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Locus Coeruleus Is The First Brain Structure To Get Affected By Alzheimer's

Update Date: Feb 17, 2016 11:44 AM EST

The sensitive area of the brain that gets affected by the late onset of Alzheimer's disease is discovered by scientists from the University of Southern California. What is called "ground zero" is an area of the brain that would be important for maintaining cognitive function later and help to treat the neurodegenerative diseases.

This is the locus coeruleus, which is a small, bluish-colored formation of the brainstem releasing the neurotransmitter norepinephrine. It is responsible for regulation of "heart rate, attention, memory and cognition". The locus coeruleus axons branch out to monitor blood vessel activity, showing a high degree of interconnectedness to boost the structure's susceptibility to toxins and infections, compared to related areas in the brain.

This is also the first region in the brain that indicates the slowly spreading tangles of the tau protein. They later become the "signature signs" of Alzheimer's disease. Even those not affected by the disease indicate a few initial signs of tau pathology in this region of the brain.

Norepinephrine secreted from this region can help to protect a patient. It has a protective effect on neurons, protecting them from factors leading to cell death and enhancing Alzheimer's disease, including inflammation and excessive neurotransmitter stimulation.

"Education and engaging careers produce late-life 'cognitive reserve,' or effective brain performance, despite encroaching pathology," Mara Mather, lead author of the study, said in a press release. "Activation of the locus coeruleus-norepinephrine system by novelty and mental challenge throughout one's life may contribute to cognitive reserve."

The findings were published in the Feb. 16,2016 issue of Trends in Cognitive Sciences.

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