Alzheimer’s disease attacks our humanity at its core, destroying the brain cells themselves. A healthy, normal neuron looks like a tree. In Alzheimer’s disease it is as if the tree is slowly being killed by a blight. First it loses its branches, then it swells and becomes gnarled. Finally, its trunk decays and it becomes a stump. Abnormal structures replace normal cells: long, wavy filaments called neurofibrillary tangles and thick bits of protein called senile plaques.
The neural devastation advances much like the gypsy moth Plague that spread from forest to forest about ten years ago, eventually covering much of the Northeast. At the beginning there are just a few changes in limited areas of the brain. One section that tends to be heavily affected early on is the hippocampus — the part of the brain responsible for solidifying (or encoding) new memories — explaining why one of the first symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease is difficulty in remembering recent events. Gradually the damage cuts a wider swath. The cortex (our brain’s reasoning center) is studded with abnormal brain fragments; if the disease is advanced, in some places there may be few normal neurons left.
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