Keeping brain sharp may help ward off Alzheimer’s protein

CHICAGO–People who challenge their brains throughout their lifetimes — through reading, writing and playing games — are less likely to develop protein deposits in the brain linked with Alzheimer’s, U.S. researchers said on Monday. Prior studies have suggested that people who are well educated and stay mentally active build up brain reserves that allow them to stay sharp even if deposits of the destructive protein called beta amyloid form in the brain. But the latest study, based on brain-imaging research, suggests that people who stay mentally engaged beginning in childhood and remain so throughout their lives actually develop fewer amyloid plaques. “We’re not talking about the brain’s response to amyloid. We’re talking about the actual accumulation of amyloid,” Dr. William Jagust of the University of California, Berkeley, whose study appears in the Archives of Neurology, said in an interview. “It’s a brand new finding.”

While small, the study also shows that starting brain-stimulating activities early enough might offer a way to prevent Alzheimer’s-related plaques from building up in the brain. Currently, there are no drugs that can prevent Alzheimer’s disease, which scientists now think begins 10 to 15 years before memory problems set in.

Alzheimer’s Disease International estimates there are now 36 million people with the disease worldwide. As the population ages, that number will increase to 66 million by 2030, and to 115 million by 2050.

Last week, the U.S. government released draft recommendations for a national Alzheimer’s plan that calls for finding effective treatments or prevention strategies by 2025.

The new study involved the use of an imaging agent known as Pittsburgh Compound B, or PiB, which works with positron emission tomography, or PET scanners. This chemical sticks to and highlights deposits of beta amyloid. “Beta amyloid is the protein that many people feel may be the initiating factor in Alzheimer’s disease. It is the protein that is in the plaques of the brains of people with Alzheimer’s,” Jagust said.