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Jon Hamilton

Researchers are prescribing exercise as if it were a drug in a study that aims to see if it can prevent Alzheimer's disease.

"We are testing if exercise is medicine for people with a mild memory problem," says Laura Baker, principal investigator of the nationwide EXERT study and associate director of the Alzheimer's Disease Research Center at Wake Forest School of Medicine.

In a waiting room at the Banner Alzheimer's Institute in Phoenix, a 74-year-old woman named Rubie is about to find out whether she has a gene that puts her at risk for Alzheimer's.

"I'm a little bit apprehensive about it, and I hope I don't have it," she says. "But if I do, I want to be able to plan for my future."

The gene is called APOE E4, and it's the most powerful known genetic risk factor for Alzheimer's after age 65.

Alzheimer's disease begins altering the brain long before it affects memory and thinking.

So scientists are developing a range of tests to detect these changes in the brain, which include an increase in toxic proteins, inflammation and damage to the connections between brain cells.

Spinal surgery made it possible for Liv Cannon to plant her first vegetable garden.

"It's a lot of bending over and lifting the wheelbarrow and putting stakes in the ground," the 26-year-old says as she surveys the tomatillos, cherry tomatoes and eggplants growing in raised beds behind her house in Austin, Texas. "And none of that I could ever do before."

For the first 24 years of her life, Cannon's activities were limited by chronic pain and muscle weakness.

What sounds like music to us may just be noise to a macaque monkey.

That's because a monkey's brain appears to lack critical circuits that are highly sensitive to a sound's pitch, a team reported Monday in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

The finding suggests that humans may have developed brain areas that are sensitive to pitch and tone in order to process the sounds associated with speech and music.

When Sterling Witt was a teenager in Missouri, he was diagnosed with scoliosis. Before long, the curvature of his spine started causing chronic pain.

It was "this low-grade kind of menacing pain that ran through my spine and mostly my lower back and my upper right shoulder blade and then even into my neck a little bit," Witt says.

The pain was bad. But the feeling of helplessness it produced in him was even worse.

"I felt like I was being attacked by this invisible enemy," Witt says. "It was nothing that I asked for, and I didn't even know how to battle it."

Scientists are setting a new course in their quest to treat Alzheimer's disease.

The shift comes out of necessity. A series of expensive failures with experimental drugs aimed at a toxic protein called amyloid-beta have led to a change in approach.

Scientists have found a way to transform brain signals into spoken words and sentences.

The approach could someday help people who have lost the ability to speak or gesture, a team from the University of California, San Francisco reported Wednesday in the journal Nature.

The anesthetic ketamine can relieve depression in hours and keep it at bay for a week or more.

Now scientists have found hints about how ketamine works in the brain.

In mice, the drug appears to quickly improve the functioning of certain brain circuits involved in mood, an international team reported Thursday in the journal Science. Then, hours later, it begins to restore faulty connections between cells in these circuits.

When you're thirsty, a swig of fresh water brings instant relief. But gulp down some salty sea water and you'll still feel parched.

That's because your brain is trying to keep the concentration of salt in your body within a very narrow range, says Zachary Knight, an associate professor in physiology at the University of California, San Francisco and an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

In the U.S., older people with dementia are usually told they have Alzheimer's disease.

But a range of other brain diseases can also impair thinking and memory and judgment, according to scientists attending a summit on dementias held Thursday and Friday at the National Institutes of Health.

These include strokes, a form of Parkinson's disease and a disease that damages brain areas that regulate emotion and behavior.

Primary care doctors are really good at checking seniors' cholesterol levels and blood pressure but often fail to use tests that could detect dementia.

Fewer than half of primary care doctors surveyed say they routinely test patients 65 and older for problems with memory and thinking, according to a report released Tuesday by the Alzheimer's Association.

The Food and Drug Administration is expected to approve a new type of drug for depression. It is esketamine, a chemical cousin of the anesthetic and party drug ketamine.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Women tend to have more youthful brains than their male counterparts — at least when it comes to metabolism.

While age reduces the metabolism of all brains, women retain a higher rate throughout the lifespan, researchers reported Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

For comedian Lewis Black, anger is a job.

Black is famous for his rants about stuff he finds annoying or unfair or just plain infuriating.

Onstage, he often looks ready for a fight. He leans forward. He shouts. He stabs the air with an index finger, or a middle finger.

To a scientist, Black looks a lot like a belligerent dog, or an irritated gerbil.

On January 28, 1969, an oil well off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif., experienced a blowout. The result was an oil spill that at the time ranked as the largest in U.S. waters.

