How Can Stem Cells Help Alzheimer’s?

Alzheimer’s disease, often abbreviated to simply Alzheimer’s is a type of neurodegenerative disorder and is common and the most severe type of dementia. It is a complex organic disorder, characterized by widespread damage to– and eventually the death of- critical nerve cells of different types across the brain, the depletion of important brain chemicals and transmitters, and the presence of harmful molecules, which act to disrupt the brain’s normal functioning.

The most prominent and early symptom of AD Alzheimer’s disease is memory loss. Later on as the disease progresses difficulty thinking, language problems, confusion, mood swings and challenging behavior, become part of the picture. Early Alzheimer’s damage seems to target the hippocampus, which shrinks in size. The hippocampus is a brain structure of prime importance in memory retention, which explains the early appearance of memory loss. Since Alzheimer’s is a degenerative disorder, symptoms worsen progressively.

The neuropathology of Alzheimer’s is not fully understood but the presence of two types of protein in the brain are thought to be behind the brain cell damage which leads to the disease’s symptoms. These are amyloid, which forms plaques in the brain tissue, and tau proteins which manifest as tangles. It is thought that the amyloid plaques may disrupt communication pathways within the brain while the tau tangles prevent crucial nutrients from being absorbed.

stem cell therapy for alzheimer

Credit: National Institute on Aging/National Institutes of Health

The biggest risk factor in the development of Alzheimer’s is aging but genetics and gender are also factors. The latter two explain why females and those with a history of Alzheimer’s in the family are more likely to develop the disease.

Alzheimer’s is named after the first doctor to describe it: Alois Alzheimer, a German psychiatrist and neuropathologist. It affects around 35 million people worldwide, mainly older adults. In fact, whereas only around 1.5 per cent of 65 to 69 year old’s are affected, that figure rises to 25 to 30 per cent for those over 90 years. By 2050, it is thought that over 100 million people worldwide will have Alzheimer’s Disease.

Current Treatments for Alzheimer’s

There are currently no treatments available to halt or even slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

However, the best treatments available to patients today consist of drugs which prevent the breakdown of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine in the tissue containing those cells that are still functioning.  This can offset some of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s by improving memory and the ability to carry out day to day tasks by using different circuits; but it would do nothing for cells which have already been damaged, nor would it affect the underlying mechanisms causing cell damage.

The drugs used to prolong the action of acetylcholine do so by inhibiting cholinesterase-  the enzyme that destroys acetylcholine, thus prolonging its action.  Cholinesterase inhibitors include Aricept (donepezil), Exelon® (rivastimine) and Reminyl (galantamine).

For over two decades, researchers have been working on treatments to clear amyloid proteins from the brain, but while these have been successful on animal models, human clinical trials have so far failed to deliver the same results.

However, the emergence and development of regenerative medicines, including stem cell therapies, are now offering new research possibilities and renewed hope for Alzheimer’s sufferers. A stem cell is a type of cell that is able to reproduce itself and differentiate into other types of specialised cells to replace effete and damaged cells and repair tissues in various organs.

Opportunities and Challenges of Stem Cell Research

There are three main ways in which stem cells could lead to breakthroughs in the treatment of Alzheimer’s.

Firstly, there is the method of directly transplanting neural stem cells into the brain of the patient. However, before this becomes feasible there are a number of challenges that scientists will need to overcome, since Alzheimer’s affects cells of different types over large areas of the brain. Not only will successful stem cell therapies need to be capable of producing these different types of cell, they will also need to migrate from one area to another. Another problem involves the signaling mechanism needed to integrate any new cells into the existing brain, a mechanism that may be dysfunctional in patients with Alzheimer’s.

A more fruitful line of research may involve neural stem cells’ ability to produce neurotrophins. These are chemicals which are vital in the growth and survival of neurons but appear to get depleted in Alzheimer’s patients. So far, mouse models have provided positive data with Alzheimer’s-type symptoms improving after the deployment of neurotrophin-producing stem cells.

A third use for stem cells is in growing cultures of brain cells in the laboratory to which new drugs and treatments can be applied, not only for researching Alzheimer’s disease but also for finding treatments for other neurological diseases (such as Multiple Sclerosis and Huntingdon’s chorea and Parkinson’s disease) and brain injuries (e.g. stroke). Scientists have been able to genetically modify adult skin cells to produce brain cells and these induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) avoid any of the ethical problems associated with the use of embryonic stem cells (ESCs), which are also pluripotent. Culturing skin cells from Alzheimer’s patients themselves also offers the possibility of tailoring future treatments to individuals and for understanding some of the cellular processes that lead to the development of familial Alzheimer disease (FAD) in the first place.

As with much research involving stem cells, the future looks bright but there is a long road to travel before successful treatments become commonly available, particularly for complex disorders such as Alzheimer’s.

The Gulf Coast Stem Cell Therapy Center and Neurological Diseases

The Gulf Coast Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Center is involved in ongoing research on the therapeutic properties of mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) on neurological diseases. MSCs are an abundant type of adult stem cell that are present in various organs and tissues of the body including the bone marrow and adipose (fat) tissue. MSCs have been used in Phase I (safety) trials where early results have suggested that they may help to slow neural degeneration.

Whereas stem cells from donors, available as blood transfusions require extensive FDA-monitored trials before they can become available as standard treatments, patients’ own stem cells can be harvested and deployed legally, providing the facility and medical team are suitably qualified and licensed. This enables suitable candidates to participate in research and enjoy the benefits that may accrue. In addition, so-called ‘autologous’ stem cell therapies do not require any anti-rejection drugs, since they behave like a graft from self.

To find out more about how the deployment of patients’ own mesenchymal stem cells may mitigate the degenerative effects of a wide range of neurological diseases, visit our stem cell research center website at: or call our warm and knowledgeable team on (866) 885 4823.

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