SAN DIEGO — A new discovery could bring scientists a step closer to curing Alzheimer's disease.
Annie Alessio describes her mom, Carol Alessio, as a woman so vibrant her smile could light up a room and command attention. Carol's love for her family was rivaled only by her loyalty to her country and her obsession with Elvis Presley.
“When wasn’t she in love with Elvis," Annie Alessio laughed. "She talked about Elvis, danced to Elvis, she listened to Elvis.”
Alzheimer’s disease slowly took Carol Alessio away from the people who loved her. When Annie Alessio looks at photos of her mom, she says it can be as painful as it is precious. She had just started college when her mom got the devastating diagnosis.
“I don’t have a lot of memories with her as an adult,” Annie Alessio said. “So yeah, it’s fun to look back and, you know, see the kind of person that she was.”
Annie Alessio says her mom eventually needed around-the-clock care as the disease ravaged her body and mind, and she and her father became the primary caregivers. Carol Alessio fought for 14 years before she passed away in 2014.
“I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy,” Annie Alessio said. “I want no other family to go through what mine did.”
Despite decades of research, Alzheimer’s disease remains a debilitating and eventually fatal dementia with no effective treatment options. Profesor Rusty Gage is the president of Salk Institute for Biological Studies. His lab is trying to understand and cure age-related ailments.
“I think there’s a growing interest in trying to figure out whether or not one can either slow the process of aging or even turn it back a bit,” Gage said.
As cells age, they deteriorate — a process called senescence, which contributes to age-related disorders.
Along with graduate student Joseph Herdy, the Gage lab recently found that deteriorating neurons are the source of brain inflammation in Alzheimer’s disease. They not only shut down, but can become destructive, too. Gage says it’s a huge discovery, as little was known about the senescence-like state of aging human neurons.
"There’s just less connections,” Gage said. “And as they senesce, they withdraw their branches and they become less functional. They’re not communicating with their other cells.”
Herdy said many people in his life have been directly affected by a family member with Alzheimer’s, and he knows how challenging it can be.
“Having the opportunity to contribute to the search for a real treatment makes me feel like I’m helping in my own way,” he said. “It is very rewarding to be a part of this research. It is exciting to be working on techniques that are at the cutting edge of discovery and trying to find new opportunities for therapies for Alzheimer’s.”
Herdy said he wants to thank all the patients and their families that donated their time and samples to their study, as well as his colleagues who contributed to the project.
“One of the best things about science as a human endeavor is that it’s cumulative as we all work towards the truth,” he said. “It is a big problem but also an exciting time to be in the field and I am optimistic that the future holds a real viable treatment for Alzheimer’s and our research is helping us get there.”
The scientists also discovered that targeting the deteriorating neurons with certain treatments could be an effective strategy for preventing or treating Alzheimer’s disease. Gage says more research needs to be done, but it’s a beacon of hope for the future.
“I think for a lot of us in science it really isn’t work, we don’t really see it as work. It’s a passion,” Gage said. “We’re all part of the same science family, all trying to put pieces of the puzzle together so we can come up with something that’s meaningful.”
“I think our research and developing the models in lab for studying senescence in neurons will really pave the way for both our group and others to be able to directly study these cells and develop better therapies,” Herdy said. “Identifying the problem is the first step, and now we have the tools and targets necessary to really try to dig in and explore future options for stopping Alzheimer's.”
Annie Alessio says even during the worst times, they could always play the music of Elvis to bring a small part of her mom back to them.
“It made her happy,” she said. “If there was anything that was going to pull her out of a funk or if she was sad or whatever the case was, put Elvis on and she was good.”
The research at Salk is giving her hope that someday soon there might be a cure for other moms like hers.
“As early on as she was diagnosed, she lived more in the first 56 years of her life than I think most people could even dream of,” Annie Alessio said. “I want there to be a cure. There is an Alzheimer’s survivor out there, we just haven’t gotten there yet.”
In the future, the authors plan to test some of the drugs that can enter the brain to see how they affect senescent neurons. They will also explore the driving mechanisms of senescence and see if certain brain regions are more prone to this deterioration than others.