"We believe that we've identified one of the very early markers of Alzheimer's disease," she says.
The missing piece in the puzzle might be an elusive enzyme produced in aging human brains that, in its active form, systematically kills neurons. Known as Caspase-6, this protein destroys other proteins that are known to be involved in learning and memory. "If those proteins are being chopped up by our enzyme, it may be that this is what leads to the very first signs of cognitive impairment," LeBlanc says. After a dozen years of studying samples of donated brains and tissue cultures in the lab, LeBlanc hopes next to search for elevated levels of Caspase-6 in the cerebrospinal fluid of Alzheimer's patients - and then identify specific inhibitors of the enzyme that could stop the disease.
A range of new and interesting lines of research are presently underway in the Alzheimer's research community. Along the way, they are building a foundation of technology and knowledge for the next generation of brain medicine. This is a very good thing; assuming that tissue engineering and cancer research proceed much as we expect over the next few decades - and assuming similar levels of progress in dealing with damaged mitochondria and the aging immune system - then the brain begins to look like the complex sticking point for healthy life extension.
We're going to have to become very good at maintaining and repairing the brain at the cellular and sub-cellular levels; fortunately, the first steps towards the technologies required are already underway.
The orb is a latex bead, micrometres in diameter, coated with the organic compound polylysine; the organic blob is a neuron. Lucido and Colman, a Canada Research Chair, believe the image captured on that slide was the cell attempting to form a synapse - an active communication - with the bead.
Get that cell communicating with some man-made electronics, and it could be possible to create a bridge between severed nerves and muscles up to a metre away - light years in neuronal terms. The possibilities are breathtaking - malfunctioning glands linked to artificial regulators, severed spinal cords repaired, stroke victims rehabilitated.