Unraveling the Mystery of Alzheimer’s Disease: Could Camels Carry the Cure?

[Photo: “Camel” by Angeloux, License: CC BY-SA 2.0]


“Did I ever tell you the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Yasmin?”

“Yes grandmother, but I wouldn’t mind if you told it to me again.”

“Well, years and years ago, in the land of Persia, lived a poor wood-cutter named Ali Baba…”

This was how our evening nights began by the fireplace. Every single night, as far as I can remember, my grandmother told me a story, from myths and fables to childhood memories. Next to the glowing flames, she brought her tales to life with an eloquent voice.

Yet, something changed in my grandmother only a few days after my fifteenth birthday. She started forgetting little things, like how much salt to use in her recipes or how to operate her sewing machine; a piece of her was stolen and never given back.

When recounting the story of Aladdin and the Magic Lamp, she couldn’t recall what happened after the genie granted Aladdin’s three wishes. I gladly filled in the blanks throughout her storytelling, but I grew concerned when she stuttered and forgot bits of the plot. I’d have to keep reminding her of names or dialogue.

With each passing day, my grandmother’s memories faded away. She often said, “Yasmin, help me put on my shawl and shoes,” as if she’d forgotten how to dress herself, or asked, “Which way is the market, Yasmin?” even though she walked to the market every day. Soon she became incapable of recounting the stories she used to tell me when I was a little girl.

Sitting by her bedside while clutching her hand, I told her those stories but only received blank stares in return.

And the day my heart shattered was the day she forgot my name. “It’s Yasmin,” I said, with tears in my eyes.

We learned that my grandmother had Alzheimer’s Disease (AD), a progressive brain disease that results in memory loss and the decline of other cognitive functions, both of which affect daily life (“Alzheimer’s Disease Fact Sheet,” 2012). It’s the sixth leading cause of death in the entire world (Alzheimer’s Association, 2013).

After hearing the news, I ran to the pasture where our camels graze. I found Tikvah [meaning “hope” in Hebrew], our camel who was ready to give birth any day now. She was grazing on some leaves from a Ghaf tree and showered my face with kisses when I sat down beside her. Her deep brown eyes, long, dark eyelashes, and golden coat were not only what made her beautiful, but also her compassion and gentleness. I found solace in spending time with her.

Fresh camel milk. [Photo: Mohammadian, License: GNU FDL]

Fresh camel milk. [Photo: Mohammadian, License: GNU FDL]

“Grandmother has Alzheimer’s, Tikvah. The doctor says she might even die in a few years,” I said lifelessly. “She explained to us that clumps of beta-amyloid peptides, or pieces from the protein APP (Amyloid Precursor Protein), most likely started forming in Grandmother’s brain either because of a mutation in the gene that codes for the protein (“APP,” 2012) or a problem with protein cleaving, which is how the peptides are separated from the protein. These wispy, cotton ball-like clumps in between the neurons prevent her brain cells from sending signals to one another (Rogers, 2008). The doctor also told us about neurofibrillary tangles, or more knotted thread-like groups of protein inside of Grandmother’s brain cells that started causing the cells to internally break down and die (Rogers, 2008). As each neuron shrivels away, she loses another part of her memory or knowledge of simple life skills. But doctors still aren’t sure why this set of events occurs. They haven’t found a cure yet…” My lip began quivering. “Grandmother doesn’t even remember my name anymore.” Tears rolled down my face, and after offering Tikvah a slab of salt, I reluctantly walked back home.

A few days later, Tikvah gave birth to an adorable baby camel, and it was the happiest thing that had happened since Grandmother’s diagnosis.

“Yasmin, don’t forget to milk Tikvah!” my mother called out from the kitchen a week later.

I ambled towards the pasture and while the calf was asleep, I began milking the camel. However, after I placed the full tin pail of warm fresh milk aside, Tikvah unusually began nudging the pail towards me.

“Yes, I know Tikvah. The milk is for us.”

