My group is studying Alzheimer’s disease (AD). We all want to live a long and healthy life, but unfortunately, with aging comes the risk of developing diseases like AD. At 75 about 5% of us have AD and at 85 this risk increases to almost every other person.
AD is the fifth-leading cause of death, and in contrast to many other diseases, the number of deaths due to this form of dementia continues to dramatically increase. To develop cures, which are currently unknown, we really need to understand the mechanisms and factors that lead to AD.
So we are using fruit flies to do this – yes, the little bugs that sit on your bananas at home. You might ask, how these flies can tell us anything about AD? Even these little flies have a brain and they need it to find food, or a partner, or to avoid being eaten by a frog, or flying into a wall. Therefore, they also need the mechanisms that keep their brains intact. The advantage of these Drosophila flies is that they have been used in research for a long time – some of you might remember them from school. This means they are well understood and many methods have been developed to use them.
How do we use these flies? First, we determined that they do show deficits and problems similar to what we encounter as we age and develop these diseases. They become slower with age, they have problems remembering things, and they can show changes in their brain similar to what we find in AD patients. Next, we look at if we can find mutant flies that develop symptoms faster or slower, to identify genes that may be risk factors or protective factors in developing AD. We can also use them as a cheap and easily available model to test drugs or to study effects of environmental factors like sleep. Of course, we don’t only rely on flies. We have a network of colleagues here at OHSU that can test what we find in flies in mice, before eventually applying it to humans.
So, the next time you see a Drosophila sitting on your banana, be nice….