Tag Archives: Abeta peptide

Could Gemfibrozil (Lopid) be used to slow down (or even treat) Alzheimer’s disease?

Is a treatment of Alzheimer’s disease at hand with a drug in clinical use for nearly 40 years? A paper in this week’s PNAS implies that it might (vol. 112 pp. 8445 – 8450 ’15 7 July ’15). First a lot more background than I usually provide, because some family members of the afflicted read everything they can get their hands on, and few of them have medical or biochemical training. The cognoscenti can skip past this to the text marked ***

One of the two pathologic hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease is the senile plaque (the other is the neurofibrillary tangle). The major component of the plaque is a fragment of a protein called APP (Amyloid Precursor Protein). Normally it sits in the cellular membrane of nerve cells (neurons) with part sticking outside the cell and another part sticking inside. The protein as made by the cell contains anywhere from 563 to 770 amino acids linked together in a long chain. The fragment destined to make up the senile plaque (called the Abeta peptide) is much smaller (39 to 42 amino acids) and is found in the parts of APP embedded in the membrane and sticking outside the cell.

No protein lives forever in the cell, and APP is no exception. There are a variety of ways to chop it up, so its amino acids can be used for other things. One such chopper is called ADAM10 (aka Kuzbanian). ADAM10breaks down APP in such a way that Abeta isn’t formed. The paper essentially found that Gemfibrozil (commercial name Lopid) increases the amount of ADAM10 around. If you take a mouse genetically modified so that it will get senile plaques and decrease ADAM10 you get a lot more plaques.

The authors didn’t artificially increase the amount of ADAM10 to see if the animals got fewer plaques (that’s probably their next paper).

So there you have it. Should your loved one get Gemfibrozil? It’s a very long shot and the drug has significant side effects. For just how long a shot and the chain of inferences why this is so look at the text marked @@@@


How does Gemfibrozil increase the amount of ADAM10 around? It binds to a protein called PPARalpha which is a type of nuclear hormone receptor. PPARalpha binds to another protein called RXR, and together they turn on the transcription of a variety of genes, most of which are related to lipid metabolism. One of the genes turned on is ADAM10, which really has never been mentioned in the context of lipid metabolism. In any event Gemfibrozil binds to PPARalpha which binds more effectively to RAR which binds more effectively to the promoter of the ADAM10 gene which makes more ADAM10 which chops of APP in such fashion that Abeta isn’t made.

How in the world the authors got to PPARalpha from ADAM10 is unknown — but I’ve written the following to the lead author just before writing this post.

Dr. Pahan;

Great paper. People have been focused on ADAM10 for years. It isn’t clear to me how you were led to PPARgamma from reading your paper. I’m not sure how many people are still on Gemfibrozil. Probably most of them have some form of vascular disease, which increases the risk of dementia of all sorts (including Alzheimer’s). Nonetheless large HMOs have prescription data which can be mined to see if the incidence of Alzheimer’s is less on Gemfibrozil than those taking other lipid lowering agents, or the population at large. One such example (involving another class of drugs) is JAMA Intern Med. 2015;175(3):401-407, where the prescriptions of 3,434 individuals 65 years or older in Group Health, an integrated health care delivery system in Seattle, Washington. I thought the conclusions were totally unwarranted, but it shows what can be done with data already out there. Did you look at other fibrates (such as Atromid)?

Update: 22 July ’15

I received the following back from the author

Dear Dr.

Wonderful suggestion. However, here, we have focused on the basic science part because the NIH supports basic science discovery. It is very difficult to compete for NIH R01 grants using data mining approach.

It is PPARα, but not PPARγ, that is involved in the regulation of ADAM10. We searched ADAM10 gene promoter and found a site where PPAR can bind. Then using knockout cells and ChIP assay, we confirmed the participation of PPARα, the protein that controls fatty acid metabolism in the liver, suggesting that plaque formation is controlled by a lipid-lowering protein. Therefore, many colleagues are sending kudos for this publication.

