Dec 032006
Authors: Anica Wong

It affects millions of Americans each year. It steals entire years, special days and fond memories without regret or regard for the pain that ensues when faces are no longer recognizable and relationships disappear.

Although about 4.5 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, there is still no cure for this neurological disease.

Jim Bamburg, a CSU biochemistry and molecular biology professor, is on the path to understanding this condition.

The National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke within the National Institutes of Health is funding Bamburg’s research through a $1.2 million grant.

“It’s hard because this person you’ve grown up with and love doesn’t even know who you are,” said Molly Schowengerdt, a junior apparel and merchandising major, about the disease that slowly destroys a person’s ability to think, remember and communicate.

Schowengerdt’s grandmother on her mother’s side suffers from the disease.

The research is focused on exploring the presence of rod-shaped aggregates in the brain. Stress on accumulations of cells causes a protein to create these rods. The rods then block neurons from functioning, leading to Alzheimer’s disease.

Bamburg said this finding – that these rods are causing neuron deterioration in Alzheimer’s patients – will lead to greater understanding about other ailments.

“Rods are important not only to Alzheimer’s but also to Down Syndrome, other dementia and strokes as well,” he said.

According to Paul Bell, a psychology professor at CSU, Alzheimer’s is the leading cause of dementia, which is a loss of memory and intellectual capacity.

“If we can delay the onset (of Alzheimer’s) by five years, we can cut the incidence in half,” Bell said.

Although Bamburg is not yet to the point of delaying the onset of the disease, he said his research is heading in that direction.

“We want to try to prevent the rods from forming,” he said.

Bamburg and his team of undergraduate students, students in the master’s program and a senior research scientist and senior lab technician, are attempting this feat in three different steps.

The first is to identify the structures and the causes of the rods. The second is to figure out how different conditions cause these rods. The third step will be to find ways to block the rods from forming.

“I would be most pleased if it retards the growth of the disease,” Kris Witt, the director of nursing at Columbine Care Center East, said about Bamburg’s research.

Though those diagnosed with the disease are permanently affected, Alzheimer’s also has a powerful impact on family members and friends. According to a Gallup poll, 1 in 10 Americans have a family member with Alzheimer’s.

“It is very stressful on the individual as well as the family,” Bell said. “Family caregivers take on different roles. Children become parents to their parents and parents become children to their children.”

As for her family, Schowengerdt says they have come together with the common goal of helping her grandmother, who is no longer able to make new memories and often forgets what year it is.

“She’s acting different than she ever acted before,” Schowengerdt said. “My grandma never acted like that.”

Alzheimer’s disease is correlated with age; 85 percent of cases of the disease are in adults older than 65, according to Bell. Although a person has a 16 percent risk of getting Alzheimer’s at birth, there are other factors that can speed up the progression of the disease.

“Type II diabetes can double the risk, as well as an increase in blood pressure, a stroke, a brain injury and even a low education,” Bell said.

The most common form of Alzheimer’s is non-hereditary, but when Bell’s mother was diagnosed with the disease, he found that more than 25 members in his family had Alzheimer’s as well. Because of this discovery, one of his areas of specialization in psychology is aging and Alzheimer’s disease.

“The hardest part for the family is when the patient forgets who they (the family) are,” said Sherry Friesan, an administrator at the Good Samaritan Village, a nursing facility in Fort Collins, said.

Currently, Bamburg is on sabbatical at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego. He is still very focused on his Alzheimer’s research, concentrating on signal transduction while away from CSU.

“I have been very fortunate of having a fantastic team,” he said. “They are very dedicated to our research and they deserve much credit.”

Staff writer Anica Wong can be reached at

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