One of the next experiments going up to the International Space Station (ISS) could provide new insight into what causes Alzheimer's disease.
The experiment, which now sits in a 4-inch box, arrives later this month via the SpaceX CRS-5 resupply mission to the station.
Scientists call the experiment Self-Assembly in Biology and the Origin of Life: A Study Into Alzheimer's, or SABOL for short. The experiment seeks to look at how protein fibers possibly grab hold and strangle nerve and brain cells, causing Alzheimer's.
The experiment itself will be hands-free: it's completely autonomous and will work in space on its own. It doesn't even require a lot of power and only needs plugging into a USB port.
So why test this theory in space? Weightlessness makes such experiments easier and more accurate. It also speeds up results because these protein fibers will probably grow larger and faster in space than on Earth because of the lack of gravity. On Earth, gravity pulls them down into the bottom of the box, inhibiting the fibers. Seeing how they grow and layer around each other in space opens up new insights on how they eventually choke nerve and brain cells associated with Alzheimer's.
"If we're lucky, then we'll find out whether proteins will aggregate in space," says Dan Woodard of NASA's Kennedy Space Center. "Only in weightlessness can you produce an environment free of convection so you can see whether they form on their own."
Scientists stress that it's tough finding a cure for a disease like Alzheimer's without first understanding what causes it. This new theory and resulting experiment could change that.
Scientists believe that these fibers grow throughout one's lifetime and the body has no way of getting rid of them. Understanding how they form and develop, however, could help us figure out how to slow them down or stop their growth altogether in patients diagnosed with Alzheimer's.
The experiment's samples will eventually make their way back to Earth where they'll be looked at with an atomic force microscope. After that, scientists will then seek answers as to why these fibers, if linked to Alzheimer's, form in such a way in some people, but not in others.
"We've got to understand why some people get these conditions and others don't," says Woodard. "There have to be chemicals or processes that hinder or encourage the growth of protein fibers. It may be something as simple as temperature or salt concentration of the fluid in the brain."
At present, more than 5 million Americans suffer from Alzheimer's disease. It is the 6th leading cause of death in the U.S. and around 500,000 people die from it every year. In people aged 65 and older, it is the 5th leading cause of death.
[Photo Credit: STS-128 Crew/NASA]