Science understands Alzheimer's disease as the progressive decline of a particular region of the brain. But the underlying mechanisms leading to this decline are still very much a mystery.
Head of Psychology, Professor Cliff Abraham, at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has just been awarded a $887,621 NZ Health Research Council grant to continue trying to unravel exactly what is going on chemically, when Alzheimer's sets in.
"The disease is characterised in part by the build-up of a toxic molecule - amyloid-beta - which impairs the brain's ability to make changes in the connections between neurons," he says, "- something that is crucial for learning and memory to occur.
"This amyloid-beta is made from a larger protein which also makes a protective molecule; there is some of both the protective and the toxic molecules in all of us. With Alzheimer's sufferers, there is less of the protective and more of the toxic molecule present.
"We want to know more about how the protective molecule works and whether the loss of this is as important for the disease effects as the increase in the toxic amyloid-beta," he says.
The research will concentrate on the area of the brain affected by early Alzheimer's disease (the hippocampus) which is responsible for certain types of learning.
"Alzheimer's disease is not short term memory loss, rather it is the loss of the ability to store new information for the longer term. Early Alzheimer's sufferers still have long-term or remote memory."
Looking at the hippocampus within rats, Professor Abraham's team, in collaboration with Professor Warren Tate in the Department of Biochemistry, will investigate the mechanisms by which these proteins affect the function of the nerve cells.
"We need detailed basic knowledge at a molecular level if we are to develop any kind of rational therapy in the future," says Professor Abraham.