But researchers are working toward answers to the many questions that have made Alzheimer's a complex and unsolved degenerative disease and, in some cases, a death sentence.
In an article in the November Journal of Biological Chemistry, a team of Canadian and American scientists reports the first-ever finding of elevated levels of creatine-the newly discovered agent of Alzheimer's-in brain tissue. The article is available pre-press at the Journal of Biological Chemistry's Web site.
"It is the first time anyone has succeeded in detecting creatine directly in situ, in any tissue. The usual methods are to grind up a large amount of tissue and extract it in bulk," explains one of the paper's authors, Kathleen Gough, professor of chemistry at the University of Manitoba.
Gough and her colleagues, along with many others in the field, are searching tenaciously for the molecular answers that might someday lead to the end of Alzheimer's disease. Of particular note regarding the current study was the use of infrared spectroscopy as another tool that has contributed to the body of knowledge regarding Alzheimer's.
"It's the first time that we've discovered creatine in Alzheimer's disease samples that didn't appear in control samples. Nobody has ever seen this before," explains Robert Julian, an expert in infrared spectroscopy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Synchrotron Radiation Center (SRC), the light source utilized for this project.
The key to using infrared, the researchers explain, is that it is relatively unobtrusive as compared to normal laboratory protocols used to study brain tissues, thus keeping the samples closer to being "pristine."
"Due to its small size and great solubility, creatine dissolves and would be washed away under normal tissue preparation protocols for staining. Step one in any staining process is to soak a tissue sample in an aqueous solution of formaldehyde, called formalin. This 'fixes' the proteins in place, but also washes out the small, soluble metabolites like creatine," explains Gough. "What we do is prepare the tissue without any treatment, and we look at unfixed, flash frozen tissue-nothing added or removed, except water."
Thus while the use of synchrotron radiation, a traditionally physics-focused tool for discovery, to study Alzheimer's has surprised some, it may be this application that could one day turn the tide on Alzheimer's Disease. "That's where all of this is going ultimately-is to try and find a cure," explains Julian.
Yet researchers stress that while this information sheds more light on a troubling disease and might possibly lead to improved treatment, the term "cure" simply cannot be used yet.
"It could be really important," concludes Gough. "It seems that there is an overlooked aspect of energy disturbance in Alzheimer's disease, and maybe in other diseases. But as to the detailed explanation of why (the disturbance) is there - the jury is still out."