Researcher at East Lansing’s MSU Studies ‘Zombie Cells’ in Attempt to Prevent Alzheimer’s

Researchers at MSU are studying whether old, ineffective cells cause Alzheimer’s disease.

A professor at Michigan State University in East Lansing has been awarded nearly $3 million from the National Institute on Aging to study Alzheimer’s disease and how old, ineffective cells may cause it.

“The biggest risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease is age,” says Marcia Gordon, the study’s primary investigator and a professor of translational science and molecular medicine. “I’m trying to understand what it is about the old brain that makes it more susceptible to Alzheimer’s.”

Gordon believes the answer lies senescent cells — those that are old and still alive but no longer capable of dividing.

“Some people call them zombie cells,” she says. “These cells stop performing their normal functions and begin to send out signals that likely trigger adverse changes in the brain, including the clumping of the beta-amyloid protein and tangles of another called tau.”

Of the estimated 5.7 million Americans who have Alzheimer’s, 5.5 million are over the age of 65, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. The disease is the most common form of dementia, and 10 percent of people over the age of 65 have Alzheimer’s. By age 85, the number rises to 40 percent.

“We think that if we slow down the biological aging of brain cells, we will slow the rate of disease progression,” says Gordon.

Under the five-year grant, Gordon will look at ways to delay the aging of cells and deplete the number of senescent cells. Possible treatments include restricting calories, which previous research shows is associated with longevity. Rapamycin, a drug commonly prescribed for immunosuppression in organ transplant patients, has also shown some promise of extending lifespan.

The team also will collect brain tissue samples donated by deceased Alzheimer’s patients and will use an advanced technique called laser capture microscopy to look for biomarkers to identify senescent cells.

The possible link between senescent cells and Alzheimer’s is a relatively new area of research. There is no cure or effective treatment for the disease, and Gordon says she is looking for prevention methods.

“It would be wonderful if we found a cure,” she says. “But it’s much easier to prevent a disease than to treat it once you get it.”