BYU professor speaks on Alzheimer’s disease

BYU professor Keoni Kauwe gives his forum address on July 19 in the de Jong Concert Hall. Kauwe gave answers to several frequently asked questions relating to Alzheimer’s disease based on his research of genetic risk factors. (Maddi Dayton)

BYU associate biology professor Keoni Kauwe answered many frequently asked questions regarding Alzheimer’s disease in his forum address on July 19.

Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. and kills more people than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined, according to Kauwe.

“The perspective I gained as a student along with the overwhelming numbers I just showed you led me to decide that the focus of my professional life would be to solve Alzheimer’s disease,” Kauwe said.

Many people ask about the difference between dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, according to Kauwe. He explained dementia is a term that generally describes symptoms such as impairment of memory, communication, ability to focus, reasoning, judgment and visual perception.

Alzheimer’s disease refers to a degenerative disorder that attacks the brain’s nerve cells, resulting in loss of memory, thinking and language skills and behavioral changes, Kauwe said.

“Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia, accounting for up to 80 percent of the cases where dementia symptoms are observed,” Kauwe explained.

Some also ask if memory loss associated with Alzheimer’s disease could be attributed to the memory loss that commonly occurs with aging, according to Kauwe. He said memory loss is not a part of normal aging and explained Alzheimer’s Association’s 10 warning signs of Alzheimer’s disease as a way to tell the difference between the two. These signs include:

  1. Memory loss that disrupts daily life.
  2. Challenges in planning or solving problems.
  3. Difficulty completing familiar tasks at home, at work or at leisure.
  4. Confusion with time or place.
  5. Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships.
  6. New problems with words in speaking or writing.
  7. Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps.
  8. Decreased or poor judgment.
  9. Withdrawal from work or social activities.
  10. Changes in mood and personality.

“An age-related change in memory would be sometimes forgetting the names of people you recently met or forgetting an appointment and remembering it later,” Kauwe said. “An Alzheimer’s disease related sign of memory loss could be forgetting important and familiar dates or events, asking for the same information repeatedly or an increasing reliance on family members for things that a person used to handle on their own.”

Kauwe said there is no cure at present for Alzheimer’s disease and that current treatments only “slow the worsening of symptoms for 6-12 months at best in a subset of individuals.”

“I wish we already had a solution,” Kauwe said. “I am confident that we will have one in the future.”

Speculation about the causes of Alzheimer’s disease are often the source of several misconceptions concerning the disease, according to Kauwe. He explained that things like aluminum, Aspartame, flu shots and dental fillings have no detectable impact on Alzheimer’s disease risk, whereas known risk factors include age and DNA.

“Age drastically increases risk for the disease, but it is not exclusively a disease of the elderly,” Kauwe said. “Alzheimer’s disease can affect people in their 50s, 40s and even 30s. This disease matters to all of us at any age.”

Genetic causes of the disease can be broken up into two subtypes: early-onset and sporadic. Early-onset Alzheimer’s disease occurs before 65 years of age and is often caused by changes in three specific parts of the DNA, according to Kauwe.

“These changes in DNA are dominant, meaning that if you inherit just one of these genetic variations from a parent, it is sufficient to cause the disease,” Kauwe said. “If you have a parent with this kind of Alzheimer’s disease, there is a 50/50 chance that you inherited the variant.”

Sporadic Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 99 percent of all cases and is characterized by later and highly variable age at onset, according to Kauwe. He said having a first degree relative with Alzheimer’s disease increases one’s risk of developing the disease threefold.

“It is estimated that we understand about 30 percent of the genetic risk for Alzheimer’s disease at present,” Kauwe said. “Progress in understanding the other 70 percent will lead to answers to an important question, ‘Why do some people get Alzheimer’s disease while others do not?’ Those answers will be the key to our efforts to find a cure.”

Kauwe explained that his research on Alzheimer’s disease focuses on understanding the genetics of the disease and identifying “novel therapeutic targets.” A basic understanding of genetics is required to understand this research, according to Kauwe.

He compared genetics to the process of making a cake, starting with DNA as the recipe or blueprint for an organism. RNA can be compared to a photocopy of the recipe used to create the “batter,” or assemblage of proteins in the right order and combination. Then the environment, or “oven,” ranging from other proteins to the air people breathe, produces the final result, Kauwe said.

The information collected from Kauwe’s analysis of this genetic research then allows him to assess the frequency of genetic variants in those who have Alzheimer’s disease versus those who don’t. Although the process may seem simple, this research requires a great deal of time, money and expertise because there are more than three billion locations in the DNA for researchers to look at, according to Kauwe.

In 2006, several research groups around the world including a group from BYU, came together to speed up the process. The groups started a collaborative research effort to find genetic risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease, which has helped the project advance, Kauwe explained.

Kauwe’s answer to the final frequently asked question, “So, what can I do?” identified many ways people can be part of solving Alzheimer’s disease. These included becoming an advocate for Alzheimer’s disease research, raising awareness of the implications disease, helping with caregiver and patient support groups, participating in clinical trials and donating directly to research efforts.

“I pray that, whether we are considering Alzheimer’s disease or any other challenge of the human condition, we will ‘stand close together, and lift where we stand,'” Kauwe said. “This means leveraging every one of the talents and circumstances that our Heavenly Father has blessed us with to serve others and to do good continually.”



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