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MSU researchers join battle to beat Alzheimer's disease

(KY3)
Published: Nov. 3, 2016 at 9:18 AM CDT
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Two Missouri State University researchers are investigating a new concept in the battle against Alzheimer's disease. Their basic question is whether doctors could one day prescribe exercise as one way to beat the illness.

The key to unlocking this human tragedy could be hiding in a plain room on campus in a mouse.

"It's a tragic disease," said Scott Zimmerman, an associate professor of Biomedical Sciences.

Zimmerman and Ben Timson, a professor of Biomedical Sciences, want to know if exercise can delay or even prevent Alzheimer's.

"The question for me for a long time has been, 'How can you use exercise therapeutically like we would administer drugs?'" said Zimmerman.

In other words, "Can you take exercise like a pill?" That's where the mice roll into this research picture.

Before we explore that, let's look at one way that researchers believe Alzheimer's destroys our brains.

One area of research focuses on the role of amyloid beta, or AB, proteins. To try to illustrate this, imagine a paperclip as a symbol for an AB protein.

If you greatly simplify the science, an AB protein helps keep your brain alive. It has a downside, however. It can get tangled and cause plaque. That plaque acts like a traffic jam, stopping nutrients from getting to your brain.

"If the traffic jam stays there too long, the road dies," said Timson.

Springfield resident Daisy Duarte knows the pain of Alzheimer's.

She wears support bands on her wrist as a visible reminder of her mom's fight with the disease.

"I've seen so many family members go through it and no one has taken a stand for it," said Duarte.

Duarte enrolled in a separate study at Washington University in St. Louis. Those researchers are exploring a potential medical breakthrough from an actual pill. Genetically, Duarte has a near certain chance of getting Alzheimer's.

"The only risk I'm taking is finding a cure. So, hopefully, my niece and nephew won't have to go through what I'm going through," she said.

Duarte regularly uses a treadmill because of chest pains. She migh be stressed by the now nearly 24-hours-per-day, 7-days-a-week care that she gives her mom. Her heart is breaking but doctors want to make sure it pumps right.

"Taking care of my mom is very stressful, but I wouldn't change it for nothing in the world," said Duarte.

It's personal for the researchers, too.

"It's a tragic disease. My grandmother died of Alzheimer's disease several years ago," said Zimmerman.

The researchers' mice run in three different groups. One group runs an hour a day, five days a week. The second group runs the same amount but at a lower intensity. The third group just chills out.

"Intensity does matter," said Timson.

Remember that AB protein? The more active mice had the better results.

"The higher the intensity, the lower the amount of the amyloid beta. What appears that happens with exercise is it doesn't really change the rate at which you're producing it, but it increases the rate you're getting rid of it (AB protein)," said Timson.

Round one of the research showed positive results for exercise. The MSU researchers now have plenty of questions for round two: How much is needed? How long? At what point in life?

They also have hope.

As for Duarte, she has faith that researchers are on the right track.

"I believe in God and I believe in the study I'm in and I believe we're going to find a cure," said Duarte.

Duarte isn't the only one involved with Washington University. The Missouri State researchers also teamed up with Washington University in Saint Louis for their study on exercise.