But she persistently pushed the pail and occasionally swiveled her neck towards the direction of my home.

“Are you trying to tell me something?” I laughed.

When I arrived at home, my curiosity got the best of me so I Googled “camel’s milk” on my computer. I knew that camel’s milk is very nutritious and high in insulin, which is why it is beneficial for diabetics (“Immunity and the Charismatic,” 2013, p. 159). However, I found myself reading an article linking abnormalities in insulin regulation in the brain to AD victims. I learned that insulin doesn’t only allow body cells to absorb glucose from humans’ bloodstreams, but also has positive effects on neurons, especially in terms of growth and function.

Researchers discovered that abnormalities in insulin regulation were related to memory loss and other cognitive malfunctions in AD patients. Changes in the protein insulin receptor substrate-1, which, after sensing insulin the brain, sends signals indicating the presence of insulin by binding to other proteins to mediate cellular processes in the brain, was also correlated with the large amount of tangles and plaques in AD patients’ brains (University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, 2012).

I became excited- maybe Tikvah’s milk was what would save my grandmother! A few moments later, I came across a news article, finding that scientists have recently discovered special antibodies in camels called nanobodies. These antibodies can cross the blood-brain barrier, a divide that separates brain tissue from the blood outside the brain to prevent harmful chemicals from entering the brain (Johns Hopkins Blood-Brain Barrier Working Group, n.d.). These nanobodies can diffuse into the brain tissue and successfully travel towards their targets (Li et al., 2012).

After testing nanobodies on mice, scientists believe that these antibodies can potentially serve as transporters which can deliver drugs or molecules into the human brain in order to possibly destroy amyloid plaques (Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, 2012).

These transporters may be able to deliver insulin or molecules to the brain that can destroy the deleterious plaques. I soon found results on insulin nasal sprays being developed in the United States to target AD (Lloyd, 2012) and wondered if Tikvah’s milk might be able to assist with the development of this medicine.

Frantically running back to the pasture, I stroked Tikvah while whispering into her ear, “Thank you.” Perhaps my grandmother’s life and memories could be saved. There was hope.

In Brief:

  • Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) is a form of dementia that results in memory loss and the decline in other cognitive functions.
  • Beta amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles are two abnormalities found in the brains of AD victims.
  • Camels’ milk is high in insulin, which could play a role in fixing insulin regulation abnormalities in the brains of AD victims.
  • Scientists have recently discovered nanobodies in camels that can possibly serve as transporters to deliver medicine directly to the brains of patients suffering with Alzheimer’s.

Works Cited

This article was written by cYw11. As always, before leaving a response to this article please view our Rules of Conduct. Thanks! -cYw Editorial Staff

cYw11

Author: cYw11

Hi and thanks for checking out our cYw blog! I’m student blogger who loves writing about current and most-discussed scientific topics. I enjoyed researching about the bionic ear and its applications in hearing impairments and crafting a story based on my findings. My past article was on the connection between camels and Alzheimer's Disease. Contributing to a blog where other students share their scientific ideas and research has been an exciting experience. Besides writing about science, in my free time, you might often find me writing poetry, playing the flute or piano, reading YA novels, and volunteering at summer camps for younger kids.  

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20 Comments

  1. This article triggered a thought for me… Could this same treatment be consider In part for multiple sclerosis as well?Although there are many differences between the two diseases -both involve brain plaques. The use of camel’s milk seems to hold endless medical treatment possibilities for neurological conditions involving brain plaque and lesions.

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  2. Thank you for a beautifully written story that brings a little hope for dementia victims – I will look for more about insulin and dementia, thanks to this story,

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    • Thank you for reading my story! I’m happy that it has inspired you to research more about the relationship between insulin and Alzheimer’s Disease.

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  3. Very cool story and information! I had not heard of camels being used in this way and I think it’s awesome!
    Your story would make a great children’s book! Maybe even simplify some of the scientific terms so very young children can understand. Keep up the good work!