Thank you.

Kalipada Pahan, Ph.D.

The Floyd A. Davis, M.D., Endowed Chair of Neurology


Departments of Neurological Sciences, Biochemistry and Pharmacology

So there you have it.  An idea worth pursuing according to Dr. Pahan, but one which he can’t (or won’t).  So, dear reader, take it upon yourself (if you can) to mine the data on people given Gemfibrozil to see if their risk of Alzheimer’s is lower.  I won’t stand in your way or compete with you as I’m a retired clinical neurologist with no academic affiliation. The data is certainly out there, just as it was for the JAMA Intern Med. 2015;175(3):401-407 study.  Bon voyage.


There are side effects, one of which is a severe muscle disease, and as a neurologist I saw someone so severely weakened by drugs of this class that they were on a respirator being too weak to breathe (they recovered). The use of Gemfibrozil rests on the assumption that the senile plaque and Abeta peptide are causative of Alzheimer’s. A huge amount of money has been spent and lost on drugs (antibodies mostly) trying to get rid of the plaques. None have helped clinically. It is possible that the plaque is the last gasp of a neuron dying of something else (e.g. a tombstone rather than a smoking gun). It is also possible that the plaque is actually a way the neuron was defending itself against what was trying to kill it (e.g. the plaque as a pile of spent bullets).


Is sleep deprivation like Alzheimer’s and why we need sleep in the first place

Ask a cardiologist why the heart needs to pump and you’ll get a strange look. Ask any neuroscientist why the brain needs to sleep, and they’ll scratch their head — until now perhaps. A paper in Science a few days ago may have the answer [ Science vol. 342 pp. 316 – 317, 373 – 377 ’13 ] Essentially the brain gets washed out during sleep.

First — a bit of history. The tissue of the brain is so tightly packed that it is impossible to see the cells that make it up with the usual stains used by light microscopists. People saw nuclei all right but they thought the brain was a mass of tissue with nuclei embedded in it (like a slime mold). Muscle is like that — long fibers with hundreds of nuclei here and there. It wasn’t until that late 1800′s that Camillo Golgi developed a stain which would now and then outline a neuron with all its processes. Another anatomist (Ramon Santiago y Cajal) used Golgi’s technique and argued with Golgi that yes the brain was made of cells. Fascinating that Golgi, the man responsible for showing nerve cells, didn’t buy it. This was a very hot issue at the time, and the two received a joint Nobel prize in 1906 (only 5 years after the prizes began).

How tightly packed are the cells in the brain? The shortest wavelength of visible light is 4000 Angstroms. Cells in the brain are packed far more tightly. To see the space between the brain cell external membranes you need an electron microscope (EM). Just preparing a sample for EM really fries the tissue. Neurons are packed together with less than 1000 Angstroms between them. So how much of this is artifact of preparation for electron microscopy has never been clear to me. One study injected a series of quantum dots of known diameter into the cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) to see the smallest sized dot that could insinuate itself between neurons [ Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 103 pp. 5567 – 5572 ’06 ]. The upper limit was around 350 Angstroms. No wonder the issue was contentious when all they had was light microscopy.

Surprisingly, the PNAS paper comes up with an estimate that brain extracellular space comprises 20% of brain volume. I find this hard to accept given the above. So how does the brain get rid of waste products? It turns out that there is a circulation of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) of sorts. Inject a tracer that you can follow into the CSF. After a period of time the tracer enters the brain along arteries (not veins) and after still more time it leaves the brain along the veins (not the arteries). How the tracer gets to veins isn’t discussed in the Science papers. This has been called by the horrible name of the glymphatic system (don’t ask).

