells themselves. Although many older individuals develop some plaques and tangles as a consequence of aging, the brains of AD patients have a greater number of them in specific brain regions such as the temporal lobe. Lewy bodies are not rare in AD patient's brains.
Alzheimer's disease has been identified as a protein misfolding disease (proteopathy), caused by accumulation of abnormally folded A-beta and tau proteins in the brain. Plaques are made up of small peptides, 39–43 amino acids in length, called beta-amyloid (also written as A-beta or Aβ). Beta-amyloid is a fragment from a larger protein called amyloid precursor protein (APP), a transmembrane protein that penetrates through the neuron's membrane. APP is critical to neuron growth, survival and post-injury repair. In Alzheimer's disease, an unknown process causes APP to be divided into smaller fragments by enzymes through proteolysis. One of these fragments gives rise to fibrils of beta-amyloid, which form clumps that deposit outside neurons in dense formations known as senile plaques.
AD is also considered a tauopathy due to abnormal aggregation of the tau protein. Every neuron has a cytoskeleton, an internal support structure partly made up of structures called microtubules. These microtubules act like tracks, guiding nutrients and molecules from the body of the cell to the ends of the axon and back. A protein called tau stabilizes the microtubules when phosphorylated, and is therefore called a microtubule-associated protein. In AD, tau undergoes chemical changes, becoming hyperphosphorylated; it then begins to pair with other threads, creating neurofibrillary tangles and disintegrating the neuron's transport system.
Exactly how disturbances of production and aggregation of the beta amyloid peptide gives rise to the pathology of AD is not known. The amyloid hypothesis traditionally points to the accumulation of beta amyloid peptides as the central event triggering neuron degeneration. Accumulation of aggregated amyloid fibrils, which are believed to be the toxic form of the protein responsible for disrupting the cell's calcium ion homeostasis, induces programmed cell death (apoptosis). It is also known that Aβ selectively builds up in the mitochondria in the cells of Alzheimer's-affected brains, and it also inhibits certain enzyme functions and the utilisation of glucose by neurons.
Various inflammatory processes and cytokines may also have a role in the pathology of Alzheimer's disease. Inflammation is a general marker of tissue damage in any disease, and may be either secondary to tissue damage in AD or a marker of an immunological response.
Alterations in the distribution of different neurotrophic factors and in the expression of their receptors such as the brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) have been described in AD.
The vast majority of cases of Alzheimer's disease are sporadic, meaning that they are not genetically inherited although some genes may act as risk factors. On the other hand, around 0.1% of the cases are familial forms of autosomal-dominant inheritance, which usually have an onset before age 65.
Most of autosomal dominant familial AD can be attributed to mutations in one of three genes: amyloid precursor protein (APP) and presenilins 1 and 2. Most mutations in the APP and presenilin genes increase the production of a small protein called Aβ42, which is the main component of senile plaques. Some of the mutations merely alter the ratio between Aβ42 and the other major forms—e.g., Aβ40—without increasing Aβ42 levels. This suggests that presenilin mutations can cause disease even if they lower the total amount of Aβ produced and may point to other roles of presenilin or a role for alterations in the function of APP and/or its fragments other than Aβ.
Most cases of Alzheimer's disease do not exhibit autosomal-dominant inheritance and are termed sporadic AD. Nevertheless genetic differences may act as risk factors. The best known genetic risk factor is the inheritance of the ε4 allele of the apolipoprotein E (APOE). Between 40 and 80% of patients with AD possess at least one apoE4 allele. The APOE4 allele increases the risk of the disease by three times in heterozygotes and by 15 times in homozygotes. Geneticists agree that numerous other genes also act as risk factors or have protective effects that influence the development of late onset Alzheimer's disease. Over 400 genes have been tested for association with late-onset sporadic AD, most with null results.
Alzheimer's disease is usually diagnosed clinically from the patient history, collateral history from relatives, and clinical observations, based on the presence of characteristic neurological and neuropsychological features and the absence of alternative conditions. Advanced medical imaging with computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and with single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) or positron emission tomography (PET) can be used to help exclude other cerebral pathology or subtypes of dementia. Moreover, it may predict conversion from prodromal stages (mild cognitive impairment) to Alzheimer's disease.
