5 New Alzheimer's Genes: Is This Big News?

Contributed by: Dennis Fortier, President, Medical Care Corporation

This is definitely big news.  But how do you define "big" as it pertains to news?

If you base your opinion on the amount of press coverage devoted to a story, and the prominence of the media outlets covering it, then the recent announcement that researcehrs have discovered 5 new genes associated with Alzheimer's disease is, indeed, "big" news.

However, it is not always clear why a story is big or important, and this often leads to misinterpretations about what a story might mean.  With regard to the 5 new genes, I think the importance lies in the fact that, every new piece of explanatory data can help us understand Alzheimer's disease.

If you read the story and thought it meant that now we can tell who will get AD, you probably read too much into the discovery.  If you thought it meant that we now know how to treat AD, you definitely read too much into the disovery.

AD is a very complex and poorly understood disease.    Scientists have not yet isolated its cause, nor have they clearly mapped the progression of the multiple biological processes that unfold as the disease advances.  There are some consistent elements, like an accumulation of beta-amyloid protein in the brain, and a falling ratio of amyloid/tau proteins in the blood and spinal fluid.  We also generally see shrinkage of certain parts of the brain relative to others, and cognitive decline that usually begins with deficits in short-term memory.

But where it all begins, and which conditions lead to the next, is not clear.  There may be important metabolic processes, chemical changes, immune responses, and inflammatory mechanisms that all play roles in how Alzheimer's progresses.   Finding 5 new genes, with significant correlations to this disease, opens the door to better understanding which of these processes are most likely playing important roles.

To be clear, the better understanding we hope for, will require further work. The thought is that we can figure out what these 5 genes do, and that will tell us which processes might be most important to study as a means of understanding AD.  As you can imagine, that might be a long road.

I think it is great that we have gained new clarity about the possible genetic underpinnings of Alzheimer's disease.  But this is a big news story because it will help us focus future research toward a better understanding of the disease, not because we have unlocked any immediate secrets for better diagnoses or treatments.

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