Using a great deal of ingenuity, experimental finesse and some very cooperative mice, the flow of CSF into, through and out of the brain was studied. Several findings are striking — the extracellular space (aka interstitial volume) dearly doubles (from 14% to 23%) during sleep. More importantly, the flow into the brain decreases by 95% when you wake the mouse up. Presumably flow out of the brain decreases by the same amount during wake. CSF flow into the brain was present only in the surface exposed to bulk CSF when the animals were awake.

So what? The Abeta peptide is held by many to be the culprit in Alzheimer’s disease. When injected into the mouse cerebral cortex (hardly a physiologic procedure) Abeta peptide is cleared twice as fast from the brain during sleep. We all know that you don’t think as well when sleep deprived, and this may be why. The current thinking on Alzheimer’s is that it isn’t the visible plaques that you can see under the microscope (made largely of Abeta peptide aggregates), but the soluble form of Abeta which you can’t see which causes the trouble. This always struck me as a cop out similar to the way docs would say that labyrinthitis was due to a virus (not that anyone every isolated one). You might as well say both are due to angels (or devils).

So the difficulty thinking with sleep deprivation may be similar to Alzheimer’s disease, if similar goings on occur in our brain. Distinguish this from the sleepiness due to sleep deprivation –Alzheimer patients often have disturbed sleep patterns, but they aren’t particularly sleepy when they’re awake.

The sleepiness may be due to the build up of something else. Bulk flow of fluid is incredibly nonspecific, and will carry anything soluble along with it. Adenosine has been mentioned as one metabolite building up which makes us sleepy. Probably looking for a single compound washed out by CSF as ‘the’ cause of sleepiness or cognitive problems, is like looking for ‘the’ single compound in kidney failure causing similar symptoms. It’s everything the kidney/brain filters and gets rid of.

So, at very long last, we may have found out why we spend 1/3 of our lives asleep.

Research on Alzheimer’s disease: the bad news, the good news

The past few months have seen a flurry of work on Alzheimer’s disease.  The news has been both good and bad.  First, some background for the nonMds.

Just as the gray hair on the head of an 80 year old looks the same under the microscope as one from a prematurely gray 30 year old, the brain changes of Alzheimer’s disease are the same regardless of the age of onset.  Alois Alzheimer described the microscopic changes in a youngish person so initially the disorder was called presenile dementia.

There are basically two distinctive changes (1) senile plaques outside neurons (2) neurofibrillary tangles inside neurons.  Note that common to all dementias there is a severe loss of neurons, so something is killing them.   The major protein component of the senile plaque is a 40+ amino acid peptide called the Abeta peptide.  It is a fragment of a much larger protein (the amyloid precursor protein which comes in 3 forms containing 770, 751 or 695 amino acids).  The major protein component of the neurofibrillary tangle is hyperphosphorylated tau protein.

Thinking about pathologic changes in neurologic disease has been simplistic in the extreme.  Intially both plaques and tangles were assumed to be causative for Alzheimer’s.  However there are 3 possible explanations for any microscopic change seen in any disease.  The first is that they are causative (the initial assumption).  The second is that they are a pile of spent bullets, which the cell used to defend itself against the real killer.  The third is they are tombstones, the final emanations of a dying cell.

Large battles have occurred about the causative roles of tau and Abeta in the Alzheimer’s disease.  As usual, the best evidence is genetics, as there are mutations in these proteins associated with dementia running in families.  Please note that most Alzheimer’s and most dementias are NOT hereditary.  The evidence for Alzheimer causation is strongest for the Abeta peptide and its parent the amyloid precursor protein.  25 of 30 known dominant mutations in the amyloid precursor protein (APP) are associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Over 200 mutations are known in APP and the proteins which process it to Abeta [ Neuron vol. 68 pp. 270 – 281 ’10 — this has a link to an updated database of mutations ].

So an obvious attack on Alzheimer’s disease is to reduce the amount of Abeta present in the brain.   This is unlikely to be curative, as human neurons (as opposed to animal neurons) don’t regrow — the evidence for this is quite good despite publicity to the contrary — See Neuron vol. 74 pp. 595 – 596, 634 – 639 ’12 and references therein.  However, to stop the disease in its tracks wouldn’t be bad at all.

