AMES — A new study by an Iowa State University researcher shows a protein may slow memory loss and reduce brain atrophy caused by Alzheimer’s disease.
Auriel Willette, a researcher in food science and human nutrition, found evidence that higher levels of a little-studied protein called neuronal pentraxin 2 may slow cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s patients by improving the connections between neurons in the brain.
“Neuronal pentraxin 2 remodels existing synapses communicating between neurons,” Willette said. “It also clears away old cells or digested proteins.”
He compared the protein to a bulldozer that removes debris to make room for new buildings.
About 5 million Americans are currently living with Alzheimer’s disease, but that number is expected to rise to 14 million by 2050, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported. The progressive disease is the leading cause of dementia.
Willette analyzed data from the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative, a national collection of brain images and spinal fluid samples, to create three study groups: people without Alzheimer’s disease, people with mild cognitive impairment who may develop Alzheimer’s disease and people with full-blown Alzheimer’s disease.
He found participants with higher levels of neuronal pentraxin 2 showed little or no memory loss after two years. He also learned elevated levels of the protein were linked to less atrophy in the medial temporal lobe, which is the part of the brain first to show atrophy in Alzheimer’s disease.
Neuronal pentraxin 2 is naturally produced in the body, primarily by neurons, which are nerve cells that carry electrical impulses and chemicals signals to the rest of the body.
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Engaging in new or complex mental tasks may promote the production of protective proteins like neuronal pentraxin 2, Willette said. Exercise also has been found to increase the number of connections between nerve cells in older rats and mice, the National Institutes for Health reported.
People taking antidepressants or who have consumed alcohol have higher levels of neuronal pentraxin 2, Willette said.
While he doesn’t recommend drinking or taking antidepressants to boost protein levels, Willette said there may be drug therapies that could elevate neuronal pentraxin 2 levels for people at risk of Alzheimer’s. Diet may also be a factor, although there is little research in this area, he said.
Willette will present his study at the Psychoneuroimmunology Research Society‘s annual scientific meeting, June 3 to 6 in Seattle.