Discovery at Dalhousie brain tissue lab could lead to Alzheimer treatment

Hope for an Alzheimer's cure might just come from Dr. Sultan Darvesh and his research team at the Maritime Brain Tissue Bank. The bank collects brains and spinal cords donated by people with different neurological conditions, such as Alzheimer's, ALS and strokes.

Research findings promising for development of effective treatment of Alzheimer's disease

Dr. Sultan Darvesh is shown at the Maritime Brain Tissue Bank at Dalhousie University where he and his research team have made a discovery that could lead to a more timely diagnosis and potential treatment for Alzheimer's disease. (CBC)

For the last 20 years, Dr. Sultan Darvesh has been collecting brains.

In his lab at Dalhousie University, he compares a normal brain to one from a person who suffered from Alzheimer's disease.

"You can see how shrunken that it, Alzheimer's disease is where there has been a shrinkage of the brain cells — there's loss of brain cells. When brain cells die, the brain shrinks."

He points out parts of the brain that affect memory, the ability to recognize things and the ability to communicate, where shrinkage is apparent.

There are an estimated 17,000 people in Nova Scotia with Alzheimer's disease and millions more globally.

There is an urgency to finding a cure or at least hope for people affected by the degenerative brain disease.

That hope might just come from Darvesh and his research team at the Maritime Brain Tissue Bank. The bank collects brains and spinal cords donated by people with different neurological conditions, such as Alzheimer's, ALS and strokes.

Dr. Sultan Darvesh examines two brains at the Maritime Brain Tissue Bank. The one on the right is from a person with Alzheimer's disease. (CBC)

He says clinical trials of drugs to treat Alzheimer's disease have been unsuccessful largely due to difficulties diagnosing the disease, often only possible through autopsy results.

But that may change, due to a discovery made by researchers using specimens at the brain bank.

"There is another target found in Alzheimer's pathology and that particular target is a protein. We have been able to make compounds that target that particular protein which is found much more in people with Alzheimer's disease, almost 10 times more," he said.

"It was a major event in my lab when we discovered that."

The brain bank "has been a very, very important resource for us," Darvesh said. 

The lab's findings will be presented in July at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference in Chicago.

But the work is far from over, Darvesh said.

The next step is to make a diagnostic test safe for humans. Being able to test for Alzheimer's while the sufferer is alive will greatly improve the development of effective treatments, he said.