The Biology and Psychology of Alzheimer’s

Alzheimer’s is a well-known medical condition in the elderly with no known cause.The psychological impact is well documented and includes memory loss as the major noticeable symptom but is also includes confusion, loss of language cognition and eventually loss of motor skills. While the cause is unknown there are certain biologic sequences common to all Alzheimer’s patients such as physical shrinking of the brain and hardened brain tissue.

Memory loss is the largest and most alarming psychological symptom of Alzheimer’s. Often it starts with forgetting recently learned information, such as dates and appointments or directions. Solving problems or paying bills becomes more difficult requiring much greater concentration than previously required to perform the same task. Confusion is also common as the disease progresses. Patients often find themselves lost and not remembering how they arrived where they are. Changes in mood and personality also occur in the later stages as fear, depression and anxiety take over their lives.

Eventually the patient loses long term memory. They are no longer able to recognize family and become dependent on others for physical care. The final stages of Alzheimer’s leaves the patient with the inability to communicate, loss of bodily functions, weight loss, seizures and death.

Research into the biological cause of Alzheimer’s continues. Tangles, misfolds of the protein tau, are found in the brains cells of Alzheimer’s patients. The tangles resemble fibers that clump together in areas of the brain, causing the tau protein to fail. It is not known why the tau protein fails to fold properly and lose function only that the misfolds cause the tangles. The misfiring tau’s spread from one brain region to another in a recognizable pattern that causes the progressive degeneration of the brain as seen by the psychological symptoms.

Another major biologic change in an Alzheimer’s affected brain is Amyloid plaques, protein fragments accumulated outside of the brain cells. These plaques are uniquely different from the tau proteins found within the brain cell. Normal brain function allows for the absorption and processing of the protein fragments without damage while the Alzheimer’s affected brain loses this ability causing the proteins to build hard plaques further causing the psychological changes associated with the disease.

The combination of the tau protein damage inside the cell and the Amyloid plaque buildup outside the brain cell creates a loss of connectivity between cells leading to diminished function, cell death, the psychological changes and the eventual death of the patient. While the biological and psychological role of Alzheimer’s is more understood the cause of these protein failures is still unknown and still being researched.