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Seeking Alzheimer's Answers Among Fruit Flies
Date:2/25/2011

in people, said Thomas A. Jongens, a member of the fruit fly research team and an associate professor of genetics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

"In familial Alzheimer's, the genetics are pretty well characterized," Jongens said. "The idea is then to go and find what kind of treatments can be done to rescue and prevent this loss of memory and learning."

Jongens' research team decided to use fruit flies to test treatments that would counter the genetic mutation that causes Alzheimer's in people.

Studying the disease in flies has several advantages over studying the disease in humans:

  • The flies' life cycle is much shorter, only 60 to 80 days, Jongens said. A researcher can watch the onset of senility in a fly over a matter of weeks, whereas studying humans would take years or decades.
  • The flies are plentiful and provide much more research material. For example, the amount of human brain tissue available for study by Alzheimer's researchers is very limited. "You don't have available brain samples except for people who have already died," Tompkins said.
  • Researchers can do things to fruit flies that would be unacceptable on humans, including genetic manipulation to introduce the disease.

Jongens' team used a couple of unique methods related to fruit flies' courtship rituals to study memory and cognition in their subjects.

The researchers would place a virgin male fruit fly inside a chamber with a female fruit fly that had already been mated. The male fly might try to entice the female into mating, but she would rebuff him and eventually he would stop showing interest. That lesson would overlap into the fly's next encounter: Even if he were next paired with a virgin female ready for mating, his courtship behavior would be noticeably decreased.

However, male fruit flies with this particular genetic propensity for Alzheimer's were unable to retain this lesson. They would keep
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