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Ask Dr. Mike: Is Alzheimer's an Autoimmune Problem?

Here you'll find the answers to a wealth of health and wellness questions posed by Healthy Talk fans. Listen in because what you know helps ensure healthy choices you can live with. Today on Healthy Talk, you wanted to know:

Is it common or easy to find tart cherries in whole foods?

There are so many different kinds of cherries out there that Dr. Mike is a little unsure if the benefits can be found in whole foods. Dr. Mike usually sticks to extracts.

I read a report that Alzheimer's might be an immune problem. Can you shed some light on this theory?

First of all, no; Alzheimer's is not an immune problem, it's multi-factorial.

Alzheimer's occurs when there are abnormal protein deposits outside brain cells, which disrupts the information highway in your brain (the connecting of your brain's cells). The theory is that since in Alzheimer's patients have an accumulation of this, that maybe there's a component of Alzheimer's as an autoimmune deficiency.

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RadioMD Presents:Healthy Talk | Original Air Date: April 16, 2015
Host: Michael Smith, MD

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DR MIKE: So, you know you can email me right now and if the question--if I catch it--I can read it online. As a matter of fact, my producer Sheldon Baker sent an email to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and it just came through. He's referencing the tart cherries. I've mentioned several times before about tart cherry extract being so good for inflammation and pain--muscle pain, neuropathic pain. I've had successful experiences with using tart cherry extract for diabetic pain. I mean, I'm not saying it gets rid of it completely but it manages it. It's better. Anyway, so Sheldon is asking me,

"Is it common or easy to find tart cherries in Whole Foods?"

You know, I just always use the extract. I don't know. There are so many different types of cherries, so I don't know. I think the specific variety of tart cherry is not as common as some of the other varieties that you might find in the store but if you have a different answer and you want to help me, let me know. Teach me something about tart cherries and how common they are in places like Whole Foods. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Okay. I read a report. This is the next question:

"I read a report that Alzheimer's might be an immune problem. Can you shed some light on this theory?"

Oh love it. You know, so, again, I'm pretty--for a General Practitioner, general doctor--I'm pretty up to date on Alzheimer's because I work for a foundation where we've really focused a lot on mild cognitive impairment dementias like Alzheimer's and I've done several lectures throughout the country on the latest theories of Alzheimer's.

As a matter of fact, last year I was at NOVA University here in South Florida speaking to their pharmacy school about some of the latest theories. So, yes, I am familiar a lot with what's going on in Alzheimer's research and this one is really interesting. So, to answer the question "Could Alzheimer be an immune problem?" Well, let me answer that by saying, first of all, "no". Because, again, Alzheimer's, like all age-related type disorders, whether it's in the brain, heart, whatever, they're multifactorial.

And there are probably many things going on--oxidative stress, inflammation--which could all be stimulated by toxins and just age itself. There are lots of things going on but there is some research. So, to say Alzheimer's is caused by this one thing or Alzheimer's is this, no, I would never say that it's too complicated. But, there is some really interesting research that's starting to reveal a little bit of an immune and infectious disease component to Alzheimer's.

So, let me explain. On one hand, we know that the basic characteristics of Alzheimer's pathology is these abnormal protein deposits that happen outside of the brain cells kind of called the intracellular space. So, you have your brain, right? And it's made up of a bunch of brain cells and these brain cells connect to each other, those are kind of like the information highways and, as a matter of fact, how brain cells connect to each other is extremely important, maybe even more so important than the brain cell itself.

How it touches other brain cells and forms pathways and what happens in Alzheimer's disease, for probably a variety of reasons, there is this abnormal protein that is formed that is then pushed outside of the brain cell and it starts to clump in this intracellular space in that area where the brain cell is trying to connect to other brain cells. So, it disrupts the highways, these abnormal protein deposits. The classic one is amyloid. There's also thal protein but these clumps of protein kind of disrupt the information highway one brain cell connecting to another.

Now, it turns out that we all might develop these abnormal protein deposits at times. Even in a young healthy person, they might actually have an abnormal protein deposit once in awhile. But the body is able to recognize it as something that's wrong. The body then activates these brain macrophages, which are a type of an immune cell that can grab onto those clumps and literally eat it up. That's what macrophages do.

Macrophages will engulf bacteria, viruses, whatever, anything that's not you or that's abnormal or getting in the way the immune system has a type of cell called a "macrophage" that can go in there and just gobble it up. We have specific macrophages that live in the brain that are there, we believe now, to clean up the intracellular space because that intracellular space is so important to how one brain cell communicates with another. So, the theory is that since in Alzheimer's patients there's this accumulation of these abnormal protein deposits that maybe those brain macrophages aren't working as well. Maybe there is a component of Alzheimer's disease that is an immunodeficiency.

Now, again, Alzheimer's is multifactorial. Having an immunodeficiency does not explain why those protein deposits are forming in the first place but we are recognizing that it may happen in healthy young people but they have activated macrophages to eat it up. Alzheimer's patients don't. So, yes, on one level I'm going to answer the question "Is Alzheimer's an immune problem?", no. It's multifactorial. "Is there an immunodeficiency with macrophages that might allow progression of disease?" Yes. See, how I did that?

So, that's interesting and that's why I think we're really--here at Life Extension--we're interested in curcumin so much. Curcumin--that's from the turmeric spice. It's the key compound. It's the anti-inflammatory compound. It's an antioxidant. It's just awesome for you. It crosses the blood/brain barrier and it's able to clump onto or attach to the abnormal amyloid proteins and thal proteins and the intracellular space and once that happens that seems to be something those inactive macrophages can recognize and now activate so there's some evidence that curcumin can reactivate brain macrophages in Alzheimer's patients and start to eat up some of those abnormal protein deposits. Very, very interesting research. There's another component--another side to this, too. It's just an association. It's kind of interesting.

Although there was one research paper that said it was actually a cause/effect which is really interesting. Alzheimer's patients have a high level of spirochetes in their brain. It's a bacteria. It's the same bacteria that causes Lyme disease. Spirochetes. They check nasal passages, sinal passages, cerebral spinal fluid and it's across the board in all these different studies. Alzheimer's patients have significant levels of spirochetes in their brain and sinuses. You really should have none. Healthy controls have none. But, Alzheimer's patients have significant levels of these spirochetes.

So, again, it's multifactorial. You've got these macrophages that aren't working really well. You have oxidative stress. You have inflammation and then all of that kind of depresses the brain's immune system in a sense and it allows something like a spirochete to kind of latch on and get into the brain and cause problems and raise inflammation more. See how it all kind of comes together? So, interesting, interesting research with an immunodeficiency. Those macrophages, curcumin reactivating those macrophages, and then, of course, spirochete infections. Maybe early on, Alzheimer's patients should be treated for spirochete infection. That's where a lot of this research is going.

So, great question that went a lot longer than I thought I was going to answer but it's stuff that I'm really up to date on and enjoy researching. So, yes. Check that out. Macrophages, curcumin, and spirochetes in Alzheimer's patients.

This is Healthy Talk on RadioMD. I'm Dr. Mike. Stay well.