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    • Thank you for your feedback! I’m glad you enjoyed my story. I never thought of turning my research and blog into a children’s story, but that sounds like a great idea. I’d love to educate young children about the relationship between camels and Alzheimer’s Disease.

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  4. Fascinating science and really beautifully written, I agree that this would make a wonderful children’s story/book.

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    • Thank you Janet! I’m so glad you enjoyed this story 🙂

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  5. #curiousYOUNGwriters This was a very interesting story- the scientific breakthroughs made in our day-to-day lives are amazing. I would be interested in learning more about the nanobodies that could be transported to AD victims.

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  6. #curiousYOUNGwriters #AD_Camels : The information written about in this article really helped to increase my understanding of Alzheimer’s Disease and what causes some of the symptoms. It was really interesting to learn about how insulin not only helps to absorb glucose from the blood stream, but also supports neuron growth and function. The nanobodies treatment sounds like it could have potentially groundbreaking medical applications. However, would it be possible for a virus to somehow manipulate the nanobodies to their advantage, and penetrate the blood-brain barrier? I also was thinking about how the camel seemed to know that Yasmin’s grandmother needed the milk – it sounded very similar to dogs that could detect cancer in their owners. Does anyone know how this works and how it might be used to accurately detect AD for early treatment?

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  7. #curiousYOUNGwriters #AD_camels : I thought that the way this article was written was very inspiring. It was unique in the way that it told a story and showed the point of view from a person who has a loved one with AD. I never would have guessed what AD did to the person internally. It was interesting to discover that camels’ milk holds insulin that could be key to a breakthrough in AD cures. I was very interested in learning about the functions and responsibilities of the antibodies. I even found myself questioning about the brain and how proteins affect it. This story sparked my curiosity about the brain, insulin, and antibodies. I am happy that I read this article.

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  8. #curiousYOUNGwriters #Alzheimers_Disease_Camels : This article was really fascinating. It informed me about Alzheimer’s Disease and about parts of the nervous system that I was completely unaware of. First of all, I did not know that camels have special antibodies called nanobodies. I thought it was extremely interesting that the brain has a “blood-brain barrier” that protects the brain by separating brain tissue from blood outside of the brain and nanobodies have the unique capability of being able to pass through it. Are there other animals that carry the same type of antibody? I also thought it was interesting that camel milk contains a wellspring of insulin. With such a high insulin level, scientists can not only use it to develop a diabetes treatment, but they can treat Alzheimer’s with it, too! Never would I have thought that insulin levels could affect the memory of a human. I always associated insulin with the pancreas and diabetes, never with the brain or Alzheimer’s Disease. The camel milk can lead to some extraordinary results. A disease that does not yet have a treatment may have one soon if research continues. I was wondering, though, how will doctors treat Alzheimer’s patients? In other words, what methods will be used to get the nanobodies to the brain of a patient? An injection? A pill? Surgery? Also, can the nanobodies affect other parts of the body if they are not near the brain?

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  9. This was a very heart-warming story, while being very informative. I find it very interesting that a different animal’s milk can be able to cure diseases in the brain. It’s amazing what animals can do! I was wondering though, does this trait in camel milk help prevent camel’s from diseases like Alzheimer’s? If that is true, is it possible to make a drug with the specific chemicals aiding the cure?

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  10. It was very interesting to read about Alzheimer’s disease through the eyes of someone experiencing it in his or her family, and I really like how the article ended on a hopeful tone.

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    • Thank you for the compliments, Sophia! I’m so happy you enjoyed reading this story!

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  11. This is really great! We are learning about new ways to deliver drugs in order to increase their efficacy in terms of reaching the right target. The fact that these nanobodies can cross the blood-brain barrier gives huge potential to possibilities of targeting many neurological disorders – and maybe these can be used in gene therapies for neurodegenerative diseases in the future. How exciting! Very nicely put together.

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    • Thank you, Mary! I’m also really interested in learning about drug delivery systems and more applications for nanobodies. I will definitely look up the connection between nanobodies and gene therapies!

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