Just about every one of us knows someone who’s been struck by Alzheimer’s disease. In the U.S., nearly 6 million people suffer from the deadly, memory-robbing illness. Worldwide, the number is estimated at 44 million.
“It’s the most commonly diagnosed neurodegenerative disorder,” says OMRF’s Dr. Michael Beckstead. And with a rapidly aging population, experts predict disease rates could triple by 2050.
Beckstead has spent two decades studying dopamine, a chemical responsible for voluntary movement and the perception of reward in the brain. “Dopamine is what makes you want to get off the couch and enjoy activities,” he says.
He utilizes experimental models to examine what can happen when things go wrong in the brain with neurons that interact with dopamine. In the past, his work has largely focused on Parkinson’s disease—when too little dopamine is present—and drug addiction, where there is too much of the chemical.
But since joining OMRF from the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio in 2017, he’s also begun investigating whether the chemical plays a role in Alzheimer’s. “Although dopamine has never been studied in this context, we have a lot of evidence to suggest it’s involved, especially in the initial stages of disease,” he says.
Using mice that have been genetically engineered to develop a condition resembling Alzheimer’s, Beckstead and his research team are looking for functional changes in the rodents’ dopamine cells early in the disease process. In people, alterations in these cells can spark a variety of behavioral changes similar to those seen in the initial phases of Alzheimer’s. “Before memory loss and cognitive impairment, patients show symptoms that include depression, trouble sleeping and apathy,” Beckstead says.
In the mice, Beckstead’s initial goal will be to determine whether dopamine changes accompany disease onset. “It’s a simple question that nobody has ever asked.” The reason, he says, is that “we’ve only had the technology to do this work for a few years.”
The project has spurred the interest of the National Institute on Aging, which recently awarded Beckstead funding for the project. If successful, the work could plot a new path to develop a drug or other interventions to halt the progression of Alzheimer’s in humans.
Despite the failure or abandonment of more than 100 experimental Alzheimer’s drugs, Beckstead remains optimistic about the ultimate prospects for new therapies. “I’m a firm believer that treatments for a lot of brain diseases will come from targeting specific cellular pathways like this one.”