It’s officially fall y’all! Fall is my favorite season because I can finally enjoy pumpkin spice lattes without shame, and wear boots more often than necessary. But fall is also my favorite season because it means Sigma Kappa chapters across the country will participate in the Walk to End Alzheimer’s.
Before my time in college, I had very limited knowledge about Alzheimer’s as many people still do. The brain can be a confusing thing. It’s a lot of circuitry, lots of synapses, astrocytes, dendrites, neurons, NMDA receptors, glutamate, and glycine. Have I lost you yet? With all of this terminology it’s no wonder Alzheimer’s seems intangible and abstract to many people. So often, Alzheimer’s disease is regarded as “just memory loss”, but it turns out there are physical changes that occur in the brains of people with the disease. So let me take a science moment to shed some light on the physiology of this disease that devastates more than five million Americans, by employing another fall favorite of mine – football.
Alzheimer’s disease shrinks the total density and matter in the human brain. If your healthy brain is a football field, a brain with Alzheimer’s would be a basketball court, maybe smaller in its total square footage. A portion of the brain called the cortex is severely effected by Alzheimer’s. The cortex of a brain is like the head coach – involved in thinking, planning and communicating plays. In a brain with Alzheimer’s disease, the cortex begins to rapidly deteriorate, interrupting normal functioning and leaving the team without a leader.
Brain shrinkage is also particularly severe in the portion of the brain called the hippocampus – where memories are formed and stored. The hippocampus is like a room where game film is held. As the room gets smaller, there is no space to add new memories (game film) anymore which is why short term memory loss is one of the first outward symptoms of Alzheimer’s. With even further shrinkage of the hippocampus, long term memories that were previously stored begin to fall away as well.
As if the deterioration of the physical matter of the brain was not enough, plaques and tangles made up of different chemicals and anatomic matter complicate and block the communication between nerves of the brain. If your nerves were the headsets worn by coaches, players and referees to communicate on and off the field, these plaques and tangles would interrupt the reception. You can imagine how disorganized this might make communication. The photo below shows a normal neuron (left) and a neuron affected by Alzheimer’s disease (right) which is blocked by plaques and tangles.
The lack of communication between nerve cells it what starts to cause issues changes in memory, personality, and even the ability to complete daily functions.
Alzheimer’s disease is a lot more than “just memory loss”. The processes above only scratch the surface of the changes in a brain affected by Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers are still working to determine all of the causes and effects of this disease. While strides in scientific research and discoveries have been made, there is still a long way to go. This fall, as Sigma Kappa chapters participate in the Walk to End Alzheimer’s in our local communities, we take great pride in knowing that our organization recently donated one MILLION dollars to the Alzheimer’s Association for just this type of critical research. Keep walking, so that one day Alzheimer’s can be a distant memory. For more information on the facts, figures, and pathology of Alzheimer’s Disease, check out www.alz.org.