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Teams at UVA and Virginia Tech explore a new theory on the cause of Alzheimer's disease

Neuroscientist Harald Sontheimer leads a UVA team studying a new concept of Alzheimer's disease.
Dan Addison
Neuroscientist Harald Sontheimer leads a UVA team studying a new concept of Alzheimer's disease.

When doctors study the brains of people with Alzheimer’s, they find sticky masses of a protein called amyloid, and some believe it’s killing nerve cells or neurons in the brain. At the University of Virginia, neuroscientist Harald Sontheimer says that’s been the basis for much modern research.

“Some of the on-going clinical trials and even the one approved drug for the treatment of Alzheimer’s today, they all aim at depleting or removing these protein deposits,” he explains.

But Sontheimer thinks something else might be going on deep in the brain – where memories are formed. Amyloid plaques might not be toxic to nerve cells, but could be squeezing blood vessels.

“Our hypothesis would be that the amyloid build-up will gradually strangle blood supply to the hippocampus, essentially causing an ischemic stroke in that area. The neurons die as a result of insufficient blood supply.“

Enter Virginia Tech engineer Xiaoting Jia and Washington University’s Song Hu. They’ve designed a tiny scope that could be implanted in the hippocampus, so Sontheimer can see what’s happening.

“These genius engineers at Virginia Tech and Wash University respectively have created this device not only to allow us to visualize that or image that but they also have channels in there through which one can apply drugs,” Sontheimer says.

Medications that cause dilation of tiny blood vessels to improve blood flow to the brain and prevent damage – a theory they’ll soon test on laboratory mice

Sontheimer says it’s urgent. This country already has 6.5 million people with Alzheimer’s, and we can expect many more in the years to come.

"It’s probably the biggest challenge for the next two or three decades to come up with a solution, because we’re going to be dealing with about 50 million people with Alzheimer’s disease by the year 2080."

The National Institutes of Health has awarded a one-year grant for this study and may extend funding for five more years if preliminary findings are promising.

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief