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Burton High Stories: Alzheimer's Research

Jialin Zhong, a senior at Burton High School
Jialin Zhong, a senior at Burton High School

Students studying health sciences at Phillip and Sala Burton Academic High School in San Francisco worked with KALW radio to share their perspectives on health issues and solutions. Jialin Zhong, a senior at Burton High School, dug into the research behind what causes Alzheimer's, and ways to reduce the risks.

Hello, my name is Jialin Zhong and I am a senior at Burton high school. During the summer, I did an internship with UCSF where I studied a deletion of a region in a neuron. Through the research, I found that with the deletion, it causes neurons to have irregular behavior and that possibly leads to neurodegenerative diseases. One of the neurodegenerative diseases listed was Alzheimer’s and it amazed me how one small missing section in a cell could cause a drastic change in our health.

Alzheimer’s is thought to be caused by abnormal build-up in the brain. One cause can be a protein called amyloids, which causes plaque to form around the brain. Another cause is a protein called tau. The protein tau tangles the brain cells. As the brain cells become affected, there is a decrease in chemical messengers, also known as neurotransmitters. People with Alzheimer’s have lower levels of transmitters than the average person.

People with Alzheimer’s are known for their forgetfulness. It has been hypothesized that the stimulation of caffeine can slow down the symptoms. A group of researchers ran an experiment, giving older mice either plain water or water spiked with caffeine. Months later, they gave the mice some brain puzzles and found that the mice that were given plain water had more severe signs of confusion and forgetfulness.

Another habit that may lead to an increase in Alzheimer’s is smoking. There was a study that compared smokers to non-smokers and the data was shocking. Those who smoke cigarettes have an increased risk of dementia from 37 to 114%. The science behind this is that smoking causes the blood vessels to narrow, leading to an increased risk for strokes. Smoking also causes inflammation in the brain, which also may lead to brain damage and later lead to dementia. It’s worth noting that smoking and the link to dementia is not affected by race, ethnicity, or sex.

On a hopeful and surprising note, the drug best known for sexual performance, sildenafil, or better known as Viagra, has shown positive results in lowering Alzheimer rates. Viagra was shown to have success in potentially reversing the plaque that causes Alzheimer’s.

There may be other items and activities that can increase or decrease the risk in Alzheimer’s so if you have the curiosity or time, feel free to hop on the internet and do some research!