Dolphins show hallmarks of Alzheimer’s, study shows

Dolphins show hallmarks of Alzheimer’s, study shows

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The brains of three species of dolphin found stranded on the coast of Scotland, show the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s diseaseaccording to new research providing better insight into the disease in species other than humans.

Findings can also provide a possible answer to the unexplained plantings of dolphins along the coast, the researchers said.

Alzheimer’s disease is a common neurodegenerative disorder which mostly affects older people with symptoms such as memory loss, forgetfulness and confusion.

According to a study published on December 13 in European Journal of Neuroscienceresearchers in Scotland conducted post-mortem studies on the brains of 22 odontocetesor toothed whales, making their findings more detailed than others, on the authors said.

“It is deeper and broader because it looks at a larger number of animals from several different species of cetaceans that are known to be old-for-species (older in age),” Mark Daglish, co-author and senior clinician in anatomic pathology at the University of Glasgow, told CNN on Tuesday.

The study looked at specimens from five species: Riso’s dolphins, long-finned pilot whales, white-beaked dolphins, harbor porpoises and bottlenose dolphins. Of the 22 examined, 18 specimens were aged.

“Critically, (it) examines the whole brain to provide profiles of lesions (abnormalities) using more markers of Alzheimer’s disease,” Daglish added, with the same techniques used for human tissue.

The results show that three old dolphins — a fin whale, a white-beaked dolphin and a bottlenose dolphin — have brain changes or lesions associated with Alzheimer’s disease in humans.

Tara Spears-Jones, another study co-author said in a statement this week that researchers “were fascinated to see brain changes in aging dolphins similar to those seen in humans (aging) and Alzheimer’s disease.”

“Whether these pathological changes contribute to the stranding of these animals is an interesting and important question for future work,” said Spiers-Jones, the Personal Chair in Neurodegeneration in the Deanship of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Edinburgh.

The long-finned pilot whales were among three old dolphins that showed similar lesions to people with Alzheimer's disease.

The researchers found that the specimens accumulated phospho-tau proteins and glial cells and formed amyloid-beta plaques, the clumping protein found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. The distribution of these lesions is comparable to brain regions in people with Alzheimer’s, according to the research paper.

Daglish said the findings are “the closest anyone has come to showing that an animal spontaneously develops Alzheimer’s-related lesions,” which were thought to develop only in humans.

Odontocetes regularly strand on UK shores in groups, which the study authors say could support the ‘sick leader’ theory of when the group follows an elderly leader into shallow water, potentially as a result of the leader becoming confused.

The similar neuropathology of elderly dolphins and humans with Alzheimer’s suggests the marine mammals are susceptible to the disease, but Daglish said a diagnosis can only be made if there is a cognitive deficit. These are usually detected using assessments of cognitive impairment – impossible with postmortem examinations.

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