One approach would be to get rid of the accumulated Abeta peptide in the brain. Here’s some bad news.  Unfortunately a trial of antibodies against Abeta, just reported didn’t work.

For details see http://pipeline.corante.com/archives/2012/07/24/bapineuzumab_does_not_work_against_alzheimers.php.  Be sure to read the comments as they are interesting.  There is a lot of discussion of the fact that antibodies are large proteins, which don’t get into the brain  very well (if they get in at all). Also they didn’t see how antibodies would mobilize what is basically the insoluble gunk of the senile plaque.  So this doesn’t damn the idea of lowering Abeta as a way to slow the disease, just the way they did it.

In fact there is an interesting animal model based on a Ayurvedic medicine preparation (yes Ayurvedic medicine !), which DID reduce Abeta peptide in mouse brain.  The animals were said to be getting smarter (but mouse smartness has never impressed me).  The intriguing point is that the reduction occurred by chewing up Abeta in the liver, implying that to work the drug doesn’t have to get into the brain.  Presumably, by le Chatelier’s principle even the most insoluble gunk is in equilibrium with a small amount of soluble material.  For details see


A second approach would be to stop the Abeta peptide from forming.  Since it is a 40  – 42 amino acid fragment of the much larger amyloid precursor protein, an enzyme (a protease) must be breaking APP down to form it.  Actually there are 3 enzymes known which break down APP.  They are called secretases, because most of APP lies outside the cell, and when it is cleaved, part of the protein is secreted.  It would be great if all we had was alpha secretase, as this breaks down APP  right in the middle of Abeta, so it is never formed.  Actually it wouldn’t great at all, because one of the other enzymes — gamma secretase, breaks APP in the middle of the membrane, and the part remaining in the cell (called AICD) has important work to do.  At any rate lots of work is in progress on beta and gamma secretase inhibitors, but impressive results aren’t to be found as yet.

The failure of trials to lower Abeta peptide has led to some doubt as to whether Abeta peptide is really the killer of neurons.  This is where the good news comes in.

Here’s a summary, but the print editorial and paper can be found in the 2 August ’12 Nature (vol.  388 pp.  38 – 39, 96 – 99 ’12).  The quick and dirty is that a mutation has been found in the amyloid precursor protein which PROTECTS against Alzheimer’s disease.  The authors sequenced the APP gene of 1,795 Icelanders, just to look for low frequency variants.  A mutation was found 1 amino acid away from the site cleaved by beta secretase (it changes amino acid #673 from alanine to threonine (written A673T).  When the protein is cleaved this becomes amino acid #2 of the Abeta peptide.

The mutation is far from common — around 1/200 in Scandinavian populations, and even lower in a more heterogeneous North American population.

Then they looked at two groups of people — those with and those without Alzheimer’s disease.  5 times fewer people with Alzheimer’s disease 1/1000 had the mutation than those without, so the mutation in some way is associated with protection against the disease.

What’s going on?  A study in isolated cells shows that the mutation is associated with a 40% reduction in the formation of Abeta peptide from APP.  This makes sense. A different variant at this position (alanine to valine) INCREASES Abeta formation, and is associated with Alzheimer’s.  So this is excellent evidence that APP and Abeta are involved in Alzheimer’s disease.

The news gets better and better, the (rare) variant increased the odds of reaching 85% by 50%.  Then they studied people over 85 living in nursing homes.  41 carriers of A673T had better cognitive function that 3,673 non carriers.

So this gives a lot of hope to the decrease Abeta and slow down or prevent Alzheimer’s disease hypothesis and therapies aiming to do so.  Whether or not doing this in people who’ve already begun to decline from Alzheimer’s disease will be helpful isn’t known.  

