Message from the Intern: The A-beta Disaster

Posted July 16, 2009

My name is Jake, and I am the summer intern here at Cure Alzheimer’s Fund. Like most college kids, I tend to think that I know just about everything. On rare occasions (okay, on an extremely regular basis), my lack of omniscience manifests itself. However, I generally rationalize my ignorance with excuses like, “That piece of information was useless anyway,” or “Only a true nerd would know that.”

Unfortunately, times do arise when rationalization is impossible, and I must admit to myself that my knowledge is not as infinite as I’d like to think. Such was the case during my first day at Cure Alzheimer’s Fund, when President Tim Armour launched into a discussion about the effects of A-beta 42 accumulation in the brain.

Throughout Tim’s statement, I was completely lost. A-beta, nerve cells, oligomers, peptides…and then the dreaded silence, in which he looked at me expectantly, awaiting my response. I considered taking the reliable “head nod and a laugh” route instead of embarrassing myself with a verbal response, but then thought the better of it – after all, this is an Alzheimer’s research non-profit, and I had a sneaking suspicion that a conversation about Alzheimer’s disease might not merit a smile. I desperately racked my brain for other potential escape plans, but was ultimately left with only one option. The horrible, the humbling, the humiliating, “What is A-beta 42?”

Having been here for about a month now, it’s occurred to me that you might not know what A-beta 42 is either. Nearly every piece of informational material we publish talks about the protein, but what is it really?

Most researchers agree that the accumulation in the brain of a peptide (small protein) called A-beta 42 is the main cause of Alzheimer’s disease. “A-beta” stands for amyloid beta peptide, and scientists add the “42” on the end because the protein consists of 42 amino acids. When A-beta 42 begins to accumulate in the brain, it groups into “oligomers” which can then form plaques found in the brain. These oligomers interfere with or are toxic to neural synaptic activity in the brain, interrupting communications between synapses and causing nerve cells to break down and die. As a result, the person afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease begins losing his/her memory and ability to function normally.

This is obviously the abridged version of what really happens in the brain, and there is still a lot we don’t know. Cure Alzheimer’s Fund is raising money for research to find out what genes cause the brain to behave so abnormally, and to eventually halt A-beta 42 build-up altogether. Expect more (and I’m sure, embarrassing) posts from me in the future, and I look forward to learning more about Alzheimer’s disease together!