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Essay/Term paper: Alzheimer's disease

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Psychology

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Alzheimer's Disease

by: Michael Sang

Introduction to Alzheimer's

Alzheimer's disease is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain.
It is first described by the German neuropathologist Alois Alzheimer (1864-1915)
in 1905. This disease worsens with advancing age, although there is no evidence
that it is cause by the aging process.
The average life expectancy of a person with the disease is between five
and ten years, but some patients today can live up to 15 years due to
improvements in care and medical treatments. The cause of Alzheimer's has not
been discovered yet and it cannot be possible to confirm a person has
Alzheimer's until their autopsy following death.

How does Alzheimer's develop

What causes Alzheimer's? Well no one know exactly the development of
this debilitating disease. But recent advances has produced several clues as to
how it is born. Initially when we study the brain of a Alzheimer's victim, we
focus on two specific areas. One is the cortex of the frontal and cerebral
lobes1. The second is the hippocampus (meaning seahorses in Greek which it
resembles2) which is located below the cerebral cortex and responsible for
short-term memory. If we study samples of these two section, we would find three
irregularities which are not found in normal brain matter. These three are
called neurofibrillary tangles, neuritic plagues and granulovacuolar
A nerve cell has numerous axons and dendrites coming out of it. A
neurofibrillary tangle is when the neuron changes. A number of dendrites are
missing and the nucleus is filled with protein filaments resembling steel wool.
Although all elderly people has a few of these helix shaped bundles in
their brain for they are normal indicators of aging, Alzheimer's patients has
more than usual. Their presence usually in the frontal and temporal lobes is a
indication of AD.
Senile neuritic plagues are small round objects. They are masses of
amyloid protein material composed of residue left over from healthy nerve
endings that were broken off and decayed. Their presence near the cell further
indicates something gone wrong. Neuritic plaques is the best evidence for
diagnostics to make the determination of AD.
A third sign of neuron deterioration is granulovacuolar degeneration.
This is when fluid-filled vacuoles are seen crowding inside the nerve cell,
specifically in the triangular shaped cells of the hippocampus. This condition
can only be observed in carefully sliced, stain and analyzed brain tissue.
The cell having lost all it's dendrites and nucleus soon disintegrates
entirely, vanishing into the body's waste disposal system. With the depletion of
enough nerve material the brain actually shrinks, sometimes by as much as ten
percent5. The more cells the AD sufferer loses, the more mental functions he
loses. Soon the person will have limited motor skills. People who were once
witty and quick on their feet were reduced to the mental status of small

Diagnosis of Alzheimer's

How would you now if a person you knew has Alzheimer's? There are
certain telltale signs that point to it. There was one patient6 that was
convinced she was suffering from AD. As proof of her condition, she bought the a
meeting several recent newspaper clippings, which she began to quote from memory.
Obviously this person did not have the disease, she wouldn't have memorized
complex and lengthy information. But forgetting on a regular basis doesn't
indicate Alzheimer's either.

Stages of AD

In the initial stage, there is no clear evidence of memory trouble and
deterioration in brain functions. The individual performs well on exams that
test mental abilities (psychometric tests7) similar to those given to measure IQ.

In the second stage, the patient shows very mild memory problems with
difficulty in remembering names of friends. The changes at this point is still
very small. Occasionally, the patient might make a surprising statement such as
inquiring about the health of a friend who everyone knows, died years ago. Only
extensive psychometric testing can determine if the person's mental ability
changed. A close family member like a husband or wife might suspect something is
By the third stage, there is definite evidence of memory loss, which
might interfere with job performance, The person might have difficulty competing
a job that use to be routine. The person may avoid social situations because he
or she realizes there's a problem
In stage four there is clinical evidence of memory impairment when the
mental status is tested by doctors. The disease has now become obvious to the
family. A sign of this stage is when the patient keeps asking the same question
which has already been answered, this make daily companionship difficult because
his friends and family are frustrated.
By stage 5, the patient show problems with both recent and past memories,
they even forget events that are important like Christmas, birthdays,
friendships and interests. Judgment is failing, the individual is no longer able
to select clothes for a particular weather of season and cannot match items by
color. Eventually, the victim of AD may leave the water running, the stove on,
or the front door open. At this point wandering becomes a major problem.
In stage six, understanding of languages diminishes and simple commands
aren't understood. Victims may go back to their first language if they have one.
Eventually languages disappear entirely.
In stage seven or the terminal stage, the victim becomes bedridden and
totally dependent for all functions. He cannot speak coherently and can't eat
unassisted. Death usually occurs at this stage form aspiration pneumonia8,
pneumonia caused by breathing in food or other objects because the victim
doesn't remember how to swallow food safely, or from urinary infections.

Recent Research on Alzheimer's

Some progress has been made in understanding the nature of the
Alzheimer's disease. Scientists has recently found medicine that can slow down
the progress of AD. The average survival period from the time of diagnosis to
death in 1985 is 10 years. Today the rate has increase a third to 15 years9.
A recent media release stated the discovery of a mutant gene called
"triplet repeat" disease genes10. These genes produce proteins that may block
from properly functioning key enzymes that are important to the production of
energy in the brain. This gene was found in several diseases like AD,
Huntingtons, and Haw River Syndrome as well as three other rare neurological
Another press release from the Alzheimer's Association is one concerning
the new study of an important advance toward early detection of AD11. "Through
investigations such as these, in addition to those involving apolipoprotien E
(APOE), positron emission tomography (PET), and other approaches, we will
improve our ability for accurate detection of individual at risks for the
disease"12 said Zaven Khachaturian Ph.D., director of the Alzheimer's
Association's Ronald and Nancy Reagan Research Institute.
Among the drugs being tested to treat AD are -Cholinergic agents:
choline, lecithin, and the agonist (RS 86, arecholine, and bethanechol) -
Peptides: vasopressin, ACTH 4-10, naloxone -Nootropic agents: pramiracetem, CI
911, Praxilene, Oxiratem -other general drugs: chelating agents, Nimodipine,
Vinpocetine13 most of these are still in experimental stages. Some has proved to
work slightly but is generally unsafe, others has tested safe but not beneficial,
but none has been both. People who offer "cures" to Alzheimer's are either
frauds or ignorant14.
When people realizes that AD is a serious disease, perhaps as much as
HIV, then maybe they will pay attention. The reason why there hasn't been a cure
is because scientists tries to attract grants by working on a problem that
people think is serious and controversial. If there was as much attention that
was paid to AIDS as there was in AD, then maybe there will be an answer.


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