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Is Alzheimer’s Contagious?

Did you notice that Gene Amdahl (Founder of Amdahl computers, the company that ran against IBM and won for a while) just died? He was one of the pioneers in computing and a true global innovator. Tragically he died of Alzheimer’s. That puts paid to the notion that you can avoid this terrible disease by having an active mind. You couldn’t get anyone with a more active mind than him.

Meanwhile drug firms are still coming up with nothing in their search for a drug that will cure the disease. Some people are now excited that there is yet another drug that shows promise (Salsalate). The bad news is that it is an old drug, similar to aspirin, that has been around for over 100 years. Maybe a sign of desperation?

We don’t even know what causes Alzheimer’s. Maybe you have a gene that predisposes you, maybe you didn’t exercise enough, drank too much, smoked, or beat your wife (or husband). The scientists have put all their eggs into the plaque basket. This seems to have been a huge dud. It’s amazing to me that so many PhDs can toil so hard with so many NIH grants and company research money and yet not come up with anything.

So again as usual I’ve got an idea. But there’s a backstory we gotta cover first.

Ever heard of mad cow disease? Very nasty, spreads through eating infected meat. It destroys the brain of the cow and of any human that gets infected. Technical name for it is Jacob-Creutz disease. When you do an autopsy of an infected brain its looks something like the plaques from Alzheimer’s.

Now here’s the interesting part. It is caused by a biological agent that until recently was unknown, namely a prion. Prions are mini-viruses. They also infect cells and cause the proteins in them to fold wrongly which leads to the disease.

Prions are really intriguing. We used to think there were only 2 types of biological agents that caused disease, bacteria and viruses. Now we know at least 3. Maybe there’s even more, who knows?

Now here’s the rub. We know that mad cow disease is caused by prions. Are there other diseases caused by them? Almost certainly. In fact there could be a lot. There’s even some possibility that most diseases that we haven’t figured out the cause of are actually caused by prions. Think for example all mental diseases, for which again we don’t have a clue as to their cause.

Let’s switch gears again. Have you heard about dark matter? We now think we know that almost 80% of the known universe is comprised of it; only problem is we don’t know what it is made of. But it looks awfully like science to date including observational astronomy is only seeing around 20% of what’s out there. We are just missing the other 80%.

Now it’s starting to look like this might be the case with prions and prionic diseases. It’s quite possible that most diseases are caused by prions; we just don’t know coz we never knew about them and there is almost no research about them.

So back to Alzheimer’s. You can guess where this is going. It looks awfully like it might be a disease caused by prions. Recent research is starting to look suspiciously like it might have found evidence for this.

And now there is new research that shows that prion diseases could be infectious. In that case it could include Parkinson’s as well as Alzheimer’s. If it’s infectious it could be transmitted in other ways too. For example by hormone transfusions from diseased cadavers and by other medical procedures, as shown by recent research. So now the possibility opens itself up that some prion diseases, including possibly Alzheimer’s, could be infectious or even contagious too.

Now that might lead you to think that as long as you don’t go near someone with Alzheimer’s, everything is hunky dory. But not so fast.

It’s pretty clear now that by the time you have Alzheimer’s symptoms, you have already had the disease for many years. By that time the person is in the late stages of the disease. In fact it looks like the onset is many years before, maybe up to 20 years. Or even more (c.f. early onset Alzheimer’s) What this means is that you could well be in contact with, in fact almost everyone probably is, someone who has the very early stages of Alzheimer’s, without ever knowing it.

Is that why Alzheimer’s is so prevalent in older people, 11% of people over 65 and one-third of people over 85 (Alzheimer’s Association 2014)? Could that, rather than the APOE-e4 gene, be the reason that the disease runs in families?

Now I’m taking some big leaps here about the cause of Alzheimer’s. But the evidence is powerful that it isn’t just genetic. The NIH merely goes so far as to say that there is a genetic component. No-one has even mentioned that it could be bacterial or viral. And the prion data is circumstantially very powerful.

But the scientific community hasn’t really picked up the scent yet, probably because the NIH and the medical authorities have it stuck in their collective head that plaque is the cause (rather than merely a symptom). The focus of the researchers is now switching to the so-called tau tangles but that’s really the same approach. What causes tau tangles then?

This is a bleak topic. If the disease is prionic it may well be contagious or infectious. In that case the risk of contracting it is even bigger than we all realize. But it’s no solution to bury our heads in the research sand and pretend it’s not as bad as all that.

The message is clear. We need some new minds and new ways of thinking about how to cure Alzheimer’s. The research mandarins and drug companies need to start thinking outside the box and about possible prion involvement, and possibly other exotic biological agents that we haven’t even discovered yet.

Just like dark matter, if you can’t see something, it doesn’t mean it isn’t there.




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