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.

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Works Cited

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