Alzheimer’s disease isn’t contagious, but new research suggests that specific proteins connected to the disease may actually be transmittable from one person to another under certain conditions.
The finding is the first of its nature, and although the data is still fairly abstract, medical researchers are already stating that it could change the way Alzheimer’s is treated. If these initial findings are correct, it would mean that a sticky protein associated with Alzheimer’s could possibly be transmitted via contaminated surgical equipment.
John Collinge, a neurologist at University College London (UCL), partnered up with a few of his colleagues in London to study a protein called an amyloid, which is sometimes called “the Alzheimer’s protein.” An amyloid beta protein is an abnormal protein which can give Alzheimer’s the first push it needs to begin developing.
The UCL team examined the brains of eight people who had died from a medical condition called Creutzfeld-Jakob disease (CJD), which the Washington Post explained is a disease that “steadily destroys brain tissue.”
The eight cadavers in the study were all adults, aged 36 to 51, who had been injected with a very specific human-derived growth hormone as children; before 1985, the growth hormone had been created using bits of tissue taken from the pituitary glands of cadavers. Many of these tissue extractions had been infected with the amyloid beta protein, so when the tissue-derived hormone was injected into the eight patients, the amyloid protein began building up in their bodies while wearing down their healthy, living brain tissue.
The Guardian noted that none of the patients had carried the gene for early-onset dementia, and none of the patients actually had Alzheimer’s. Instead, the UCL team believes that amyloid beta pieces functioned as “seeds” that were able to control tissue development — and destruction — thereby leading to CJD.
Because the cadavers had all been infected with the protein through infected human tissue, leading to fatal cases of CJD, researchers believe that a similar process might occur with Alzheimer’s. According to TIME magazine, blood vessels in the patients’ brains had been damaged by the protein, and this same type of damage occurs in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients.
The researchers have been careful to state that this doesn’t mean Alzheimer’s is contagious in the same way that other viruses and infections may be passed from person to person; additionally, the mere presence of amyloid beta in a person’s body isn’t enough to concretely determine whether or not the patient will develop Alzheimer’s.
Nevertheless, it could provide future research teams with a good foundation for examining possible causes and preventative strategies of the common disease, which affects an estimated 44 million worldwide and which currently has no treatment.