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Sunday, December 8, 2013

Rock the Cradle—and Check for Alzheimer’s

When we hold a newborn baby in our arms, we look into his or her eyes and wonder what kind of life is ahead for this new being. Our job as parents is to protect our children and keep them from harm. We shower them with love and envision how their future can reach greater heights than we ever did.

We worry about the little things—stomach aches that make the baby uncomfortable and makes him cry. We may worry about childhood diseases and make appointments for immunizations.

Unless a family has a serious inherited genetic disease, most parents don’t worry about what diseases their newborn might face later in life. Now, a new study may add to the list of new parental worries. Researchers have been looking for Alzheimer’s in the most unlikely place—in the brains of infants.

The tests on 62 infants aged 2-22 months began with a DNA test to determine which ones had the gene variant APOE-E4, a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. Sixty of the infants had the gene variant. MRI scans were used to measure activity in the infants’ brains to compare the infants without the variation to the ones with it.

Oddly enough, differences were observed in the brain scans of the infants. The infants with the APOE-E4 variant had an increased brain growth in the frontal part of the brain with less growth in the middle and back parts of the brain. This is similar to the brain activity in adults who have Alzheimer’s disease.

The type and number of copies a person has of the APOE (apolipoprotein E) allele is associated with the risk of developing late-onset Alzheimer’s. The APOE gene has several functions, including carrying blood cholesterol through the body. APOE is found in neurons and brain cells in healthy brains and in plaques in the Alzheimer’s brain. Three common alleles are E2, E3, and E4. E2 is thought to protect from Alzheimer’s, E3 (the most common) is thought to be neutral, and E4 is linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s. People with two E4 alleles, have a greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s, but may not develop the disease, just as people without any of the E4 variant may develop the disease.

The good news is that although these infants have the APOE-E4 variant, it doesn’t mean they will grow up to develop Alzheimer’s late in life. Even better, the infants with the variant didn’t show any developmental delays.

The study was intended to increase understanding of how the gene influences brain development. Sean Deoni, Brown University’s Advanced Baby Imaging Lab, said, “These results do not establish a direct link to the changes seen in Alzheimer’s patients, but with more research they may tell us something about how the gene contributes to Alzheimer’s risk later in life.”

The studies on infants is interesting and may be a piece of the puzzle when it comes to figuring out the genetic influence on Alzheimer’s. Just like any disease influenced by genetics, environment may be the key to provide an override of the gene pool and remaining healthy. Research shows that physical activity and good nutrition with healthy food choices can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Social interactions, puzzles and brain teasers are ways to keep your brain active.

Our children complete the circle of life. We hope they inherit our good traits and healthy genes and the risk-carrying genes are allowed to sink into infinity. When we rock the cradle, we need to worry less about genetic predispositions and concentrate on raising our children in a healthy environment.

Copyright (c) L. S. Fisher, December 2013
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