Researcher finds possible link between Alzheimer’s, food
There are few explanations for the causes of Alzheimer’s disease, but even fewer suggest it is a result of everyday meals. A researcher from Robert Wood Johnson Medical School may have found a link between the memory-eating disease and a chemical in food.
Rutgers recently published a study that indicates a possible connection been the pesticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT, and Alzheimer’s, a neurological disease in which cognitive functions slowly become impaired.
Jason Richardson, an associate professor at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, said their research indicates DDT may be responsible for causing plaques to form in brain cells through its harmful byproduct dichlorodiphenyldichloroethylene, or DDE.
DDT is a pesticide that was widely used until 1972, when it was banned in the U.S. for the dangers it posed to both humans and the environment, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s website. Remnants of the pesticide can still be found in the environment today.
Some countries, especially those affected by malaria, still use DDT, Richardson said. It is also used illegally in other countries that may export products to the United States.
The United States Geological Survey monitors soil and water samples to keep track of DDT levels, Richardson said. A person’s main source of exposure to DDT in the United States would likely come from consuming meat, fish or dairy. Fatty fish in particular would have the greatest levels of DDT.
DDE is a product of DDT breaking down either as a result of exposure to heat or sunlight or through a reaction in the human body, he said. It can last for decades in both the environment and the human body.
“We [were] not exposed yesterday — we’re looking at a cumulative lifetime of exposure,” he said. “[DDE] is something really persistent.”
Richardson said researchers from the University and partners from Emory University were looking for a link between pesticides and Parkinson’s disease when they noticed increased DDE levels in Alzheimer’s patients.
“We measured the pesticides in blood samples but found a compound that wasn’t linked to Parkinson’s,” he said. “We noticed that DDE levels were almost four times higher than normal in certain samples.”
According to the Center for Disease Control’s website, more than five million people in the United States suffer from Alzheimer’s disease.
Part of Alzheimer’s cause is the buildup of amyloid proteins in brain cells, Richardson said. DDE can become this protein, contributing to the formation of a plaque in the brain. People with Down syndrome or extra chromosomes have also shown signs of suffering from this plaque formation.
Some pharmaceutical companies are trying to create antibodies that could clear out the amyloid plaque, he said. Recently, other companies have begun attempting to make chemicals that can prevent plaque buildup.
To become more effective, companies would need to treat people at an earlier stage of the disease, he said. Most patients currently go to treatment too late to have any real effect on their symptoms.
A person’s genes and lifestyle, including where they live and what they eat, would also be important factors in whether they have a chance to develop Alzheimer’s, he said.
Richardson said future research would focus more heavily on these interactions. Previously, the brunt of Alzheimer’s research was focused solely on the genes that could cause it.
There is very little data on environmental factors that can contribute to Alzheimer’s, he said.
In the 1990s, aluminum was thought to be involved with Alzheimer’s. That has since been disproved. Other heavy metals may still be factors, including some found in cigarette smoke.
“One of the important take-homes is that when you’re dealing with a complex disease, there’s not just one thing causing it,” he said. “There’s many factors, and most of these are going to be interactions between your genes and your environment [and] diet.”