Scientists have been working to understand better the cause of Alzheimer’s disease for decades with little success. Then, just last month, researchers published a breakthrough. The discovery was surprising to many in the medical field because it showed evidence that Alzheimer’s is linked to gum disease.
Alzheimer’s is a devastating disease that currently affects an estimated 5.7 million Americans. It’s a form of dementia – a degenerative brain condition which leads to increasing difficulty with memory and behavior, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Though it’s the sixth biggest killer in the country, researchers have been at a loss to identify a cause. Until now, it seems.
Searching for the Cause of Alzheimer’s Disease
For the past three decades, Alzheimer’s research has focused on the buildup of proteins in the brain. After the discovery of abnormal levels of amyloid proteins in patients affected, multiple hypotheses have been tested to find out how the two issues are connected. In recent years, however, some scientists have started to doubt that this connection was the key to understanding the cause of Alzheimer’s.
Evidence of Alzheimer’s Connection to Gum Disease Bacteria
A new study published last month showed evidence of a link between a common oral bacteria and Alzheimer’s. It found a connection between Porphyromonas gingivalis – a bacteria that damages gum tissues and causes gingivitis – and dementia. Not only could the presence of this bacteria in the brain cause Alzheimer’s, the researchers explained, it may be the cause of the higher amyloid production which had been the focus of Alzheimer’s studies in the past.
Proof for this link was found in studies involving laboratory mice. Tests showed that the P. gingivalis bacteria infects and causes inflammation in the areas of the brain affected by Alzheimer’s. Additionally, having gum disease made symptoms more severe for mice that are predisposed to dementia. Even more surprising was the fact that introducing periodontal disease bacteria to healthy mice triggered brain inflammation and neurological damage.
How Gum Disease May Cause the Onset of Alzheimer’s Disease
Scientists are continuing to study the possible cause and effect relationship between periodontal disease and Alzheimer’s in humans. One hypothesis is that when bacteria enter the brain, it produces an immune response which destroys brain cells. As brain damage progresses, the patient would show signs of memory loss and confusion which are trademarks of Alzheimer’s disease.
In the medical field, it’s not an entirely new concept that infectious bacteria may cause other, seemingly unrelated conditions. What is new is the solid evidence that connects P. gingivalis Alzheimer’s disease, as Stephen Dominy, MD, co-founder and chief scientific officer of Cortexyme and lead author of the newly released study, explained.
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Future Treatments to Block the Effect of Gum Disease Bacteria on the Brain
Progress in finding a cause for this condition which affects so many people has been slow. Yet, the hope is that medical research in this field will lead to effective treatments or possibly even a vaccine for Alzheimer’s disease.
The pharmaceutical company Cortexyme, which conducted this new research study, is currently working to develop an effective medicine. It believes that small-molecule inhibitors could block the bacteria of gum disease from affecting the brain. This would hopefully slow or stop the progression of the Alzheimer’s condition.
Early clinical testing has shown positive results for this new drug. There was evidence that the inhibitors were able to kill some of the periodontal bacteria traveling to the brain. Older patients suffering from Alzheimer’s who volunteered for the drug trial also showed signs of cognitive improvement. The company will move forward with further clinical drug trials later this year.
Dental Care Helps Prevent Gum Disease
Remember that daily brushing and flossing, as well as regular dental cleanings, are key steps in avoiding periodontal disease. Visit your dentist at least twice each year for a full oral health exam. Find more helpful recommendations for gum disease prevention.