The disaster, which made headlines across the nation, helped create the modern environmental movement. It also led to restrictions on offshore drilling — restrictions the Trump Administration is trying to loosen.

The events that led to the spill began one morning on Platform A, a rig located about six miles from the coast and operated at the time by Union Oil.

Scientists have found a biological clue that could help explain why African-Americans appear to be more vulnerable than white Americans to Alzheimer's disease.

A study of 1,255 people, both black and white, found that cerebrospinal fluid from African-Americans tended to contain lower levels of a substance associated with Alzheimer's, researchers report Monday in the journal JAMA Neurology.

Yet these low levels did not seem to protect black participants from the disease.

The holiday season is all about cute. You've got those ads with adorable children and those movies about baby animals with big eyes.

But when people encounter too much cuteness, the result can be something scientists call "cute aggression."

It was a question about soccer that got Philip Bayly interested in brain injuries.

Bayly, a mechanical engineer at Washington University in St. Louis, was approached by several doctors who wanted advice about some young soccer players they were treating.

"They said, 'Well, we've got some kids who have concussions and they want to know if they can go back to play. And we don't know what's happening to their head when they're heading a soccer ball,' " Bayly recalls.

Just in time for the winter solstice, scientists may have figured out how short days can lead to dark moods.

Two recent studies suggest the culprit is a brain circuit that connects special light-sensing cells in the retina with brain areas that affect whether you are happy or sad.

When these cells detect shorter days, they appear to use this pathway to send signals to the brain that can make a person feel glum or even depressed.

There's new evidence that mild pulses of electricity can relieve depression — if they reach the right target in the brain.

A study of 25 people with epilepsy found that those who had symptoms of depression felt better almost immediately when doctors electrically stimulated an area of the brain just above the eyes, a team reported Thursday in the journal Current Biology.

Scientists may have caught a glimpse of what sadness looks like in the brain.

A study of 21 people found that for most, feeling down was associated with greater communication between brain areas involved in emotion and memory, a team from the University of California, San Francisco reported Thursday in the journal Cell.

A substance that gives pot its kick appears to reduce the brain changes associated with Alzheimer's disease – at least in mice.

In mice that had been genetically tweaked to develop symptoms like those of Alzheimer's, animals that received a synthetic form of tetrahydrocannabinol for six weeks performed as well as healthy mice on a memory test, scientists reported Tuesday at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego.

You hear a new colleague's name. You get directions to the airport. You glance at a phone number you're about to call.

These are the times you need working memory, the brain's system for temporarily holding important information.

"Working memory is the sketchpad of your mind; it's the contents of your conscious thoughts," says Earl Miller, a professor of neuroscience at MIT's Picower Institute for Learning and Memory.

An ancient part of the brain long ignored by the scientific world appears to play a critical role in everything from language and emotions to daily planning.

It's the cerebellum, which is found in fish and lizards as well as people.

But in the human brain, this structure is wired to areas involved in higher-order thinking, a team led by researchers from Washington University in St. Louis reports Thursday in the journal Neuron.

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who died Monday, made his fortune from software that ran computer brains.

But Allen's own passion was for the human brain.

"The human brain works in, so far, mysterious and wondrous ways that are completely different than the ways that computers calculate," he told NPR during an interview in 2003. "Things like appetite or emotion, how do those function in the brain?"

In order to see the red of a sunset or the green of spring leaves, developing human eyes need to get the right hormone at the right time.

That's the finding of a team of scientists who studied how color vision develops using hundreds of human retinas grown in the lab.

As a specialist in Alzheimer's prevention, Jessica Langbaum knows that exercising her mental muscles can help keep her brain sharp.

But Langbaum, who holds a doctorate in psychiatric epidemiology, has no formal mental fitness program. She doesn't do crossword puzzles or play computer brain games.

"Just sitting down and doing Sudoku isn't probably going to be the one key thing that's going to prevent you from developing Alzheimer's disease," she says.

Experiments with two gambling monkeys have revealed a small area in the brain that plays a big role in risky decisions.

When researchers inactivated this region in the prefrontal cortex, the rhesus monkeys became less inclined to choose a long shot over a sure thing, the team reported Thursday in the journal Current Biology.

Government scientists have presented new evidence that the plastic additive BPA isn't a health threat.

Low doses of the chemical given to hundreds of rats, "did not elicit clear, biologically plausible adverse effects," said K. Barry Delclos, a research pharmacologist at the Food and Drug Administration's National Center for Toxicological Research.

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