Medicine's Next Big Thing: Mapping Alzheimer's Disease

FRESNO, Calif.

These days, James and Birdie Brown enjoy watching TV together. But college is where their story began. The night James proposed, he went over to Birdie's dorm window. "We talked and talked and talked, and I asked her to marry me. She said, 'are you crazy?' I said I couldn't answer that. I don't know if you tell the truth or not," James brown, told Ivanhoe.

The two married and had five children, all of them doctors. "I'm a happy mother," Birdie Brown said. But that didn't save Birdie from Alzheimer's disease. "I wouldn't accept it. You don't want to believe that this is going down," James Brown said.

When James had a stroke two years ago, the couple moved into an assisted living center. The Brown's are one of 35 million families living with Alzheimer's worldwide. A new, international initiative could help unravel the disease's mysteries.

"It's been a long time coming," Jonathan Haines, Ph.D., a director at Vanderbilt University's Center for Human Genetics Research, said. Dr. Haines is part of the global team that will map all the genes involved in Alzheimer's. "What it allows us to do is to get to the end point of understanding what genes are involved and start the process of understanding why these genes are involved," Dr. Haines said.

They are comparing the genes of 20 thousand Alzheimer's patients with 20 thousand healthy elderly subjects. "We should be able to identify ways of slowing or stopping or even potentially preventing the disease from occurring," Dr. Haines said.

For now, James will stick to a promise he made long ago. "When I stood up and said, 'I do,' it says through sickness and in health," James Brown said. As the study progresses, an additional 10 thousand people with Alzheimer's and 10 thousand healthy elderly subjects will be added to the study sample. Scientists believe as many as 50 genes could contribute to Alzheimer's disease.

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