Helminths, Our Genes and Alzheimer’s – Mind Blowing!

One of the most interesting articles[i] I’ve read in a long time appeared in the New York Times this past weekend.  I highly recommend you take the time to read the whole thing but in case you’re pressed for time, here’s a quick synopsis:

The ApoE4 gene is known as the Alzheimer’s gene.  Those of us in industrialized societies who carry 2 copies are more than 10X as likely to develop the disease.  Strangely enough though, those in pre-industrialized societies perform BETTER cognitively if they carry 2 copies of the gene.  How is this possible?

Not many of us have 2 copies of the gene, and only about ¼ of us have 1 copy.  However, it was ubiquitous in our ancestors.  Why?  Likely, it was important in the development of our “big energy-hungry brains.”  Researchers believe that the ApoE4 gene is crucial somehow in defending our brains from pathogenic invaders.

So what is the difference between those in pre-industrial societies – where the ApoE4 gene provides major neuroprotection – and those of us in the industrialized world, where it hugely increases our risk of dementia?


Dr. Ben Trumble, of Arizona State, found that in a group of Bolivian natives (who still live in a pre-industrialized society), “…those with infections were more likely to maintain their mental fitness if they carried one or two copies of the ApoE4 gene; for them, the “Alzheimer’s gene” provided an advantage. For the minority who’d managed to elude parasitic infection, however, the opposite was true, and the ApoE4 gene was connected with cognitive decline, just as it is for people in industrialized countries.”

How amazing is that?!!!!

The likely culprit has to do with astrocytes, cells that support neurons and keep them healthy.  Recent research out of Stanford shows that these cells can flip into “killer mode” and start to destroy the very cells they’re supposed to protect.  “Nowadays, since most of us live in more sterile environments, this army in our brain is no longer busy fighting pathogens, and so it responds instead — often far too vigorously — to the amyloid plaques and tangles that are a part of normal aging.”

That sounds a whole lot like it’s saying that without helminths, autoimmune activity develops in the brain, doesn’t it?

Of course the scientists in this article say that we should not use helminths.  After all, there is a lot we don’t know, etc. etc. etc..  (And, not to sound too cynical but – they’d also like to develop “designer parasites” which they can patent and sell for billions of dollars.)

On the other hand…hmmm…I can possibly protect my brain from dementia now and not wait until someone has developed a pharmaceutical in a few decades?  To me, that’s not a question.


[i] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/14/opinion/sunday/alzheimers-cure-south-america.html?smprod=nytcore-ipad&smid=nytcore-ipad-share

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