Researchers led by an Elon University associate professor have identified in walnuts at least two molecules that may hold the key to better treating, if not completely reversing, the effects of Alzheimer’s disease, a fatal type of dementia that diminishes memory and affects behavior in older adults.
Those molecules were used to break apart that plaque associated with the disease that builds up in the brain over time. The research team’s findings were made public last month at a news conference in San Diego during a conference of the Society for Neuroscience
Kathryn Matera, now in her first semester at Elon after working for years with Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio, is quick to caution that the finding is not a cure and that any sort of treatment is still years away. But to her knowledge, no other scientist had yet to isolate the specific molecules that break apart the plaque, which is caused when discarded proteins accumulate in the brain.
“A cure suggests that the disease can not only be stopped, but the effects of the disease can be reversed,” Matera said. “If damage has already been done to the physical brain, a cure is going to be difficult if not impossible. At this stage, all any researcher hopes is that the progression of the disease can be halted or at least slowed.”
Matera’s research interest in the chemistry department is in biochemically breaking apart the plaque that forms in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. When she and Gina Wilson, a student researcher at Baldwin-Wallace, were working on inhibitors for the enzyme responsible in part for Alzheimer’s disease, they noticed that a molecule in walnuts was destroying the very substance that causes disease symptoms.
“So much research needs to be done, however, for any given drug, that it is impossible to say where this will lead,” Matera said. “At the very least, we hope that by looking at these classes of compounds, we’ll understand a little bit more about Alzheimers and how it occurs, and that may lead to possible treatments and cures. Every little piece of research fits into the big puzzle, and eventually the puzzle gets finished.”
The next phase of their research will involve laboratory studies on animals that is currently being carried out at Baldwin-Wallace. One major obstacle for researchers will be identifying how to get any sort of treatment into the brain itself. Matera said it can take years between conception and the time a drug is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Matera is a visiting associate professor of chemistry originally from California. She earned her doctoral degree in chemistry from the University of California at Davis and lives with her husband and two children in Chapel Hill.