Aluminum and Alzheimers Disease – Alzheimer‘s is a brain disease in which damaged and dying brain cells cause devastating mental deterioration over a period of time. It is a tragic disease that slowly destroys its victim’s brains, robbing them of the thoughts and memories that make them unique human beings. Patients with Alzheimer’s typically progress through a series of stages that begin with relatively minor memory loss of recent events. Gradually, loss of memory is accompanied by forgetfulness, inattention to personal hygiene, impaired judgment, and loss of concentration. Later symptoms include confusion, restlessness, irritability, and disorientation. These conditions worsen until patients are no longer able to read, write, speak, recognize loved ones, or take care of themselves. Survival after onset of symptoms is usually five to ten years but can be as long as twenty years. Persons with Alzheimer’s are especially vulnerable to infection (particularly pneumonia), which is the usual cause of death.
Alzheimer’s disease is named after German neurologist Alois Alzheimer, who was the first to describe it. In 1906, he studied a 51-year-old woman whose personality and mental abilities were obviously deteriorating: She forgot things, became paranoid, and acted strangely. After the woman’s death, Alzheimer examined her brain at autopsy and noted an unusual thickening and tangling of the organ’s nerve fibers. He also found that the cell body and nucleus of nerve cells had disappeared. Alzheimer noted that these changes indicated some new, unidentified illness. More than seven decades would pass before researchers again turned their attention to this puzzling, destructive disease.
A Healthy Brain, Aluminum and Alzheimers Disease
A healthy brain is composed of billions of nerve cells (neurons), each consisting of a cell body, dendrites, and an axon. Dendrites and axons together are called nerve fibers and are extensions of the cell body. Nerve messages enter a neuron by way of the dendrites and leave by way of the axon. Neurons are separated from one another by narrow gaps called synapses. Messages traveling from one neuron to another are carried across these narrow gaps by chemicals called neurotransmitters. This highly organized system allows the brain to recognize stimuli and respond in an appropriate manner.
In Alzheimer patients, this orderly system becomes damaged to such a degree that it no longer works. The brains of Alzheimer’s patients examined at autopsy show two hallmark features: (1) a mass of fibrous structures called neurofibrillary tangles and (2) plaques consisting of a core of abnormal proteins embedded in a cluster of dying nerve endings and dendrites. Lowered levels of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine are also observed. The brains of Alzheimer’s disease victims appear shrunken, particularly in large parts of the neocortex, the outer layer of gray matter responsible for higher brain functions such as thought and memory. Much of the shrinkage of the brain is due to loss of brain cells and decreased numbers of connections, or synapses, between them.
There is no simple procedure, such as a blood test, to diagnose Alzheimer’s. A definitive diagnosis can only be made by examining brain tissue after death. Diagnosis in a live patient is based on medical history, physical examination, laboratory tests to rule out other possible causes of symptoms, and neurological exams to test mental performance. Using these methods, physicians can accurately diagnose 90 percent or more of cases. The specific cause of Alzheimer’s disease remains unknown, although risk factors include advanced age, trauma such as head injury, and gene mutations. When the disorder appears in a number of family members, it is called familial Alzheimer’s disease and is thought to be caused by an altered gene.
Scientists, Aluminum and Alzheimers Disease
Scientists are exploring the metal aluminum as a possible toxic agent involved in the development of Alzheimer’s. Also being studied is the role of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, as declining levels of this chemical result in more severe symptoms of the disease. Some scientists believe the abnormal proteins found in plaques in the brains of Alzheimer’s victims may be the key to understanding the disease. Yet another factor being studied as a possible cause is a slow-acting virus. It is often confused with senility as its symptoms include increasingly poor memory, personality changes, and loss of concentration and judgment. The disease affects a large number of aged people and most victims are over age 65, Alzheimer’s disease is not a normal result of aging. Medication can relieve some symptoms in the early stages of the disease, but there is no effective treatment or cure.
Aluminum is a lightweight, silvery metal, familiar to every household in the form of pots and pans, beverage cans, and aluminum foil. It is attractive, nontoxic, corrosion-resistant, nonmagnetic, and easy to form, cast, or machine into a variety of shapes. Aluminum is the third most abundant element in Earth’s crust after oxygen and silicon, and it is the most abundant of all metals. Because it is a very active metal, aluminum is never found in its metallic form. Rather, it occurs in a wide variety of earthy and rocky minerals. Known as aluminium in most of the English-speaking countries, the element was named after the mineral alum, one of its salts that have been known for thousands of years. Alum was used by the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans as a mordant, a chemical that helps dyes stick to cloth.
Aluminum has no known function in the human body. There is some debate, however, as to its possible health effects. In the 1980s, some health scientists became concerned that aluminum might be associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Though it is still not clear whether aluminum plays any part in Alzheimer’s disease, some authorities believe that breathing aluminum dust may cause many health problems as it may cause a pneumonia-like condition (the probable cause of death of Alzheimer’s) currently called aluminosis and there are reports of unusual concentration of aluminum ions in brains of Alzheimer’s. Again, there is not enough evidence to support this view.