Link Discovered Between Alzheimer’s and Down Syndrome

Scientists are looking at a shared cause between the diseases and a possible shared treatment.

chromosome image via shutterstock

chromosome image via shutterstock

Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital have discovered a link between Alzheimer’s disease and Down Syndrome which could potentially lead to better treatments for both.

For decades, scientists have noticed that people with Down Syndrome have a higher possibility of developing Alzheimer’s later in life, but they couldn’t understand why. Now, a research team at Massachusetts General’s Down Syndrome Program have discovered the shared chromosomal cause.

By age fifty, researchers say, 50 percent of people with Down Syndrome will develop Alzheimer’s. Regardless of whether physical symptoms of the disease present themselves, plaque in the brain that is attributed to Alzheimer’s builds up in the brains of people with Down Syndrome. Dr. Skotko of the Down Syndrome Program, and his team discovered that the precursor for this plaque build-up can be found in the 21st chromosome in a patients’ DNA. The 21st chromosome is also the chromosome that people with Down Syndrome have an extra copy of. Therefore, people with Down Syndrome have an extremely high chance of developing this plaque build-up that leads to Alzheimer’s.

The research team led by Skotko is hypothesizing that the same plaque that inhibits memory and brain function in Alzheimer’s patients also causes the poor memory and learning difficulties that people with Down Syndrome experience. If their hypothesis is true, treatment preventing or reducing plaque build-up can treat both diseases.

To test his idea, Skotko is currently putting together a clinical trial that will test a new drug designed to block this Alzheimer’s plaque from building up, despite the genetic markers. The drug simultaneously nourishes cells in all parts of the brain, and as a result, people with Down Syndrome who participate in the trial may experience improved intellectual functioning as a side effect.

Both Down Syndrome and Alzheimer’s have root causes in the 21st chromosome, so why shouldn’t a single treatment be able to treat the progression of both? Only time, and a clinical trials, will tell.