Alzheimer’s Disease is the leading cause of dementia and affects 50 million people worldwide, with the number tripling by 2050. The chances are that you know someone, likely over the age of 65, who has been affected, although the disease likely starts in the memory centers decades before onset. In the short term, there is some hope: There will shortly be a simple blood test for one type of Alzheimer's Disease and there are MRI studies—studies which began at the UIUC campus, leading to a Nobel Prize—which may be able to predict the outcome of the disease before it becomes overwhelming. The first round of treatment has been approved, but there are serious side-effects.
I am not an expert in Alzheimer’s Disease, but as a physicist, I am developing techniques to study memory, and what goes wrong in genetically-caused mice models of Alzheimer’s Disease. Memory is likely stored as an array of proteins, sitting in a narrow space of just 30 nm across, between two or more nerve cells. To examine them, we use an optical technique—which won the 2014 Nobel Prize—called Super Resolution Fluorescence Microscopy. For the first time, we can detect memory in “thick” brain slices, with the brain being “alive” when it is first interrogated, and only those proteins which actually contribute to memory yielding signals. The technique has a resolution of < 10 nm, which is ~20x less than the diffraction limit of visible light. We can detect the proteins, determine their numbers, find that the numbers depend on the position in the brain, and may depend on whether the mice has neuronal deficits before the full onset of the disease. Although the path is long, there is some hope.