Stem cells may help ease depression, anxiety and other symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease

Ask anyone what the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease are and the first thing they’ll almost certainly say is loss of memory. It’s not surprising, it’s that fear of losing our memories, losing our sense of self, that makes it such a terrifying disease. But Alzheimer’s has many other symptoms – such as anger, depression, anxiety and delusions – and now a new study says stem cells may be able to help reduce those, possibly even reverse those symptoms that are often the bane of patients and caregivers.

The study, from researchers in Israel, is published in the latest issue of the journal Behavioural Brain Research.

The researchers, working with mice that had Alzheimer’s disease-like symptoms. introduced stem cells into the part of the brain that controls behaviors like fear and anxiety. Mice that didn’t get stem cells ran around without checking new areas or habitats for potential threats; but the mice given the stem cells were much more cautious in assessing new surroundings, the same as healthy mice do.

In a story in Science Daily Prof. Daniel Offen, the lead researcher, says the new stem cells seem to increase the number of neurons in the treated mice:

 “Normal mice will recognize the danger and avoid it. Mice with the disease, just like human patients, lose their sense of space and reality. We first succeeded in showing that new neuronal cells were produced in the areas injected with the gene. Then we succeeded in showing diminished symptoms as a result of this neuron repopulation.” 

Offen says tackling these symptoms is no small matter because they can cause a great deal of embarrassment for patients, their families and caregivers by fueling impulsive behavior, such as undressing in public.

The researchers hope their findings might point the way towards potential therapies to reduce some of the secondary symptoms of Alzheimer’s. In the meantime they are now working in the parts of the brain that control memory, hoping to see a similar improvement there.

We are currently funding 16 projects looking into different aspects of Alzheimer’s, including an almost $20 million Disease Team award to explore the use of stem cells to help restore memory.

kevin mccormack