Keeping the mind alert is considered a way to stave of ageing and degenerative diseases like Alzheimer's. But as the population ages more will experience memory failures that an be the early signs of dementia. Now scientists in Britain hope they have found a way of slowing that ageing process using vitamin B to block 'brain shrinking'.
Australian researchers find brain 'rust'
Earlier this week, Australian scientists announced a significant advance in the understanding of Alzheimer's, a condition they describe as an accumulation of brain "rust".
An imbalance in the metals needed for healthy brain function has been found at the root of the degenerative disease which afflicts 10 per cent of people aged over 60.
University of Melbourne Professor of Pathology Ashley Bush and his research colleagues have traced the imbalance to the brain's improper and related processing of zinc and iron.
Their research is detailed in a paper to be published in the prestigious international journal Cell later this month.
"The brain in Alzheimer's disease is a catastrophe, and it is very hard to pinpoint what went wrong first," Prof Bush told AAP on Monday.
"This (research) really unravels quite a big series of knots and highlights a particular sequence involving these two metals.
"... It is the most in-depth series of biochemical discoveries about Alzheimer's disease and its causes to date."
The research focused on the complex relationship between amyloid precursor protein (APP) and its breakdown product amyloid, along with the zinc and iron.
Prof Bush said as zinc was seen to accumulate in amyloid it blocked the APP from performing its critical, and previously unknown, job of exporting iron out of the brain's neurons.
This led to a build-up of iron "in the grey matter", he said, resulting in oxidative stresses that could kill off neurons.
So could you say the loss of mental function in an Alzheimer's patient is caused by rust in their brain?
"In a chemical sense, you can," Prof Bush said.
"That's the kind of chemistry that is going on in the brain and, similar to actual rust, it involves an abnormal combustion of oxygen with iron.
"The brain is an unusual organ in that it has very high concentrations of metals which it uses for its electrical chemistry."
While the research does not reveal the complete picture of the cause of Alzheimer's disease, Prof Bush said it had uncovered a vital "corner piece of the jigsaw puzzle".
Revealing more of the factors contributing to Alzheimer's disease hands the scientific community a broader target, as they work to develop treatments that could halt the damage.
Prof Bush is co-founder of the biotechnology firm Prana, which is working on a novel Alzheimer's drug (PBT2) that aims restore normal levels and distribution of metals in the brain.
He said the research strengthened expectations that PBT2, now in clinical trials, would one day be able to reverse brain damage in Alzheimer's patients.
"This information should encourage the powers that be to push ahead with this drug," Prof Bush said, adding research and development would take at least another three years.