Alzheimer’s May Be Contagious – Puts Surgery Under Scrutiny

Among untreatable medical conditions which wreak havoc on one’s body, it becomes hard not to mention Alzheimer’s disease. Characterized by deterioration of mental functions ranging from memory loss to changes in behavioral pattern, patients diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease are normally given 3 to 9 years, ranging on the severity of symptoms.

A recent study has brought to light an alarming fact: Alzheimer’s may actually be contagious. Remnants of Alzheimer’s tissue can attach to surgical equipment and be transferred to other patients for whom the same equipment is used during medical procedures.

This study is the first of its kind to successfully prove that dementia can be transmitted between humans through microscopic protein fragments. These procedures can vary from something as simple as dental treatment to complex surgeries. However, health officials were swift in springing into action, reassuring the general public in the journal “Nature” and avoiding any chances of panic.

Even so, the study brings into light the safety standards of certain medical treatments such as dental ones. The researchers pointed out that even though blood donations were not necessarily found to be hazardous, investigation and screening of samples would be an effective way to eliminate any chances of improbability.

Alzheimer’s contagious nature was uncovered by British scientists who were actually studying CreutzfeldtJakob Disease (iCJD), a form of iatrogenic disorder which slowly disintegrates the brain. The vector of contagion for the disease is identified to be contaminated surgical equipment and environment.

The scientists analyzed the brain tissue of 8 deceased patients who were victims of the disease. All of the deceased received Pituitary Growth Hormones, which originated from other dead bodies. Surprisingly, 6 out of 8 patients were identified with signature identification marks of Alzheimer’s; amyloid beta deposits clinging to the linings of blood vessels and neurons, which is formed when protein breaks down.

In 4 out of 6 deceased, amyloid deposits were significant in nature and 1 patients remained unaffected. Moreover, all of the deceased had no genetic condition which could be associated with Alzheimer’s disease and their age group ranged from 36–51 years. These discoveries paved way towards the answer for Alzheimer’s contagiousness: a specific hormone responsible for transferring Alzheimer’s protein and CJD from one patient to the other.

Alzheimer CJD

And because there exists possibility that iCJD proteins can be transferred via different ways such as neurosurgery, researchers are still investigating the possibility that the same principles apply for Alzheimer’s.

The research is still underway to investigate exactly how Alzheimer’s is transferred from one patient to another. Professor John Collinge, lead scientist at Medical Research Council Prior Unit at University College London expressed his professional opinion on the matter, citing that in certain rare cases such neurological diseases may have been transmitted via external vectors.

Professor John Collinge cited

“You could have three different ways you have these protein seeds generated in your brain.”

He continued

“Either they happen spontaneously, an unlucky event as you age, or you have got a faulty gene, or you’ve been exposed to a medical accident. That’s what we’re hypothesizing.”

So what makes amyloid beta proteins different than CJD prions? Amyloids are resistant to normal techniques of sterilization and tend to adhere to metal surfaces despite cleaning. Transmission of Alzheimer’s disease has already been proven on experiments conducted on lab monkeys and mice. In the studies, liquefied brain tissue was extracted from dead cadavers afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease. The animals were then exposed to the matter via injections to central nervous system and in due time, they developed conditions similar to that of Alzheimer’s.

Scientists are still skeptical that CJD prions are responsible for causing deposits of amyloid beta proteins in patients receiving growth hormones. Both diseases target different areas of the brain and it was confirmed there were no signs of Alzheimer’s in the brains of 116 patients suffering from prion diseases who were not administered pituitary growth hormones.

Researchers have also concluded in separate studies that amyloid beta protein can also form on its own in pituitary gland, located at the base of brain.

No recorded patient ended up being afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease and their brains revealed no indication of changes which are caused by Alzheimer’s. They did not exhibit another vital symptom of the disease; the formation of tau tangles, which are abnormal protein strands twisted around nerve cells. It remains unclear whether the patients would have developed Alzheimer’s if they had lived for more time.

On the subject of Alzheimer’s transmission via blood transfusion, Professor Collinge stated

“I think it’s not unreasonable to have a look. My concerns would be more to see if there is a risk of seeding from metal surfaces. I think that is something we ought to prioritize.”

However, he clarified that there existed no epidemiological data to confirm that Alzheimer’s could originate as a result of receiving blood transfusion.

Alzheimer Disease

Professor Collinge later contradicted his previous statements by stating the data gathered did not reflect upon dentistry being labelled as a vector for spreading Alzheimer’s. He remarked that there was no link between dentistry causing spread of Alzheimer’s disease and all dental procedures were safe.

The professor also added that the research which formed a base for their conclusion used human growth hormones derived from cadavers, a procedure which was later phased out with time. He expressed possibility that the conclusions derived from experiments might be applicable to some surgical procedures, but any confirmed statement on the matter warranted more research into the matter.

On the same note, he assured that there was no way Alzheimer’s was a contagious disease like the common cold and all medical procedures were safe to be implemented.

To add weight to the statement Professor Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer issued a general statement to the public, stating that there was no proof that Alzheimer’s was in any way contagious and there was no way it could be passed on through medical procedures.

She continued, saying that the research was conducted on 8 samples only and a wider study was already in place to analyze Alzheimer’s. In her statement, she said “I can reassure people that the NHS has extremely stringent procedures in place to minimize infection risk from surgical equipment, and patients are very well protected.”

Pituitary Growth Hormones extracted from cadavers were administered to people suffering from growth related issues in UK starting from 1958. The practice was discontinued in 1985 when it was confirmed the patients were developing CJD.

The growth hormone administered to patients was extracted from multiple cadavers and then mixed together, which meant a single patient was receiving growth hormone from multiple donors. This exponentially increased the risk of disease transmission as any one of the donors could be a carrier for the diseases.

Around 1,848 patients underwent growth hormone therapy in the UK for stunted growth, from which there have been 77 casualties as a result of CJD. Up till 2012, there have been 450 registered cases of patients diagnosed with iatrogenic CJD. The cause of disease transmission has been identified to be hormones extracted from cadavers and neurosurgery and corneal transplants, among surgical procedures.

Alzheimer’s Society’s Director of Research Dr Doug Brown shared the same opinion. “Injections of growth hormone taken from human brains were stopped in the 1980s” he said, assuring that medical technology and procedures had been revolutionized to prevent such incidents.

“There remains absolutely no evidence that Alzheimer’s disease is contagious or can be transmitted from person to person via any current medical procedures.”

If Alzheimer’s protein seeds could be transmitted in the same fashion as CJD prions, it would pose a serious risk. Hailing from Alzheimer’s Research UK, Chief Scientist Dr Eric Karran stated that age was the biggest factor among lifestyle choices and genetic factors when it came to Alzheimer’s.

He reassured that even if the research backed the association between Alzheimer’s contagiousness through infected tissue and surgical procedures, it would only be limited to a very small population of affected people.

Royal College of Surgeons’ Dean of Faculty, Professor Nigel Hunt shot down the research as being inconclusive, stating that it was insufficient to arrive at any conclusion. He added that all dental procedures were completely risk free and safe. Regarding the research, he cited that it was a relatively new study which required much more research before arriving at conclusive facts.

Although scientific studies conducted on this controversial topic have yielded results, it must be noted that the field being researched is relatively new and requires further inquiry. Although recent studies have proven a link between Alzheimer’s and surgical techniques, it is lacking in many aspects and requires an extensive study for conclusive evidence.

Science has evolved at astounding levels over the past few years in the field of surgical technology and techniques, which has revolutionized the medical field. For now, it seems it would be safe to trust the advent of technology and wait for further research to solve the unanswered questions.

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