New research into the causes of Alzheimer’s disease is showing an intriguing new direction in formal treatment—one that might lead to successful treatment in the early stages of the disease.

Two studies from The Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown University identified diminished insulin availability as well as insulin resistance in the brain as a possible trigger for the brain deterioration, loss of cognitive function and buildup of plaques (protein fragments between brain neurons) and tangles (twisted fibers inside brain cells) that characterize Alzheimer's.

"We've found Alzheimer's to be a form of diabetes," says Suzanne de la Monte, MD, MPH, senior researcher on the study.

Cause And Effect

In one study, researchers depleted insulin and at the same time produced insulin resistance in the brains of rats by injecting Streptozotocin (or STZ), a compound known to destroy insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. The result was overall brain deterioration in the rats.

Even more exciting: In a subsequent study using the same rats—who now exhibited symptoms resembling Alzheimer's—researchers then reversed the insulin resistance in their brains by administering three classes of drugs called PPAR (peroxisome-proliferator activated receptor) agonists. (The agonists are drugs but the receptors are normally present in the brain)

Following this treatment, the Alzheimer's-like brain abnormalities and degeneration that the rats had displayed were either reduced or nearly disappeared. Of the three classes of agonists used, one—PPAR delta—had the most benefit in preserving brain tissues and improving learning memory. PPAR alpha was less effective. Another PPAR agonist—PPAR gamma—that is already being prescribed as a treatment in type2 diabetes to modulate insulin response was least effective. This research has yet to be applied to humans, noted Dr. de la Monte. But she is definitely thinking ahead.

“We've seen the incidence of both type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer's disease grow in epidemic proportions, and researchers now recognize both the overlap of the two conditions and the increased risk for developing Alzheimer's in patients with type 2 diabetes." But while Dr. de la Monte refers to this as a separate process, a "type 3" diabetes or "diabetes of the brain," Andrew L. Rubman, ND, observes that the underlying collapse of the regulatory systems that are behind both type 1 and type 2 diabetes is also present in "brain diabetes."

Can We Prevent Alzheimer's?

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