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A Single Gene Protects, but Two Genes Can Kill

A medical breakthrough of the past few years is the discovery that having only one gene for a deadly disease can protect a person from other illnesses, which is why these diseases, like cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia, persist in the human population. This realization came about when it was discovered that sickle cell anemia, a genetic condition that only exists among black people, offers protection from malaria, if the person only inherits one of the genes. Something similar has now been discovered for Alzheimer's disease.

Researchers suspect that the gene that is believed to contribute to Alzheimer's also protects children from early childhood diarrhea. This is not a great problem in the West, since we have antibiotics, but it is still one of the greatest killers of children in the Third World.

Researcher Richard Guerrant says, "In earlier studies, we found that shantytown children in Northeast Brazil who suffer from early childhood diarrhea and malnutrition suffered from lasting physical and cognitive consequences. However, some children who have the same diarrhea and malnutrition are protected from the developmental problems if they have the 'Alzheimer's gene' (APOE4). Basically, we believe this gene protects the children early in life by helping them survive severe malnutrition, but the same gene potentially contributes to a multitude of problems later in life."

Malaria (which is mitigated by inheriting one gene for sickle cell anemia) mainly occurs in Africa, where human life began. Alzheimer's would not have been a problem in the past, when people generally did not live long enough to get it.

Art credit: freeimages.co.uk

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