Imaging study links key genetic risk for Alzheimer's disease to myelin breakdown

A new UCLA imaging study shows that age-related breakdown of myelin, the fatty insulation coating the brain's internal wiring, correlates strongly with the presence of a key genetic risk factor for Alzheimer disease.

The findings are detailed in the January edition of the peer-reviewed journal Archives of General Psychiatry and add to a growing body of evidence that myelin breakdown is a key contributor to the onset of Alzheimer disease later in life.

In addition, the study demonstrates how genetic testing coupled with non-invasive evaluation of myelin breakdown through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) may prove useful in assessing treatments for preventing the disease.

"Myelination, a process uniquely built up in humans, arguably is the most important and most vulnerable process of brain development as we mature and age. These new findings offer, for the first time, compelling genetic evidence that myelin breakdown underlies both the advanced age and the principal genetic risks for Alzheimer disease," said Dr. George Bartzokis, professor of neurology at UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine.

"The human brain functions as a high-speed Internet system," said Bartzokis, director of the UCLA Memory Disorders and Alzheimer Disease Clinic and Clinical Core director of the UCLA Alzheimer Disease Research Center. "The quality of the brain's connections is key to its speed, bandwidth, fidelity and overall on-line capability."

Myelin is a sheet of lipid, or fat, with very high cholesterol content -- the highest of any brain tissue. The high cholesterol content allows myelin to wrap tightly around axons, speeding messages through the brain by insulating these neural "wire" connections.

As the brain continues to develop in adulthood and as myelin is produced in greater and greater quantities, cholesterol levels in the brain increase and eventually promote the production of a toxic protein that attacks the brain. The protein atta

Contact: Dan Page
University of California - Los Angeles

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