Nonetheless, hope in this awful disorder is always welcome.

Now for a social note:  When a study shows a particular therapy doesn’t work, the approach is abandoned.  Not so for therapies targeting society at large.  The war on poverty is now nearly 50 years old, and a recent story said that the incidence of poverty (as currently defined) is approaching a level not seen since the 60’s– http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5gnvKZsBhqzm6Z_4QmbymuHsa2UTw?docId=c2d37e75d61549f382b8b200bf54848c.

As far as I can tell, there have been no calls to abandon the current approach, and try something else.  Changing it will be difficult, I have several family members that poverty has been very good to.  They work in various social agencies to help the poor.  They live quite comfortably.

Could le Chatelier’s principle be the answer to Alzheimer’s disease ?

A recent paper [ Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 109 pp. 3199 – 3200, 3510 – 3515 ’12 ] found a way to dissolve the senile plaques in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease.  Essentially it uses le Chatelier’s principle to do so, although it is doubtful that Ayurvedic praticioners were thinking along these lines when they first gave an extract of Ashwagandha (Indian ginseng) to improve memory.  As the examples of digitalis and curare show, you ignore folk pharmacology at your peril.  Whole Foods and health food stores certainly don’t and make piles of money as a result, whether or not their nostrums do any good.  The FDA stands by gnashing its teeth as by law it cant’ touch this sort of thing.

First, a bit of background for the nonMDs.  Just as the gray hair on the head of an 80 year old looks the same under the microscope as one from a prematurely gray 30 year old, the brain changes of Alzheimer’s disease are the same regardless of the age of onset.  Alois Alzheimer described the microscopic changes in a youngish person and the disorder firstt came to be known as presenile dementia.

There are basically two distinctive changes (1) senile plaques outside neurons (2) neurofibrillary tangles inside neurons.  Like all dementias there is a severe loss of neurons in addition.  The major protein component of the senile plaque is a 40+ amino acid peptide called the Abeta peptide.  It is a fragment of a much larger protein (the amyloid precursor protein).  The major protein component of the neurofibrillary tangle is hyperphosphorylated tau.

Thinking about pathologic changes and neurologic disease has been simplistic in the extreme.  Both plaques and tangles were assumed to be causative.  However there are 3 possible explanations any microscopic change seen in disease.  The first is that they are causative (which is what everyone had assumed for years).  The second is that they are a pile of spent bullets, that the cell used to defend itself against the real killer.  The third is they are tombstones, the final emanations of a dying cell.

Large battles have occurred about the causative roles of tau and Abeta in the disease.  As usual, the best evidence genetics, as there are mutations these proteins associated with dementia.  The evidence for Alzheimer causation is strongest for Abeta and its parent the amyloid precursor protein.

Now to the paper itself.  Mice were created with mutations known to cause Alzheimer’s disease in man.  They developed senile plaques and were then given Ashwagandha extract.  The plaques got smaller.  This is surprising in itself, as huge attempts have been made to solublilize the aggregated Abeta in plaques and determine its structure without notable success  Lots more work needs to be done, but they think the liver begins chewing up Abeta, forcing the insoluble Abeta in the plaque to solublilze and move to the liver.  Le Chatelier’s principle in action !

The mice got smarter on various tests, but I take all this stuff with a grain of salt.  Animals are smart at doing what they need to do to survive, and running mazes is not one of them.  For that matter, how good would with Newton or Einstein have been running a maze.

The crucial point is the plaques got smaller.  This sort of thing is exactly what the field needs — a slightly different approach.  Immune attacks on the plaques have been a disaster, and inhibiting the enzyme complex which fragments the amyloid precursor protein into Abeta is likely to have other effects, as the complex is responsible for processing many different proteins.

At this point, they aren’t using pure compounds, but extracts of the plant which sure to a mixture.  Stay tuned. First the work needs to be replicated.  Nice to see that most of the work is from India.