Three panelists talked about Alzheimer’s at the Lewiston Public Library on Wednesday, From left are Laurie Bowie, executive director of the Maine chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association; U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, whose 2nd District includes Lewiston; and Gregory Carter, a researcher at The Jackson Labs in Bar Harbor. Steve Collins/Sun Journal

LEWISTON — A researcher from The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor said Wednesday that in recent years, experts have begun to pick apart what’s happening in the brains of those with Alzheimer’s disease, perhaps opening the door to better treatment.

Gregory Carter said the lab is working to understand the complex genetics and environmental factors that may give rise to a disease with which 5 million Americans and their families are struggling.

Experts have found about three dozen genes that appear to have some impact on the likelihood of a person developing Alzheimer’s, Carter said, and his lab is using mice to try to “mimic what’s going on” so the risk factors discovered can be explored more thoroughly.

It’s a long way from a cure, but it may prove a worthwhile path to finding measures that could allow for earlier detection and treatment of the growing number of people dealing with Alzheimer’s.

At a panel put together by the Maine chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association at the Lewiston Public Library, experts talked about some of the issues surrounding the disease, including the soaring price tag for coping with a steadily rising number of Americans who have it or a related dementia.

Lewiston Mayor Kristen Cloutier, a state representative whose mother died of the disease last year, said Maine will see a 25% increase in the number of its residents living with Alzheimer’s by 2025, an outgrowth of the state’s aging population.

She warned that Alzheimer’s could overwhelm Maine’s ability to pay for care if the number of people coping with it keeps rising so fast.

Gregory Carter, a researcher at The Jackson Lab in Bar Harbor, speaks at a panel discussion on Alzheimer’s disease Wednesday at the Lewiston Public Library. Steve Collins/Sun Journal

Laurie Bowie, executive director of the state chapter, said that coping with Alzheimer’s “needs to become a universal cause.”

U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Lewiston Democrat, said finding a cure “is all about the investment in places” such as Jackson Lab, which is laying the groundwork for understanding the disease.

He said Maine legislators are determined to make sure research funding is consistent and plentiful, no matter how long it takes to find a cure.

“Research is how we’re going to find a cure,” Bowie said.

Carter said Jackson Lab is “really interested in the fundamental cause” of the disease, a necessary first step to unlocking ways to treat people who have it.

He said it has been “a very difficult nut to crack” because everything happens inside the brain, where it’s been “sort of hidden from us.”

Carter said, though, that new technology is allowing experts to see more of what is happening and to explore genetic factors that may play into it.

By modifying mice genetics, he said, researchers can see how different genes affect the development of the disease. Over time, he said, they can try to get a fuller picture of the interplay among genes and Alzheimer’s, perhaps allowing drug companies to begin figuring out pharmaceuticals that could help.

While researchers search for a cure, they also point to ways people can already lessen the chances they’ll wind up with the disease.

Bowie said there is evidence that some lifestyle choices make it more likely people will get Alzheimer’s. She urged people to exercise more, avoid smoking, drink alcohol in moderation, eat healthful foods and stimulate their brains. Sleeping well also appears to make a difference, she said.

Carter agreed with her recommendations.

But, he added, “It’s easier for people to take a pill than to change their lifestyles.”

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