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Alzheimer's disease may be started by mutations may starve brain

Alzheimer’s breakthrough as experts find clue to how memory-robbing disease starts and say hallmark mutations may starve brain of crucial energy

  • Australian researchers examined zebrafish with genes connected to Alzheimer’s
  • They found brain cells of fish with the genes had disrupted oxygen generation
  • This means the brain had less energy to function, impacting its performance
  • Researchers are confident they have found a driver of the disease in humans

Hopes of stopping Alzheimer’s in its tracks were raised today as scientists said they may have found what drives the memory-robbing disease.

Australian researchers believe their discovery — if proven true in human trials — may ‘enormously benefit our ageing population’.

Genes thought to raise the risk of the condition disrupt the way brain cells produce energy and could contribute to the deterioration of the brain, their study suggests.

University of Adelaide academics examined how genetic mutations linked to early-onset Alzheimer’s affected zebrafish.

Brain cells of the fish with the telltale DNA changes used less oxygen, meaning their brains were unable to produce enough energy to function correctly.  

Similar data on mice backed-up their theory. 

Lead researcher Dr Karissa Barthelson said the team are confident they have found a ‘fundamental, early driver of Alzheimer’s in humans’.

‘Energy production is the most fundamentally important cellular activity supporting all other functions, particularly in highly active organs such as brains,’ she said.

‘If we can understand what is going wrong with oxygen use and energy production, we may see ways of stopping the disease before it starts.’

Australian researchers have found what could be a key driving factor in the memory-robbing disease Alzheimer’s finding genes associated with the condition disrupt how brain cells use oxygen

The scientists used zebrafish for their study due to their ability produce a huge number of offspring which makes it easier to detect subtle genetic differences

She added: ‘That would enormously benefit our ageing population.’  

Dr Barthelson and colleagues published their findings in the journal Disease Models and Mechanisms. 

Alzheimer’s is a degenerative brain disease, in which the build-up of abnormal proteins causes nerve cells to die.

This disrupts the transmitters that carry messages, and causes the brain to shrink. 

Dr Barthelson also said the disease that ‘people’s brains become severely deficient in energy production’.

The disease, the most common type of dementia, usually strikes over-65s but one in 20 cases are among younger adults.

Dr Barthelson’s team studied zebrafish because they have very large families, which makes it easier to detect subtle effects.

The experts also examined a different team’s similar research on mice and found the same result.  

Dr Barthelson said: ‘This reinforces our confidence that we’ve found a fundamental, early driver of Alzheimer’s in humans. 

‘It is very satisfying to have found this important common, early factor driving the development of Alzheimer’s disease.’ 

The team of researchers now plan to examine how the genes associated with Alzheimer’s impact the the energy generation of different types of brain cells. 

About 1million people in the UK have Alzheimer’s disease, with the condition being responsible for the majority of dementia cases in the country,

In the US an estimated 5million people have Alzheimer’s and it is the officially sixth leading cause of death in the country, though more recent estimates have suggested it should now be bumped up to third. 


Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive, degenerative disease of the brain, in which build-up of abnormal proteins causes nerve cells to die.

This disrupts the transmitters that carry messages, and causes the brain to shrink. 

More than 5 million people suffer from the disease in the US, where it is the 6th leading cause of death, and more than 1 million Britons have it.


As brain cells die, the functions they provide are lost. 

That includes memory, orientation and the ability to think and reason. 

The progress of the disease is slow and gradual. 

On average, patients live five to seven years after diagnosis, but some may live for ten to 15 years.


  • Loss of short-term memory
  • Disorientation
  • Behavioral changes
  • Mood swings
  • Difficulties dealing with money or making a phone call 


  • Severe memory loss, forgetting close family members, familiar objects or places
  • Becoming anxious and frustrated over inability to make sense of the world, leading to aggressive behavior 
  • Eventually lose ability to walk
  • May have problems eating 
  • The majority will eventually need 24-hour care   

 Source: Alzheimer’s Association

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