Researchers at the University of Cambridge have used innovative stem cell techniques to unravel the biological chain of events in the initial stages of Alzheimer’s disease. The work was funded by Alzheimer’s Research UK and The Wellcome Trust and published in the Journal Cell Reports on 23 April 2015.
Complex brain imaging techniques can only go so far in illuminating microscopic biological changes, and studying brain tissue after death, while incredibly valuable, only gives a snap-shot of the changes that went on in life. What researchers need to know – if they are to understand what causes Alzheimer’s and how it can be stopped – is what changes take place at the very beginning of the disease. Researchers can now use a pioneering technique which involves taking human skin cells and turning them into stem cells – cells which are capable of turning into any cell in the body. Scientists can then coax these cells to become nerve cells, using the right cocktail of signals. These nerve cells behave very much like nerve cells in the brain, and by taking skin cells from people with genetic causes of Alzheimer’s, researchers will learn huge amounts of information about the biological chain of events that leads to nerve cell damage.