Advances in Alzheimer’s Prevention Made Possible by Genomics

"Cognitive intelligence" courtesy of ddpavumba via freedigitalphotos.net.
“Cognitive intelligence” courtesy of ddpavumba via freedigitalphotos.net.

In 2013, more than 5 million people in the United States were living with Alzheimer’s disease. That number is expected to triple by 2050. Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, and can be an emotional drain on family members of those affected. Treatments can slow or delay symptoms, but there is no known cure. Researchers believe Alzheimer’s has a genetic component, and have found 1621 genes associated with the disease, including 149 genome wide association studies (GWAS, the gold standard for genetic research). Based on these findings, some clinics have implemented Alzheimer’s prevention programs for patient’s with a family history of dementia.

Doctor Richard Isaacson, director of New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center’s Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic, often sees patients who seem out of place in an Alzheimer’s clinic, reports the Wall Street Journal. 30 or 40 something, fit and health-conscious patients. The difference is a family history of dementia lead these patients to seek Dr. Isaacson’s consultation. Isaacson recommends a wide range of interventions, most often lifestyle changes like diet, exercise, and playing a musical instrument. All of these have been shown to improve cognitive function later in life. One patient referenced in the WSJ article had a genetic test done through the clinic that found two gene mutations that lead to an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

Meanwhile, more research is being conducted in order to better understand how our lifestyle choices and genes affect risk for Alzheimer’s. A large scale study at the Mayo Clinic’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center has been measuring health, cognitive function, diet, gait, and other factors in 4,000 randomly selected people aged 50-89. Gene sequencing is also performed on the participants. By tracking which patients develop Alzheimer’s or some form of dementia, researchers will be able to build a more complete risk profile for the disease based on a person’s genotype. Researchers have been tracking this cohort of patients for 10 years so far. The data generated from the study is currently being reviewed for publication in a medical journal.

Promoting brain health is fast becoming an essential part of public health. The science of the brain is complex and is a long way from being completely understood, but real associations are being made between our genes and cognitive function. The demand for medical guidance on preventative measures that allow people to keep their brain healthy is high, as shown by clinics like Dr. Isaacson’s.  With so many genes associated with risk for Alzheimer’s, a whole exome test is essential in understanding a person’s risk completely. Interventions promoting a healthy mind will become routine as a comprehensive genomic test, such as the one New Amsterdam Genomics provides, become more widespread.

-Josh

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