Crosswords, reading cut Alzheimer's biomarker

Alzheimer's disease is an awful thing to have to look forward to--mood problems, loss of memory and reasoning, problems with communication. However, doing something as simple as reading a book (or a FierceBiomarkers newsletter) or doing a crossword can cut beta-amyloid, an Alzheimer's disease biomarker, and the main component of the plaques found in the brain.

In a study carried out at the University of California, Berkeley, people with no symptoms of Alzheimer's disease and who had read, written or done puzzles all their lives had lower levels of beta-amyloid. This supports other studies that have shown that brain activity can stave off dementia. In the study, the researchers asked 65 people over 60, with no symptoms of dementia, how often they had been involved in mentally-engaging activities--going to the library, reading books or newspapers, and writing letters or email--since the age of 6. Each person had a battery of neuropsychological tests and had a PET scan, and these results were compared with those of people with Alzheimer's disease and people in their 20s.

There was a clear link between mental activity and lower levels of brain beta-amyloid, which wasn't linked to anything else such as age, gender, or level of education. "These findings point to a new way of thinking about how cognitive engagement throughout life affects the brain," said study principal investigator Dr. William Jagust, a professor at UC Berkeley's Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute, the School of Public Health and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. "Rather than simply providing resistance to Alzheimer's, brain-stimulating activities may affect a primary pathological process in the disease. This suggests that cognitive therapies could have significant disease-modifying treatment benefits if applied early enough, before symptoms appear."

While this research hasn't led to the discovery of a new biomarker or new drug target for the biopharma industry, it has helped to explain a little more about the disease processes, as well as suggesting a simple and low cost way to reduce or delay the onset of this mentally-crippling disease, at least for some people. Unfortunately there's no obvious link between current brain activity and beta amyloid, but that doesn't mean it's too late to begin mental exercise. As Jagust said, "There is no downside to cognitive activity. It can only be beneficial, even if for reasons other than reducing amyloid in the brain, including social stimulation and empowerment. And actually, cognitive activity late in life may well turn out to be beneficial for reducing amyloid. We just haven't found that connection yet."

- read the press release
- see the abstract in the Archives of Neurology