Assessment of intellectual functioning including memory testing can further characterise the state of the disease. Medical organisations have created diagnostic criteria to ease and standardise the diagnostic process for practicing physicians. The diagnosis can be confirmed with very high accuracy post-mortem when brain material is available and can be examined histologically.
The National Institute of Neurological and Communicative Disorders and Stroke (NINCDS) and the Alzheimer's Disease and Related Disorders Association (ADRDA, now known as the Alzheimer's Association) established the most commonly used NINCDS-ADRDA Alzheimer's Criteria for diagnosis in 1984, extensively updated in 2007. These criteria require that the presence of cognitive impairment, and a suspected dementia syndrome, be confirmed by neuropsychological testing for a clinical diagnosis of possible or probable AD. A histopathologic confirmation including a microscopic examination of brain tissue is required for a definitive diagnosis. Good statistical reliability and validity have been shown between the diagnostic criteria and definitive histopathological confirmation. Eight cognitive domains are most commonly impaired in AD—memory, language, perceptual skills, attention, constructive abilities, orientation, problem solving and functional abilities. These domains are equivalent to the NINCDS-ADRDA Alzheimer's Criteria as listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) published by the American Psychiatric Association.
Although cardiovascular risk factors, such as hypercholesterolemia, hypertension, diabetes, and smoking, are associated with a higher risk of onset and course of AD, statins, which are cholesterol lowering drugs, have not been effective in preventing or improving the course of the disease. The components of a Mediterranean diet, which include fruit and vegetables, bread, wheat and other cereals, olive oil, fish, and red wine, may all individually or together reduce the risk and course of Alzheimer's disease. Its beneficial cardiovascular effect has been proposed as the mechanism of action. There is limited evidence that light to moderate use of alcohol, particularly red wine, is associated with lower risk of AD.
Reviews on the use of vitamins have not found enough evidence of efficacy to recommend vitamin C, or folic acid with or without vitamin B12, as preventive or treatment agents in AD. Additionally vitamin E is associated with important health risks. Trials examining folic acid (B9) and other B vitamins failed to show any significant association with cognitive decline. Docosahexaenoic acid, an Omega 3 fatty acid, has not been found to slow decline.
Long-term usage of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAIDs) is associated with a reduced likelihood of developing AD. Human postmortem studies, in animal models, or in vitro investigations also support the notion that NSAIDs can reduce inflammation related to amyloid plaques. However trials investigating their use as palliative treatment have failed to show positive results while no prevention trial has been completed. Curcumin from the curry spice turmeric has shown some effectiveness in preventing brain damage in mouse models due to its anti-inflammatory properties. Hormone replacement therapy, although previously used, is no longer thought to prevent dementia and in some cases may even be related to it. There is inconsistent and unconvincing evidence that ginkgo has any positive effect on cognitive impairment and dementia, and a recent study concludes that it has no effect in reducing the rate of AD incidence. A 21-year study found that coffee drinkers of 3–5 cups per day at midlife had a 65% reduction in risk of dementia in late-life.
People who engage in intellectual activities such as reading, playing board games, completing crossword puzzles, playing musical instruments, or regular social interaction show a reduced risk for Alzheimer's disease. This is compatible with the cognitive reserve theory, which states that some life experiences result in more efficient neural functioning providing the individual a cognitive reserve that delays the onset of dementia manifestations. Education delays the onset of AD syndrome, but is not related to earlier death after diagnosis. Learning a second language even later in life seems to delay getting Alzheimer disease. Physical activity is also associated with a reduced risk of AD.
Medical marijuana appears to be effective in delaying Alzheimer's Disease. The active ingredient in marijuana, THC, prevents the formation of deposits in the brain associated with Alzheimer's disease. THC was found to inhibit acetylcholinesterase more effectively than commercially marketed drugs. THC was also found to delay amylogenesis.
Some studies have shown an increased risk of developing AD with environmental factors such the intake of metals, particularly aluminium, or exposure to solvents. The quality of some of these studies has been criticised, and other studies have concluded that there is no relationship between these environmental factors and the development of AD.
While some studies suggest that extremely low frequency electromagnetic fields may increase the risk for Alzheimer's disease, reviewers found that further epidemiological and laboratory investigations of this hypothesis are needed. Smoking is a significant AD risk factor. Systemic markers of the innate immune system are risk factors for late-onset AD.